From the day I learned that Prefab Sprout was going on tour for the first time in about five years to promote the release of their new album “Jordan: the Comeback”, I became restless and impatient. Because of all the bands currently active, Prefab Sprout is the one that interests me the most. In particular “Jordan: the Comeback” is not only their own greatest work, but I am also convinced it is one of the best pop works released in the current era. And I’d even go as far as to say I’m proud to be alive at the same time they are working.
I was lucky enough to be able to put my thoughts to them and to be able to interview Paddy McAloon, as well as seeing the band live in London twice, on October 22nd and 23rd.
The London performance at the Hammersmith Odeon had the same set on both days, and the band was a seven-piece with three new members adding support to the band. So, compared with the Japanese show in 1986, the Prefab Sprout performance had more professionalism, and the live band is growing into a unit that can almost reproduce the sound world of their records.
Of course it had been 5 years since the last live performance, and to my mind there were some rough edges in the show, but one thing was for certain: it carved out a vivid impression in the hearts of the audience. Indeed, the image of Paddy McAloon singing the songs while gently caressing the mic and performing alongside the other members of the band is still burned into my memory, playing songs that now feel like the standards people still listen to even after a number of decades. Actually, I do think that Prefab Sprout’s songs deserve to be called contemporary “pop classics”. Watching Prefab Sprout’s live performance this time, I became aware of that again.
– You’ve always been passionate about song-writing above everything else. I thought you were reluctant to play live up until now, what motivated you to go on tour this time?
“I worked very hard on this album and I personally think it ended up as a good piece of work. That’s why I wanted as many people as possible to hear it. I think the other members of the band feel the same”.
There was a song about Elvis Presley on your third work, “From Langley Park to Memphis” called “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. On this album you also have songs with an Elvis theme such as “Jesse James Symphony” and “Jesse James Bolero”. You seem strongly fascinated by Elvis as an mythic American figure, but Marilyn Monroe or James Dean are similar. Why is it that you were particularly attracted to Elvis Presley?
“First of all, since Elvis was active in the field of music just like me, it felt like there was something in common. And Elvis experienced massive success when he was young and gradually declined in later years, then at the end died in a way that wasn’t appropriate for a hero. I’m interested in that sort of life. and with Albert Goldman having written a biography I wanted to tell the story in a three or four minute pop song.”
– That’s to say you’re interested in Elvis Presley as a rock hero with both light and shade in his character. In that sense John Lennon can be said to be similar to Elvis Presley.
“Yeah. John, having died, continues to live in the hearts of everyone as a saint, and the extremes of his character as a living person aren’t talked about much. But in reality I think they both had talent and both had a complex character. Actually in the past I wrote a song with the line “John Lennon is exiled, Richard John Rodgers is dead”. But then John died soon afterwards so I didn’t put the song out.”
– You mentioned the name of Richard Rodgers just now, I think the tradition of the composers of the standards, Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter, lives on in your songs. How have they influenced you?
“I certainly am interested in the composers of the standards. Maybe it’s more that I find recent rock and pop music boring as I have somehow heard it all before. The lyrics are formulaic, and lots of people – myself included – think that no-one is creating strong melodies. The beautifully intricate songs written by Rodgers & Hart were simple and yet told a story, unlike the lyrics of today which predominately talk about oneself or ones thoughts. I think my songs still lack a lot when compared to the songs by composers like them.”
– You wrote allegorical lyrics on this album too. When you started out you made heavy use of complicated chord progressions, but gradually you began to write simpler songs for each album. I feel I can trace your growth as a songwriter from that point. Because it’s not just something that applies to music, it can be words in just the same way, but it’s really difficult to make something simple and understandable to anyone.
“That’s exactly right. I guess that simple and direct songs are better. I didn’t intentionally create complicated songs when I was starting out, but in that period if I wrote a song I had some sort of anxiety about playing simple chords, so I did a lot of chord changes (laughs)”.
– As a UK songwriter in this era, you are compared with Elvis Costello, Green from Scritti Politti, etc, etc, but in the recent Time Out magazine interview you say you hate that. Is that true?
“I don’t dislike them in other ways. I like Scritti Politti and I admire Elvis Costello, but I don’t write difficult lyrics like Green, he’s an intellectual. Rather than being said to be “literary” I’d like to make music that goes beyond that sort of ivory tower, something that anyone can enjoy.”
– My favourite song on this album is “One of the Broken”, you can feel the influence of gospel in this song. However in gospel songs, human beings are singing to God where in this song God is singing to human beings, the converse. I thought this idea was excellent
“Thank you. When I write religious songs, spiritual songs, I’m trying to make something that will interest everyone. I want to avoid direct expression as far as possible so that people who aren’t religious will still enjoy it and get something out of it.”
– This album is in four sections, and the last part is several songs around the theme of death. Considering this, and the fact that the “Jordan” quoted in the album title is a place of resurrection, and that there are several songs with a Gospel feel, the theme of the entire album is “redemption” or “resurrection”. While I was listening to the album I recalled John Irving’s novels…
“Hmm, actually my girlfriend is a fan of his novels, but I haven’t read them.”
– …“Hotel New Hampshire” is a good example, in his novels there will suddenly be an accident to someone who a page or so back was energetic and pretty healthy. There are a lot of ways to die. In real life we take a lot of care to live with a lot of caution, insurance, but you can perhaps die in five minutes. John Irving is saying that “that’s life”, but in his novels you feel a positive will, a sense of redemption, the idea that everyone has a need to live.
“Well, for example Ingmar Bergman seems always to to treat the theme of “death” very seriously, but I don’t think there’s anything I can do about thinking that way, even if I know that death will come to everyone as a matter of course. Until that happens I’ll live with a positive outlook, and even when we die the next generation will take over. I think the world is going to continue in that way. In that sense I may say I have the same perspective as John Irving.