For over 25 years IQ have been one of the leading bands in progressive rock. Sea of Tranquility staff writer Jon Neudorf had a chance to talk with IQ front man Peter Nicholls about their past efforts, the state of the music industry, their new additions to the band, what the band has in store for the rest of 2009 and their outstanding new album Frequency.
SoT: Who were your main influences when you first started making music?
PN: I grew up loving pop music, listening to the radio and absorbing it all, whether it was The Beatles or Motown or glam rock or whatever. I was a huge fan of all of it. Those formative years served me well because I'm still very much a song man, a strong melody is still very important to me. When I first joined IQ in 1982, all five of us in the band had very different musical tastes and influences but progressive rock was the one area we all had in common.
SoT: Do you mind the Genesis comparisons? Were they a band you listened to?
PN: Genesis were one of the bands that we grew up listening to more than 30 years ago, and they were an important influence, of course. In fact, Mike Holmes and I first met at a 'Trick Of The Tail' concert in 1976. But there were many, many other different kinds of music that we really liked, too, and they all went into the melting pot. We got the Genesis comparisons a lot in the early days when we were very much the sum of our influences but we had to start somewhere. I suppose the comparisons were quite flattering to begin with but we soon felt frustrated by them and worked really hard to establish our own sound. By the time of our second album, 'The Wake', in 1985, we really sounded like IQ, I think.
SoT: How would you compare the music business back then to how it is today?
PN: The biggest change has been the way in which music is consumed nowadays. Downloading has changed the face of the music industry and we have to accept those changes and adapt to them, or we go down with the Titanic.
SoT: The band has released many great CDs over the years. Which are your favourites and why?
PN: I can find good points in all the albums we've made. There are also many parts that make me cringe, of course, but each album has played its part in getting us to where we are today. 'Tales From The Lush Attic' was a very important first step for us (though I wish I could re-record all the vocals!), 'Subterranea' was a great project to be a part of, both musically and in terms of the live presentation. And I would have to say 'Frequency', which I think is a very strong piece of work and includes some of our best material and performances.
SoT: One of your most well known albums, 'Subterranea', is a concept album. Can you talk about that album and are any other of your albums conceptual in nature?
PN: Before we started work on 'Subterranea', we decided it would be really good to have a completely new show that we could present live. In order to be able to do that, we needed a substantial amount of new music. 'Subterranea' started out as a single album but as we were writing it we hit a very creative period and it soon became apparent that we could easily expand the album to a double which would also give us more scope for a new live show. 'The Wake' had a general concept too (about death) but those are the only two IQ albums which have anything like a consistent narrative throughout.
SoT: IQ has been labeled a neo-progressive rock band. Do you look at that term in a negative light?
PN: I've never fully understood what the term is supposed to mean and in fact I'd never heard it until we played in the USA in 1993. It feels like it's a somewhat derogatory label used to describe a band who could be called progressive but who dare to use a more modern approach or don't mind playing some shorter songs. When I first heard IQ described as neo-progressive, my reaction was that I'd spent years defending us for being a progressive rock band and now it was like we were being accused of being not progressive enough! Generally, far too much importance is applied to labels. It's just music and you either like it or you don't.
SoT: In 2005 Paul Cook left the band and was replaced with Andy Edwards. Do they have different styles and technique?
PN: They're both extremely talented players and yes, their styles are quite different. Andy plays really well on this album, his contribution is very strong. And we're delighted to have Paul back with us for this year's live work.
SoT: Former member Martin Orford has been very outspoken on illegal downloading. Can you give me your thoughts?
PN: Martin is very forthright in expressing his views and I don't think the situation is anywhere near as bleak as he makes it out to be, but it's certainly true that music is consumed in a very different way now than how it was 10, or even 5, years ago. We have to accept those changes and work with them. Of course, as an artist, I would prefer people not to download our albums free of charge from the internet but I think the vast majority of our fans still want to support the band and buy the albums legitimately. Sales of 'Frequency' have been very healthy indeed.
SoT: Has the internet had any positive effects on bands and the music industry in general?
PN: I think one of the main advantages for artists is that they're less reliant on record companies now, they can use the internet to take control of their business by making themselves and their music directly available to their audience. In the early '80s, when we started out, the only avenues open to us were gigs, the music press and word of mouth…and occasionally television, if we were very lucky. Our progress was painstakingly slow compared to what a band can achieve now in the same space of time but in some ways it wasn't dissimilar to the current situation - we were independent and we released our own self-financed albums. We built up our audience very gradually, playing live anywhere that would have us (and quite a few places that didn't want us!).
SoT: You guys have your own record label Giant Electric Pea. Does having your own label allow for more artistic freedom?
PN: Oh, absolutely. We have complete artistic freedom and there's no-one standing with a gun pointed at our heads, demanding more product from us. We have the luxury of only releasing something when it's ready and of a high enough standard. People say we've only released nine studio albums in nearly 30 years…well, that's a rough average of one every three years, which I think is pretty good, in addition to which we've released several compilations and live albums and DVDs as well. We've been far from idle. But for me it's never about the quantity of product we put out. I'm much happier releasing a great album once every five years, rather than a reasonable one every two or three years. The albums are our legacy, they're what we'll be judged by when all this is over.
SoT: The last year has seen a big change for IQ with the departure of Martin Orford. Do you miss his contribution in the songwriting department?
PN: Martin was a major writer in the band, and he and Mike had previously worked together for several years in The Lens, so theirs was a formidable musical partnership, but it was built on friction and very different musical tastes. Martin had contributed to the writing of this album when he decided to leave in 2007. I'd say we probably had about 60% of the music written when he left so we wrote nearly half the album without him. We really felt we owed it to ourselves to complete the album, and it was a big challenge for us but not as hard as I thought it might be. This time, more of the writing of the vocal melodies fell to me, which is how it had been in the early days, to be honest. It was more work for me, of course, but it meant I could write more to my own strengths and come up with melodies that are more suited to my voice and style of singing. So in the studio Mike and I worked more closely together than we had done for a few years, which I enjoyed. You know, he and I have a 33-year history now. That's very important to me.
SoT: Can you take us through the songwriting process? How does an IQ song end up being on an album?
PN: We still do it the old fashioned way, at least initially. We always start with people bringing in ideas and riffs which we play through together in a rehearsal room until we end up with the bones of a song which we can then develop and flesh out. I think we can tell pretty quickly now if an idea is going to work. It's important that everyone in the band should feel they're able to contribute to the music, we've always preferred it to be a group effort and I really like being part of a creative team. Sometimes one person will steer a track, but we like everyone to feel involved.
SoT: How does IQ get lyrical ideas? Do other members of the band have input in this area?
PN: All the time that I've been in the band I've always written the lyrics on my own. I re-write them and change them many times before I'm happy with them. Sometimes the lyrics could be interpreted as being vaguely autobiographical but if I do write about myself it's always disguised. My main intention has always been to write lyrics that connect with the listener on an emotional level. Even on an album like 'Subterranea' where the lyrics had more of a narrative style and were telling a story, the main focus for me was to articulate the central character's feelings and reactions to what was happening to him.
SoT: Let's talk about the new album 'Frequency'. How long did it take to make?
PN: From start to finish, it represents about three years' work. We aren't noted for the speed at which we work but we're fairly perfectionist in the studio. When Martin left the band in 2007, we stopped working on the album so that we could concentrate on finding a new keyboard player. Then last year, I was taken into hospital with pneumonia and that brought everything to a halt again for several months. I had a long period of convalescence before we resumed work on the album. So it's safe to say that 'Frequency' had something of a troubled birth, we had quite a few obstacles in our way but we were determined to get through them and to come up with a great IQ album, which we definitely have.
SoT: The production quality is excellent. Who produced it?
PN: Mike Holmes produced the album as he has done with all IQ albums since 'Ever' in 1993. I agree, this is definitely Mike's best production job so far, his attention to detail has really paid off. The layering of sounds and atmospheres is excellent, I think. And he's not bad at playing the guitar, too!
SoT: Does the new album have an overall theme or concept?
PN: We did originally discuss the possibility of doing a concept album and the initial idea I had, of a disembodied voice being heard through white noise on a radio station, was eventually compressed into the title track. As many people are put off by the term 'concept album' as are excited by it so it's something which has to be approached carefully. The songs on this album aren't linked lyrically, there isn't a narrative which carries through them all, but there are musical phrases which are re-used and there's an overall atmosphere which binds them all together.
SoT: Who did the album's artwork? I quite like it.
PN: The artwork was put together by our designer Tony Lythgoe who has been responsible for our album covers since 'Subterranea' in 1997. Tony and I got together and I explained some of the themes in the lyrics to give him an indication of the kind of imagery I had in mind. I always had 'Frequency' as the working title for this album so Tony knew that would be the theme this time. He also had different mixes of the album to listen to as we were working on it so his visual ideas were also inspired by the music and the sonic atmospheres. To my mind, the artwork should always enhance the music in further enhancing the atmospheres…I think the artwork is great, it really adds something to the album.
SoT: How do you feel this album compares to previous releases?
PN: For me, this is our strongest album in a while, I think it flows really well as an album. The challenge this time was to prove that, with two new members, we were still IQ but it was also important not to tread water, and to push ourselves in some new directions which we did with tracks like 'One Fatal Mistake' and 'Closer'.
SoT: How would you compare the new release to the previous album 'Dark Matter'?
PN: For me, this is a better album than 'Dark Matter', or at least I like it more. 'Frequency' feels a more mature and confident album to me.
SoT: Were there any influences on the band while making 'Frequency'?
PN: No musical influences, I don't think. I don't listen to very much progressive music at the best of times but especially when we're writing for an album because I don't want to be influenced, even subconsciously, by anything that might invite comparisons. There were certainly outside influences that weren't music-related…my time in hospital definitely had an impact on me and I wasn't sure before I started recording the vocals what was going to come out of my throat or if I'd have the energy to get through it all. Things can get quite grueling and frustrating in the studio. But luckily, all went well and in fact I think this album is my best recorded vocal performance to date.
SoT: On the album there are three songs at ten minutes or longer. Did you go into the studio with the intention of writing longer, more 'epic' songs?
PN: No, in fact I'd say the opposite is true. I for one didn't want to have a long track on this album. People probably find this hard to believe but we honestly never set out to write a certain kind of song, we don't impose stylistic restrictions on ourselves or try to write a song of a certain length. In fact, 'The Province' was originally longer, it could easily have ended up being more than 20 minutes long, but we felt this time that we shouldn't have the archetypal 'Long Track' on this album. Songs like 'The Narrow Margin', 'The Seventh House' and 'Harvest Of Souls' tend to be regarded as the most important tracks on those albums simply because they're the longest songs but often there are other songs, shorter songs, which are equally as strong musically, if not better. We managed to chop 'The Province' down to about 13 minutes and people still think of it as the centrepiece of the album.
SoT: I really like how the compositions flow together so smoothly. As a musician(s) is that a hard thing to accomplish?
PN: It just requires a bit of forward planning, envisaging the album as a whole piece rather than a random collection of songs. I've always liked tracks which seem to join together or have bridging passages that lead from one song into the next. It gives the album a cohesiveness. The sequence of tracks is very important, I think. The running order can make all the difference. We always try to take the listener on a journey with our albums. There should be something to grab the attention at the start and some kind of musical or emotional resolution at the end. Again, a lot of the flow from one track to the next is attributable to Mike.
SoT: I found the new one to be a little darker. Would you agree with that?
PN: I don't know. The last one certainly had its dark moments! You could get a bunch of people to listen to the same piece of music and they'd all hear it in different ways. This album is more reflective, I'd say, at least lyrically. Sitting in a hospital bed for ten days gave me plenty to think about, that's for sure.
SoT: I could not detect any political overtones in the lyrics as opposed to 'Dark Matter'. Was that a conscious decision to stay away from that area?
PN: Well, it was never a conscious decision to go into that area on the last album, and it was only a small section of 'Harvest Of Souls'. That came about because I had the word 'America' as a nice hook in that section and so it led me to asking myself, "OK, what do I want to say about America?" I don't know if it was a mistake or not, it certainly divided opinion at the time, but on reflection it's probably a good thing to stir up a bit of controversy every now and then and get people talking. But I think the world can survive without me spouting any political views so I don't intend to return to that area in the near future.
SoT: The lyrics for 'One Fatal Mistake' seem deeply personal in nature. Can you tell us about that song?
PN: All lyrics are personal in nature but yes, that one more so. It's basically a failed romance where one gave up on the other and abandoned most of their hopes and dreams.
SoT: Peter, the vocals on 'Frequency' are outstanding and represent some of your best work. Do you feel you have matured as a vocalist?
PN: Thank you. In theory, the more you do something the better you should get and I've been singing now for the best part of 30 years so I'd be very concerned if I felt I hadn't improved in all that time. But yes, this is definitely my best recorded vocal performance to date.
SoT: This is the first studio album with Andy Edwards on drums and Mark Westworth on keys. They seem a really good fit for IQ. Can you comment on that?
PN: We were very sad to see Paul and Martin leave, of course. None of us wanted them to go, but they decided to leave the band for very different reasons. Anybody new coming into a band brings a new energy and personality with them, and the band is presented with a new set of challenges. Mark and Andy have each made a fantastic contribution to this album.
SoT: Your previous album 'Dark Matter' was highly successful and critically acclaimed. Did that put any pressure on the band heading into the recording studio?
PN: The only pressure for me comes from our own back catalogue. I try not to predict what people will expect from a new IQ album, I push all that from my mind and just concentrate on making an album that we can be proud of. So the pressure for me is competing with our past achievements and trying to improve on what we've done before.
SoT: Andy Edwards is taking some time off. How long will that be for and is Paul Cook filling in for him? Will that take some adjusting?
PN: Andy did a fantastic job on the album but he needed to take some time out this year for personal reasons. With a new album being released, we obviously had to do some live work to promote it, so we called Paul and asked him if he'd be interested in playing with us again. He was really happy to step back in and we've played some shows with him in Europe which went really well. I must say it felt great to have Paul there, he played really well and he's extremely enthusiastic about the band again.
SoT: How long did it take the band to develop your own signature sound and how does it feel to be so influential on many younger bands starting out?
PN: It didn't take us long. Our sound was pretty well defined from quite early on, I think. As I said earlier, by the time of 'The Wake' we had a strong musical personality. All music is inspired by other music, to a lesser or greater extent. We were influenced by music that we really liked and that gave us the impetus to form a band so if that cycle is continuing through us influencing new bands, then that's great.
SoT: Do you listen to music in your spare time?
PN: Yes, I'm still a big fan of music and listen to it a lot, though admittedly it's mostly in the car or on the iPod these days. The new Placebo album is really good.
SoT: Are there any new artists (progressive or otherwise) that you have been impressed with lately?
PN: I really like The Killers and The Feeling. Going back to what I was saying about being a song man, The Feeling write great melodic pop tracks with the occasional sad, reflective lyric which appeals to me. Lisa Hannigan has a beautiful voice.
SoT: If you were stranded on a desert island which five CDs would you want with you?
PN: This changes every day but in terms of albums I can listen to over and over, it would currently be:
1. David Bowie – 'Diamond Dogs'
2. The Killers – 'Day And Age'
3. Genesis – 'The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway'
4. The Beatles – 'Revolver'
5. Television – 'Marquee Moon'
SoT: What else is on the agenda for IQ this year? Any concerts planned?
PN: We don't play too many live shows these days so there won't be an actual tour to promote 'Frequency'. We've already played some dates in Holland and Germany earlier this year, and we'll be playing in North America in August at the 3RP festival. There will also be some UK shows later in the year.
SoT: When do you foresee the next IQ album being written?
PN: I have no idea. We won't rush into it because albums are too important to risk putting out something that's below par. We'll know when the time is right. Each album requires a big investment from us in terms of time and energy, we're still recovering from this one!
SoT: Is there anything else you would like to say to your fans before we call it a day?
PN: Thank you to everyone for your continued support. We have the small matter of a 30th anniversary in 2011…check www.iq-hq.co.uk for details nearer the time!
SoT: Peter, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share your thoughts. It is much appreciated.
(Click here to read our reviews of Frequency)