When Iva Davies first worked with the Sydney Dance Company in 1985, his 80s rockstar credibility just might have trembled on a somewhat rocky precipice. Being a music nerd and accomplished classically-trained musician who could play cor anglais and rearrange a Prokofiev quintet wouldn’t exactly be the epitome of cool for the frontman of iconic Aussie synthpop rock band Icehouse. It would, however, certainly be the mainstay for music success.
Singer songwriter and record producer, Ivor Arthur Davies has long carved an illustrious path into Australia’s music scene. As a multi-instrumentalist in vocals, guitar, keys, euphonium and the eminent double reeded oboe and cor anglais, his highly-trained skills - particularly in oboe and composition acquired from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music - has pushed Icehouse to the highest of levels. In an industry where musicality and commercial success are testy contenders, Iva and the band have steered through the obstacles to balance both. With a single-minded approach to clean music production and great songwriting, Icehouse might have offered simple pop escapism, but they did so with innovative and lush electronic tracks. While they cut their teeth on the Aussie pub rock circuit, the New Wave Synthpop evolution propelled Icehouse to eight Top Ten albums, twenty Top 40 singles with 1987 album ‘Man Of Colours’ still standing as one of Australia’s highest selling albums and a place in the ARIA Hall Of Fame.
While Iva remains the mainstay of the band’s success with members of the band alternating across the last 30 years, the legacy of Icehouse still remains as an iconic entity. It’s a team effort including the guys on stage to the technicians at desks front of house, backstage and beyond. With the team coming together for ‘Icehouse In Concert’ dropping as a double album on CD and iTunes in August, a protracted Australian tour sees the best live versions of the tracks returning to the spotlight. And as Icehouse prepares to come north to Sandstone Point Hotel for one-night-only supported by The Whitlams and Diesel, we sit down with Iva to chat the coming together of Icehouse In Concert, what drives him and how transcribing the Cold Chisel songbook influenced his own songwriting.
How does an instrumental and composition Conservatorium student become a frontline rockstar of an 80s Aussie band?
I’m not quite sure. I was a tertiary student and highly trained by the time I was in my teens. I didn’t give that away in the early days of the band - particularly a punk band. It would have been the kiss of death to say I played with the Sydney Symphony at the Opera House Concert Hall Stage when I was 19, though I’m quite happy to own up to that these days. My father was a keen amateur singer and I saw him in musical theatre productions as I was growing up - I certainly knew about his love of opera and light opera. I actually come from a long line of Welsh amateur singers - I’m just the first of the Davies to actually make any money from it.
While classical music has been an influence for you, how have you used these skills for great songwriting?
I ended up being discovered by a music publishing company in Sydney where I was a registered copyist. I belonged to the Registered Music Guild of Australia - before computers, where all music had to be hand written. I paid the rent by writing out songs for publishing companies where I wrote the songbooks for any number of iconic songwriters, like Dragon, Little River Band, The Angels, Cold Chisel and Skyhook songbooks. In the process of doing that, I was pulling apart some of the most well crafted songs. I’m sure that instructed me in some way.
It’s been a while since Icehouse has released new material. How did the double album come about?
There’s an awful lot of background work that went into this double album. We work as a great team of people – and when I say team, it’s not just the band but the best technicians in Australia. We’ve been playing for four years where the band has never sounded better - we had to record and make a document of it. The reality is that over the past 30 years, there hasn’t been a live album. Everybody seems to put out a live album but I’m glad we left it until this point because it’s the best the band has ever sounded. Compiling it was a big job: we recorded seven shows. We had to wade through all of those recordings, find the best possible versions, and put it all back together again. We didn’t do any mucking around with the recordings in terms of rearranging and replacing things. It’s a very faithful document. Nonetheless, an incredible amount of work was done by our amazing bass player Steve Bull and lead guitarist Paul Day. It’s been a very big job to put together. When you listen to this live album you get a sense that this is a band, but not only that, the individuals in it are incredibly skillful. It’s something we don’t take for granted.
What have you learned about yourself as an artist over the years?
I’ve learned that a lot of things fell into place without me realising what was going on at the time. It’s much easier to look back with hindsight why things happened, why this was the quality it was, why this song lasted that long. Now, I can recognise I was being driven by pure instinct - it still surprises me. One example is 'Great Southern Land'. I remember at the time if I took on this subject, it could be a dangerous topic and if I got it wrong, it would explode in my face. My focus was on what was immediately needed. I didn’t think it would have the reaction it had. I had no expectation people would still be listening to it more than 30 years later.
What have you learned across the years as a band? With lots of people working with different personalities, how do you keep it together?
From listening to the live album, we not only compiled songs together in the same running order as the show, but we compiled it as it was - with the banter, commentary, stories, fooling around between songs. You get that sense of a band and of friends who have a very funny time and great fun doing it. I think that’s the main thing. You’ll hear us exchanging stories and making funny cracks at each other about stuff we know about each other. After working with some of the guys for 30 years, we are all great friends and we have a great time.
You’ll be coming to Sandstone Point Hotel to perform with the Whitlams and Diesel. What can we expect to hear when you hit the stage?
The live album represents fairly what we’re doing. One of my favourite moments captured on the CD is when we break everything down to just one acoustic guitar – just me and an acoustic guitar. It was an experiment that I wasn’t sure how would go. But when I listen to this album, it’s possibly my most favourite part of the show: to break it right down to one acoustic guitar, start building the band back up again with a couple of other acoustic guitars and so on as a full band and electric unit. That to me is a favourite moment from this set and we’ll be doing that in Queensland.
Icehouse comes to Sandstone Point Hotel featuring special guests The Whitlams and Diesel on Saturday January 30 with tickets available here.