After stumbling over the name and release date of the coming reformation/return album from Icecream Hands – for newcomers and old hands, it’s called No Weapon But Love, which is also the name of the creamy, harmony-filled, sunshine pop first single - their lead singer and principal songwriter, Charles Jenkins, wails. “I’m out of form. I don’t have any form in this interview thing. Let’s start again. I’ll just enter the room again.”
So I may have to explain to him how this thing works. Ok Charles it’s like this: I ask some questions; you deflect with some banter, giving me a little bit of information; I promulgate some theory or other; you politely avoid confirming it because it’s rubbish but you don’t want to say so; you offer instead a charming anecdote which creates another line of questioning, and we move on.
“Wow, that’s intense,” says Jenkins. “That’s quite a template to follow but I will do my best.”
Now it’s true that Icecream Hands, one of the best purveyors of melodic pop music made with guitars/bass/drums this country has given us, has not released a record in 13 years. In that time however, Jenkins himself has released quite a few records, both as a solo act and with different backing bands, including a stunning double of interior acoustic records, When I Was In My Room and When I Was On The Moon in the past year alone. So, yeah, he’s got no excuse, except maybe some covid rustiness.
In those intervening years he’s also qualified as a teacher of songwriting, which you might now call his day job, especially as, perversely perhaps, teaching writing is a more reliable earner than the fruit of actual writing. Though it may be that the teacher - or is it just the hardly-impartial inner critic? - Is causing a few issues for Jenkins and the rest of the band.
“We were just mixing the record, finishing it today, and I am dubious about two of my songs,” he says. “There are about 13 in the running – I’ve got nine and Doug [Lee Robertson, bassplayer, vocalist and other writer] has four - and there are two songs that I’m not totally convinced about. The chords are great, the melodies are great, all the words are kind of fine, but all my other songs you can recognise the intention or recognise the subject matter: there’s a particular pattern, or particular shape to it that you can hang your hat on. But in these two songs, lyrically it’s a bit wishy-washy.
“But,” he starts to chuckle. “You try and get a wishy-washy lyrical argument up and running against a band that thinks the chords and the melodies are great - it just doesn’t wash. So I’m hoping that some of my students will be able to see or hear which ones don’t really hit the mark.”
Yes, Jenkins is having one of those songwriting moments, familiar to anybody who’s ever put a song before the public. It’s not going to cause ructions in the band (it’s worth noting that the album title comes from Mahatma Ghandi who would say that as a pacifist “I have no weapon but love”) or delay the album. They finished recording it during the months of social isolation so this is a hardy outfit, and, seven albums in, an experienced one, but it is causing at least one member some agita.
“I think I’ve said this to you before that every record I’ve made, in retrospect, I wish that I had taken it to the beach and buried it for a year and come back, pulled it out, and then listened to it to say, okay these songs work,” says Jenkins in a tone which suggests not so much exasperation about his obsession as reluctant acceptance that this is who he is. “I have to quickly say that I’m not saying that the band don’t listen to the words, but sometimes the whole thing doesn’t work together, in unity, as Aristotle would say.
“Sometimes,” and he catches his breath as he realises what’s coming, maybe turning into Mr Jenkins class teacher. “Ok, here we go: sometimes you can tell that the song started with this chord progression; the good songs you can’t tell how they started because it just sounds complete and every instrument and every note and every syllable is working together.”
When this argument is put to Robertson, drummer/vocalist Derek Smiley and guitarist Marcus Goodwin, is the response “get your hand off it Jenkins, it’s good”?
“Yes, I think that’s the exact quote,” he laughs. “I’ve got a bunch of friends that I still send songs to, because I’m as insecure as I’ve ever been about new songs, and they get sent to these people for a particular reason. Some of them are lyric freaks, some of them are melody freaks, some of them are a bit both, and I know that if I can get it pass all of them, then I’ve done my job.
“With regards to the band, in their defence, is that they hear their own version of the events. When I might be struggling to figure out in my head ‘what’s this look like? If I had Marty Scorsese and $50 million to spend on the video, what would this song look like?’, If I’m struggling to capture the image of the song, that’s when I get a little bit dubious of it really working. But they may well have their own version and know what the song is about.
“I’ve had this discussion with Marcus on a particular song, and he said ‘no, no, no, the song is about this, and this is why it’s so good’, and you think ah, yeah, ok, alright.”
The single No Weapon But Love is out now. The album of the same name will be released later this year.