Since scaling back his duties as an immigration lawyer seven years ago to concentrate on his music, Howard Iceberg has written and recorded hundreds of songs. You could be forgiven for not knowing that — none of the music has been formally released. But all that work finally sees the light of day on Sunday. Iceberg and his band, the Titanics, and about 50 other local musicians play Crosstown Station that night to celebrate the release of Welcome Aboard, a whopping seven-CD, 105-song DIY jumble of folk, rock, country and blues. At his West Side home last week, Iceberg talked about the record and what's next, now that it's finally coming out.
The Pitch: Welcome Aboard took about eight years, but you've been recording for much longer than that.
Iceberg: I've been making little homemade cassettes and CDs for about 25 years now. It started out as these quirky, funny things just to give to friends. Now I listen sometimes and shudder a little at the craft of them. But each one got better, and each time, somebody would come forward and say they liked it and help me out on the next one. But working as a full-time lawyer — the process of recording was painfully slow. So around 2003, I decided that if I was ever going to do music in a more serious way, it was time.
Do you prefer self-releasing your music?
Well, like a lot of folks, I've had my little brushes with record companies: a label in London, a publisher in New York. But none of it ever really worked out. And at this point, I've had it with all that's involved with recording a highly polished CD. Me and my friends are all amateurs — somewhat practiced amateurs, but not slick studio guys. What I like more is the idea of doing these songs as a documentation project. I remember a guy came up to me once in a bar after a show and said, "You've got to start documenting your stuff." And that clicked with me for some reason. That's kind of how this started. I thought I'd do 10 to 12 songs, but then things started sounding better than I expected, and the songs kept coming to me, and the songs just stacked up. Then one day, I woke up and was horrified to find that I had over a hundred songs.
So you finally decided that it was time to send them out into the world at that point?
Yes. (Laughs.) I am aware there is a certain odd aspect of releasing seven CDs at one time. But in my defense, all I can say is that it was recorded over such a long period of time that a normal artist would have released about as much over the same period, only probably a year at a time.
Have you kept cranking out songs, even after this huge project is basically complete?
Oh, yes. The sad thing is, there's probably another 150 to 200 songs in addition to the seven CDs, which are in various stages of completion and incompletion.
How can you possibly remember all of these songs?
Every gig, I forget songs. But it's not because I'm old. I never even remembered them when I was young.
How long do you tend to work on a given song?
I've knocked out four or five songs in the past few weeks, which is good for me. But I'm meticulous in the sense that I can agonize for a week over whether a conjunction in a lyric should be "and" or "but." And it depends on where I'm coming from when I start writing. Sometimes I write a song because of someone I met and something they're going through. Or I'll write a song because I'm inspired by a cool drumbeat I heard or an interesting chord change. Often the nature of the song and the people I collaborate with is what determines how long I spend on it, and whether it ends up more folk or country or rock or grunge.
How did Sunday's show come together?
When the idea for the show came up, I really wanted no part of it. I'm old and getting older, and I kind of feel like I'm on a mission to get as much done as possible. Doing the show seemed like a distraction from that. But eventually, I realized that participating in this tribute could be a sign of appreciation of all the people I've worked with over the years. And it benefits KKFI. So I'm very honored that all these musicians will be learning my songs and playing my music — Hidden Pictures, Atlantic Fadeout, the Columns, the Wilders, Mike Ireland, Chad Rex, the Expassionates, the Splinters (which is the first rock band I ever played with), Amy Farrand, and many more. And then at the end of the night, I'll come up and sing one or two songs and bring up some special guests that people don't get to see too much of anymore.
You seem to be very fond of collaborations.
I've been very fortunate in that there's been a lot of people over the years who've been willing to work with me. There's no glory, no money. They probably won't ever even be heard, but they still say, "Yeah, let's do it. Let's record a song together."