In April, PREFAB SPROUT release their first album of new material since 1990’s masterpiece “JORDAN : THE COMEBACK”. Entitled “ANDROMEDA HEIGHTS”, it features 12 new songs, and is unquestionably beautiful. Over and above the merits of each individual track, there hangs a pervading aura of magic as the album conspires to reconcile two opposing moods – the ultra modern and the eerily nostalgic.
This is unnerving because the album’s modernity owes little to contemporary styles or attitudes, and the nostalgia is eerie because it’s directed at the future; the title track refers to a home that has yet to be built, and is a hymn to emotions it will one day evoke. Similarly “AVENUE OF THE STARS” reflects the glow of a love not yet experienced, but imminent. And even when the past is addressed-in “ELECTRIC GUITARS”, a song about the Beatles, it manages to capture something of the eternal appeal of pop music, and the unacknowledged wish of anyone who has ever joined a band, that they too (like John Lennon) be “quoted out of context”.
Harps, harmonicas, guitars, celestes, saxophones, etc. merge in the kind of ghostly orchestra that the latest music software and digital editors allow. And at the heart of this record is a commitment to using tools in a way that is unique; the technology that is most commonly associated with dance records, and the downgrading of melody in deference to rhythm, is here pressed into creating a gorgeous melodic collage. On tracks such as “ANNE MARIE”, “STEAL YOUR THUNDER” and, perhaps the most swoonsome of all, “SWANS”, instruments real and imaginary blend to create intricate yet never fussy backdrops for the Sprouts’ lyrical preoccupations.
Jazz luminaries TOMMY SMITH and MARTIN TAYLOR rub shoulders (if you know what I mean) with the Virtual Orchestra the Sprouts create in their own studio, called – what else? – ANDROMEDA HEIGHTS.
So, an unquestionably beautiful record, but one that is also unquestionably late. Why has it taken seven years to follow up “JORDAN: THE COMEBACK”?. To find the answer to this and other questions I spoke to songwriter Paddy McAloon, who – along with singer Wendy Smith and bassist Martin McAloon – is the heart of PREFAB SPROUT.
RG: What the hell have you been doing for seven years?
PM: Well (chuckles) writing more music than I’ll live to record.
RG: But surely – if you’ve written so much music why don’t you make records more often?
PM: There is no simple answer to that. It’s partly because of a whole series of events – interruptions, side tracks – and in the end, having to build a studio to work in. But it’s also to do with my song writing methods.
RG: What do you mean?
PM: Well, it’s not that I’m incapable of writing songs that stand on their own, but I find it exciting to write a bunch of songs on one theme.
RG: Such as?
RG: I don’t really see the problem. Why if you’ve written a Christmas album don’t you record and release it?
PM: For several reasons. First of all it takes a long time to write such an album, then it has to be arranged to my satisfaction, then I have to be sure that it is right for that particular moment.
RG: You mean you can only release a Christmas album at one point in the year?
PM: Yes, but what I mean is will it be the kind of record that SONY want from PREFAB SPROUT? I have to consider that.
RG: Don’t you consider that before embarking on a project?
PM: Yes, but I try not to let the cart dictate to the pony, so to speak.
RG: How can you make a living if you don’t record those songs you presumably spend a lot of time on?
PM: I interrupt myself all the time and start new projects. Some of these see the light of day before others.
RG: Can you give me an example?
PM: Jimmy Nail asked me to write some songs for his CROCODILE SHOES series. I was worried that what I wrote might be unsuitable for him, so I decided that whatever I gave him would have to have a life outside of his requirements. So most of the songs that he covered- “COWBOY DREAMS”, “LOVE WILL FIND SOMEONE FOR YOU” “BLUE ROSES” – will hopefully form the basis of a future PREFAB SPROUT album.
RG: So in effect you’ll end up covering your own hits?
PM: Could be!
RG: Weren’t your record company frustrated to see you giving songs away ?
PM: That’s a question for them.
RG: But Jimmy Nail went on to sell over a million copies of CROCODILE SHOES, wouldn’t you like to have… (interrupts the question)
PM: I was grateful to be asked. At the time -I think it was February ’94- I had been working on a history of the world “EARTH: THE STORY SO FAR”, and was tired with the process of arranging it. I always prefer writing to any other activity connected with music-including interviews (Laughs) and as my history of the world is very different from the style Jimmy wanted, I was happy to take a break from it.
RG: So you abandoned a PREFAB SPROUT record to do it?
RG: Wasn’t that an odd thing to do?
RG: Weren’t you at all worried that you’d jeopardise your own career? Weren’t Martin and Wendy or Kitchenware Records, Sony?
PM: Look, since the release of “JORDAN”, I’ve come to terms with certain facts. These are facts that record companies – of all people – understand. And they understood them way back when Edison was making his first wax disk: MONEY RULES!!!!!
RG: But that’s my point-you could have been making your own record, with all your own material on it instead of contributing a few to someone else’s!
PM: Yes, but as the writer of “EARTH: THE STORY SO FAR” I’m in the unique position of seeing that to make what will be an ambitious record – perhaps over an hour long-there are certain battles that have to be fought and won.
RG: What are you on about?
PM:(Laughs)…..Records cost money- if you want to make them the way I like to. You have to justify the expense every inch of the way, and your albums have to earn enough to cover that expenditure. So I took a long cool look at “EARTH : THE STORY SO FAR” and decided that I wasn’t ready to face the arguments that will undoubtedly surround it when we try to make it.
RG: What kind of arguments?
PM: Every kind! From the “Who do you think is interested in this stuff?” to the “Why does it have to be so long? “In fact-I so exhausted myself just thinking about arguments I hadn’t yet had that it was a relief to write for Jimmy Nail.
RG: Are you serious?
PM: Absolutely. Look since 1990 I’ve written what I think of as my best music. You can hear some of it on “ANDROMEDA HEIGHTS”. But I have also – in detailed demo form- an album called “LET’S CHANGE THE WORLD WITH MUSIC”. It was written as the follow up to “JORDAN”. Some of it has even been covered – Two of the songs an Australian artist called WENDY MATTHEWS recorded.
RG: Why didn’t you record them?
PM: Because it was felt in certain quarters that perhaps we should try something different.
RG: What do you mean?
PM: Well, without wishing to make it sound like a grand conspiracy theory, it was suggested-and I should say here that I was party to the decision – that maybe we make a simpler record then “JORDAN”. So instead of making an album with nineteen tracks (which “JORDAN” was) I decided to expand one of the songs on “LET’S CHANGE THE WORLD WITH MUSIC” into a one track album.
RG: And did you?
PM: I tried.
RG: And couldn’t?
PM: I did it. But the one track consists of about….20 to 30 individual songs.
RG: So let me get this straight. You prepared an album “LET’S CHANGE THE WORLD WITH MUSIC”.
RG: Then took one of the songs from it until it became another album?
RG: Then you got tired of arranging it (McAloon interrupts)
PM: Tired and weary of knowing that what I was working on was beautiful but still a long way from completion, and looking beyond that I anticipated the trouble I would have in getting it made the way I wanted. So….along came Jimmy Nail with an offer I couldn’t refuse. When I said “money rules” I wasn’t being cynical. There is no guarantee that any record will sell large numbers. But it occurred to me that I was knocking myself out writing music that I might not get to record properly. So I started to see the way I work in a different light.
RG: What kind of a light?
PM: A real practical light!
RG: Practical? Could you elaborate?
PM: By “Practical” I mean that I started to look at what I was doing from a hostile point of view; from the perspective of an imaginary hard-nosed Sony lawyer.
PM: By playing Devil’s advocate you can pin-point the kind of objections you might face when you come up with an idea for a record that doesn’t fit into existing formats.
RG: And what have you learned from looking down on your own dreams?
PM: That as long as you can find a way to finance them you have a good chance of making them real. And as you own the means of production, then you leave less room for actual hard nosed lawyers to mess with your plans.
Q; You sound almost bitter.
PM: Far from it. I would recommend thinking like this to anyone who wants to make records. It could save them a lot of disillusionment. Bitterness is thinking that the record company is a Big Bad Wolf; it’s not. It just sees a clearing in the woods and instinctively feels the urge to shit in it! (laughs).
RG: I’m beginning to see why it takes you seven years to make a record.
PM: I’m trying to make you see that I have a long term plan. Certain kinds of record can finance others. And if you build your own studio you can drastically reduce your recording costs. You can even make albums “on the sly”!
RG: Is that what you’ve been doing?
PM: No, but we’re working towards it.
RG: So where does “ANDROMEDA HEIGHTS” fit in to this epic saga?
PM: It doesn’t – not yet. I finished work on songs for Jimmy, and was asked if I had something for CHER.
RG: What did you do for CHER?
PM: I wrote a song called “THE GUNMAN”.
RG: Continuing your policy of writing songs that will one day make a PREFAB SPROUT album?
PM: You’re finally catching on. “COWBOY DREAMS” for Jimmy Nail, “THE GUNMAN” for Cher. It will be the Wild West as seen from Newcastle.
RG: I hope you aren’t winding me up.
PM: I wouldn’t do that, after seven years we could do with some good press.
RG: Of course you did have a “Best of” out in 1992.
PM: Yes, but they don’t really convince anyone that you are a vital creative force.
RG: So- when did you find time to write and record “ANDROMEDA HEIGHTS”?
PM: Boy, you’ve changed your tune!
PM: It was all “Oooh….seven years-what on earth has taken you so long?” ten minutes ago!
RG: Touche‘……..Why do you feel the need to write-as you call them “project’s? Whats wrong with writing however many songs in a year and then recording the best of them?
PM: There’s nothing wrong with that. But just as most songwriters would agree that having a piece of paper with a title on it is a good starting point for writing a new song because your mind is kept focused on what you’re trying to express, for me, having an album title, or theme, is even more liberating. It means that you can hop from one album to another.
RG: Do you mind if we hop to “ANDROMEDA HEIGHTS”?
PM: I thought you’d never ask.
RG: Is there a theme here?
PM: Not really – other than the fact that the word “Star” appears in most of the lyrics, and all of the songs are love songs of one kind or another.
RG: How did you come to write the title track?
PM: It’s a pathetically inadequate answer, but I stumbled on it. I had the title for a while, and in the summer of 95′ the music and lyrics came pretty much together.
RG: Is that the usual pattern, words and music together?
PM: Often I will have a melody and spend ages trying to find words that fit.
RG: It might be the best song you’ve written.
PM: Thank you. I think it might.
RG: It paints a very domestic scene against a cosmic backdrop.
PM: Yes. It’s funny, because that’s exactly how we lead our lives even if for 99% of the time we don’t notice.
RG: The characters in the song haven’t yet built this place they’re talking about, and that gives a real poignance to their story.
PM: It does. Who wouldn’t like the home that they describe?
RG: Are you interested in science fiction?
PM: Not particularly. The real thing seems fantastic enough to me.
RG: It’s just that you keep coming back to it……”WEIGHTLESS” for example.
PM: It’s space as a metaphor. You can find in it whatever you wish- I mean, you could choose to focus on it as a cold, infinite place if you wish. And I suppose in “LIFE’S A MIRACLE” I do…. (sings part of the lyric “There are no more stars like this one in the sky”) But “WEIGHTLESS” is meant to be much more fun than that. And I think the music rises to capture that sense of being lost in pure emotional state. In fact I’ve a confession to make- the song was originally entitled “FIRST LOVE” (sings “First love, ain’t it a wild sensation”)- but I figured I was too long in the tooth to get away with it.
RG: Does that bother you? Being too old to sing a love song?
PM: Well, I think past a certain point it is difficult to sing a certain kind of love song. It stretches credibility if you’re singing a song of wide-eyed wonder. And it would sound fake.
RG: This raises the subject of how you fit in to the pop world. Times have changed since you last had a record out.
PM: Is that a question?(smirks)
RG: I think you know what I mean. In the 60’s the Beatles had gone from “LOVE ME DO” to “LET IT BE” in the time it has taken for you to get from “JORDAN” to “ANDROMEDA HEIGHTS”.
PM: But they were unique. And to compare other bands to them is foolish. Also, it was a convention that you released material frequently, because your bubble might burst at any moment. But no record company wants an album a year now. Go and ask the Artist Who Formerly Sold A Lot.
RG: Still, where do you fit in?
PM: How can I answer that question? Where do you fit in?
RG: But don’t you listen to other records on the radio, or see younger faces on the cover of magazines and have thoughts about the way things change?
PM: What you really want to ask, but are too polite, is “Are you still relevant?”. And it’s a crappy kind of question in the face of what you have called a beautiful record.
RG: I didn’t ask it- You did!!!
PM: Well then-let me ask you , where does a PREFAB SPROUT record fit in?
RG: I think you represent a new phenomenon.
PM: Which is?
RG: Well, You’re clearly making modern pop records, but you don’t really acknowledge the current climate. You don’t pay lip service to dance music – which is usually the engine room of pop music. On the other hand you seem alone in being able to develop melody beyond the stunted phases that pass for tunes. Your sense of structure is different too. Each song obeys its own rules. But there is also a clear connection with older music-“A PRISONER OF THE PAST” could have been written for the WALKER BROTHERS or PHIL SPECTOR.
PM: Go on, I’m enjoying this.
RG: Your lyrics are funny and sad at the same time. Sometimes they’re daft and moving at the same time.
PM: Are you thinking of any song in particular?
RG: “WEIGHTLESS” is a good example.
PM: Oh…”love put me in space, way above the trees, listen N.A.S.A. can you get my heart back please”.
RG: Yes, that’s the one.
PM: Well, it’s often the music that allows you to achieve that effect. But what is it that makes you think this is a new phenomenon? I’d like to know so that I can tell other people about it!!!!
RG: It’s new because you are taking elements that may be mainstream but you don’t seem to care about the mainstream at all!!! You obviously belong in pop because it sounds like pop music- there are guitars, verse, chorus, catchy bits, love songs- all the usual stuff; but the way pop music generally works is that each generation has to rediscover this stuff itself and because people doing it are usually in their 20’s they have energy and passion, but it’s stuck with an adolescent viewpoint. You’ve taken the idea of pop music and started doing all sorts of different things with it.
PM: Would you like to write some liner notes for us? (laughs)
RG: “LIFE’S A MIRACLE” is an example of what I’m talking about.
PM: I’ve always felt that pop music is capable of expressing sentiments that aren’t adolescent. And there’s nothing new in that. “WHAT’S GOING ON” by MARVIN GAYE is revered perhaps for that very reason.
RG: O.K.- I’m doing too much talking. You refer to PREFAB SPROUT records in terms of your own contribution and plans. Isn’t it a band?
PM: I am guilty, your honour.
RG: Of what?
PM: Of being uninterested in “bands”. What’s important is the piece of music you’re trying to record.
RG: But how do Martin and Wendy feel about that?
PM: I don’t think either of them are disappointed that we haven’t lined up an eighteen month tour.
RG: But what do they do when you’re spending forever on hypothetical albums?
PM: They lead grown up lives, doing jobs etc.
RG: Don’t you think being in a band is a grown up job?
PM: It’s precarious.
RG: Isn’t it lucrative to tour? You are pretty well known.
PM: Playing live is a …..strange one.
PM: It takes you face to face with your audience and it takes you far away from it; the travelling, the sound-checks, the repetition, the ego gratification quickly make you forget that the reason you’re out there in the first place is because people like your records.
RG: But people are watching you because they like your records! You sound so puritanical sometimes.
PM: Have you ever been on tour?
RG: No, but I wouldn’t mind the opportunity. And I don’t think your audience wants to hear how tough it is for you out there.
PM: It’s not that it’s tough. It just has nothing to do with making new records or writing new songs. And to me at least the choices are clear. Go out on the road, be a human jukebox, or use the time to plan new records….Look, I would love to have seen Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys in 1965: “CALIFORNIA GIRLS” and “PLEASE LET ME WONDER” are fantastic records. But I’m glad Brian stayed at home to make “PET SOUNDS”. I hope I’m not being too puritanical for you.
RG: Thomas Dolby usually produces PREFAB SPROUT records, but this one you have produced yourself.
PM: Yes. I asked Thomas to produce it but he lives in San Francisco and is busy trying to establish his own company there. Sprout records are rarely made quickly, so I can understand his reluctance to get involved. Also, he couldn’t understand why “LET’S CHANGE THE WORLD WITH MUSIC” was abandoned. He really wanted us to make it. Still, he was very encouraging about “ANDROMEDA HEIGHTS” and in fact persuaded me to produce it myself.
RG: But you seem to have been in good hands with Calum Malcolm engineering and mixing.
PM: Yes, he’s a man of vast experience. I leaned very heavily on him during the making of the album, and in the building of the studio.
RG: Why did you choose him?
PM: I just had a gut feeling that he’d be the man for the job. He had built and ran his own studio in Scotland, and I admired his work with THE BLUE NILE. I thought he might be able to give me some advice on studio construction-the pitfalls etc., which he did. On top of that I wantedsomeone who had made a lot of different kinds of records, and wouldn’t be overly concerned with fashion.
RG: Fashion? Is that part of it?
PM: Yes, I wanted someone who would help us reach for something timeless. You can’t do that if you are a slave to this months sounds or technology. In fact we spent quite a bit of time chasing next months technology!
RG: Did he introduce you to Tommy Smith (saxophonist and Flautist) and Martin Taylor (Jazz Guitarist)?
PM: He did. It was important that we make music as colourful as possible in fact there are probably more purely instrumental passages on this record than any we’ve made so far-and they are exciting players.
RG: You credit the “ANDROMEDA HEIGHTS ORCHESTRA” – what is that all about?
PM: Having loosened the concept of “the band” I wanted to find a term that might do justice to every players contribution-apart from Wendy, Martin and myself. I’m thinking specifically of guitarist David Brewis and percussionist Paul Smith.
RG: You used to have a drummer.
PM: Neil Conti. He’s a fantastic drummer.
RG: Why isn’t he on the record?
PM: Because we don’t really exist as a gigging band, and I can’t afford to employ someone between records. It’s as simple as that.
RG: In the film “HELP”, THE BEATLES live in the same house-created by knocking down the walls of several houses.
PM: Yes, with four separate doors.
RG: But it’s not really like that in real life, is it?
RG: Maybe OASIS are having a go at it.
PM: (laughs) Yep. Good luck.
RG: I have to ask you…. Do you think they’re like the BEATLES?
PM: I think you can live in Stratford-upon Avon, you know-buy a house there. You could even move into Ann Hathaway’s cottage (laughs) but…
RG: But it wouldn’t make you William Shakespeare?
PM: You said it.
RG: Thank you, Mr McAloon.