With thanks to TR for the translation. The original German article is here, behind a paywall, but it’s only 1 Euro and you don’t even need to pay that straight away.
“Prefab Sprout?”, the cab driver asks, puzzled, his cab rattling through Durham, this historically significant little piece of picture book England. He obviously doesn’t recall the pop-historically significant “Steve McQueen” album, which led the English Guardian to rank Paddy McAloon, the heart and brains behind Prefab Sprout, alongside Brian Wilson and Michael Jackson, those visionaries and dreamers sparkling with a divine light, in whom eccentricity and madness finds its method.
The drive from the station to the city centre leads past Durham Castle, home of the third-oldest elite university in England. Bond actor Roger Moore and also Paddy McAloon were both instructed in the fine arts here. For ten years, Paddy McAloon, transcendent songwriter, was feared lost. The 56 year old, who in official photographs likes to play the psychedelically dressed eccentric, is holding court in the conservatory foyer of a hotel in his idyllic home town for an interview about his reanimated band project Prefab Sprout and the new album “Crimson Red,”. Polite and personable, as evidenced by his repeated questions as to whether we feel comfortable in this environment.
Q: Paddy McAloon, did you ever ask yourself whether the songs on “Revolver” by the Beatles sound black and white because of the sleeve design?
A: Would “Sergeant Pepper” have been perceived differently if it had been packaged without raging colours? Maybe the visual perception of a record sleeve decides how we feel about the music that’s inside the sleeve. I like that idea.
Q: Does your album “Crimson/Red” follow this idea?
A: I struggled with myself for a long time for a fitting title. “Crimson/Red” is meant to ensure that the album isn’t perceived as boring or sedate. After all it’s been written by a 56-year old, who’s constantly being confronted with his age.
Q: Are you being a little coquettish right now regarding your vivid imagination? Allegedly you’ve written albums with imaginary duets for Michael Jackson and Barbara Streisand.
A: In the past ten years I’ve mostly kept myself busy entertaining myself. Well, entertaining is not the right word. I thought up music that satisfied me. It wasn’t about making albums. I served my own pleasure.
Q: That’s why some people think you’re an eccentric hermit .
A: Ah, the hermit topic! There’s something to it, in a certain way. If you don’t play live and rarely put out albums, it’s a handy label.
Q: Is it altogether unfounded?
A: One my daughter’s teachers sometimes asks her what her daddy is working on at the moment, and she consistently answers: “I don’t know, what he’s doing. My dad is totally boring.” I’m not made for practicality, because ideas don’t allow themselves to be translated in measurable values unless they are executed immediately. What happens in my head only rarely finds its way into a recording device.
Q: Is that a matter of laziness?
A: No, the plethora of ideas simply won’t subordinate to the vector of time.
Q: Maybe PS shouldn’t have become a one-man-band.
A: I never wanted to dissolved the band, my health forced me to do it. I couldn’t support a band with which I’m not able to play live or in the studio. My tinnitus made both impossible. Sounds above a very low level are painful to me.
Q: Is the revenue from the PS back catalogue copious enough for you to afford the life of a frugal songwriter?
A: Sometimes the money isn’t enough. The album is released among other reasons because I owed it to someone who paid me an advance.
Q: Still your new album sounds as always, blissfully free of the unavoidable.
A: Well, I don’t sit down at my desk and write a new album just because I have to deliver one. Before I started working on “Crimson/Red”, I spent two years writing and arranging a new album. But it would have taken forever to finish it. That’s why I dug out songs from my archives, songs I deemed good, and re-adjusted them.
Q: With this mode of working, isn’t there a danger of damaging your reputation as a high priest of the song-writing art?
A: Forced self-satisfaction has no value in songwriting. If I believed what people write and say about me, I’d be permanently feeling bad and incapable of continuing to create music. When I’m writing a song I forget everything I’ve ever written, I recreate the teenager with the guitar.
Q: Good cue. Feature writers/the arts pages are are shedding proverbial tears because they see you as one of the last great song-writers, but your guitar work has hardly ever been noticed. Is your guitarist’s pride sometimes seeking recognition?
A: My father had a garage where my brother and I sometimes helped out. A recurring customer was a psychologist. He saw my brother and I play guitar and invited us to record at his place. He had a fancy tape machine. So my brother Martin and I marched up to his house, sat down, and after a few bars I found the prospect of making the first really fine sounding recordings quite uninteresting. I packed up my guitar and left. 30 years later, maybe five years ago, this psychologist suddenly showed up at my doorstep. He came in, saw the room where I write songs every day, and said: “I knew back then that one day you’d be an eccentric.” I asked him why he thought so, and he replied: “Even back then you weren’t interested in forcing your work onto the world.” I believe he’s right, and it’s the same with my assumed pride as a guitar player. I have no interest in that pride.
Q: Although your songs also come alive through the brilliantly unusual guitar-chords.
A: Those are rooted in strange thoughts in my head, thoughts I cultivated when I wrote my first songs. At that time I thought it was better to not play C-major chords on the guitar, because I’d heard those on so many records. That’s what I thought, seriously. On the one hand that was totally crazy, on the other hand this way unusually shaped chords found their way into my guitar work, chords which had an impulsive effect on my songwriting.
Q: Aren’t your special chord sequences mostly about what you’re not playing?
A: I like the idea. What matters is often what is not being addressed directly. Especially as a guitar player, you should refrain from stamping the vocabulary of your strings with controversy.
Q: In your string vocabulary, you make no secret of your romantic view of the guitar.
A: We weren’t even ten years old when my brother and I got a cheap Spanish guitar. Back then I fell in love with that guitar, and the urge to write songs resulted from that love. I learned that the songs I loved were based on certain guitar chords, and that knowledge gave me a wholly unexpected access to music. I guess I’ve always remained a wonderstruck guitarist who has never lost his respect for the instrument and its importance for the music.
Q: Does your voice sound so boyishly unspent because you’re always learning the amazement at the mystery of music anew?
A: There could be a bit of truth in that. Some find my voice kitschy, others believe they can hear a certain purity in it. I know that my view of the world is darker and more cynical than the tonality of my voice.
Q: Someone who’s previous album was called “Let’s Change the World With Music!” is really a purveyor of cynical thought?
A: Did you notice that the title track is missing? It deals with exactly this ambivalence. Realism was never a boon to my idea of music. Obviously, the idea of wanting to change the world with music is naïve. But let’s at least try!
Q: Is this your driving force, the discrepancy/antagonism between art as escapism and realism your driving force?
A: What else would I write about? You don’t put your show business memories into songs. I always return to the same subject. There’s the fascination for music and the high regard for the art of song-writing. I like domesticated, normal human interaction, the authenticity of it. Maybe as a fixed reference point, from which we can realize that many things are inexplicable.
A: Absolutely. Whether you’re a declared atheist, a devout religious person or something in between, there’s no way to explain why music gives meaning to our existence. You cannot explain succinctly, neither with Darwin nor with God, how music can be a language which defies words.
Q: Maybe science can help.
A: We find meaning where we want to find meaning. That’s science. We want to understand the reason why we’re here. Getting to the fundamental base is arduous, because we have to peel the onion layer by layer. Music helps us to understand the core of our existence without demanding great effort.
Q: Does this knowledge turn one into an exceedingly polite lyricist?
A: I don’t want to insult my listeners’ intelligence with lyrics. I don’t have anything against humour, but I don’t like to write lyrics that are simply stupid. I always look for a great image or a good title, which serve as an inspiration for my lyrics. Words have to complement the music, every syllable has to sit right and meet the music’s message exactly. The first verse should open you up, and the last verse must never make you feel like the lyrics clobbered you over the head.
Q: Is this your songwriting formula?
A: No, it’s my theory. If I have a formula, it’s this: Arrogance helps you fill the empty page. That’s what the song “Jewel Thief” is about.
Q: In “The Songs of Danny Galway” American composer Jimmy Webb influences your songwriting. Are you singing about childhood memories?
A: When I was 11 years old, I heard “Wichita Lineman.” I was instantly captivated by the pain and the longing in the music. Jimmy Webb understood how to embed melancholy inside the grandeur of America, of which his music speaks.
Q: Does that go together well, musical productivity and being an enthusiastic music fan?
A: Of course. When I’ve finished my days work as a composer, most often I listen to Miles Davis or something from Sun Ra. If I’m working on a lyric, I often go for some Chic afterwards. I have a very different problem with music today. Music still plays the central part in my life, but I lost all interest in digging deep into the matter of hip current music.
Q: Are you unhappy about that?
A: Maybe the internet is to blame. It used to be an effort to search for the DNA of Sinatra or Jimmy Webb. Today everything is instantly accessible and therefore it’s become a bit worthless. I’m unhappy that maybe it’s not all worthless, but that it’s just that my fascination is waning.
Q: As Dylan, put it “There’s something happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
A: Ah! It was fun to have written a short biography of Dylan with the song “Mysterious.” At home I have two shelves full of books about Dylan. Looking at those, I thought the world doesn’t need another 500 pages about Dylan. But I’d like to try my hand at four verses about him, although I had to finish the song after I’d had to endure another eye operation. The work was strenuous, but it had to be done. Dylan is the epitomy of poetical intensity.
Q: Where you content with yourself when you’d finished “Crimson/Red”?
A: I was relieved to have created something under difficult circumstances. When the album was finished, I wanted to be locked in a darkened room for six months. As a matter of fact, the first thing I did was sleep.