Greig Dymond, CBC – December 2009

The promotion of “Let’s Change the World With Music” consisted mostly of an offline Q&A, where journalists were invited to send questions which Paddy answered using a word processor and sent back. There are a few of these, and they’re all interesting in that they give a glimpse of Paddy’s written style. This one – not used at the time – is particularly good and includes a fantastic account of the infamous meeting where the album was “rejected” and Paddy went off into a tailspin and created “Earth the Story So Far”. Big thanks to Greig for making this available.

Greig Dymond, CBC Arts Online: In the liner notes to “Let’s Change the World With Music”, you discuss your own fascination with “Smile.” Why do you think the notion of a “lost album” or “lost art” of any kind that has been recovered or unearthed is so compelling? This idea that there’s a treasure-trove of music that no one has heard — why does it intrigue music fans?

Paddy McAloon: I’d say it has something to do with our imaginations being richer, and rosier, than reality. And our helpless faith that while we don’t actually hold something in our hands, there is still a distant chance that the coveted article might actually be perfect. It’s a lovely leaning towards optimism, isn’t it? A “treasure trove” of love songs, as opposed to a rusty bucket. I think we fall in love with the mere promise that something is beautiful.

What encourages us to think like this? Well, if something is unobtainable it will always remain a promise, up until the moment when curiosity is satisfied. And, wondering about something is a deeply satisfying and cheap pleasure. I think it was the film critic David Thomson who once said that wondering is half the pleasure of anything. We all love a good mystery, and while we think we want to find the grail, we are probably overlooking the fact that our pleasure in searching for it, and wondering about it, must surely vanish if we actually find it. (Unrequited love may be painful, but an unrequited lover will never bore you.)

GD: What did you find so compelling about the idea of “Smile” before you had heard it? Was it the mystery of wondering what Brian Wilson had created?

PM: Yes, I wondered just how good an album could be, given that the two tracks I’d heard — “Good Vibrations” and “Surf’s Up” — were sublime. They were the promise that got me hooked on the “Smile” legend. And I was intrigued at the descriptions of this lost music because they chimed with vague notions and ambitions of my own. Namely, modular songwriting. That is, the creation of sections of music written without conscious reference to each other. In other words, and as I understood it, Brian Wilson wasn’t writing a killer chorus and then looking for a verse to set it up, he was was writing individual sections of music, and trusting that his subconscious would supply him with enough contrasting inspired moments that he could then assemble at a later date. This is how I interpreted the stuff I’d read in Tom Nolan’s Rolling Stone article. I might be wrong. But I made this connection because that is pretty much what I was trying to do when I was twenty-three. In 1980 I was big on writing fragments and trying to tie them together later. I still write like that, sometimes. Why? Because it is a way of courting mystery. And there is nothing lovelier than listening to something you’ve written, and being puzzled, and — sometimes — amazed at the way it has turned out.

So how is this method different from conventional songwriting? It’s a subtle difference. In both cases you are trying to make one section of music lead artfully to another. But there can be something a little predictable in knowing that you’ve written your chorus, and that logic dictates that the middle-eight should start on such and such a chord. The modular method is, in my opinion, an attempt to evade song-writing technique, and a way of invoking the muse. (I’m aware that this sounds pretentious, but I’m telling it the way I see it. I don’t think it’s airy-fairy to describe the process this way. When all is said and done certain pieces of music are magical.)

So, I had more than a casual fan’s interest in what Brian Wilson had tried to do in 1966/67. It’s not as if “Smile” was an unsubstantiated rumour. One of the available fragments — “Good Vibrations” — had been a number one record. Who says that by its very nature the avant-garde must be uncommercial?

GD: Now you’ve released one of your own ‘lost albums”. Do you see any humour or irony in that, given your own fixation with “Smile”?

PM: Yes, the ironies are so rich they’re blocking my arteries. Have you ever seen the Dudley Moore/Peter Cook film “Bedazzled”? Dudley Moore sells his soul in return for the Devil granting his wishes, but the Devil always find a way to fulfill each request in the worst possible way. So, be careful if you wish to be like Brian Wilson. You may end up with loss of hearing in the right ear, rather than the musical genius. (I hope you don’t think I’m being flippant. Call it gallows humour.)

GD: How did this release of “Let’s Change the World With Music” finally come about?

PM: Keith Armstrong of Kitchenware Records suggested it. I’d put the whole sorry business on the back-burner, and moved on.

GD: How did it feel, listening to these songs almost 20 years later? Were they like old friends or complete strangers?

PM: I hadn’t listened to them for maybe sixteen years. I write a lot of songs, and don’t listen to old records or tapes. I’ve always thought it a healthy way to behave. But when I finally got round to listening to them, it upset me to think they had sat on a shelf since 1993. As you know, I’ve had hearing troubles, so I view everything I do now as pre- and post-ear trouble. It’s self-pitying, but hey, I’m working on it. Were they old friends or complete strangers? Both. I couldn’t remember where they were going, but I enjoyed following them. I have to admit it was bittersweet to hear my younger jaunty self. Whatever happened to him?

GD: Many of the tracks deal with the redemptive, healing power of songs and suggested that there’s a divine quality to music. Was this a planned-in-advance concept for the album or was it just a theme that kept reappearing in the music?

PM: I don’t remember there being a grand design to begin with. A lot of the songs were written at the time of the (first) Gulf War. In fact, there were two title tracks which I removed from the final selection. Why? Well, there was just too much music for a satisfying shape to the album. (I’m still romantic enough to believe in shaping the overall listening experience, even if the rest of the world has gone download-pik ‘n’ mix-mad.) And I decided to leave off any songs which might date-stamp the record.

But I think there came a point, maybe during the first week of January ’93, which is when I wrote “Sweet Gospel Music” and “Ride”, that I thought, “OK, it looks like the album has a theme.”

GD: I know you’ve had serious health issues over the past few years. How has music been a healing force for you?

PM: In 2006 my right ear went mad. I’ve lost the ability to hear bass lines, or the lower octaves of a piano, in that ear. Luckily, the most severe symptoms (tinnitus, and a feeling of increased pressure) have subsided. I’m glad I can sleep at night. In July of 2006 I would happily have swapped any musical talent I had for a night without noises in my head.

GD: Why wasn’t this album recorded with the full band and released back in 1993? Did Sony have problems with lyrics about spirituality?

PM: The big question…and the simple answer, after seventeen years, would boil down to one word: a misunderstanding. If that is an unsatisfactory answer, read on. Maybe make yourself a coffee, and find a comfortable chair. Hell, lie down if it helps.

This is my stab at understanding what happened. I think our A&R man heard the original tape — or looked at the list of song titles — and thought the record too long. (My original demo tape contained fourteen titles.) Remember, our previous album “Jordan: The Comeback” consisted of nineteen titles, and no-one had been too thrilled about that. So I think it was off-putting for the record company to see so many titles. Further, I probably didn’t make it clear that I wasn’t insisting on us recording all fourteen songs. I was just submitting a bunch of stuff from which we could select ten or eleven songs. So I may not have helped matters there. (I am trying to be even-handed here.)

Neither Keith Armstrong or Phil Mitchell of Kitchenware Records were terribly comfortable at what they interpreted as my “banging on about God.” I don’t think they liked the idea of this selection of songs being a Prefab Sprout record. They may have discussed this with our A&R man at Sony, Muff Winwood. I think they probably did.

There’s a point I’d like to make here before I go on. I liked Muff Winwood very much, in fact I still do. He is a good man, and I don’t feel like portraying him as some kind of villain. Not in light of certain facts which only came to my attention last year. (I’ll come to that later.)

Anyway, in the spring of ’93, Muff Winwood came to Newcastle for a meeting about the record. A lot of what was said I can’t remember. But I’m pretty sure that very little was said about the quality of the songs. In fact, I got the vague impression that I’d brought something problematical to the table. And I was puzzled. Because I thought I’d come up with the goods. I thought it was a soulful collection of songs. I could imagine producer Tom Dolby really squeezing the best out of the material, and helping us make a stunning record. Is that an immodest thing to say? Maybe it is. But that’s what was going through my mind at the start of a thoroughly civilized, but curiously unenthusiastic meeting.

Something strange happened. Maybe it’s because there were simply too many of us at the table, but we got off the subject of the songs in front of us. We started generalising about a new record. And I think that was fatal. Muff probably doesn’t remember this, but he came up with the idea that one or two songs might be expanded, in particular: “Earth: The Story So Far.” I think his comment was, “You always do so many different things, why not focus on one or two elements?” So we drifted off course, with everyone chipping in ideas and comments. This was the bad decision I refer to in the liner notes of the album.

So in a slowly unfolding state of incredulity, I absorbed what I came to see as a lack of enthusiasm for my new baby. Embarrassed and unable to stick up for myself — does the songwriter really have to big-up his own work in an A&R meeting? — I left the room under the impression that I should do something else. There was no row, no outright rejection, nothing like that. It was…anticlimactic.

So, to bring this tedious chapter to a conclusion — I spent the next two years writing and arranging an album entitled “Earth: The Story So Far”. I lost myself in the new project. I sold myself the story that Muff Winwood had commissioned it. Not knowing what was wrong with “Let’s Change The World With Music” I was happy to bury myself in my new music. And, I worked on it for two years. I went too far. It blossomed, it bloomed, but it was bigger than the record it was going to replace. I played tiny bits of it to friends, but no-one has heard more than a minute or two of it, because I didn’t finish recording it. Then, one day in 1995, I woke up and said to myself, “This isn’t what Winwood wanted. You’ve expanded this little song into…twenty fragments? Thirty fragments? It had turned into an exercise in modular songwriting.” Now where have you heard this story before?

So I slowly came to my senses. I wrote some songs for other artists (to pay the bills) and I eventually submitted a shorter selection of songs, which — seven years after “Jordan” was released — became our follow-up record, “Andromeda Heights”. A few critics said, “Ummm…it’s only forty minutes long. We expected MORE after seven years, after “Jordan: The Comeback.”

The expanded “Earth: The Story So Far”, that’s my “Smile.” It’s been in a box, in fragments, since ’95. I cannot bring myself to revisit it. I’m sure some of it is pretty good. But who knows? So, here we are. Lots of irony and a few bad vibrations.

Way too much detail? I’m sorry, but you did ask…and having come this far, and as we’ve been considering the possibility of quests for the grail ending in anticlimax, I feel you deserve full disclosure on this subject. Last summer, when my original “Let’s Change The World With Music” was finally released, I discovered something that turns the myth of the lost album into something closer to farce. Bathos — the fifth musketeer.

In August 2009, a British music magazine printed an article about this “lost” Prefab Sprout album. The journalist spoke to Muff Winwood. Muff is quoted as saying that I hadn’t actually delivered the album “Let’s Change The World With Music”; that the record “slipped through his fingers,” and mine. When I read those words I couldn’t take them in. It took me quite a while to understand what he meant, because basically the album you possess is the demo/object he held in his hands in May 1993. It has been mixed and polished by Calum Malcolm, but it’s still my home recording. And the reason it never became a Thomas Dolby-produced album featuring my brother Martin on bass, Neil Conti on drums, and Wendy Smith on vocals is because Muff didn’t “green light” the project. So why did he say that I didn’t deliver the album?

I think he said it because he left our meeting imagining that I’d agreed to trim the record and expand one of the songs. Muff Winwood was waiting for me to make some sort of minor adjustment. He thought I’d be back real soon! But I read the situation in a whole other way. I felt that no-one liked the record, and I knew that the “God” word was part of the trouble, so I headed off to the drawing board.

This is about as close as I can get to what turns out to be a slightly dreary and, for me, depressing truth.

Have you ever read any of those Thomas Hardy novels? They are full of sad coincidences, and misunderstandings, and missed opportunities that stretch and sometimes exasperate the reader’s patience. Well, this stupid saga is like a Hardy novel, without the milkmaids, and set in Newcastle rather than Dorset.

GD: How painful was it for you when the album wasn’t released?

PM: How painful? Well, it meant that I couldn’t keep Neil on the payroll. That was the first consequence of not making an album in ’93. It changed the way I worked, I started to view the whole business of having a band as a worry, and a financial burden. And I do regret the effect that had for my fellow members of Prefab Sprout. I tried to do more things by myself, at home, rather than in expensive London studios. I worked more with machines, and so my conception of what I could reasonably achieve gradually shifted. I downsized, and weakened the band as a band. And seventeen years later I’m boring completely innocent strangers like yourself with the footnotes to a meeting that took place in ’93. That’s how painful.

GD: In one recent interview you said, “I’ve been on a trajectory away from the world for a long time.” You always seemed to have a fairly ambiguous relationship with the pop industry. Would you describe yourself as a recluse? Or are you just a recluse when it comes to the music industry?

PM: Phew, I apologize for saying that! Quickly, open a window. Only Buzz Aldrin should be allowed to say things like that. Do you know what the problem is? I’m tired. I think the ear business gave me a kicking. And when I was speaking to Craig McLean — I remember using those awful words in his presence — I couldn’t bring myself to say “Craig, I got tired.” It would have looked so pathetic in print. (But having seen “trajectory” in print, I’ve changed my mind!) Reclusive? I’m just conserving my energies. I’m recluse and fancy free.

GD: Why did you pull away from the music industry? I realize you’ve had serious health concerns, but I’ve seen some comments in interviews where you say your focus has been on the “the most pure thing,” your music. Do you see the industry side of things as something that corrupts music?

PM: Life is short. I write a lot of music. I have a choice — go around promoting old music, or recording new music. Promote the old and there is potentially a bigger audience for your next record (as well as financial gain) but, time spent talking about the old music is time you can’t get back. And there is much to record. Because life is short…and I write a lot of music, and so it goes on etc., etc. You see the dilemma? That’s why I pulled away from the music business. I don’t see myself as pure, or the business as particularly corrupt. (Not many nuns in the Playboy mansion, eh?) We’re all just trying to get by.

What I meant by saying that I focus on the “the most pure thing” is that I didn’t have the stamina, or the attitude to be a travelling salesman of song. Some wonderful songwriters manage to do it. I admire them. But I couldn’t do it and continue to write. So I might be poor, but I’ve stayed true to a decent calling. All I want is to write better songs, so I stay at home trying to do that. That’s all I meant.

GD: Obviously, you’ve been incredibly productive over the years. It’s just that we haven’t heard a lot of the music you’ve made. You’ve mentioned the fact that there are many more boxes of music residing at your place. What do you think of the fact that there are many fans out there will now salivate and obsess over what those boxes contain?

PM: I would hate to disappoint any of those lovely, salivating, people.

GD: Will you now consider releasing other older albums?

PM: I hope to.

GD: In a recent interview you described your Prefab Sprout career as “never being synchronized to your thought processes.” You were always moving onto new things, even as you were recording and promoting your albums. How busy are you with new music now?

PM: I’m arranging an album as we speak. It is a portrait of the modern world. (Just get a load of that last sentence. Delusions of grandeur…still, I carefully avoided using the word “trajectory”.)

GD: Although the album was made without other musicians, and relies on electronics, in no way does it sound like an electronic album of the late ’80s or early ’90s. Can you give some insight on how the music doesn’t seem to fall into that time frame? It seems relatively timeless.

PM: Thank you for the compliment. If it’s timelessness you are after then I’d say you have to be careful with the topical references. Stick with old, old references. Romeo and Juliet — old-fashioned, but sort of timeless. The bible is OK, too. It’s funny, but Ancient is somehow less prone to aging than, say, last year’s new craze or gadget.

Sound is slightly more problematical. Sounds do date — but again, like lyrical references, you are probably better off with the classic rather than last year’s gimmicky sound. (80s gated reverb, anyone? Or an 80s snare drum sound?)

I tend to have a sound world in mind when I’m recording, or arranging, but it’s limited by the instruments/machines I own. You see, I’m interested in modern sounds, and I wish I had them at my fingertips, but I don’t actually own any machines that make them. No Pro Tools, No Mac. None of the stuff that everyone else uses. My eyes aren’t great, so I don’t like over-lit computer screens. The learning curve with new gear is also tedious, and unfortunately I’m an impatient man.

But…I try to view my limitations as a source of strength. I like to imagine that I’ve survived a plane crash on a small island. I go for a walk and discover a small recording studio. It’s nothing too fancy — but it has enough equipment to make a record. I tell myself how grateful I’d be to find something like that under those circumstances.

The records I make now will be made under those conditions. The hearing problem is my plane crash; I can’t stand in front of a real drum kit, or a bass speaker. But I can work with machines at low volumes. I’m on that desert island so I remind myself that the limitations of the studio are irrelevant. I try to be delighted by them. I think of people like Lee “Scratch” Perry, who made fantastically atmospheric recordings in a small studio, as did the teams at Motown Records. And I remember that Sun Ra and Robert Johnson got by with even less.

Music is only partly about sound. It’s also about ideas, and communication. And if you aren’t set on imitating sounds and songs that are “contemporary,” you might even be in with a chance of doing something timeless.

GD: Nick Hornby’s new novel, “Juliet, Naked”, is about a reclusive musician who releases a collection of some of his older material. I thought of you while I was reading it. Have you read the novel?

PM: Yes, I’ve read it. But Tucker Crowe is now a man with few secrets, which chips away at the mystery, don’t you think?

GD: Can we change the world with music?

PM: Wouldn’t it be nice?

2 thoughts

  1. Paddy did a number of interviews where he says he writes and records new songs all the time, but can’t get around to releasing them. What is going to happen to them? Are any of them full recordings, or are there hundreds of demos (and decades’ worth) of Paddy and an acoustic guitar?

    I’m thinking of two artists we lost last year: David Bowie and Prince. Bowie’s releases have been very purposeful, with the last songs he recorded included on the Lazarus soundtrack and later as an individual EP. Prince, on the other hand, apparently had a vault of unreleased recordings and no will (or definite plan of what to do with these recordings). The expanded Purple Rain coming soon is welcome (and had been considered and delayed numerous times while he was alive).

    Artists don’t “owe” us anything, for sure. I just wonder what Paddy wants to ultimately see happen with all his unreleased creations. Has he ever addressed that?

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