Traditionally, it’s second albums that threaten careers: the pressure to repeat or surpass early achievements has provoked many a musician’s downfall. Liverpool’s It’s Immaterial, however, have always been unconventional.
They’re known for Driving Away from Home (Jim’s Tune), an eccentric response to America’s tradition of on-the-road songs that took the M62 towards Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. It reached No 18 in the UK charts in 1986, and their debut album that year, Life’s Hard and Then You Die, was awash with influences from new wave to music hall. On 1990’s Song, they reinvented themselves as unusually literate peers to the Blue Nile, their hushed melancholy embellished with empathetic, intimate spoken-word vignettes about suburban life and frustrated dreams.
Instead, it’s their third album, House for Sale, that’s been difficult – in the works so long they can barely remember when they began. In fact, it was late summer 1993. “We were determined to do something quick,” sighs one half of the duo, Jarvis Whitehead, before acknowledging the band’s achilles heel. “At the same time, we’ve got to be satisfied.” Such was their dogged urge for perfection that even contributions by Blue Nile frontman Paul Buchanan were discarded, and the album is only being released this month, 27 years later.
Vocalist John Campbell originally formed It’s Immaterial – known to fans as Itsy – in 1980 alongside John Dempsey and Henry Priestman, having all jumped ship from the band Yachts, plus drummer Paul Barlow. Soon they were operating on the fringes of the DIY scene around legendary Liverpool venue Eric’s, where Whitehead had seen Campbell opening for the Sex Pistols in 1976 with the ill-advisedly named Albert Dock and the Cod Warriors.
Whitehead joined in 1982, but following a series of personnel changes – including Priestman’s departure to form the Christians – he and Campbell found themselves alone. A brief brush with mainstream success arrived in 1986 with Driving Away from Home, co-produced by Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads, to whom they were often compared. When I spoke to Campbell about it for a 2015 interview, he said: “We had a bit of a to-do with Jerry. He wanted to make a country and western record. We didn’t want that, because it was supposed to be a very British record. We started recording during the days with Jerry and had a word with the engineer. In the evenings he got another tape out and we did our version.”
The experience also offered a taste of further imminent frustrations. “The record company would tell us the chart position,” Campbell laughs now, “then they ran out of records! Radio play was crazy and they had nothing to sell. It’s a very It’s Immaterial thing to happen.” Life’s Hard and Then You Die peaked at No 65; despite critical acclaim, Song also disappeared swiftly with their label’s closure, taking House for Sale’s deadlines with it. “Eventually we got there, though,” Campbell chuckles, “which is startling to both of us.”
The group’s impossible standards and logistical snafus were only partially responsible for the album’s long gestation. Not long before sessions began with Blue Nile engineer Calum Malcolm, with whom they’d recorded Song, Campbell’s partner at the time was diagnosed with cancer. “We received a hospital appointment which clashed with the dates,” he says. “But in the spirit of carrying on with life as normal, it was decided I should go. I was having something to eat, enjoying the hospitality of Calum and his wife, when she informed me she had quite an aggressive cancer. I caught the first train back to Liverpool.” She died less than a year later.
Though he and Whitehead continued to meet, Campbell says this “was more music therapy”, and he focused on supporting other family members. Tapes of the songs they had begun were only found six years ago – “we thought, let’s finish this” – and then had to be painstakingly transferred from an archaic format. Some songs were also missing choruses, or middle eights, holes that needed plugging. “And we’re not traditional songwriters,” says Campbell. “Often the process starts with Jarvis getting some musical progress he likes, and I’ve got some notion of a story that could fit. But that doesn’t mean to say that that’s the song we turn out with. It morphs constantly and becomes a different song. We have to find a place where we can stop or otherwise it will go on forever!”
Eventually they were satisfied, and House for Sale – whose subdued, nostalgic observations pick up where Song left off, again inviting favourable comparisons with the Blue Nile – was completed. But other predictably Itsy things were still to unfold. As they raised funds from fans for its release, Campbell himself was diagnosed with cancer (something he prefers not to discuss). Then their crowdfunding platform PledgeMusic went bankrupt, taking half the money donated by their patient fanbase. The duo covered the shortfall through JustGiving, and at last, with Campbell’s cancer in remission, the album went into production in March this year.
“Then,” Campbell says, “coronavirus arrived.” The release date was nudged back over summer, but Whitehead remains sanguine about one (hopefully) final delay. “Three months compared to 30 years? It was doable!”
• House for Sale is out now, available via Burning Shed.