Aussie Rock Legends: An Interview with Icehouse's Iva Davies

Kim Townsend
8th Jan 2017

If there is a list of criteria for being an Australian music icon, Iva Davies, linchpin of the band Icehouse, ticks all the boxes. Numerous multi platinum albums, responsible for writing some of Australia’s best loved and most played songs, international success, ARIA Hall of Fame alumni – check, check, check, check. Rose to fame during the halcyon days of live music in Australia – most definitely! Along with contemporaries such as AC/DC, The Angels, Cold Chisel and countless other bands, Icehouse honed their sound working the celebrated and often infamous Sydney and Melbourne live music circuits of the late 70’s/early 80’s.

In 2017, Icehouse will mark 40 years since the band played its first live gig. To celebrate they’re hitting the road later this year for a series of dates that will take them around Australia. I was lucky enough to be able to talk with Iva Davies this week about the tour and his memories of the early days.

Iva began his live music career as a classical musician, studying the oboe while still a student at Sydney’s Epping High. During his late teens he was playing with professional orchestras. By age 22, Iva’s career had taken a decidedly different turn. In 1977, the fledgling band Flowers, the band that would eventually change its name to Icehouse, hit the stage at the Warriewood Surf Life Saving Club for the very first time.

“Being on stage wasn’t foreign to me,” Iva told me, “What was foreign to me was that I’d never been into a pub before and that was kind of interesting. That whole world of bands and 20 something year olds in pubs, that whole dynamic was a complete mystery to me. We specialised in the northern beaches of Sydney and there were some particularly heavy pubs. I thought, this has got the potential to go horribly wrong.”

Things didn’t go wrong, in fact they went very, very right. The band scored a deal with Regular Records and released their debut album in 1980, featuring the singles “Can’t Help Myself” and “We Can Get Together”. I asked Iva how much he thought slogging it out in beer barns around the country contributed to the album’s massive success. 

“We were being managed by three very good and experienced managers,” he explained, “one managed The Angels, one managed Cold Chisel and the other one was looking for another band and we became that band….kind of the apprentices of a very powerful stable. The manager’s philosophy was just keep playing and if you keep playing you’ll get an audience and if you get an audience they’ll go and buy your first record and that’s exactly what had happened. By the time that first album came out we had a massive live following and they all went out and bought that first record which was a big contributor to it being the largest selling Australian debut album at that point.”

There’s a tendency in the current climate of continual live venue closures in both Sydney and Melbourne to look back on the live music scene of 40 years ago with nostalgia. Iva is somewhat of a realist about it but it’s evident that he enjoyed his time on the circuit.

“There were a lot of places that were fairly sketchy,” he told me, “I remember we enjoyed playing in Melbourne because it was kind of a really concentrated little scene and it was quite different to Sydney. Sydney was kind of a vast suburban sprawl. In Melbourne all the musicians knew each other even though they were in rival bands. It was quite a punk circuit and right in the middle of all of that was a venue called the Crystal Ballroom in St Kilda which was a famous place that we played on a number of occasions.”

The thriving Melbourne scene was home to bands like The Birthday Party, Eric Gradman’s Man and Machine, Nick Cave’s first band, The Models and Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons. Iva remembers a young Men At Work playing support to Icehouse. 

The demands of touring can be intensive but along the way, Icehouse also managed to release hugely successful albums such as “Primitive Man” and “Man of Colours”. I asked Iva how much playing live contributed to the song writing process for him.

“I’ve always been emphatically of two completely distinct worlds. Whether writing or performing, the two have never ever crossed paths,” he said, “except for one notable exception.”

The band had just arrived in London, Iva explained, for their first international tour but the record company in Australia was looking for an interim single between albums to keep fans satisfied back home.

“I had to write a song on the road and it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I was still finishing the lyrics in the black cab on the way to the recording studio to record it. Luckily the song was a success. It was called “Love In Motion” and it was the only song that I’ve written on the road.”

“I remember it was only because there was a brand new piece of technology that had been released just prior to that whole exercise of writing that song in London, a four track cassette player believe it or not, called a Portastudio. This enabled me to make a four-track recording and that’s exactly how I wrote that song. If it hadn’t been for that sort of technology that was portable enough to cart round it never would have happened.”

Icehouse’s music has always had a complex, multi level sound from the Flowers songs to songs like “Great Southern Land” and Iva Davies seems like a musician who embraces technology. He had this to say about the role it plays in his music. 

“That’s how I build songs,” he told me, “It wasn’t until really four albums in that I got a proper 24 track tape recording system and that was where I guess I really took off in terms of the whole writing process. It was a very busy and productive period that produced our 4th album, “Measure for Measure”, a ballet for the Sydney Dance Company called “Boxes” and then ultimately the album, “Man of Colours”. I don’t sit down with a guitar, I tend to just build things one layer at a time and the perfect tool for that is a multi track tape recorder.”

As Icehouse’s career exploded, so too did their live performances and they were renowned for their polished and visually impressive shows. I asked Iva if the logistics of their live shows had become simpler over the years as production technology evolved.

“Everything is by far and away easier than it was,” he said, “People ask what the shows will be like, and I’ve been telling them the shows that we are doing now are 3, 4, 5 times bigger and more impressive than any of the shows that we did at the height of our career in the late eighties and one very simple reason for that is that technology has changed so much. We can carry around, for example, an entire back wall of LED to project onto, to animate, to use graphics on. That’s one example only of the sort of technology that’s now almost routine and would have been beyond our wildest imaginations in 1988.”

The band took a lengthy hiatus from touring during the late 90’s and early 2000’s and things had changed a lot by the time they decided to head back out on the road. Iva, together with the band’s tour manager who has been with them since 1986, put together a team of the best lighting and sound technicians in the business.

“The technology that goes on behind the scenes is incredibly sophisticated. They are certainly not your text book definition of roadies,” Iva said.

Planning for the 40 Years Live Tour began well over a year out from the dates just so they could make sure they could book the very best crew. Then there’s the planning for the technical rig, lighting designs, projection footage and not to mention the set list. Iva’s songs have become part of the fabric of Australian culture. Songs like “Crazy”, “Hey Little Girl” and “Great Southern Land”.still receive consistent airplay. I asked Iva how it felt when he performs them and the audience is singing them back to him?

“It’s constantly amazing from my point of view,” he said, “and what is even more amazing these days is that they seem to have travelled down decades as well. We’re getting a strange phenomenon in that we’re getting loads of 20 something’s who are now singing all the lyrics. It’s quite disarming in a way because I’m never unaware of the fact that most of these people weren’t born when those songs were written. That fact that they’ve travelled in that way is quite astounding.”

And how does Iva feel about being back on the road again?

“It’s very, very exciting, I think one of the things that’s kind of kept us going is the fact that we have always been split between a number of cities. Half the band live in Melbourne and half the band live in Sydney and so we don’t get to socialize really. It means that the only time we actually get together is when we tour. They are an incredibly entertaining and funny group of guys so its always a novelty to get together and go right lets party, lets go!”

When I asked Iva what’s next for him, he tells me he hasn’t really thought that far ahead. Right now he’s firmly focused on the demands of the 40 Years Live tour that will see him on the road until well into 2017. Two things seem pretty evident – Icehouse fans will not be disappointed with this tour and Iva Davies will be loving every minute of it.

Icehouse are performing at Bondi Beachfest on Saturday November 12th, alongside Josh Pyke, Ash Grunwald, and more. In January 2017, they will be playing two dates at Sydney's Enmore Theatre. 

Photo of Iva by Cybele Malinowski. Front page photo by Tony Mott.