This wonderful interview was one of the clutch of promotional activities done around the release of “Crimson/Red”. Originally it had seemed that Paddy was his normal slightly reticent self and there were explanations that the interviews would be few and far between. But in fact there was a bit of an explosion as the year came to an end, and the interviews became increasingly wide ranging and varied as Paddy apparently warmed to the task. Most were published in English, but one absolutely essential one only appeared in Swedish, on the Obladoo blog. Fortunately Swedish is relatively easy to translate automatically and I’ve taken the results of that and tidied them up. It’s a genuinely fascinating piece, particularly as Paddy explains his interest in Prog and in particularly Gabriel era Genesis, which I must admit I’d long suspected and rather hoped for. Anders has kindly given permission for the translation to be posted here.
Paddy McAloon is one of my favourite songwriters. So you can imagine how happy I was when my first phone interview with him morphed from the promised half-hour interview into a 1 hour 40 minutes long conversation, and a very pleasant one at that. The first part was previously published in the magazine NollTvå, but second half hasn’t been made available elsewhere. Please enjoy!
Snippets of Prefab Sprout often evoke a particular sense of well-being. A warm flood of childhood memories, feelings of happiness, loss, longing and hope wash over the listener. And all the while, McAloon’s voice whispers private little observations and reflections on life. McAloon, who is now the only member of Prefab Sprout, writes exquisite pop compositions that more closely resemble the work of masters such as Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb than today’s often simplistic pop music. He lives in Durham, close to Newcastle, tinkering with his songs while the rest of the family is at school or at work, or is sleeping. The new album “Crimson/Red” was recorded by himself, with some help from sound engineer Callum Malcolm.
Interest in the new album “Crimson/Red ” seems to be huge?
Yes. I ‘m used to doing my stuff in the background. But just this once I have received a lot of publicity in terms of the number of interviews I’ve been asked to do, which is unusual. I don’t really know why it has become so .
I think it has to do with people having had time to discover the great songs you’ve written over the years.
Haha! How could I even comment on something like that without being vain! But it’s true, many artists and songwriters do come to the attention of new generations. The Internet has done quite a lot to keep Prefab Sprout’s name alive, for example in discussions about which artists and songwriters are overrated and underrated. Things like that.
Writing hits often means adaptation.
Yes, writing the right kind of song and fitting the radio format. My problem, from day one, was that radio stations have “formats”. For those doing radio programs, it is practical. But as a songwriter, you are expected to do remixes for different styles and regions. Sure, I understand that there is a need for dance mixes, but it’s still not right for my music.
Have you gone through various phases as a songwriter ?
Yes. Around 2005, I remember that I thought “why so many chord progressions and so much musical content? Why not write straighter, with more storytelling?” The song ‘Danny Galway’, which is about Jimmy Webb, was one of those songs that came to me then. Another was ‘Devil Came a Calling’. And the following year I had my hearing disaster, when I could hardly hear any sound at all. I found myself suddenly in a very dark place in life. So the idea of the album died then.
First, you nearly went blind and then you got serious problems with hearing. How did you deal with your health problems?
The hearing problems came out of the blue. It really felt like that. One day you are OK and the next day it’s noise in your head. I had a cold and something took hold of my body. I felt really sorry for myself, because there was nowhere to escape. If you undergo knee surgery , which I have done, you have to stop for a while. But it doesn’t destroy anything. It was uncomfortable not being able to do things, but mentally I was OK. But when it was all happening in my head, it was scary. It took a while but it’s better now. But lower level noise does return occasionally.
And your eyesight?
I had two eye operations last year. Before that it was bad. Friends thought I was arrogant because I didn’t say “hello” to them when out in the town, but I simply couldn’t see people’s faces. I ended up only attempting to see things in the distance. You believe that what you see is correct, that everything looks the same. I thought it was because I was old and needed more light. I went to London and couldn’t see the names of the stores’ signs and wondered how I had managed in Durham and Newcastle. But I knew where everything was there. The eye operations must have succeeded to some extent, because I realize I see more now.
To me, you are principally a songwriter.
Yes, in general I feel that writing is more interesting than performing songs live. It creates a world. But I couldn’t write when I toured, all my concentration was spent on things like remembering the songs I was performing. Sometimes I wish I wrote simpler songs, haha. For artists on tour the entire goal is to get the songs over – and why not, if you don’t have a burning desire to constantly be creative, or maybe it’s even a kind of creativity to be the best human jukebox you can be. The creative driving force for me has been perpetual – even from the first , clumsy attempts. It was there when I was a child. Before I could even play, I knew that what I wanted to do was to write songs. I thought “I have to dedicate myself to this !”
How did it start?
Memories of the 1960s! Standing in the school playground and talking about The Beatles. The primal excitement I felt when I heard them the first few times. I recall rainy days in my mum’s kitchen, and mentally link them to ‘She Loves You’. The sense of excitement I felt continued when I got the guitar and someone showed me how to make chords. It opened a whole world . I remember how I felt the song ‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glen Campbell, written by Jimmy Webb, was magical. But it could also be simpler, straighter rock like T- Rex. I’ve tried to write a song like ‘Ride a White Swan’ by T-Rex , but the result is never the same.
Marc Bolan had clear roots in ’50s rock .
Yes. When I was a teenager I used to read the English music magazine NME and critics used to say, “Bolan ‘s just plain rock and roll”, but the secret is in the sound. There is always a generation that says “that has been done before,” but for the young listener it doesn’t matter . Because the magic is there.
When I was growing up, I listened to ELO, while people who had grown up with the Beatles could not take them seriously.
Exactly! If you were old you “knew” it. But whenever you are born, you can look back in time. And suddenly you listen to Miles Davis. What is the Beatles anyway? It’s primitive, but unique. One thing I’ve discovered is that music does not have to be developed. Many people are so obsessed with discovering the next NEW thing that it takes the focus away from quality.
I can often feel like the album that came *after* the obvious classic with a band or artist is better than the classic . It may not be as groundbreaking , but there has been a refinement.
Can you give an example?
I prefer “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd …
… Although ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is counted as the ‘classic’ record. Yes, Pink Floyd is a good example.
Van Morrison is another .
Yes, he often seems to be trying to write the same song, but sometimes he gets beyond that .
How do you view this ?
Sometimes I get to revisit a theme. Or I forget a past thing I have done and do it again! They can be songs that may not even have been released. ’The Old Magician’ is from 1997. But I have another song: ’Evening Town’, which is perhaps just as good and on a similar theme. But I don’t know if it adds anything new. Sometimes I worry that I can’t surprise myself anymore. It’s rewarding when you surprise yourself. I like that. But ultimately, I have probably a limited “toolbox”. You think you can change form and become better . But now probably my best hope is to maintain the level.
You feel like a melody based songwriter.
Yes. People sometimes suggest that I should start with the rhythm. Make a dance record. But there is something inside that which simply doesn’t interest me. But simplicity does interest me. Much of the new record is simple, as ‘The Old Magican’ and ‘Danny Galway’, and I like it. I like it unadorned. But I also like complexity, and contemporary Western dance music often contents itself with doing very little in terms of chord progression and melodies.
Why have you made the new album largely on your own?
Partly it’s a financial issue . With a smaller budget, you simply can’t pay people’s salaries. In the 80s, when we were on CBS, which later became Sony Music, we could pay then from advances from the music publisher. But with my hearing problems, I can’t be near the sound too much. I can’t process information from a live band. But I like the part where I work alone and discover what I think I want to do. With the musicians present, you must have a clear idea in advance, otherwise it becomes boring waiting for the musicians and a stress factor for songwriter and producer. When I work alone, I can jump between the different roles . In a band situation, you have to be social and democratic. And it’s fine if someone is playing well , but I don’t know if I have the patience to listen until everything falls into place.
But before you were a band and a producer with Thomas Dolby .
I’ve a clear memory of Thomas , and how he was sitting in the studio with his Fairlight sampler and it is obvious that he has a picture in his head of where he was going. But the musicians sat in chairs and were bored while he was playing with “the technical gizmo.” They were all waiting for Thomas. It must have been tough. Sometimes people asked what he was doing and you could tell he wanted to say “shut up until I’m done and have something to show off”. Today, I have the privilege to be able to work without having people around me. And looking back, I don’t think always that Thomas had patience with us.
I once read in an interview that you just feel really happy when writing songs. If I remember correctly ?
Ha ha! It’s very possible that I felt that way. But family related things have now taken that place in my life. To write something still gives me a “buzz” and a sense of purpose. This morning, before you called, I was working on a title and a chord progression. That is how my brain works. I need to work on something. Earlier in September I had a passage, a strange little lyric that was odd and I thought “I like this , but I don’t know why.” Soon I had more parts and when I went to bed and was about to fall asleep, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, even though I knew I should be sleeping. You can’t get it out of your head and that in turn helps me to complete it. Sometimes it is a constant thing. Sometimes I write something, but may not match the lyric and I leave the song behind. Then it may pop up anyway, because I’m subconsciously trying to get it together. That’s how I get my kicks. It’s my own private enjoyment.
Steely Dan were such workaholics that they were trying to find a sound engineer who wanted to work on Christmas.
I love those stories! Whether I’m a workaholic, others can decide. I might not look for a sound engineer who wants to work during the big Christian holidays, but yes, when I was younger I didn’t understand the point of taking a break because it happened to be Saturday or Sunday. Especially because others still were out shopping on the weekend and I wanted to go out on Monday, when it is quieter. Starting a family changed all that. I also learned to work shorter hours.
I sometimes suffer from extremely clear childhood memories, feelings of happiness or a sense of loss when I listen to your songs. Do you understand what I mean?
Yes. I also get it. Both from my own music, and from that of others. But I get it more often when I write than when I listen. Just the feeling of loss and longing, many people pick that up when they talk about my music. Something passes by and must be caught. Maybe it’s something inherent in the melodies, purely musical qualities. But the lyrics also contribute. It may be nostalgia for something that has disappeared. Sometimes I feel this the most when I listen to Debussy. But why do I feel this from this French guy, who was only with us until the early 1900s? Why am I moved so deeply by what he says with his music?
Will you be affected as much by other art forms ?
I don’t have as strong a visual experience. Sure, I like the visual arts, such as the paintings of Jackson Pollock. And I read, of course. French symbolism, poets. Some authors. But I dont watch opera. Operas with bad music aren’t remembered. “Puccini knew how to write a cheap little shocker”. The music goes a long way. I talked to my daughter about ABBA, how their early songs include attempts to write correct English. Take “Dancing Queen” and the phrase “feel the beat of the tambourine”! But the magic is in the melody, arrangements and how everything is interwoven. It is not just a song, it’s a record – a recording. The same applies to another of my favorites with ABBA, “The Name of the Game”.
Which songwriters out there, do you feel kinship with ?
I don’t follow things. I’m not paying attention. Sometimes I hear lines of text that I like, but most of what I hear is pop. I can be amused by it for a while if it is well made, but there isn’t much that interests me . But sometimes I laugh out loud about “throwaway pop”. For example, when I heard these young girls – I think they’re Swedish – Icona Pop. That about driving the car into a bridge. I heard it in a car. It’s a bit like T- Rex: silly, fun and easy. But not flat, it has a certain swagger. I think my parents laughed at T-Rex for the same reason. I can also be entertained by a Katy Perry song , but I have no strong feelings about what I hear. I listen more to Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
Let’s talk more about the new album . Is it true that ” The Old Magician” in part about yourself ?
It is based on a metaphor about getting older and losing their potency. I wrote it when I was 40, before it felt believable that it would be about me. I wanted to paint the picture of a person who could do magical things, write a book or create a work of art .
It could also be a description of today’s politicians . They use old worn out words and promises, which once meant something, but no one listens anymore
I’ve never thought about it from that perspective, but I like that it broadens the idea of what the song could be about. Most of us will undoubtedly become jaded by politicians. In a way, it is a theme that affects more of us. A songwriter who loses their powers is a more obscure and narrow reference for most people. I’m often amazed by how some lines of of a lyric makes people make different associations than I’ve thought of. You get a similar thing looking at pictures and you sometimes do not know why. If I’ve written the music and have a title I’m already a long way down the road.
“Billy” feels like one of the most uninhibited and happy songs you ‘ve ever written.
The best songs come without you noticing it yourself. But what I like is that the people in the song – both are me by the way – are interested in the other’s secret. One voice tells me to relax and show what I know. The song expresses my willingness to let go of my self-consciousness and just write things that I feel. But there have been days when I ‘ve wondered what the trumpet is doing there. Should I be singing about just a trumpet ? Then the other voice says, “Oh, fuck it . Go where the song leads you.” I have a whole box of songs that use the trumpet as a metaphor for something else. It’s one of a habitual layer of images that I use. Sometimes I wonder if it’s laziness, or if I have something important to say!
Maybe you should do a concept album about trumpets ?
I actually had plans for it! The album was to be called ”Ten Silver trumpets”. Some people think it’s called ”Enter The Trumpets”. I have many strange album ideas in the drawer.
The album that you released under your own name, I Trawl The Megahertz 2003, was different from Prefab Sprout
In terms of form. But in its essence , it’s just one long song that goes on for 22 minutes. There’s very little variation. A few fancy chords . A simple song in a big way. The sound world is partly akin to Miles Davis, and Gavin Bryars ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’. In its original version, that is a marvellous concept: a homeless drunk man who quotes a small part of a hymn which Bryars then build structures around. I was blown away by the work and the idea of doing a lot with a little. At that point I was having a musical crisis and also struggling with my eyesight. I got the idea of the excerpts from the radio alongside that. A woman talking.
The music was inspired by classical music?
No, the roots were in the ’70s progressive rock and its ideals. The fact that we had orchestral instruments, it was easy to be misled into thinking that it is a salute to classical music, but I saw it as more as a nod to Pink Floyd or Genesis. For it is a substantial piece, but I can’t write orchestral music. I’ve listened to Pink Floyd. And you can hear that they were architecture students! And they basically build the slow elegy for Syd Barrett, Shine On You Crazy Diamond on an extended C minor. That means you’re not approaching the audience in an extroverted way, but it attracts, or pulls in, the listener into what you yourself are doing in a way that is in my eyes very 70s. Allowing their personal idiosyncrasies to drive the music.
You therefore have roots in progressive rock ?
Absolutely. People don’t often mention they like the genre. It’s embarrasses them because it’s bombastic and isn’t considered a sign of good taste. But when I was 14 it was Genesis I was most interested in. The albums ’Nursery Cryme’, ’Foxtrot’ and ’Selling England by the Pound’. I also loved the German band Faust and Tangerine Dream. The music was adventurous. Sometimes it was a disaster. but Genesis offered an interesting exploration, both in Peter Gabriel’s voice and arrangements, and I admire that. Plus, they had so very many influences that it was unlike anything else. Partly classical and folk music, but Peter Gabriel loved Stax – soul and the purely rhythmic.
You’ve written songs about quite a few things that are unusual for pop songs . What textual themes have you been most surprised to have used ?
Haha, I think I can’t say offhand. Come back when I ‘ve been thinking for three weeks! I’ll put it in my subconscious until further notice. However, there are things that I have written about before which no longer interest me. But if a few years ago had told me that I’d write a song about Jimmy Webb I don’t know if I’d have believed it. I don’t know how good I am at analyzing what I do. I will probably always wonder. Sometimes I feel stupid because I don’t understand everything that my songs include even when it seems to be quite obvious to others. You think you are doing something and then maybe you have done something completely different!
What about the old cliché ” songwriting as therapy” ?
I’ve always tried to avoid the word therapy in terms of myself, but it’s ultimately undeniable: writing music IS a kind of therapy. The day feels a little easier when you have written. Interviews help but not that much. However nice they are, they tend to come from somewhere else and talking about what has been done much earlier. Some artists may be able to put it in a special box, see it as a part of the business side of things. But for me, it becomes complicated with interviews because I always try to forget that I have been writing for a living. It’s easier to work if you do that.
Tell me about when you met the legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb !
Someone asked me if I wanted to be in an Irish TV program. It’s funny, because now I’d be too nervous to say yes. But the producer said, ‘if you are worried about your credibility, you should know that Jimmy Webb has agreed to participate in the program.’ That was enough for me. I didn’t even need to be in the same program – it would have been enough to be in the same room! Some believe by the way that I am Irish because of my last name, but that’s just the name . Jimmy had just been at his son’s graduation party and was a little, uh, ‘subdued’. Or maybe it was just jet lag, what do I know?
Something happened that got you out of balance as well?
We walked out on stage to perform his classic ‘The Highwayman’. Just then, he said, as though in passing, ‘ Paddy, I wrote a chorus for the song too.’ He said it then when we went out for the broadcast. ‘ What should I do now?’, I thought. I felt vulnerable. But Jimmy sees his songs as an ongoing process and doesn’t understand that it’s a bit late to add a chorus to a classic song that has already been etched in people’s minds. He’s a bit of a hippy. Something that he is disturbed by is the fact that his success was in the ‘middle of the road’ genre – by writing songs for others. And this in the midst of an era where it was considered very important to perform your own work, a singer-songwriter.
On his new album Jimmy collaborated with various singers and songwriters. Were you asked?
God, no. Nor do I believe that I’d have been an especially good partner.
Jimmy knows that now you ‘ve written a song about him?
No. But maybe I should send Danny Galway and say, “I thought of you.”
Did you send your song Ice Maiden to Agnetha Fältskog then? It ‘s all for her.
Haha, no. The song was included on the album ‘Jordan – The Comeback’, also an ambitious thing. It’s uneven , but there is much that is good there. With the new album we tried to use the old 40 minute format. We compressed it a little. ‘The Old Magician’ on the new album was a bit longer, to take an example, the instrumental part was twice as long, with a flute playing the melody. We were pretty brutal when we mixed the record. In my opinion CDs destroyed the album format. There’s often more music squeezed on just because there’s room. There were too many songs, basically. I mention no names, but there were some artists who squeezed in at least three songs too many.
Do you have other tricks, besides songwriting, to keep your notorious melancholy distance?
Haha! I try to write positive things. I don’t know if I have a convincing voice for party songs. Even songwriting is dictated to some extent by what you are physically capable of. There is a certain intimacy in my voice.
What would do you do otherwise if you had a different kind of voice?
If I could wish for one thing, I’d like it if it was more joyous. I try to write things that fit my voice, but there are things that don’t work. It is about finding words that feels genuine to me. It would be cool to do something like Louis Armstrong, where everyone plays at the same time and it is semi- crappily recorded in a small dance hall and it’s quite magical. But other times I want to achieve something more introspective, like a Bowie instrumental . But when I’m writing thoughts pop up: what should I repeat and what should I NOT repeat ? I often used to read things to put me in a mood that was suitable for writing.
But now we talked about avoiding melancholy.
Yes. A brisk walk usually do the trick. A glass of red makes me relax. And it can remind me of how small the problems of today will feel tomorrow. No, I do not drink too much. But I’ve had my moments. Some nights it was very funny. And I would rather sit in a pub with you and talk about YOUR 70’s favorites than sitting here on the phone and being interviewed by you.
Anders Lundquist is a Stockholm based freelance journalist, songwriter and bass player. His favourite bands include The Beatles, Genesis, Steely Dan, XTC and, of course, Prefab Sprout. For other interviews in English by Anders, please visit SingingBassist.com
Original Interview Copyright (C) Anders Lundquist, 2013, All Rights Reserved.