Time to write some songs (1982)
“THEN IT WAS TIME TO WRITE SOME SONGS” Alone in the ICEHOUSE, IVA DAVIES pulls his finger out.
GREG TAYLOR investigates. RAM September 17, 1982

It’s wonderful being on location. Long as you keep the goannas in shot and the trail bike riders out. The goannas come with two handlers who’re a lot weirder than their charges; they crawl around the rocky backdrop quite agreeably while Iva Davies mimes himself singing.

But the bikers who frequent his corner or the Kuring-gai National Park of a weekend are convinced this is Mad Max III. With a few square miles to play in, they’vedecided that the only spot for wheelies is right behind Iva as he strolls along the rim of this deserted quarry. A hundred feet below, the director and his crew scream and curse and push the camera dolly back for another take. Iva smiles. “It’s a great place isn’t it?” His wave encompasses mountains of rubble, rutted banks and orange clay, bush stretching in some directions to the cloudless sky.

“I think I get to burn some of it down later.”

“Great Southern Land. Anyone will tell you it is a prisoner’s Great Southern Land.”

The song echoes out over the rumble of the generator, a few seconds at a time as each shot is rehearsed and filmed. During the twelve or so hours filming it’ll be played hundreds of times.

“It goes on and on,” muses its author. “It’s four minutes fifty seconds - I guess that’s not very good for a single. Some people could find it real boring, I suppose.”

Iva will be hearing Great Southern Land repeated in sections a lot more in the next few weeks. This is just a rough mix: when the film clip’s finished, he and the English producer Keith Forsey will be flying over to Giorgio Moroder’s home studio in Hollywood where it and the rest of the album are to be mixed. Iva met Keith “quite by accident. I got this guided tour of Moroder’s house when I was in Los Angeles a while back - Keith has been working for him.”

The search for a producer for the second Icehouse album was part of the restless globe-hopping that’s occupied most of Iva’s time since he and the band did their last tour (with Simple Minds) back in November 1981. He talked with “plenty of guys with the pedigree... I wanted to meet them face to face, and there’s no way they’re going to come to you.” The trouble was that Iva had nothing concrete in the way of material to show them - “and no producer in his right mind is going into a project without hearing any of the songs.”

“I got back here about ten weeks ago. I have no house - nowhere to live, I had the same suitcase with the same clothes in it from May until a couple of months ago. So then It was time to write some songs.” Ah, yes: the infamous Davies Writing Block. One of those apparent facts of life that causes strong men in record companies and management to break down in tears at the thought of opportunities missed, momentum lost. Here is this boy, gotta nice band (terrible name Flowers, but we fix that easy), looks real good, got some great little numbers, big successful first album, goddamn huge deal with Chrysalis in America, we’re gonna all get Mercs, and the little fucker virtually stops writing for two years!

So imagine how they felt when the golden boy comes home and composes an entire album in seven weeks? Iva sees it all very calmly. “I needed a break. I kind of wasn’t interested, to tell you the truth. Once I was interested and there was no problem at all.”

“That was something that I had neglected to appreciate: that you really have to want to do something before it makes it easy to do.”

“Im into a ‘Quicker Than You Can Think About it’ mentality at present: you trick yourself into doing things that you didn’t think you could do.”

Like super -fast recording. “The guy that was engineering at Paradise Studios in Sydney had just done Time and Tide with Split Enz and Hugh Padgam, and he said that they were taking three days to do a rhythm track (which I imagine could be a bass, drums and a couple of guitars maybe). Whereas we were averaging nearly a whole track a day with all keyboards, overdubs and vocals; we were moving at quite a rate.We had nine tracks ready to mix in eleven days.”

Of course it helps when there’s just you, your co-producer and the drum computer to argue the toss. The new album, Primitive Man, is almost all Iva Davies, apart from a little percussion here and there from Keith Forsey, a bass line in one song from an American sessioneer, and ditto a couple of piano parts. So the band Icehouse really is no more?

“It was all a bit of an accident. I intended to have John Lloyd on drums, and wanted Michael (Hoste, the bands first keyboardist and co-writer of some of the first album tracks to come in. You see, my original intention was just to put down the stuff with Linn (the brand name of the a leading drum computer) and while I’m getting all the junk work out of the way there’s no point in anyone sitting around; once the basic rhythm track and computer codes are down, then you get everybody in to do things. But what happened was that it all went so quickly that I managed to do all the instruments in demo form while I was doing the computer thing and I sort of looked at Keith Forsey and said “Well, do you want us to go in and replace bits, and he said no. So we left it.”

But Iva insists that the break up isn’t as hard and fast as it might seem.

“I’ve said it elsewhere: all this doesn’t mean that John Lloyd won’t be playing with us again, or that Anthony(Smith) won’t be. Cos Anthony’s writing a lot now, and I’m really interested in what he’s doing - but I think he might do some solo stuff first. I guess it’s as up in the air as it ever was. It’s not a very standard arrangement - it’s hard to define, and when people use the word “break up” and “losing members” it doesn’t really apply.”

Perhaps this is why Anthony and John were later to appear on location, and why a ghostly image of them with Iva and Keith Forsey appears for a moment in the film clip. But in a conversation a couple of months later, Iva makes another comment which is about as revealing as this somewhat private man ever gets.

“You can’t predict that four years down the line you’re going to love and be inspired by the same bunch of guys. It’s a bit unrealistic, but most of the bands around really set themselves up within these tight contractural arrangements. People have to keep on changing, and they don’t all change at the same rate. I don’t want to get into the situation where it becomes a complete bore.”

It may be a moot point whether Iva bores easy, or just refuses to cop the tedium that others tolerate. He certainly regards interviews from the latter viewpoint.

“Nothing annoys me more than doing an interview when I wouldn’t really have anything new to report; I just think it’s a bit of an insult to people on getting the same stuff dished out. I mean you know what it’s like when you try to write a story about nothing - which you must have done heaps of times.” (Thanks mate!) “What a drag!”

Getting the Linn drum computer has been an enthusiasm booster. It’s a sophisticated and pricey (round $6000) bit of machinery that’s a million miles removed from tacky sounding and limited function Rhythm Aces of yesteryear. Not only can a non-drummer easily program any timekeeping pattern he wants, but the terrible hassle of getting a decent sound mix from kit drums is eliminated. Instead of the routine hours and hours of fiddling with microphones and at least six channels of a mixing desk, the Linn will provide a multitude of extremely ‘realistic’ drum sounds at the flick of a switch, and you can run it straight into the mixer. At least one Sydney resident studio engineer actively dissuades drummers from bringing their snare, bass drum and tom toms into the studio anymore: the house Linn is so much faster.

This partly accounts for the speed of Iva’s recording. “Most of the time we sat in the studio putting down codes for the computer to read, and the programming the Prophet synthesiser and the drum machine. Then you’d just press ‘GO’ and sit there and listen to it play the thing!’

A quick listen to a cassette of the result was arresting. The predominant impression is waves of keyboards (very little guitar), and a sophisticated range of backing vocal effects: the ‘bass’ and ‘drums’ are unobtrusive, but with no hint of robotic. The sounds are machine-made, but the machines have been precisely positioned by human hands.

Iva doesn’t think audiences have adjusted to the idea of a one - person show (a la Grace Jones). “Plus I’m very wary of using that kind of machinery live, cos me and machinery don’t usually get on . Ray (Hearn, his manager) believes implicitly that I have a jinx and he’s been with lots and lots of bands and he reckons he’s never come up against the number and type of equipment failures that we’ve had.”

He was loath to be specific on the touring lineup, as various prospective members have yet to obtain record company releases, etc. But it looks like an International Summit: Michael Hoste on keyboards and vocals, “hopefully a second guitarist from Melbourne - just let it stand that I’ve been thinking of getting this guy for years, he used to play with Eric Gradman’s Man and Machine, and he was Adrian Belew before Adrian Belew was!” a bassist from London, ex-killing Joke and Funkapolitan, called Guy Pratt; possibly the sax player from England’s Psychedelic Furs; another unspecified keyboardist; and ditto drums, (though the scurrilous rumour machine is going wild on the possibility of Terry Chambers from XTC). As none of these bods (apart from Iva and Michael) have ever worked together before, it should be an intriguing few months. After Australia, the plan is to take the show to most of the rest of the known universe, ending sometime round January. And how does Mr. Davies think the home crowd, the great Australian public who two years ago thought he was Best and Fairest but by now many have lost the urge, will react?

“Who knows..? I look at it this way: people who are interested generally remain interested - or curious at least. And to the people who are not interested, maybe the album will be a pleasant surprise - or maybe it’ll just go unnoticed”

“But I think the good thing about this album at least is that it shows that (at the time) I really wanted to do it and enjoyed doing it. I haven’t put on tape my disinterest, which I have done on occasion in the past - hopefully not too badly, but I can hear it.”

The trail bikes have got bored by the interview break, and have gone off to be in someone else’s movie. The director comes to reclaim his star; they trudge off across the quarry floor, doubtless discussing what they’re going to set on fire when the sun sets. The generator coughs into life again - I don’t think I’ll ever get Great Southern Land out of my brain. Just as well I like it.