Toru Watanabe, The Dig – January 2000

This is a significant interview – Toru Watanabe was the journalist who oversaw Paddy’s trip to Japan in late December 1999, which has been a recurrent theme this year on Sproutology and has been the main driver of what I’ve been doing this year with Japanese material. We still have to come Paddy’s meeting with Banana Yamamoto, but the Watanabe interview was one of the main events of the promotional visit, and “the Dig” from early 2000 was sumptuously produced with some glorious photographs. Japanese magazines are tremendously high quality. The interview – complete with detailed footnotes – is a very interesting one and touches on aspects of how Paddy approached “I Trawl the Megahertz”.

For those who have only learned about Prefab Sprout in the last ten years, Paddy McAloon is, in a sense, something of a mythical presence. He is after all a popular songwriter, yet he hasn’t played a concert since the end of the English tour in 1990. So there may well be people who put him into the same category as Brian Wilson. Although Paddy is certainly a pop pioneer, he isn’t misanthropic or reclusive, nor is he emotionally unstable. He’s not someone with a giant, unmanageable ego. In other words, he’s not the kind of artist who creates music at the cost of psychological flaws, and in that sense he’s a long way from artistic clichés.

His promotional visit to Japan came from a desire to let his Japanese fans know the true face of Paddy McAloon. From my perspective it was the third time I’ve interviewed him, but the first time for about seven and a half years. Nonetheless thanks to his recollection of our previous meeting, I was able to continue the conversation just as easily as if I’d been talking to him just a week ago.

– When I interviewed you for the first time in 1990, I told you my favourite song on “Jordan: the Comeback” is “One of the Broken”, do you remember? That song is like an inversion of a gospel song, and you told me about its wonderful inspiration and that you like it a lot yourself. So of course I was expecting it to be in the “38 Carat Collection”, but it wasn’t included.

“The release of this ‘best of’ record came from a proposal from the record company. I’ve no objection to that, and I think the selections were well chosen. But if I was choosing myself I’d certainly have included ‘One of the Broken’. I guess the reason for that song not having been included was from concern for the balance of the whole, and we had already chosen four songs from ‘Swoon’; also ‘Lions In My Own Garden’ had to be included of course, because that song is very popular with the fans, and because I am myself a fan. I think the early songs released by my favourite bands have a tremendous significance. So in other words, the selection is biased towards the early work. But I do like my more recent work too.”

– I’m surprised by the fact you came to Japan like you have [1]. And you’re starting a full English tour at the end of March [2]. There are apparently a lot of things happening in 2000!

“Yeah, I made up my mind suddenly one day. I’ve been in my computer room struggling to compose songs for the last ten years, but since I’ve already written enough songs, from now on I want to make more records. And the feeling that it’s not too bad to play live has been building up. As you know, touring is not my speciality (laughs). So I may end up writing songs at home again in future, but in the meantime I feel like playing guitar on stage for the first time in a while.”

– There’s a term “Pocket Symphony” referring to the work Phil Spector produced in the ’60s. In your most recent work, “Andromeda Heights” you’re joined by a lot musicians who aren’t core band members. In that sense I think it’s a spectacular album. Especially “A Prisoner of the Past”, which is just like a pocket symphony.

“Actually, ‘A Prisoner…’ is a song I intended to sound like Phil Spector when I was writing it, with a singer with the sort of volume and richness of the Righteous Brothers or Scott Walker. I wrote a whole album thinking I’d be able to record it with a ‘wall of sound’ production. As regards ‘A Prisoner’, I wanted to make my own ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ [3], but I couldn’t finish it to the point I wanted to. In my mind I thought it’d be fun to mimic Spector, but when you actually try it, it’s tough. Firstly the room I used for the recording was too small. To build up the Spector sound, you need a big room to move a tremendous amount of air around. And there were problems with the number of musicians. If everything like this doesn’t align it’s impossible to create the Spector sound. So for the time being, I’ve stopped trying to challenge Phil Spector… Well, if I can get a drummer in a big booth, and have a chance to assemble a large number of musicians at once, I think I might try again.”

– The story circulating about Ike & Tina Turners’ “River Deep, Mountain High” is that it’s a song Spector sent out into the world with total confidence. However it wasn’t as big a hit as he expected and it nearly ended his career.

“Oh yeah, it’s a terrible episode, that the song wasn’t a hit because of problems with the song itself, it was the way Spector had been behaving up to that point. There are also theories that the people holding the real power, the radio stations, were angry with him. Some people say the vocals in that song and others like it have been buried in the mix. But I think that’s a ridiculous opinion, because you can hear the lyrics perfectly. Maybe it was too much for peoples’ sensibilities at that time, but if you ask me there aren’t very many records as wonderful as that one.”

– I’d like to dig into your relationship with pop music. You liked T-Rex when you were a teenager, right?

“Yes, ‘Ride a White Swan’ [4] is my favourite. I used to wish I could create something like Mark Bolan.”

– What sort of thing did you like about Mark Bolan?

“Perhaps I was attracted by the air of mystery around his records, since I was pure and innocent. I spent a lot of time studying the words and lyrics in depth. Indeed, even the label. I was convinced the number ‘2:15’ written on the label definitely had a deep meaning. Of course it was just a number indicating the length of the song (laughs) but everything about T. Rex’s music was cryptic. I remember thinking ‘Ride a White Swan’ was a great song the first time I heard it. And the first songs I learned on the guitar were T Rex’s ‘Hot Love’ and Paul McCartney’s ‘Another Day’. I copied them over and over again while listening to the cassette. Some people think that I’m making it up when I talk about this, because Prefab Sprout and T Rex’s music is so different. But actually when I was a teenager I wanted to be Mark Bolan and I didn’t have a clue how to do it. (bitter smile)”

– What caused you to focus on Jimmy Webb [5]?

“I happened to hear Glen Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’ when I was a kid, it was before I really started to listen to music, but something touched my heart. So he has a special place for me.”

– So in the wake of “Wichita Lineman”, you began to look out, to listen out for other Jimmy Webb work?

“That’s right. I listened to various things, such as Richard Harris’ [6] solo album. I think Jimmy Webb’s work can roughly be divided into two styles, one of which is the country music represented by Glen Campbell’s songs. And the other is a more baroque tone you find in Richard Harris’ songs, quirky pieces of melody that I don’t mind hearing over and over again (laughs). The reason why the series of songs written for Richard Harris is so unusual is because they’re songs created with a sensibility coming from musicals, so every song feels somewhat elaborated. For example, in the Richard Harris album isn’t there a song about a dancer? (Note: ‘Dancing Girl’) Unless you know Jimmy Webb’s intentions, it would be easy to dismiss that as just a funny song. But I listened to the last part of that song and I realised that this was a song coming from a consciousness of musicals. There’s another interesting thing, and it’s understandable when you listen to Jimmy Webb’s demo versions, but you can’t hear the country flavour in the songs that were offered to Glen Campbell. It’s just the ability of Glen Campbell and his producers to give those songs a distinctive Nashville sound. When I think of it that way, that’s why Jimmy Webb succeeded in the field of pop, because of the contribution of third parties.”

– His father is a missionary by the way. In that sense there’s maybe something a little bit comparable to your own home environment [7]. Is there something similar between your songs and his in that sense? Also I mentioned the relationship between “One of the Broken” and gospel, but to what degree is his music affected by gospel?

“I’ve not thought deeply about the Christian elements in Jimmy Webb’s music, so I’m not quite sure, but maybe there’s a sort of kindness in his songs, or a spiritual thing, that comes from gospel. And I think some of the chord sequences have a basis coming from Church music. When I do my own things I don’t have much knowledge of gospel, or influence coming from it, but I know what kinds of chords to use and what kind of flavour to put in, I know I can end up with a gospel style. In the case of music, it doesn’t really matter what kind of faith the writer has. The important thing is to consider whether we have the power to move peoples’ hearts by transcending such things. For example, Paul Simon’s ‘Bridge Over Trouble Water’ is a good example. He himself is a Jewish American, but that song – made with a hint of gospel – moved the hearts of lots of people all over the world. In that sense, I’m close to Paul Simon, if you see what I mean”

– I see. In that sense, I think that “One of the Broken” is a song that could be said to be a “Bridge Over Troubled Water” for the 1990s

“Wow, that’s a nice comment. When you say that I’m increasingly thinking it was a fatal mistake not to put it on ’38 Carat Collection’ (laughs).”

– Could you tell me how you became interested in the “Tin Pan Alley” songwriters?

“When I became a songwriter and I was listening the Beatles, I thought ‘What kind of music was there before the Beatles?’ That was the motivation. So in listening to various things I found, I discovered there were lots of wonderful things in my parents’ generation’s music. The greatest attraction of this kind of music is that the melodies are clear. Also, although the lyrical content is simple, I think by the same token it’s universal. In my earlier songs, that universality was missing. That was especially so on ‘Swoon’ so our songs weren’t covered by anyone. Only Elvis Costello covered ‘Cruel’. You might call that song universal, though not everybody could sing it. But I don’t think a tune like that has the power to draw the listener into an unknown world. In that respect the Tin Pan Alley songwriters were very open, there are no difficult elements at all. I was attracted to that point. And I thought I could write a song that could change popular culture, like Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas.’”

– In the Japanese liner notes for the “38 Carat Collection”, I cited various people including Irving Berlin, but I forgot one songwriter very important to me. That’s Laura Nyro[ 8].

“Oh yes, I love her too, but I only began listening to her music in 1991, I thought ‘The First Songs’ was fantastic. So I wasn’t influenced by her, but I’m very glad if you cite her in that way. Unlike most singer/songwriters she didn’t only do serious and introspective songs, but also bright songs full of joy, isn’t that a wonderful talent? But it’s funny that you like her too… What’s the title of that R&B cover album?”

– “Gonna Take a Miracle”?

“That’s it. I love that album and Laura Nyro also writes great lyrics. For example in ‘Sweet Blindness’: ‘Don’t let daddy hear it/ He don’t believe in the gin mill spirit’, such a strange phrase but wonderful. The composition of the song is also unique, she’s really great. But for some reason I never had the chance to listen to Laura Nyro’s music, so I thought she was a sort of secondhand Joni Mitchell for a long time. That was a misunderstanding, she’s completely different.”

– Can you tell us briefly about the albums you’ve released so far? I’ll tell you what you said when you were interviewed in 1992, so please say something that supplements it. First of all there is “Swoon”…

“Because I thought this was the first and last opportunity, I’d probably have said that I recorded a lot of quirky songs (laughs).”

– Yes. You said “I should have done it more concisely”.

“At that time we could also have chosen completely different songs. Much simpler songs, like the ones on ‘Steve McQueen’. I had albums full of such songs, but I thought I’d be able to put those out later.”

– Thomas Dolby’s [9] skill was largely responsible for the success of Steve McQueen. Did you learn your recording technique from him?

“The words ‘I learned’ might not be appropriate… No, it would be fair to say I was learning (laughs). At the time I was eclipsed by the work he did, he did a brilliant job. That album is a work made by Thomas, he embodied my songs and made a work from them. So, to be honest, when I listened to that album for the first time, I felt like I was listening to someone else’s record. It made me aware of how we didn’t know how to make records and it was a feeling like ;Oh my God! What are we going to do now?’”. I thought that now I knew how to record like this that I could no longer record a muddy demo with a multi-cassette recorder like I did before (laughs).”

– The next album you recorded was made as a sort of reaction to “Steve McQueen”, you recorded it in just 18 days.

“That’s right. At that time I was just thinking of making a record that wasn’t as sophisticated as the previous one. I knew that the people around me had a great deal of anticipation for the follow-up to ‘Steve McQueen’, so I wanted to make something rougher that would confound the expectations. But looking back now I think I should done something with a little more calculation. But I would say that the experience was formative for me.”

– The fourth work in order of recording, “From Langley Park to Memphis” is an album where you forgot you were a member of a group and created it in the way you were thinking at the time. You discovered the splendour of the music from Broadway musicals.

“Yeah, I was engrossed in Barbra Steisand’s ‘The Broadway Album’ [10] and I wrote ‘Nightingales’ with Barbra in mind, assuming this album was just a collection of various songs. That’s why it’s a bit like a “Best of” album. When you think about it, it’s a little strange that songs as varied as ‘Nightingales’ and ‘Venus of the Soup Kitchen’ are contained in a single album. You wouldn’t think that these were songs by the same writer, but personally I like the songs that are on this album.”

– “Jordan: The Comeback” is the album you are most proud of.

“Jesus! Two of the best moments in my life so far were the day I finished mixing ‘Steve McQueen’, and then the day I finished mixing ‘Jordan’. I’ll never forget that day, I stopped on the main street in Los Angeles and smoked a big cigar with my brother in the car (laughs). We’d just finished the work, and I was really happy with it. But at the same time I was concerned it might be impossible to make a truly unique record. I thought that if not many people liked this album I would no longer be able to write songs that would convince listeners.”

– The most recent album was “Andromeda Heights”.

“Before I started making that album, I was working on the album ‘Earth: the Story so Far’ [11]. I thought it would be simpler than ‘Jordan’, but it was based on the theme of the history of the world. I wrote 20 to 30 small pieces over many months. Then one morning I woke up and I thought: ‘If you go on at this pace it’ll take over a year to finish the demos and another year to do the album….’ In that case, rather than following my original plan, I’d end up making another piece like ‘Jordan’.

“So I changed my mind and decided to make ‘Andromeda Heights’ and personally I like it very much, the length of the record is just right, but since the number of tracks is less than the previous work some people were disappointed, and some British journalists and enthusiastic fans were saying ‘Less isn’t more, more is more! We want more!’. But for me, duration wasn’t a major factor, I could listen to it all the way through, I started wanting to create a piece of work that would make me want to listen to it again soon. Because life is short. In that sense my way of thinking has changed a little bit from how I used to be.”

– Can you talk about the next album? I understand the demo tape has already been completed.

“It’s a work in a completely different style, basically composed of two tracks, one of which is called “I Trawl the Megahertz” [12], but the other made up of shorter songs. It’s a woman’s narration backed with instrumental music. To begin with, I should explain why I thought about making such an album. I suffered from some eye problems [13] a few years ago and I couldn’t see anything for a while. So there was no choice but to listen to the radio. Live talk programmes mainly focus on calls from listeners. So when words and phrases I liked came out of the radio, I would write them down and join them up later using a cut and paste technique. I made phrases. I the meantime I began thinking about using one of these to make a single piece of work, but the direct stimulus was the story of a young woman who called into a programme. The woman told her little daughter that “Daddy loves you, daddy loves you very much, he just doesn’t want to live with us any more” and she repeated that phrase over and over again. I was recording the programme on tape, but when I listened back to it later, that phrase wouldn’t leave my head, and it felt like it was the chorus of a song.

“Although it seems a little cold-hearted, you could say it was unscrupulous to consider such a thing, but I thought if I used that phrase I could create a long sorrowful song. Everyone has some kind of dissatisfaction in their lives, and sometimes they say terrible things about themselves, so depending on the words and the way they look at it, it’s like a poem. I decided to have it read by an American woman, and I made a melodic backing track that matched the narration, but I think it’s the sort of album that nobody will ever have heard before.”

– Is the album a sort of movie you listen to?

“Oh yes, when she says ‘I’m sitting here now’, I’m seeing it through her eyes… Yes, it’s like a movie. Maybe this is an experiment that no-one else has tried, so I’m proud of myself and I think it’s ended up a very powerful work. Although I was anxious for a while, because this is so different from my normal work. I don’t sing, and there isn’t a chorus. I thought listeners might get bored because the words are just stacked up, but I listened to the demo by myself and stopped worrying, ‘this is fine’, I thought.”

– By the way, have you ever considered writing a movie score?

“I did a long time ago, but I came to the conclusion that movie music is only a companion to another person’s vision. The music in a movie is secondary to the concept of the visuals and the story the director conceived. In fact I thought it might be a good idea to make short video works that match the content of ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’ but I thought it better not to. There’s an English expression: ‘overegging the pudding’, and if you add pictures I think it would be like a pudding with two many eggs in, too rich. That’s because the images that the poetry and music of the next album bring forth are very intense.”


[Note 1] Promotional visit to Japan. If you don’t plan to play live, the only option is to come to Japan for a promotional visit. So Paddy visited Japan – it had not yet been announced that a full English tour would be happening at the time of the visit. It was a snap decision so we couldn’t do much promotion of the talk, which took place on December 18th 1999, but on the day, over 200 fans gathered at the HMV store in Shibuya. Paddy McAloon was deeply moved.

It was the first time Paddy had stepped onto Japanese soil since the Prefab Sprout visit in 1986. This time he came to Japan only with Phil Mitchell from the Kitchenware management team. Kitchenware also manages the Lighthouse Family, on whose album former members of the Kane Gang participated.

[Note 2] British Tour. This all-English tour, the first to take place since the “Comeback” Tour in 1990 at the time of the release of “Jordan: The Comeback”, will take place between March 30th and April 16th. A total of 16 public performances will take place (including two shows in Dublin). For these concerts, the Prefab Sprout line up will be Paddy McAloon (vocal, guitar), Martin McAloon (Bass), Neil Conti (drums), Jess Bailey (keyboards). Jess Bailey also participated on keyboard on the “Comeback Tour”. Wendy Smith is still absent since giving birth to a child, so she is not participating in the concerts this time.

Also in the UK, “Where the Heart Is”, which is also included in the “38 Carat Collection” will be released on April 10th as a CD single. On the single will also be “When Love Breaks Down”, and an original demo version of “I’m a Troubled Man” that was offered to British actor and singer Jimmy Nail. Jimmy Nail’s version is included in “Crocodile Shoes” (1996).

[Note 3] “River Deep, Mountain High”. This Ike & Tina Turner masterpiece produced by Phil Spector was released in 1966 and rose to No. 3 in the English charts. However in the United States the release ended in misfortune and due to the failure, Phil stopped working on records in 1967. Incidentally, the cover for Ike & Tina Turner’s album of the same name was taken by director and actor Dennis Hopper.

[Note 4] “Ride a White Swan”. The first T Rex hit, ranked second in the UK charts in 1970. Paddy said that as a teenager he was an avid listener to the Top 40 on the radio. “Both Martin and me constantly listened to the top 40, and repeatedly to the tapes I recorded of it. So Martin mastered the Deep Purple guitar solo (laughs). Then the next week we’d play Lindisfarne songs, and the week after it would be The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. Anyway, we were trying everything out. I guess it was like a period of apprenticeship. It was around 1970/71 that we started thinking about making records. That was around the time when David Bowie and Steely Dan appeared, but we accepted and absorbed everything from their music to the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan and other Pop classics.” (Paddy).

[Note 5] Jimmy Webb. The songwriter who provided a number of pop gems for Fifth Dimension, Glen Campbell, etc from the late 1960s to the 1970s, which went to the top of the charts. “Wichita Lineman” is a song Paddy often cites as his favourite song, rising to 3rd place in the national charts. Even after the 1980s he has written music for Art Garfunkel, composing for a diverse range of fields such as movies, TV music, musicals. In addition he has already released nine solo albums.

[Note 6] Richard Harris – Personality and actor from Ireland. “MacArthur Park” which Jimmy Webb wrote, produced and arranged became the second biggest hit in the United States in 1968. In addition “Dancing Girl” as mentioned by Paddy is a track included on his first album “A Tramp Shining” in 1968.

[Note 7] Paddy’s family environment. Paddy McAloon attended a Catholic Seminary. Therefore quotations from the Bible are often found in his lyrics. In that respect Prefab Sprout music can be said to be close to soul music and rooted in Gospel.

[Note 8] Laura Nyro – Paddy McAloon spoke warmly of Laura Nyron. Because the interview took place at the headquarters of Sony Music Entertainment, and thanks to the generosity of the director in charge we gave him a double live album “Season of Lights – Complete” (1977) which had only been released in Japan. Of course Paddy was delighted.

[Note 9] Thomas Dolby. Currently Thomas Dolby is engaged in multimedia related business, and his activities as a producer/musician are in a state of inactivity. Thomas Dolby’s music is often pulled into the category of ‘Electronic Pop’, but he has also covered Dan Hicks & His Hot Lick’s “I Scare Myself”, and Joni Mitchell’s “Jungle Line”. He’s also a fan of Randy Newman.

[Note 10] Barbra Streisand, “Back to Broadway”, “The Broadway Album” (1985). Includes songs from “West Side Story”, Porgy and Bess” and other popular songs from Broadway Musicals. I doubt there are many people interested in Barbra Streisand among the readers of this journal, but I’d like to give an honourable mention and personal recommendation of “Stony End”. The members of the team of arrangers include Perry Botkin Jr, Claus Ogerman and Gene Page.

[Note 11] “Earth; the Story So Far”. Beyond this, Prefab Sprout has several unfinished albums such as “Let’s Change the World With Music”, and “The Atomic Hymnbook”. “Thomas Dolby told me that if I wanted him to produce ‘Let’s Change…’ he’d be happy to do it, but when I spoke to him a while later I had been working on ‘Earth…’. Of course I want to finish my incomplete album, but Thomas has been away from the music business for a while. But if he helps me, ‘Let’s Change…’ will surely be a remarkable album.” (Paddy).

[Note 12] “I Trawl the Megahertz”. It’s said that the demo tape for this album has already been completed, but the release date hasn’t yet been settled. Incidentally, when Paddy was asked how he spends his days he said: “In the first half of the 1990s, I focused on writing songs for 2–3 hours after I got up in the morning, then I did completely different things. After a while I would go back to songwriting and continue until 4 or 5 o’clock. But that was only for the first half of the 1990s. For the last six months I’ve been working on arranging. So for that I was using a guitar, and rather than making a song I was sorting out fragmentary phrases. You might say that was the same way I worked when I was a teenager. In that sense I’ve returned to the point of departure. Using this method you can dare to surprise yourself, without over-stretching. I think it’s good to accumulate various elements and finish them in the form of a song at some time later. And sometimes I do it on a computer, I sometimes in front of the piano, and sometimes I strum chords on a guitar. I intentionally decide to change how I do things. That way I don’t get bored, and I think that will mean the listener won’t get tired of it either.” (Paddy).

[Note 13] Paddy suffered from eye problems several years ago and couldn’t see for a time. The cause was overwork, because he was too absorbed in composing – it seems he was looking too much at the computer screen. He says he had two operations. However he seems to have recovered his sight now. There are, incidentally, many people surprised at the difference between Paddy on the album cover of the “38 Carat Collection” and his present appearance, but when asked he says he’s been growing a beard for several years. In other words the “38 Carat Collection” is using an old photograph. Also Paddy has married in recent years and has become the father of two children. He explains that the reason he keeps growing beards now is that if he shaved it off now, his young daughters who got used to it when he was hospitalised wouldn’t be able to recognise him. It’s a very funny story.

One thought

  1. Note number one says 2019. I don’t think it’s an earth shattering typo, though. In fact, I’m glad to find out about this 🙂 Now there is plenty of lead time to get a ticket and go to Japan in two years.

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