The Australian power-pop band Ice Cream Hands comprised singer/guitarist Charles Jenkins, guitarist Marcus Goodwin, bassist Douglas Lee Robertson and drummer Derek Smiley. Debuting in late 1992 with a self-titled EP, the group issued their first full-length release Travelling...Made Easy a year later. After 1994's Supermarket Scene EP, Ice Cream Hands issued another stop-gap single release, Olive, before finally resurfacing with their sophomore LP Memory Lane Traffic Jam in 1997. Michael Witheford, Melbourne January 2000
Michael Witheford, Melbourne January 2000
My introduction to the music of the Icecream Hands was a highly unlikely, and fortuitous one. I had a friend who had seen the group backing Ward Dotson (otherwise known as The Liquor Giants) and tipped me off. As I was spending a year in Tasmania, it surprised me that the band were visiting Launceston, and confused me that they'd been booked to play at a hotel which I knew only as the habitat of blue collar punters, and possibly the occasional strip show, or monstrous cabaret act (always favouring a drum machine sounding like a large trout being thwacked onto a table, and many Billy Joel songs.)
The year was 1994, and there was no way I could have guessed that the enthusiasm I felt about the band's music that night would continue undimmed right up to the present.
Facing an audience consisting of my friend and I, plus a table of three girls, Icecream Hands played a plethora of clever, melodic, effortlessly mature guitar-pop tunes, and I became an instant fan. In fact, having already caught up with most of the so-called pop bands of the time, I was aware that this uninhabited pub in a big country town was hosting the cream of the crop.
That night I met the three members who have formed the core of the band up until the present. Guitarist/vocalist Charles Jenkins, bassist and harmony king Douglas Lee Robertson, and drummer Derek G. Smiley. I assured them there was a pub in town which would have been a much more sensible venue for a band of their kind, and hoped to see them back in Melbourne.
For me that was the beginning, but for the band, there had already been a pre-history and some fortunate convergences without which Icecream Hands may have never happened.
Charles Jenkins grew up in Adelaide, in a family where both his older sister and brother were involved in music. It was inevitable that the youngster's curiosity would be piqued.
?I started by trying to play Who songs from my brother's chord charts,? says Charles. ?Then you'd go to some friends place, and plug all the guitars into one amp, as well as the vocals. And they'd all be out of tune.? Charles' lyrical ambitions began with him penning new words to existing songs by bands like Skyhooks. Unfortunately, no tapes survive.
Charles moved on to Adelaide University, and through a music ad met ?a hotshot guitarist, wearing brothel creepers and a quiff.? Downstairs from this guy, in a block of flats there happened to be a bass player, and his sister happened to go out with a drummer. Before you could say ?C'mon Everybody!? the first version of The Mad Turks was up and running. Quickly developing a reputation as an energetic and wild rock ?n roll band, described by the head of the seminal indie Adelaide label, Greasy Pop records as ?Eddie Cochran on dangerous chemicals?, the group were part of a vibrant scene, able to hone their skills with gigs galore.
Charles found himself performing a role however which hadn't been part of his ambitions. ?I wanted to be the Chris Difford (Squeeze) of the group. Write the lyrics and stand at the back and play rhythm guitar.? Instead he was thrust in front of the microphone, eventually accepting that his guitar playing was perhaps not enough a contribution anyway. Although the group went on to evolve into a rock/pop act of great quality, and released two albums, Charles felt The Mad Turks were at their best when they played essentially twelve-bar rock in Adelaide.
Drummer Dom Larizza had managed to conceal that he was a fine guitarist, so after a bit of juggling, an altered Mad Turks moved en masse to Melbourne. Some tours with the Huxton Creepers followed and a few records on Greasy Pop. Eventually the band signed directly to Festival Records. It was a bittersweet experience.
In the late eighties, guitars were chiefly reserved for the choruses of power ballads. A pop group using a twin guitar approach was virtually condemned to underground status. So although the record company had no idea what to do with the Mad Turks, and there was a predictable lack of serious help forthcoming, the band did have the opportunity to record an album which changed Chuck's thinking. ?Dom's brother Archie, who'd been in the Saints around All Fools' Day produced the record, and I learnt more in that three weeks than I had in the previous five years of playing. Song writing, singing, recording -all of it. It was a steep learning curve.?
Around the same time as Festival dropped the Mad Turks, the record company inexplicably gave the band money for demos. One song ended up on the first Icecream Hands EP. But this was not the only tie between the former Turks and the soon to be Hands. Charles spent the best part of a year playing solo shows. Meanwhile there had been a sea change in the musical climate inspired by one album; Nirvana's Nevermind. Although groups like The Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. had brought a new aggressiveness to guitar music; it was the Seattle trio who had not only commercial success, but also an effect on the whole culture of rock ?n roll.
Charles, tiring of the workload and repetition of the solo shows went on a recruiting drive. Dom returned to play guitar, and Smiley, who had managed the Mad Turks for a time, unpacked his drums. Arch played bass. Unfortunately the band felt it best to fight a reactionary battle against the impurity of grunge, with songs Charles describes as ?incredibly chintzy?. A pop psychedelic melange including oddities like the theme to the ABC's Countrywide TV program, The Dukes of Stratosphere's 'The Affiliated', Randy Newman's 'Political Science', ?The Mary Tyler Moore Theme', ?And I'd throw my own sort of nursery rhyme stuff in, we were digging a big hole".
The next major development in the evolution of the band occurred when Charles ran into David Vodicka, whose Rubber Records label was in its infancy. Vodicka asked to hear anything Charles might have, and guaranteed his interest with a bit of financial sponsorship. Meanwhile Arch had left to attend to other commitments and Douglas Lee Robertson, who Chuck had known in Adelaide just happened to be available. With his brilliant ear for harmonies and McCartneyesque bass skills Doug was absolutely perfect for the job. ?It kind of fell together really quickly,? remembers Charles.
Soon afterwards the first Icecream Hands album Travelling Made Easy was released. It was September 1993. Despite the quality of the songs and the outstanding keyboard contributions of David Milne, there were no natural stand out singles on the record, and airplay was difficult to come by. But having negotiated potentially the most difficult part of the journey - the take off- Icecream Hands found out quickly that they were in for a very bumpy flight.
?From 93-97 a ridiculous amount of misfortune struck the band,? recalls Charles. ?And any saner person would have given it up for a life having lobotomies performed on them.? Dom broke his foot. Doug was assaulted and couldn't sing a note for six months. Smiley broke something too. And Charles' priorities shifted when his first son arrived.
Despite all this, the band held on, and managed to tour a little, and also to record their finest song of the mid-nineties ?Supermarket Scene?. Charles describes the song as ?a high watermark in the band's recording. I thought ?that's it, that's my best' so when it stiffed it was a major turning point for me psychologically.? The song suffered from lack of promotional clout, and radio put it into the too hard basket. As always it was the independent stations, and JJJ who took notice.
Charles life now consisted of new responsibilities. ?Gone were the days of sitting endlessly on the couch writing tunes.? But the new stringency actually acted as a kind of filter for any song-writing ideas which weren't up to scratch, and Charles notes that his songs became less cluttered and less ?vague?. He wrote when ideas arrived, rather than playing until something wafted out worth pursuing. ?I probably started to write songs the way I always should have,? he says. ?I'd have an idea, and bang.?
Through this period material was slowly being collated for the next album. ?Olive? was recorded as the next single, and that required several B-Sides. Again the vast populace were indifferent, or simply unaware of the record. In inner city Melbourne however, the group's following was increasing steadily.
Icecream Hands' second LP, Memory Lane Traffic Jam was collected from several sessions, and mastered in 1996. Then another hiccup developed. David Vodicka switched his distribution dealings from Shock Records to the multi-national BMG. After the various legalities had been completed, it was to be a year before the album saw the light of day.
On it's release however, there was a new surge in enthusiasm about the band. The record was reviewed with breathless excitement all over the country and finally Icecream Hands had been afforded a solid foundation to move forward.
Sadly in the interim, with so many setbacks, Dom had made the decision to leave the band. Rubber stable mates OscarLima loaned out their guitarist Kenny while the Hands looked for a permanent replacement. Their next single ?Dodgy? was recorded and received commercial airplay, and the band appeared on a number of TV shows. The door to the green room was finally ajar.
Meanwhile over in America, Icecream Hands had become the deserving critical darlings of several pop-oriented Internet magazines, and web sites. Their records were being favourably compared to some of the classic guitar pop of the sixties, and late seventies.
?Icecream Hands manage to provide a latter-day link to the records of The Kinks, Small Faces, Zombies etc, in terms of the charm and skill of the song writing while infusing their material with a contemporary and unique edge?.
The search for a guitarist however, was going nowhere fast before being resolved in not altogether unusual fashion. Marcus Goodwin was a fan of the band. One night Charles remembered Marcus played guitar, and asked him if he'd want to audition. As it happened Marcus played extremely well, and was the perfect man to step into the breach, just in time for the recording of the new album, and a visit to the US for the annual South by South-West conference.
?We were able to get a decent amount of money to record,? says Charles. The band enlisted producer Wayne Connolly for the sessions which would become Sweeter Than The Radio. ?He busted my balls,? laughs Charles. ?I'd think something was fine and he'd tell me to do it again. Wayne would often joke about 'magic ears' but he's got 'em." The songs had again been written over the previous year, with both Doug and Smiley contributing songs that added variety and class to an album that once again would be hailed as a masterpiece.
With the release of the singles 'Spiritlevel', ?Yellow and Blue', 'Nipple' and 'The Obvious Boy' the band toured more extensively than ever, with Pollyanna, Powderfinger, Fountains of Wayne, the National Big Day Out Festival and The Whitlams, before re-tracing much of that journey headlining their own shows. Every sizeable town in the country got to taste the group's gleaming power pop.
Ice Cream Hands became even more sought after TV guests too, performing live on nationally broadcast shows such as, The 10.30 Slot, House Of Hits as well as The Big Schmooze and Rove. Also the winsome videos for ?Yellow and Blue', and ?Nipple' became mainstays on Rage, and other music clip shows.
The culmination of this wider recognition and critical assent was a Final Nomination for Sweeter Than The Radio at the 19th annual Australian Record Industry Awards.
In late 2001 the group will, all being well, release their next album, no doubt another world class collection of melodic gems, with witty lyrics, imaginative arrangements and uplifting energy. In fact, the band can't wait to get to work on the new record, with Charles harbouring a group of songs which he believes to be the strongest Icecream Hands material yet.
In the meantime, the group will continue to flex their musical muscle live, and the shows should not be missed. In concert the group are a precision honed force, combining their intricate harmonic twists, with a raw gut level energy.
Having overcome the setbacks, and finally received the much overdue accolades deserving them, the band can concentrate their energies on music alone. It'll take some patience to await what is certain to be the best record yet from a truly outstanding band.