Three chocolate bars by his side, his small cigarillos subtly polluting the air, a man who almost transcends kindness. Very British, courtesy personified.
He’s unusual, but personally I prefer him to the usual snotty pop stars and drunks. And at least the chocolate Paddy prefers is dark, masculine, bitter, and not sickly-sweet milk chocolate. Which would also be good if it were true for Prefab Sprout’s music. It’s a little too sweet for me, too prissy, a mixture of unobtrusive guitar pop and timid soul. But the success of this Newcastle band clearly proves me mistaken.
SWOON was the first album, STEVE MCQUEEN consolidated the reputation in 1985. Three years later it is FROM LANGLEY PARK TO MEMPHIS. It must seem a long time ago that Paddy McAloon wrote the last song for the album, two years ago, and the recording had been completed as long ago as the autumn of 1987. Prefab Sprout are obviously not in a hurry. The same goes for the interview. We’ve never met before, but the leader of the band greeted me like an old friend, even though he has been travelling around Europe for days to promote 40 minutes of music, which for him is basically old news.
Do you gain anything personally from so many interviews, apart from promotion of your work?
I sometimes think I know everything about my records, but then it’s all the more interesting to know what other people think about it.
So let me do that. I haven’t been able to get into Prefab Sprout up until now. It was all too clean for me, too uniform. This time you’ve changed a little bit. The mood of the individual songs appears more clearly. On the second side there is the soul influenced HEY MANHATTAN, then a reggae beat in KNOCK ON WOOD, and GOLDEN CALF is a real rocker!
That comes as a shock to many people…
No, it’s really lively!
I wrote that in 1977. At that time everything we did sounded like that, we couldn’t do anything else at the time. Today it’s a bit of fun, almost like a cover version, no claims to literary merit. I accept your criticism of the earlier records. I was asking myself what was the matter with STEVE MCQUEEN which I don’t like any more. The answer is that it’s the dynamics, I was doing everything at a high volume. Music comes alive when there are changes and contrasts. Anyway if I could I’d make completely different records because I’m fascinated by so many different musical directions.
Why didn’t we hear from you for three years?
We made things a bit complicated for ourselves. Because I didn’t want the new LP to be as uniform as the last one I would have liked to have had different producers for each of the ten tracks. That was impossible to do. But even so, there are three I produced, four by Thomas Dolby, four by Jon Kelly, and one by Andy Richardson. We had to wait until each of them had time for us.
On the last LP, the musical influence of Thomas Dolby is so strong it detracts from your own identity.
He came to me almost from another world. I’m a guitarist, he’s a keyboard player. I could hardly imagine a bigger contrast. In fact we have many similarities. I didn’t want a producer coming from the acoustic world, but rather someone who specialises in sounds, harmony, sensitive arrangements and good keyboard parts. He’s exactly the right person.
My criticism also applies to the vocals on STEVE MCQUEEN – the Dolby sound is very strong.
I don’t agree…
…The way he arranges voices, sometimes like 10CC in I’M NOT IN LOVE…
…Ah yes, the samples on the Fairlight. That comes very much from Wendy’s voice. But my voice sounds quite different to his…
If the last LP was an experience you didn’t want to repeat, why did you work with Thomas Dolby again?
Because he is so good. Simply because he is so good. I didn’t want to work with him any more because I was afraid of boring him. He’s not a producer who has career ambitions, but he has passion. So this time it had to be something different from last time. But I would always want to work with him because he always surprises me.
I was surprised when I heard about your collaboration with Stevie Wonder on NIGHTINGALES. Was that a promotional gimmick?
So do you really think you get Stevie Wonder to play something he doesn’t want to do? That idea would be completely abhorrent to me. It was, strange as it might sound, an accident. I’d written quite a complicated harmonica part which I had no musician for. And then someone said: “Why not Stevie Wonder?” And I was like “Sure, why don’t we get Paul McCartney on bass too?”. But by luck, Stevie Wonder was on tour in England, and my manager knew his local tour manager. This was all more or less unofficial, outside official channels. We sent him a demo and he liked it.
So he didn’t put a handful of notes down on tape at home, but he was in the studio in person…
That’s right, and I was pretty nervous because I was the producer too. How would I be able to explain to him if I didn’t like it? But it wasn’t a problem at all. He’s so breathtakingly good and precise, even though he said himself it was quite complicated. He listened to the recording a few times, then went just outside the door with a cassette, came back in, and did it perfectly. First in a high register, then a low one, and then finished by doubling the whole thing. Then he asked if I liked it, if that was the way I’d imagined it. He really did a great job.
Did he give you any trouble, because he’s blind and I guess not uncomplicated?
Nothing like that, we simply didn’t believe he was coming at all. He had a concert that evening, and we knew that after his concerts he usually goes and works in the studio. But you never know exactly when. He doesn’t have a normal day/night rhythm. We rented a studio for the night and waited. I was nervous not because he was blind, but because he is am unbelievable musical talent. I did put my foot in it once. He knows Thomas Dolby very well and I unwittingly asked: “Have you seen Thomas recently?” He immediately realised how embarrassed I was and just smirked “No, I’ve never seen him”… He just makes a joke out of such moments. Stevie is a wonderful, very loving person.
How did you write the harmonica part?
On the piano. That was the easy part. It was only difficult to play on the harmonica. I recorded it using a synth for Stevie Wonder.
Do you compose a lot on the piano?
The first two LPs I composed on the guitar. Now I write almost everything on the piano.
The new LP contains some very nice piano parts…
…Oh thanks, I’m really glad you think so. That’s what I learned from Thomas Dolby. I like him more than anyone else as a keyboard player. He has a way of creating moods like no-one else I know. So I turned to the piano.
What’s your basic method of working?
I write songs, practice them with the band, go into the studio. Until recently I always made demos which were very exactly worked out. This saves time and money in the studio. I’ve stopped doing that now because you end up fighting with yourself. You put a lot of care into the demo, the record company is enthusiastic about it, and you’re trying the whole time in the studio to reproduce the same things perfectly – mostly it doesn’t work. That’s why I’m now starting out with very rough sketches of songs made on an old mono tape recorder.
You say “I” mostly when you speak…
…and where is the band, you want to know… OK, I’m sort of the boss. After all, I write everything. What the band brings is personality. We hardly ever use guest musicians. They would play too smoothly. Technology isn’t everything. Apart from Neil, we’re not particularly good musicians. Other things are more important: Wendy for example knows exactly when a song is right. Even if we’ve done five versions and I’ve long since lost perspective. Martin isn’t a Stanley Clarke or a Jaco Pastorious, but he is my brother. The band is a great support for me, and a large mirror for my vision.
Let’s look into the mirror: What does music mean to Paddy McAloon?
I know exactly why I love it so much, but I find it difficult to explain. It’s not like a novel or a poem. You can use words to talk about words. That’s much harder with music. It is the secret of how music affects body, soul and spirit. I love this mystery and I never want to give it away it through explanation.