Musicians given to sweet, relaxed, frivolous melodies, in other words pop music, don’t find it easy to gain legitimacy. Ask Brian Wilson, or more recently, Crowded House! It took ten years for Prefab Sprout to be taken seriously and gain credibility. They’ve now succeeded. So much the better. When you think that Mc Aloon brothers were just about old enough to become punks, if the Gods hadn’t had the good taste to put “Pet Sounds” and “Blonde on Blonde” in their path at the right time! It’s a frightening thought. On the occasion of the release of the “best of” compilation, “A Life of Surprises”, a meeting with a very English (with cup of Darjeeling and spoonful of fudge) Paddy, the mastermind, in Paris.
When, where and how did you start Prefab Sprout?
– Well … It started in northern England with my brother when we were kids, it was a typical small town of the region, in County Durham. We always pretended to have a band, to play in a band, it was very important to us… Even though there were only the two of us most of the time. In fact we scoured the whole county for musicians (laughs). This continued for a number of years. Then, in 1982, we decided to finance our first single on our own label which we created for the purpose. This record allowed us to have a bit of press and publicity. Elvis Costello, two or three DJs, some journalists heard the disc and it snowballed …
This first 45 was already in a pop / rock vein?
– Very much so! This first record was called “Lions in my own garden” and was directly inspired by what we’d heard up to then. We were Beatles fans and then also T. Rex, the Beach Boys, David. Bowie as well … I composed my first songs at 11/12 years old, so my first record could only be a sort of homage to the music, everyone who had influenced me
So, did you learn music very young?
– Nothing serious before ten or eleven, when I learned my first guitar chords! But as soon as I mastered these few chords, I remember thinking: “All the people I love, The Beatles, T. Rex, Bowie, they write and play their own music. Obviously I’d no idea how I should go about writing things that came into my head, but I tried and I persevered, totally by trial and error. The first thing that I wrote, I did it with one of my friends, who played a little guitar, we had to sweat over it but we managed, after a time, to develop something reasonable. It was instinctive. In fact, I must say that as far as I can remember, I’ve always written, I don’t even remember my first lyric, except to say that it shouldn’t be generally known! (laughs)
You weren’t exposed to Punk or New Wave?
– No, not at all, I was a long way from everything that was happening. And I’ve always found it extremely hurtful and dishonest about this period that people such as musicians, journalists, etc pretend that nothing had existed musically before 1977 and they claim in the same breath they never owned records by some artists, all because it wasn’t “in”. I have a sense of loyalty I think, and a sense of debt. I don’t like to forget where we came from! In 1976, a year before Punk really exploded, I had just discovered “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys and “Blonde on Blonde” Bob Dylan, so why would I be impressed by punk? (laughs). However, what I found positive in the punk movement is energy; these passionate young guys playing in groups “live” without worrying about anything else …! That was the big idea! But I was always left perplexed on the merits of punk itself.
And the English folk scene?
– No. I wasn’t really touched by this. Obviously knew some bands like Fairport Convention but I must say I never took the time or had the taste, to listen to their records; although I respected them. and I’ve always respected Sandy Denny who was part of the band… I was more of a “pop fan”, a fan of Top 40 radio.
And where is the US in all this, you mentioned Dylan, the Beach Boys, other names?
– Neil Young is still brilliantly active! A pearl! Jimmy Webb. Brian Wilson, a lot of stuff produced by Phil Spector and then the big names, the songwriters of the sixties, style Burt Bacharach / Hal David, Carole King / Jerry Goffin. I wouldn’t say that they were conscious influences because I didn’t know their names but the songs they wrote influenced me, sure! They were giants, I love them!
Were you a fan of the melodic Californian country-rock?
– I was fond of some of the beautiful songs by the Eagles, I can’t deny that. But I’ve never been tempted to look deeper, for example The Flying Burrito Bros who preceded them! Or Linda Rondstadt! For me, someone like Jimmy Webb was more important. This guy was an influence on the Eagles themselves anyway (laughs)
To return to your career, was it your first single “Lions in my own garden” that allowed you to have contacts with Columbia? And was it easy to negotiate your deal?
– Yes, the single was necessary and a good hook but it wasn’t easy. In fact, we were politely turned down by all the “Majors”… And all the independent labels too. The problem was that we were never in a fashionable category… we weren’t punks, not neo-romantic, etc … I think the single as an object was a decisive factor, we hadn’t sent in a demo cassette as other groups did, but a record, and moreover released on our own label .. I believe in people’s minds we seemed proactive and organized artists. And ambitious. People who could be counted on and possibly invested in! Then, the next step that made people take us very seriously is when we negotiated our own publishing contract! At that point the ‘majors’ believed in us!
Did they understand your international potential immediately?
– Yes, definitely and that’s why they signed us! And, without false modesty, anyone who had heard the first single, saw that! Also Keith Armstrong, the boss of Kitchenware Records, when he heard “Lions in my own garden” immediately phoned and asked to become our manager. He managed to get money from our publisher to develop the group and we recorded our first LP very simply, without much money. Once the product was finished, the record companies’ resistance crumbled, not that it was a remarkable disk technically, but but they quickly saw the enormous potential of some good songs and understood the spirit in which the thing was done. It was enough to persuade them to produce, distribute and especially to promote Prefab Sprout.
From a creative perspective, how do you approach songwriting?
– It’s primarily a problem of inspiration. It comes from the pleasure I get from wordplay, not from what I see on television or day to day life. First and foremost I write songs because I love wriring songs, and that’s all there is to it! I like melodies with words that go well with them, it’s primarily an aesthetic pleasure. It all comes from that. You obviously need topics to write around. I don’t sit down and say to myself: “let’s get out the list of possible subjects and choose one from that”! No, I write a few words or phrases that sound good against a melody and a theme will appear soon afterwards. Almost magically
Do you work first on the lyrics or the melody?
– Usually I work out the melody first.. Just that. On a guitar or keyboard, depending on my mood or or what’s needed. Then I find a title, that’s very important to me, it helps me a lot. That creates the setting for the song, what subject it will be about. And only after that the lyrics.
Why the title “A Life of Surprises” for this anniversary compilation of your ten years of existence?
– I could explain it if I’d chosen it! In fact. Sony UK simply hate calling a compilation “Best Of”, they try to find a hook, which is commendable. In this case for Prefab Sprout, they used the title of a song “Life of Surprises” which, after all, even after ten years of existence, doesn’t sound too bad. But if I had known beforehand I’d have to explain the choice of this title, I’d have opposed it! (laughs)
And your favorite Prefab Sprout album, since we’re taking stock?
– I don’t really have any favorite album, rather specific moments from each album. On “Steve McQueen”, for example, I really like “When Love Breaks Down,” “Bonnie” and “Appetite”. On “Jordan the Comeback” I confess, uncritically, I like almost everything, it’s a sort of pet disk. (It’s always hard to have to make those choices between your work. Especially as it changes progressively over the years, “Steve McQueen” is now recognized as an important record from the Eighties and I am immensely proud of it, and obviously that affects the opinion I have of it. For all that I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite record.
What happened to “Protest songs”, which took a while to come out?
– It took a while because it wasn’t planned. We wanted to do it and release it by ourselves without any contractual straitjacket … It was just after “Steve McQueen” and we recorded “Protest Songs” quickly. We wanted to get it out and offer it to the fans as evidence of our work, our appetite and then surprise them a little too, by performing “gigs” just around this album … While we were in the “Steve McQueen Tour”!
– The record company talked us out of it. They’d just started the promotion of “Steve McQueen”, and it was beginning to get really popular. It would have been suicidal to finally put out “Protest songs” under those conditions, especially since the album was very basic, with a rough and ready sound that would totally confuse the fans of “Steve McQueen”, which was a highly produced disk. The record company therefore put “Protest songs” in a drawer and as we absolutely wanted to release it, Sony offered to put it out while we were making “Jordan”, nearly four years after we’d recorded it, as a sort of appetiser while wiating for the new album. Exactly the same as with the “Best of” coming out while we record our new album, another appetiser! (laughs).
Where do the two bonus tracks that appear on “A life of surprises” come from? Are these outtakes from previous albums?
– No, they’re new songs, recent as well. And they’re available as singles so we’re not forcing people who follow us to repurchase the songs they already know to have two new ones. It’s important they know that! (laughs) Also, I think these songs, “The Sound of Crying” and “If You Don’t Love Me” as singles are two good songs to convince people who’ve never heard of us to be interested in our music: one’s a “poppy” song, the other more serious: the whole of Prefab in two songs. Great, right? (laughs)
And the next official album that you mentioned earlier?
– It will be released early in the year 93, at least I hope so because I’d really like to tour next year. We’ll record it in the Autumn, in London.
Now that Prefab Sprout is a group recognized everywhere, particularly in Europe, and since Maastricht drives us to define ourselves, can we ask if today, you feel just as European as English?
– (Laughter) A typically French question! (laughs) Here on the continent, with lots of French around me, I feel totally European; on the plane to London, tonight, I will feel very English! (laughs) I’m a chameleon! (laughs)