Simplicity and sentiment are the key to the heart of PADDY McALOON’s songwriting with PREFAB SPROUT. And melody too. Pat Thomas meets the man who likes to sing rather than shout.
IF YOU’RE AN average music fan you’ll certainly have heard of, and may even own an album by, Prefab Sprout. Chances are it will be their highly acclaimed ‘Steve McQueen’. Chances are also that you may not have bought the two LPs which followed, ‘From Langley Park To Memphis‘ and ‘Protest Songs’, because you were still trying to ﬁgure out what half of the songs on ‘Steve McQueen’ were about.
Prefab Sprout are one of those bands which just about everybody knows is good, but not everybody knows exactly why. Except maybe singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon. He’s well aware of the mystique surrounding some of his lyrics and the attraction that has. But without apologising for past efforts, he also admits that with each successive album his songwriting has become more straightforward, “because I do want to reach people. I want people to know just how good Prefab Sprout are”.
Paddy McAloon is a strange mixture of supreme conﬁdence and unassuming modesty. Before the interview began we danced around a bottle of mineral water and a can of diet cola each insisting the other make the ﬁrst choice, each knowing that we both wanted the mineral water. “You have it,” he said, “no, it’s alright you have it,” I replied. “I don’t actually mind,” he said. “No honestly, I insist.” And so it went on like a French farce. That settled (he got the mineral water) we began to delve more leisurely into the mysterious world of Paddy McAloon’s songs. Those with a long memory will recall the band’s rather obtuse debut ‘Swoon’ and the way it dispensed with convention of any kind.
“I was young and I was reading a lot of James Joyce at the time. I still believe there were a couple of beautiful songs on that album — songs which if I did them now I’d do them a lot simpler. I didn’t know about middle eights and choruses. And I didn’t know that Joyce had a very good grounding in storytelling and that if he abandoned established structure it was for a very good reason and not just at random. Also we were playing live in lots of little clubs at the time and we could only do really simple things. So once in the studio it became a luxury to experiment.”
That cast the die for the image of Paddy McAloon as “clever clogs” — a label which he has never been too comfortable with.
“My brother Mickey always says ‘I hate it when people say you’re clever’ and I know what he means. I think clever is associated with things which are so way out of the mainstream, so inaccessible, that it can harm the band’s chances. As a result I constantly feel that I have to justify my songs in interviews. Explain myself. That can get to be a bit of a bore. Really there is no reason that someone who is listening to our music shouldn’t say ‘that’s as good as a Prince album’ or ‘that’s as good as a Madonna album’. We want to be listened to in that way.”
Of course being obscure hasn’t hindered Prince’s career one jot, neither has refusing to justify himself in the press. But Prince has all the big wheels of American business behind him, while Prefab Sprout are still, for the most part, four people from Newcastle who are just trying to make really good records.
“When we started out I suppose our goals were to write songs that didn’t sound like anyone else. I think everybody should sound like themselves. And it was a real blow, at the time, when it became apparent that nobody was handing out prizes for being original and not sounding like Adam & The Ants or ABC. I thought, why weren’t we being praised for it? But I‘ve given up on the experimental side of things because I’ve changed my ideas about communicating, getting my ideas across. I want to move people. I want people to know some of my tunes.”
While he detests the idea of some sort of “league table” of Prefab Sprout LPs, Paddy feels that their latest offering, ‘Jordan: The Comeback‘, is as good if not better than ‘Steve McQueen’.
“It takes a couple of listens — all our albums do I think. I love to write about characters, little portraits. Maybe it’s getting to be my ﬁngerprint now. Maybe it’s getting to be lazy writing, I don’t know. To me it’s more interesting than just writing a love song. It says more.
“Also I love the fact that people can like what you do and they don’t get half of it. At one point we were going to call this album something like ‘God And Elvis’ because those are the two themes which come up again and again. But overall, if there is a theme which holds it together it’s the idea of the comeback. Maybe I’m too young to be thinking like this, but I love the idea of someone like Elvis sitting in some big hotel in the Nevada desert waiting for a second chance. Saying ‘I never really did what I wanted to do and this is what I’d do if I had my time over’.”
There are no regrets however in the Sprouts camp. In fact things are so positive that they plan to tour the UK at the end of the year. A prospect which after ﬁve years off the road frightens and excites at the same time.
“Even as we speak I can feel myself getting nervous about it. I don’t really like touring — I don’t like the lifestyle. Also I have a real fear of forgetting the words to my songs. It’s as if I write them then forget them and go on to the next ones. I’d be hard pressed to remember the lyrics from past albums and even harder pressed to tell you what the songs were about, speciﬁcally.”
To fans in the public and the press alike Prefab Sprout songs are about rich musical textures, wry, heartfelt and occasionally unfathomable lyrics all tied up in a package which is sweet and sentimental without being slobbering. That might seem old fashioned in a musical climate where music is shouted rather than sung and rhythm has replaced melody but Paddy is unrepentant.
“I guess I’m tired of being shouted at by rap artists. After a while you don’t get past the tone of voice which is all swagger and laying down the law and whining. Our music is sentimental in that it expresses a sentiment. It’s compassionate. That’s the key. No matter who or what I’m writing about l hope I do it in a compassionate way.”