Prefab Sprout are actually the smokescreen behind which Paddy McAloon, jack of all trades, and voice and brains of the group hides himself. Born thirty years ago, he grew up in County Durham, a Catholic area of northern England. At the beginning of the seventies he began to entertain the idea of forming a group with a strange name. He was not to succeed until 1984, when he recorded the LP “Swoon” under the nickname of Prefab Sprout. The following year the band released “Steve McQueen”, an album that when released in Spain introduced us to a delicate and lovely music. With “From Langiey Park to Memphis” (1988) many of our hopes were realised. And the band will surely soon enjoy a well-deserved popular success.
We arranged the interview in the swimming pool of a hotel in Madrid. Despite the cool temperature, the group (Wendy Smith, Neil Conti and McAloon Martin’s brother Paddy) are making best use of the timid rays of the autumn sun. Meanwhile, Paddy McAloon, friendly, talkative and very enthusiastic, speaks to the press. It’s good to talk directly to the founder of Prefab Sprout, far away from the phoney corporate world.
The first questions revolve around Paddy’s new projects, including such varied things as a Christmas album, a musical and a normal album. He has a true passion for recording studios…
Why do not you play live?
The reason is simple. I want to make a lot of records, do many things for different audiences. I’m too busy to get into the monotonous cycle of record-promotion-tour-record-tour-promotion. It’s very tiring and I don’t care for it.
What will the Christmas Album be like?
I still haven’t recorded it, and there may be changes. It’ll be less “produced”, with less arrangement, it will be simpler. The stories are about Christ born in a stable, a king that nobody recognizes. The songs try to question the idea that everyone has of Christ. It’s emotional. I want to make an album about the modern Christmas.
You liked the version of “The Little Drummer Boy” that Bing Crosby and David Bowie made?
Yeah, I love that song and I wouldn’t mind getting a similar feeling. But I’ll be a little different: more than just being about Christmas, my songs have to do with religion.
Are you Catholic?
Yes. I went to a seminary. I think I’m a believer. We all have a spiritual dimension and it’s important to get in touch with it. When I was practicing it’s probably true to say I was someone without much faith but who would like everything to be true. I’m full of doubts, but the fact it’s there is good for me. I know I’m not a good Catholic: I do everything that a Catholic shouldn’t do, I don’t exactly follow the doctrines of the Church …
Being a believer is hard; It is so personal that nobody knows exactly how others take things. You have many doubts and different ideas about how to be good in the sight of God. God is probably something stranger than people think … if God exists.
How do you take the self flagellation part of Catholicism?
I don’t believe in the pessimistic parts and I don’t agree about “suffering now to be happy later.” It may be a very irreligious point of view because it is assumed that the work that God requires is good, and it’s a somewhat arrogant line of reasoning… The truth is that I am a very strange Catholic.
Are you hedonistic?
No, I’m not a pleasure seeker. I’m self-indulgent. Sometimes I have the feeling the story of Christ in Israel is true. It is such an unusual story that it’s probably the truth.
My number one pleasure is music. You can pull things from nothing, and the songs seem to come from nowhere. The hard work of creating something. A great pleasure. I also like brandy, beer, reading, smoking, cinema… I’ve never ever taken drugs, but I know that happens. Drugs give you energy, even cocaine. I’d be very unhappy if I was dependent on having to sniff something. Drugs are not a liberating experience. They are boxes, they tuck people into little worlds. Some people say that drugs extends your horizons. Maybe, but I don’t understand the need. My imagination is wild, my horizons are too wide… I wish they were closer!
They say your fantasy developed while you worked at a filling station. Do you use your imagination to escape certain realities?
Reality is a very dubious idea. The modern view of reality is the behaviour you maintain in your private life. I think reality is somewhat broader… Putting petrol in cars is almost a cliché. Many people have done that. Bruce Springsteen did it for years. It wasn’t particularly wonderful, but it didn’t bother me. I took the opportunity to write songs, to read… Imagination is better than pumping gas. Who’d choose to do that if they didn’t have to?
Do find it difficult to get new ideas for your songs?
It worries me. I fear the day when I wake up and have nothing to say, when I have written my best ideas and have nothing left. I haven’t reached that point, but I think about it a lot.
Most songwriters only acknowledge inspiration outside music: books, news… when it’s obvious that the inspiration usually comes from other music. Where do you stand on this issue?
I’m aware that there are things in my songs that come from what I liked in other records. I’m not referring to specific melodies or chords, but something more intangible. What interests me is the feeling. I identify with the sensitivity of other people and transmit in my songs. There’s a lot of truth in what you say. In music, your style and your taste are formed by what you’ve heard, and in the face of that there’s not much new you can bring.
For example, when I wrote “The Venus of the Soup Kitchen” on the latest album, I had in mind the idea of making a modern rock record to speak honestly of very specific matters; creating something about the feeling you have when you know you’re not doing what people expect of you in your work. Have you ever felt that way? When you say, ‘God !, even if I end up in the street, I can’t do anything but what I believe. I might end up penniless but I don’t want to do it.”
That’s just honesty.
It’s just an honest idea; I want to pick something that has not been done before in rock… and mix it with a Walt Disney cartoon. Two ideas that no-one would try to put together. Prefab Sprout are supposed to write serious songs and Walt Disney’s okay for Michael Jackson, not for us. But I combine the two ideas with a production that sounds like film music (he sings “The Venus of the Soup Kitchen”…). It is almost a song from a musical, with a big sound; but the idea is small. It could have been done with just a guitar If as Suzanne Vega, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan… I could have done that and someone would have said, “Here’s an artist, a real singer.” The basic feeling is just as honest. Some blends are made intuitively but also consciously. The results are often a tremendous cocktail between the conscious and the unconscious.
Have you fulfilled the dreams of your childhood?
No I had big dreams. Perhaps being a footballer or being in a group. My real dream was to write songs that I liked myself and that others enjoyed. I spent lots of time writing music that didn’t attract me, or rather I was trying to write songs but I couldn’t do it. Somehow my dream has come true. I compose songs I like and there are people who like what I do; it doesn’t really matter whether they are thousands or millions. Michael Jackson sold 40 million of “Thriller,” Is there any song on that record as good as the Beatles? If he was asked he would probably say he can write better songs. Same with me. Have I written a body of work as good as good as Paul McCartney’s? I don’t think so.
Would I be mistaken if I said you think your childhood was very important?
You’re not wrong. Actually it was decisive. With childhood comes a perspective, the first thing we have, which shapes our way of seeing things. Childhood is the filter through which the world looks. I’ve never forgotten the first feelings I had listening to some records. The ability of a child’s imagination is amazing. Childhood marks us forever.
Someone so attached to the imagination as you are, how can you be happy in a country which practically invented empiricism?
Is it an English invention? I didn’t know, but certainly fits the English way. I don’t know what to say. It’s a good question I’ve never asked myself. In fact you question things because that’s how the highly pragmatic British temperament is achieved. I have a lot of Welsh or Irish in me because I believe in something more. I am practical, but not a mystic who goes around believing all the weird things people say. I am firmly rooted in the world; and I still believe in God, I believe that there is something more. The world is so much stranger than we think.
How do you square your transcendental ideas and the difficult of some of your lyrics with appearing on the covers of teen magazines?
On the one hand, we’re a pop group and we appear in magazines like any other pop group. On the other, we are unusual. And… this is typical of the musicians we love… we like the fact that people don’t understand us. I’m a musician and I like to think we’re not understood. Some of our songs are so clear that you only need the title to get the meaning. In others we’re not so forthcoming.
Billy Bragg said in “NME”: “I like Prefab Sprout, they’re very clever; I don’t understand what they mean by ‘Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque’”. What do you think?
In that song (“The King of Rock’n’Roll”) I wanted to tell how strange it is to be in a rock band when you get older, how pathetic it is to live the dreams of your youth; but I didn’t explain that clearly. I wanted to tell the story from the mind of the person who is living it. There are many ways of writing that can be misinterpreted, but the bottom line is we want to hear from the protaganists.
Rhythm is consuming everything and you’re still clinging to melody. Do not you feel a little outdated?
I’m a lover of melody. It shows. Perhaps in future albums I’ll show what I’ve learned from hip-hop and cut-and-paste, where the sounds and style become very fragmented. I have ambitions in that direction, but the melody is and has always been in my heart. It may seem old-fashioned. I believe, however, that it’s totally up-to-date.
You like hip-hop?
I don’t. Only the idea, the hip-hop albums are very boring. Probably people see it the same as I so, but no one dares admit it. Drum machines sound to me like a bit like Beethoven, I don’t like them. It’s rigid music, too geometric. We are more melodic than rhythmic, we do music more to listen to than for dancing.
Perhaps you are clinging to dance? Yes, yes. We are not Pet Shop Boys.
Prefab Sprout music is much sexier. Because, in general, disco isn’t sexy