This is a really great and very long interview from the “Let’s Change the World With Music” period by Sylvain Fesson, a French journalist who runs the Parlhot website. You can get to the original interview in French here, and if you enjoy the content, do click on the link to give him a deserved page hit or two.
January 22nd 2010, 11am. Paris, 12th Arrondissment, in the basement of the offices of the magazine “Three Colours”….
“Nooooo!”, I hear suddenly at the end of a phone line, a voice with a mellifluous British accent. I felt like I’d landed in I don’t know what date in the past, somewhere in the fourth dimension, and established contact with the kind of gentleman who waxes his moustache. It quite took the wind out of my sails.
I have Paddy McAloon, the former leader of Prefab Sprout on the line. We are supposed to be discussing “Let’s Change The World With Music”, these dear Sprout’s new album, released five months previously somewhat as a surprise, and met with a certain indifference. Yes, I have this minor legend of 1980s and ’90s English pop, this rediscovered poet, on the line in 2010. And he seems very disposed to chat, like a cat stretching out the whole length of his nine lives, enjoying the welcome pause we’re affording him. Like he’s having a holiday… that’s it.
He’s at home, in Newcastle where he has lived “for a while” and has a home studio. He still wears that beard which adorns the press photographs from the period of the release, like some old cat. A beard which he tells me is “nearly twice as long today”, because the “photo was taken last May” and he hasn’t “trimmed it since”, but he should because “it’s starting to become ridiculous, even my hair is longer, I look like a madman! But anyway it’s winter, No? At least it keeps me warm (laughs)!” He was in the process of arranging some music but “Nooooo!” I’m not disturbing him. He’s always delighted to have “reasons to drag himself away from work”, most of all from doing the arrangements which is what he likes the least. I’m not very good at it,” he ventures “I prefer writing songs!”
Hello Paddy. So, tell me, how do you feel to have finally released this Prefab Sprout record from 1993?? Are you happy with the reaction from journalists and the public?
Yes, the reaction was great. I’m delighted people are still interested in me, because in some ways it’s all so old, really ancient history… But at the time it meant a lot to me. So yes, in general the reactions were good. Was it the same in France?
It seemed to me there wasn’t a lot of it, most came from the Internet, but what there was was very positive.
And did you like the record?
Yes, but I have to say that on the first listen I was caught off balance. Not least because it seemed bizarre to have a new Prefab Sprout album in 2009.
Yes, it’s really a pity that things happened like that. You never know in advance what way things are going to go. I wanted to do more and more records each year, but I’ve become more and more of a perfectionist, so that I don’t let anything slide, and then I’ve had these hearing problems, which meant I didn’t know if I would be able to work, so it was hard for me to carry on. When I made this record I had no idea it would take 17 years to put it out. In a way it’s a real tragedy.
What I find strange is because of the fact of being released in 2009 rather than ’93, the album doesn’t mean the same thing, have the same reach, the same resonance as what it should have had. Do you not think there is a certain logic in releasing it now rather than before?
Are you saying it induces a different sentiment because of the time shift?
Yes, as if that underlines the timelessness at the core of it…
It’s true. I really wish it hadn’t happened like that. But I must say that it’s interesting that things happened like they did. It’s interesting when something rests in suspension, it takes on another dimension. I quite like this feeling, but I’m certainly not the best placed person to talk about it, to measure this strangeness, I’m too close to it and since then I’ve written a lot of other things… But yes, it’s strange for me too.
Now that this album has finally been released to the public, did you think about it a lot, or were you completely liberated from it, you no longer think of it at all?
Most of the songs were written in 1991, others in 1992, and more still in the first week of 1993. In January 1993 I wrote “Ride” for example, the words of “God Watch Over You”, and other things I don’t remember any more. So all that is very old for me. But I like the spirit of it. I love the spirit of it even if I do different things today. I love the spirit of these songs. For me they’re some of my best songs.
That’s what you say in the piece which is featured at the end of the booklet with the album
Yes, the album would have been different with Thomas Dolby [producer of the best Prefab Sprout albums: Steve McQueen, 1985, From Langley Park to Memphis, 1988, and Jordan: the Comeback, 1990] and the other members of the group, it would have been a better finished record, better played. There would have been a lift in how it sounded by comparison to what I’d done. But I’ve always liked this home-made quality, even from my idols. If I listen to, I don’t know, a demo, something from the bottom of a drawer, I like the way it sounds. I think my record sounds better because Calum Malcolm, the sound engineer, has a few tricks. But it’s still a home made record.
You made the record in your home studio?
Yes, I recorded it on a very old tape deck with a tiny mixing desk. It was simply a cassette, a demo intended for the group and for Thomas, to show them what I wanted to make of the songs. Today when I look at all that I see it really like a finished product. It sounds like a real record.
But initially it was a base for the group to work on?
Yes, let me try to explain. Sometimes when you present a song it’s just guitar and voice and when people listen to it, the group, the producer or the record company, they say “Ah, OK, that’s what you want to do, just you and your guitar.” Sometimes yes, that’s OK, it’s enough, but sometimes you want a more textured sound, sophisticated. There, it’s what I wanted. So I delivered a sketch of this very rich sound, and I produced what we would have been able to make together.
So are you happy the record stayed in its demo state, or do you regret it didn’t benefit from bringing the group in?
Both. I’m in two minds about it. I’m going to explain it to you like this: often you’ll hear people say “Ah, the record never captures the spirit of the demo’s…” On that subject I can’t complain, the spirit of the demo’s has been respected. But there’s a regret on behalf of my brother and the rest of the group, because at the time they were expecting to make this record, and we should have made it together and we were never able to. That’s how things worked out. It’s best not to think about it too much. For a long time I’ve been very angry that we weren’t able to do it, so I deliberately stopped work on it to move on to other things. I never understood why Sony hadn’t told us at the start, ‘OK, let’s do this record’. I couldn’t accept it.
A little while ago I was saying to you that that hearing a new Prefab Sprout album in 2009 had a strange effect on me, and that wasn’t just because I wasn’t expecting such a comeback, it was also because the Prefab Sprout sound. I always found it disturbing, at the same time dated and timeless, naive and sophisticated. And when I went out on the web I found I wasn’t the only person who felt like that, your fans were saying the same thing. They were both disturbed and seduced by the fact your melodies are subtle and catchy but always enveloped in sounds that are a bit kitsch, florid. What do you think?
Kitsch? I don’t know. I think I evoke different things for my listeners, depending on their point of reference, their cultural baggage. I’ve loved rock music since I was young. I always loved things like led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Free, but when it was my turn to make records in a certain sense I evolved towards a different style, a sound where the roots weren’t in rock music. So I’m in two minds on this question. Sometimes I say to myself “Oh, if only we’d stayed like we were in 1977, that’s to say as a three piece, would we have made super exciting records?” I wanted everything to be a richer musical experience than a simple rock trio. I can understand that people find it a bit confusing, but I love the sound of the records we made with Prefab Sprout. Most of the music I like has this sort of gloss, something very beautiful, pretty. But sometimes my lyrics work in the opposite sense. I try to combine the two. This isn’t the case on this record, it’s a very particular sort of record, very idealistic and idealised. The words don’t say what I think, they translate more as what would for me be an ideal world.
I was talking about the different sense the album has in being released now and not 17 years before. And it’s strange, because in the leaflet with the CD you talk about Brian Wilson and Smile and the myth around that which had inspired you to compose “Let’s Change the World With Music”. As “Smile” was released nearly 30 years after it was recorded, there’s a certain logic that your record took time to be released.
That was why I was saying that the time lapse changes the sense of the record, because in that way it’s seemed to find it’s original meaning, its true message…
Yes, that’s true…
But maybe that was something you didn’t expect…
Oh, no, no, I see all the irony of it. For example, when I was younger, Brian Wilson was a great influence on me, a sort of hero, but what I couldn’t know was that other aspects of his life would come along and influence me more than his music. He wasn’t able to release records for several years, and I wasn’t paying attention to it but the same thing happened to me. He had problems with hearing in his right ear, and I couldn’t possibly imagine it, but that ended up also happening to me (laughs). The irony would be to say “God made me blind like Ray Charles so I could attain with the handicap the talent I wasn’t born with.’ Something like that. I know that it’s in very bad taste to say that, it shows a bad character, but there is some of that there. You never know what life has in store for you. You hope for a gift and you get a poisoned chalice (laughs)!
It’s a curse!
Have I been cursed? Have I been blessed? How would I know? I haven’t been able to make music for a few years, but now I can finally do it again, I’ve been lucky and I have to take advantage of that to do something I’m really proud of.
In what way have your problems with eyesight and hearing changed your relationship with music?
Well, for a long time I’ve not really been able to make music. I tried to work with my left ear, to do everything and conceive it on that side alone, but the right ear turned up relentlessly to wreck the image I’d created… But to tell the truth, my real problem wasn’t really to be able or not to make music, it was rather not being able to sleep. It was reallyhard. Today my right ear doesn’t distinguish all the frequencies, which makes things difficult for certain bass and guitar lines, but I’m able to work so it’s OK. What I can’t do at all is to play live. I can’t do that like I was able to before.
All the same I’ve never had the impression that Prefab Sprout were ever a group that liked playing live!
Yes, that’s true. For me the problem with playing live is that you have to learn and remember so many songs and give yourself 200% to the public so many days in a row… I find that difficult, because my thing is above all writing songs, to let them out, record them, and then after it’s a little like I forget them, I’m already somewhere else. For me it makes no sense to sit down and sing my old songs.
You’re not a juke box!
No, that’s certainly true. There are people who have a fantastic memory for their words, their songs. It’s clearly the case with Bob Dylan, he can remember every song he’s ever heard. It’s something very interesting, fascinating. I’m a long way from that.
Let’s return to “Let’s Change the World With Music”. You didn’t make it with the group, but why not work with Thomas Dolby, your usual producer?
Because the record you’ve heard is the original demo from 1993. A part from 2 or 3 arrangements, I’ve changed nothing. Calum Malcolm has just redone the mix. So there was no reason to call him in, otherwise we’d have spent a lot of money trying to recreate the sound I’d originally imagined. And that wasn’t the idea any more.
So the making of this record didn’t really spread over 17 years?
I’ve a really stupid question, but the answer genuinely intrigues me. I guess you’ve already answered it thousands of times, especially when you started out, but I’ve never heard the story. It’s about the name of your group, Prefab Sprout, why did you choose that name?
You don’t know the story? Well I’ve told several different stories about that…
Like the Joker on the subject of his smile, to impress and keep the mystery intact!
Yes, but the truth is just that I chose this name when I was adolescent and I thought it sounded good, because at the time all the groups I liked had strange names, so I said to myself that a pop group had to have a strange name, mysterious, and I stuck two bizarre words together.
For me this name has something fateful about it, because I find it illustrates perfectly the characteristic of your music, namely the gap I was talking about between the perfection, the brilliance of your melodic writing, the “sprout”, and the slightly jarring nature of your sound, “prefabricated”, synthetic.
Ah, maybe. But I had the name when I was 13-14 years old. God, if I’d known that I’d still be being asked this question when I was 53 years old I’d have chosen a less bizarre name (laughs).
To stay with titles, two more up to date questions then. Why did you choose to call this record “Let’s Change the World With Music” and why did you put it under the banner of Prefab Sprout when you made it on your own?
Oh, for two reaasons. First of all at the start of everything I’d written a song entitled “Let’s Change the World With Music”. In fact in the beginning I even had two songs called “Let’s Change the World With Music”, but when I was editing the album, when I was finally working on the track listing, I felt it was too long and I removed this song. The song was therefore gone but the title stayed. In itself the song was a little ironic, I was saying that it would be good if we could change the world with music but that would never happen. You were also asking why I presented it as a Prefab Sprout album. For a very simple reason, it was music we should have made together, it was written between “Jordan: the Comeback” and “Andromeda Heights” when the group still existed, it’s the missing link between these two records.
In the sleeve notes for the record you say you didn’t try to copy Brian Wilson’s “Smile”, but there is a real link between these two records: behind the symbolic use of nature (for Wilson) and music (for you), both talk about God, they form an ode to God.
Yes, there’s a sort of connection. I’m influenced by lots of different things, many many things, but during the period let’s say between 1977 and 1980 I thought a lot about the way Brian Wilson composed. So in the way they were written, the first Prefab Sprout songs, especially on Swoon, were close to Brian Wilson’s. I also used the method of joining together disparate melodic segments. In “Let’s Change the World With Music”, I used neither his style nor his way of writing. But you’re right, there is a link in the theme of the text. They both talk about spiritual things, because it’s a very powerful theme, positive. In fact not positive… Ah, I can’t find the right word…
Yes, it inspires because its a very strong theme. Many people will no doubt find that over-intellectual or conceptual, others probably won’t see the theme because they don’t pay attention to the words, but it’s the type of direction that liberates your creativity and gives a real identity to your record, that’s what I liked about it. It’s almost like making a gospel record, it’s the same fervour.
What also struck me in the choice of this theme is that you could see it as the expression of your own past life maybe sacrificed to make music. Your sacred pop life.
Well I think that music is one of the things which takes the most time in my life, yes, it’s true that in a way it’s a resume of my life. I’ve spent mad amounts of time in my room writing songs. In a sense this record is a sort of edifice to the glory of my passion.
You’re a sort of solder of pop!
A wounded soldier (laughs)! I have my war wounds.
Yes, or your stigmata! From Brian Wilson to Michael Jackson (“Behind the Veil”), Elvis (“Jordan: the Comeback”) to Hendrix (“Machine Gun Ibiza”), Bruce Springsteen (“Cars and Girls”) to the singer in Abba (“The Ice Maiden”), whether you name them or not you’ve written a lot of songs inspired by the great figures of pop. But as time has passed, you’ve yourself become a little bit of a pop myth. And for proof with this record you’ve finally written about your own passion. Were you aware of that?
It’s difficult for me to notice, but sometimes I realise when I read things about my music or people tell me what people are saying about it. I understand I’ve in some senses joined this sphere of mythic musicians in my own humble way. It’s very odd. It’s extremely bizarre because when you’re young, that world is strange to you, you’re not part of it.
And at the same time, when Prefab Sprout was making its best records, you weren’t in phase with the time and pop that young people really loved, you were on the margins.
Yes, it’s true, in that period I wasn’t happy with a lot of things I did. I’d have loved to have behaved differently, enjoyed more certain things that we did, but I think I was always a little bit too anxious at the idea I hadn’t recorded enough music to be otherwise. I spent a lot of my time worrying: “why do you spend your time writing? Why don’t you go out to get a breath of fresh air or share your music with other people?” It’s strange, very few people behave like I did. Most of them make music to be able to go out and play it to people. I’d have liked to have been more like that. I would have liked to have been able to do both. Most people manage it. But for a number of reasons I found that going out… Even before we made records right at the very beginning of Prefab Sprout, when we went out to play for an hour or two in a pub in the area where I live, I was thinking above all of all the time I could have been using to write. So I wasn’t ever carried away by the idea of doing concerts.
How many concerts have you performed?
You mean in total? Not more than a hundred definitely. Maybe 60-70. Honestly I wouldn’t really know how I could tell you.
Let’s return to the group’s sound. How did you use computers? Have you always recorded digitally?
In fact the only record we recorded in analogue was Swoon [released in March 1984], We had no computers, no MIDI. At the time there were people who used those, but we weren’t pioneers, it only started around ’83-4. Because up until then that was the way everyone worked. I’ve kept an old Atari from that period, I still use it today.
Yes! I have a Mac but I don’t like it. I can’t figure out how to use it as easily as I’d like.
So you make music on the Atari?
Yes. I think it’s the computer the dance crowd like to use.
And you have other instruments in your home studio? Other machines?
Yes, but on the whole the Atari is enough for me. In fact the problem today is that information technology has evolved in an all-in-one direction, so most of the programmes are software based, things made to work inside the computer, where I’ve always preferred to use external modules. In my studio I’ve got lots of machines like that which fill up the space like in a Sci Fi film.
I see. Earlier you were telling me you realise sometimes when you read or hear what people are saying about your music you realise you have a little bit of a mythic aura around you. Do you follow what the papers say about you and Prefab Sprout?
No. But for example recently I gave an interview to Mojo – to the journalist Mat Snow, someone I like a lot, a great guy – but when I read the article I realised he’d put too much emphasis on the dark side of the story!
We had a long conversation and I gave him all my theories about music, what songs do, how they do it, when I sit down to write, where I find the themes that inspire me. But I sensed that the desire to describe me as a reclusive hermit was too much for him, that’s what he wanted to get across. He wasn’t able to stop himself.
He wanted a tragic story!
Yes, and I gave him everything he wanted, I made all the bullets for him, I even gave him some of the new songs on a cassette. I said “there you are, this is what I’m doing, it’s part of my new project”, saying to myself he’d maybe like that, but I sense that that was in the direction he wanted, that I was showing myself to be someone too dark, and fixated on the past. It was my fault, I should have been more guarded.
This misunderstanding probably comes from the fact that most people think that the best is behind you, that Prefab Sprout don’t exist any more, you’re only an old relic free wheeling.
Yes, and I can’t do anything much about that. Ultimately the only thing I can do is to release a new album which makes everyone go “Wouah!”. That’s what I have to do. I understand why they think that. At the same time, as soon as you release a new album you’re sent right out into the middle of your previous work. Very few artists manage to overshadow the good things that made them known. But I can do it! (laughs)”.
It’s a hell of a challenge…
Yes, but I think I’m able to rise to it. Beyond what’s in the bottom of my drawers from 20 or 30 years ago I think I can still put out one or two good records.
Britney?” Paddy’s accent just gave me a start. For 30 minutes we’ve been tracing together the history of Prefab Sprout on the occasion of the release of “Let’s Change the World With Music” on September 7th 2009, and we just discussed the projects he has running, and there I was for two seconds lost in translation. No. it wasn’t a portrait of Britney (Spears) that had agitated this divine melodist, but that of (Great) Britain. “It’s about the world of the mobile phone, this world where celebrity and distraction which means people gorge on everything which prevents them from thinking about more serious or weight things”. That’s what Paddy is current working on, between other mythical projects.
“Listen, work has taken over my life. Little by little. It took my my mother, my wife, everyone I loved. It’s like a seed that took root in my head, which consumed my brain, took over my body, my limbs, which devoured my entire body. From the moment I get up in the morning it grabs me, pins me to my desk without letting me breath a single mouthful of fresh air; over lunch I silently chew over my sentences with my bread; then it comes with me when I go out, comes to dine off my plate, sleeps in the evening on my pillow. It is so pitiless that I can never put down the work I have in progress (…)”. That’s what Paddy makes me think about, by Zola, in this passage from “The Other Side of the Mirror”, which I read in the magazine “Fureur et Mystère #1”.
“And today, now that I should be able to relax,” the writer continues, “The habit is formed. I’ve closed the door to the world, thrown the key away… Nothing, nothing more than my work and myself, and it will eat me up, there will be nothing left, nothing! (…) It’s enough to say to oneself that you’ve dedicated your life to your work, that you don’t expect immediate justice, not even a serious examination, that you are working without any sort of hope, uniquely because the work beats in your skin and your heart, beyond your wishes, and many get to die with the consoling illusion that they will be loved one day…”. Ah yes, work, this “I can always feel the clock tick tocking away”. For half an hour I’ve taken him from it, and he’s taken me from mine. “Holidays, oh Holidays…”. So let’s continue this pause in the tick tock, this telephone break from art.
Look, Paddy, an album about Britney Spears might have been a good idea!
But in a sense that’s what I’m doing. Becaus Britney Spears is also linked to a popular phenomenon. All that surrounds us. And I’m just trying to capture it. I see this record as a polaroid photo of the world of today. That’s what I’m working on.
A record which would be a bit like the antithesis of the ideal world of “Let’s Change the World With Music.” But is Newcastle a good place to observer and capture the world as it is today?
No, but anyway this world comes to you wherever you are…
Because of the Internet?
No, I’m not interested in the internet. For me there are too many voices, it’s a hubbub where it’s difficult to filter out what is important, but with magazines, TV and films you can get the essence of what is going on.
At the moment you’re not reading literature then but popular magazines?
I try to read both (laughs)! You’ll see, when I release this record you’ll understand. You’ll say to yourself “Ahah, I see what he was trying to say.” I’m sure you’ll understand.
I hope so. You were talking about the bottom of your drawers. I heard years ago that you’d started an album about the story of Michael Jackson and/or Prince and/or Madonna. Which is it? Is it still active?
Yes, I’m still working on it. What I do is that I work in two ways. In the first period I accumulate songs for a specific project, I write them, and then I put them to one side. Because at the same time I’ll already have something on the computer and I’ll be trying to make a record from it. While I’m finishing a record I stock up songs or ideas for songs for another project which will be the subsequent album. The record I was telling you abut, the one on celebrity and England, the album about Britney as you mistakenly called it, is the one I’m in the process of finishing But the other older projects you’ve heard about are still active. They’re waiting. And when I’ve finished the album on celebrity I’ll open one of these files and put it on my computer and make a record from it. I don’t yet know which one I’ll opt for, it’ll depend how I feel at the moment I do it.
You still have a project for a record about Michael Jackson?
Yes, I’ve a lot of songs about Michael Jackson. But I didn”t want to release them after his death, I didn’t want to take part in the rush to cash in after his death. The album will be like a portrait of him, a documentary about his life, what he had been.
When did you start this project?
I wrote it in 1991, just before “Let’s Change the World With Music”. And I put it to one side. I think I’d change 2 or 3 things in it.
And Michael Jackson, do you still listen to his music?
Yes, all the more so because I have children who also love Michael Jackson
What ages are they?
They’re both less than 12 but they love “Bad”, “Thriller” and “Off the Wall”.
Can we talk about “Steve McQueen” [the second Prefab Sprout album, released in 1985]? I’ve heard it’s going to be re-released in France sometime around April, is that true?
I’ve no idea. Maybe they’re going to re-release the acoustic version. A few years ago I recorded some alternative versions of the “Steve McQueen” songs with my guitar in my home studio and Sony released it in the UK . It was a deluxe edition with two CDs, one being the original record remastered, and the other eight songs revisited in an acoustic version. They’re maybe going to release that also in France but I’m not sure [this would indeed turn out to be a false alarm]. They tell me nothing here, they never tell me anything (laughs)!
Many people think “Steve McQueen” is Prefab Sprout’s masterpiece. What’s your view of it?
Let’s say that know the album sounds good. It’s a great piece sonically. Thanks to Thomas Dolby. My main thought regarding it is that the first 5 or 6 songs are really good.
That’s what I think too. Anyway I think the album doesn’t really stand out much after the first five songs, which from the broadside of “Faron Young” to the cry of frustration of “Goodbye Lucille #1” form a sacred fivesome. For me, after that, the listener is worn out and the record more or less over, anyway the six following tracks are rather low profile.
Ah, you think that’s what happens?
Yes, at least that’s the effect it has on me.
That means that you put the first five tracks on repeatedly?
Yes, that’s what I tend to do.
Ahhahah! Thanks, I understand that. That’s very good. It’s good. As far as I’m concerned I like some of the songs that come after [and I will end up myself, after a few listens discovering the charm of the second half of the record, less rock, more intimate, notably via the tracks “Moving the River”, “Desire As” and “When the Angels]. Anyway I think it’s a record that sounds marvellous. It’s the record we’ve done which comes closest to a rock album.
Yes, and in a sense that’s not surprising. At that period, 84-85, there was a big return of an imagined fifties and therefore the beginnings of rock in anglo-saxon music. Whether that was in Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Coppola’s Rusty James or in your own “Steve McQueen”, we found these evocations of gangs, bands, bikes, fights, a lost golden age, looking back at things like “The Wild One”, “West Side Story…”
I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s what happened. I think that most of what I wrote followed my own fixations and fantasies, things which were neither very clear nor very organised. I was never able to analyse what worked in what we’d done. I didn’t have a recipe. And the more we went on, the more the group reflected my obsessions. I think that little by little therefore I distanced myself from a group sound. What I was doing became a little more orchestral. I’ve often wondered if I should have concentrated more on the group sound or rather on the more fantastical sonorities I had in my imagination. I don’t see “Steve McQueen” as the product of a place or a time. I was in my own world.
But given the title and the sleeve photo (the leather jacket, the dark glasses, the motorbike, the lover and the gang) you can’t deny that this album looks back to American culture of the 1950s, a synonym of rebellion and youth?
The photo with the bike was a reference to the actor Steve McQueen, same as the dark glasses. Yes, it’s true. But as regards the music I don’t see a link. You know how I came up with the album title don’t you?
It came from a dream. I had a dream before we made the record. I dreamed of a DJ who was saying “Here’s the new Prefab Sprout album, it’s called ‘Steve McQueen’.” It was a very vivid dream, nearly a vision. But apart from that I don’t see any link between the record and the actor.
What’s funny is that in this photo you look a little bit of a “bad boy”, a rock rogue, but you’ve never really done rock.
You’re right, but we wanted to dress like that, express this feeling… What I write is often smooth, glossy, sometimes I wallow a bit in it, but as I was telling you I also like things a bit rougher, savage, it wakes me up.
Let’s continue, if you don’t mind, to reveal the mysteries around the titles of some of your records. Why did you call the next record “Jordan: The Comeback”?
Once again that came from a dream, or nearly. I’d seen an article about Elvis Presley which was saying “and if Elvis Presley was still alive, what songs would he be singing? Would be be doing tracks written by people like Queen or George Michael?”. That made me think. I said to myself: “Imagine that Elvis Presley isn’t dead but that he’s hiding somewhere in the desert waiting for his return. Would you write songs for him?” That was the idea. There you are, as I said, many of my projects come from obsessions, from dreams.
Bits of sentences, words, images
Yes, it’s a bit like how David Lynch works
Yes, because he sits down, drinks a lot of coffee, eats a lot of doughnuts, full of sugar. He writes down his maddest ideas and afterwards he organises them, gives a form to them. When I write it’s a bit like that. When a strange idea comes to me I say to myself “why not?”, I follow it and it’s like that you end up without realising it with ten songs about Elvis Presley living in the desert. There’s not really any sense to it, it’s a way of working close to surrealist writing.
I recently read an old interview where you explained the words of the song “Jordan” was a long fictitious monologue by Elvis.
Yes, that’s it!
Reading that I recalled what the French writer Michel Houellebecq said in a recent interview. You know Michel Houellebecq?
Yes, of course
He said that he dreamed that Brad Pitt wrote a book about what it was like to be Brad Pitt, but that it was completely impossible because because he couldn’t just be Brad Pitt, leading the life of Brad Pitt, with all that implies to the masses, to the degree of the image he has as a filmstar and have the time and the wit to write about what that means.
Oh, I have to tell you. I’ve written a song about Brad Pitt!
About Brad Pitt?
Yes, it’s called “Angelina in 3D”. I’d read an article about him in Vanity Fair and each line gave me the impression the article was crying out to be put to music. It was like the words of a song. I’ll probably put it on the album I’m in the process of doing, because that’s also about celebrity. There you are, you’ve put your finger on it! It’s exactly the same point Houellebecq is bringing up. My song is about what it must feel like when the entire world wants to know you and be like you. When your private life becomes part of the public perception, gets mixed up with it and slips away from you. It’s a very simple song! It’s not complicated, it’s very catch. And there you are, it’s called “Angelina in 3D”. That’s a scoop exclusively for you (laughs)!
To go back to Houellebecq, I know him because I’ve read “the Elementary Particles” and I loved it.
Me too. He’s not really liked in France, well he is, let’s say he divides opinion…
He creates controversy, is that it?
Yes. Though I think behind that self proclaimed absence of style and that self proclaimed misogyny, the nihilism, there’s a lot of tenderness, poetry. For me he’s a real poet…
Yes, I see what you’re saying. I get the impression he burns his bridges, he’s good company.
To go back to “Jordan: the Comeback” I must say this album doubly surprised me. It was the first Prefab Sprout album I discovered and bought after having read a glowing review in “Les Inrockuptibles” in 1999, and as a basketball fan completely ignorant of your sound I was intrigued by the title, I was wondering “is it possible this album is refering to a comeback by Michael Jordan?”
Haha, I see! Michael Jordan! So you’re a fan of basketball?
Yes, very much. And you? Because on Swoon there’s also the song “I Never Play Basketball Now”…
I never watch the games on TV
But you played?
Yeah, when I was a kid, but I was too small. Really too small. But I enjoyed it. I stopped and I wrote this song. I don’t know why I wrote this song but that’s its title.
Yes, it is. It’s a funny way of writing, I sometimes only need some detail, a good title, a good line, and bang, I’m off. I like that.
It’s often that which allows the listener space to dream, it creates the, hum, head scratchers…
Yes, and it’s often this sort of thing that stays longer in the mind, these little fantasies at the start, they’re what has the most poetic hold on people.
Have you heard of a group called Chairlift?
It’s a young group from Brooklyn which is becoming quite well known at the moment, and their singer has declared that her favourite “theme song” is “Wild Horses” [from “Jordan: the Comeback”].
Yes. She’s also explained that she finds it “terribly cool, limpid and naively sentimental.
Ahah, I agree. I think it’s rather a cool song. But is she being ironic or does that mean she really likes it?
Yes, she’s explained that it gives off a sort of perverse charm she adores. And it’s the same in her own music, so I don’t see any irony there, she really loves it.
Chairlift you say? An American group. I’ll have to find out about them, I’ll go and have a look at that.
I also wanted to talk a bit about Echo and the Bunnymen.
In the 1980s they used to say they were your rivals
There was them, the Smiths, and you!
OK, I hadn’t seen that.
Well I’m saying it today, that’s how it was !
Contrary to you, the Bunnymen started from a certain psychedelia, McCulloch quoted the Doors…
Do I like the Doors? Yes, notably “LA Woman” and “Riders on the Storm”. I like Morrison’s voice a lot, it’s very good. And tracks such as “Light My Fire” and “The End”. They made good records. Obviously. But it amuses me that you pass via Echo and the Bunnymen to ask me about the Doors (laughs)!
I wanted to know if you listened to the competition at the time, if you listened to Echo and the Bunnymen for example
No, it wasn’t at all my kind of group. I don’t want to seem mean spirited but I didn’t pay much attention to them. I just know they loved rock mythology. He didn’t have a bad look that guy [Ian McCulloch] no? He loved to make an appearance.
Yes I think so, unlike you from all the evidence…
No, not really
Did you prefer the Smiths
I wasn’t a fan of the Smiths either, but I saw them on stage once at Newcastle. I discovered afterwards that was a legendary concert, and yes, it certainly was fantastic.
What year was that?
I think it was in 1986 in the Newcastle City Hall. I was there to play a few things for charity. They were there for the same thing. I didn’t pay much attention to them but I discovered they were a great live group. Really spectacular. And the atmosphere was amazing. I met Johnny Marr once. He came to the studio where I was doing “When Love Breaks Down” with my brother. A really nice guy. I liked him a lot. That day he had a Walkman. He told us “it’s my new single”. It was “William, It Was Really Nothing”. He played it to me, I thought it was good, and I think Morrissey is a good wordsmith, but there you are, I don’t admire them any more today than I did at the time. And at the time I didn’t bother too much with other English group. I had my own sphere of influences
Beach Boys, Gershwin, Ravel… ?
Yes, Ravel for example, definitely! But I was also listening to Prince and another group I loved a lot on their records, Scritti Politti.
I don’t know them.
It’s Green Gartside’s group. In 1985 they released a record called Cupid & Psyche. They used computers, machines. I like them a lot. I love the arrangements of their tracks. But there you are, as I was saying, beyond that I wasn’t much interested in the other English groups. I stopped listening when I started to make records, I was just too busy busy.
Yes, I imagine that when you start to make your own music you have to make a choice and in a sense kill your inner listener to make more place for the composer, and to wrap yourself up in what you’re doing.
Absolutely. And I was thinking I had so much to learn from the great masters that I stopped listening to my contemporaries. But yes, I love Ravel, of course. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s my favourite music.
In one of the songs from “Let’s Change the World With Music” you also mention Pierre Boulez….
Yes, I read a book about him when I was young. I love the fact he was trying to deconstruct the rules of music, it gave me interesting ideas. I met him once. But he doesn’t much care for pop music. It’s not his sort of thing.
So you’re not against meeting your heroes! I say that because I read in an interview that you didn’t like or were scared of meeting your heroes. You were saying that notably about your meeting with Paul McCartney…
Yes, it’s true. I was very nervous when I met McCartney. I’m no longer interested in meeting my idols whoever they are, I’d be too nervous, but back then I was enthusiastic, passionate, fearless, vain, so there you are!
So on the subject of vanity, when you released Steve McQueen you declared to the press “I am the greatest songwriter on the planet.”
Yes, it’s true, hahaha
It’s a peak of arrogance and vanity we’re more used to hearing from the mouths of the Gallagher brothers!
It’s true. But I remember it, I was talking to someone, I don’t remember any more who it was, but I think we were talking about everything besides my kind of music, so at some point I’d had enough of it and I decided to say the most ridiculous thing I could think of. I shouldn’t have said it with the tone of a guy absolutely convinced of what he was saying.
“Every joke hides a half truth” as they say. If you let that out it’s because you thought it a little, no?
Yes, somewhere, yes, absolutely, without daring to declare it to myself. I remember, one day I was talking to Mat Snow from Mojo, I was telling him I’m not very good in interviews and I told him that story, that it was the only thing the guy had kept for his article and that even today I still find it being quoted here and there. He laughed, and he was nice enough not to mention in in his article.
Have you been influenced by articles written by musical critics?
Well yes, at least one. The Rolling Stone article about Brian Wilson I evoke in the sleeve notes of “Lets Change the World With Music”. Articles about music I’ve never heard may influence me, yes, if they’re well written, if I sense the guy is inspired, that he’s been carried along by something strong.
And how is it with the articles about your own music?
Have I been influenced by what people write about me? Once or twice. I’ve sensed the journalist had even been able to understand more about what I was doing than I did myself. Once or twice I’ve read things that have made me say to myself “Yes, I think it’s that I’m doing and I wouldn’t have been able to formulate it as clearly as the journalist has done.” I think that when you write an article you have to be very clear about the things you’re searching to say. When I write a song I haven’t the same imperative, I don’t need to be understandable, I start from some point or other and I never know exactly what I want to say. So I have a lot of respect and interest for people who take the time to listen to a record and make the effort of expressing clearly what they’ve felt.
At the moment in France a film about Serge Gainsbourg has just been released [Gainsbourg, vie héroïque]. Do you know Gainsbourg and his music?
I know almost nothing about him. I know an English journalist, Sylvie Simmons I think, wrote a book about him [“A Fistful of Gitanes”], but I haven’t read it. Do you think I’d like his musical universe?
Yes, not everything probably because he’s gone off in all directions stylistically, but some things, yes, I imagine. He was also influenced by classical music, some of his songs have traces of it, and he’s also a great lyricist…
And also if you’re sensitive to Houellebecq’s universe, you should also be the same with Gainsbourg’s. He wrote a lot about women, love and sex…
Yes, I’d understood that was his predilection!
Whereas you, I’ve the impression you write often about love, but never about women in themselves, even less about sex. Why?
I don’t know… I’m trying to work out if what you say is true…
For example, despite the title, “Goodbye Lucille #1” isn’t a song about a woman…
No… I suppose… I can’t respond to your question immediately, I don’t have an answer, it’s a subject I’m going to have to reflect on for a while… It’s a good question. On the other hand I don’t think my songs talk about men either…
No, it’s true, I’d say your thing is rather to talk about dreams, icons, myths…
Ah yes, and by the way I’ve an album on this theme! A record which will deal with goddesses: Eve, the Queen of Sheba, Angelina Jolie… I’ve a lot of songs on the subject. They’ve never been heard but I have them.
To go back to it, what is “Goodbye Lucille #1” about?
It’s about the fact of being 21 years old when you’re a kid. As you said, it’s not really about this Lucille.
I must say that when I revisited Steve McQueen to prepare for this interview, that song literally obsessed me for weeks, notably the passage: “Life’s not complete, ’til your heart’s skipped a beat”!
Well, I have to admit that when I wrote that lyric it was almost something I just banged out, like a throwaway line without paying much attention to it. Like a joke.
Not a bad joke! Thanks!
It was only afterwards I realised it was something worthwhile, which was more profound than I’d thought when I started it. A writer shouldn’t ever stiffen up and take what he’s written too seriously, but he should let it go, because anyway you’re not in control of what happens, you do things in a certain way and the listener takes them in another. And it’s true, when I wrote “Goodbye Lucille #1” I really thought it was an unremarkable little song, a throwaway, but that wasn’t the case. It seems it’s one that people really prefer in our repertoire. It’s not a hit single, but never mind, the Velvet Underground didn’t have hit singles either. So it’s not a big deal (laughs)!
The song you have that was closest to a hit single is probably “Cars and Girls”, with “The King of Rock’n’Roll” just behind. It seems you wrote “Cars and Girls” to make fun of Bruce Springsteen’s music. Is that true, and if yes, did you get a response?
No, it didn’t even reach him. He’s on another planet no? But that song was talking more about music critics than Bruce, it was talking about knowing whether you have the right or not to make fun of critics who consider music as something serious. Because of course I love Bruce’s music, I particularly like “Born to Run”. It’s a very good album, great songs. So no, this song isn’t an attack on him, and no, I didn’t have a reply from him (laughs)!
Great! Let’s finish with what’s left in the bottom of your drawers. Are there other albums as works in progress alongside the Michael Jackson one, the one about celebrity, and the one about Goddesses?
Yes, I’ve still a good few I was supposed to do with the group, including one on the history of the world, “Earth: the Story So Far”, and one on the story of a superhero of my own invention, “Zorro the Fox”. Yes, I’ve loads of them. But I haven’t completely recorded them, nor finished them. They’re in a draft state, bits and pieces. And unfortunately I’ve no-one to play on them apart from myself, my guitar and my synth. Is that OK? Have you got what you wanted?
Yes, I’ve just one little last question from a musician friend [La Féline]. One of her favourite Prefab Sprout tracks is “The Guest Who Stayed Forever” the B Side of “Goodbye Lucille #1”. She wanted to know who this guest was, the one who stayed forever.
I’ve no idea. We’d been told we had to do some B sides for a single. And someone wanted to know the titles. I gave him 2 or 3 titles although I hadn’t yet written the songs: “The Guest Who Stayed Forever”, “Old Spoonface is Back”, and “Wigs”. I just noted down the titles and said to myself: “When I’m in the studio I’ll make a song that corresponds to the title.” Your friend probably knows more than me about this mysterious guest. Say hi to her from me. It was nice talking to you, thanks for being so patient.
Thanks to you. Work hard, I’m waiting for your “Good Vibrations”!
Yes, I’m still searching myself. I’ll maybe even get there today! Who knows (laughs)!