Chief Sprout Paddy McAloon talks to Dave Fanning
‘Swoon’, ‘Steve McQueen‘ and ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ are 3 of the best albums released this decade. They’re all by Prefab Sprout and all the songs are written by Paddy McAloon. At the beginning, 4 or 5 years ago, they signed an 8 album deal with CBS and enjoyed a great boost from Britain’s best song writer of the past decade, Elvis Costello, who claimed that, as a song writer. Paddy McAloon is the man to watch. Four years later his faith is more than justified and in Ireland the current album is all set to go gold, just like the last one ‘Steve McQueen’.
The nearest thing you’ve had to a hit single is ‘When Love Breaks Down’. the single from ‘Steve McQueen’, your second album. Does it worry you at this stage?
Most people who like us already will think “What’s he worried about?” We don’t need to worry about hit singles. But it’s frustrating when you think you’ve made a great record. Getting through to as many people as possible justifies the whole expense at least. And a hit single would help all that. And it would help for touring as well because that’s expensive.
What about Prefab Sprout’s unreleased yet completed album called ‘Protest Songs’?
It’s still on the cards for release, hopefully within the next 12 months, but to put a date on it I know will kill it finally. There’s never been any doubt that CBS would release it – it’s just that the intentions and the style of the record contradict obvious business sense. We made it in ‘85. very close to ‘Steve McQueen’, with the idea of putting out a very rough quickly-made record to act almost as a balance to the good production of ‘Steve McQueen’. That may sound strange but I wanted there to be a rougher record – 2 albums in a year is what I wanted, which is ironic considering we’ve only released 3 in so many years. But it’s still there – it’s due for release. It coincided with ‘When Love Breaks Down’ finally making it as a single and CBS said ‘Do you want to have 2 albums for sale at the same time when you’re still trying to get established!’ They were right really to say that. So I think it will come out sometime over the next year. Some of my best songs. some of my strongest things, are on ‘Protest Songs’, it’s just that the style of the recording is a lot looser. It‘s not a big production number. It was recorded within the space of 3 or 4 weeks. We had to have it done then. That was the only time we had to do it, in the middle of ‘85. And we thought, well, we’d do it with the attitude “We’ll keep it, mistakes and everything”.
And it stands up remarkably well because it sounds like a very black and white picture as opposed to say ‘Langley Park’ which is more colourful and maybe shows the side of the band you might get if we played live or if you were in a room with us, whereas the other records are more production numbers.
Does the title of the album suggest you’re dealing with heavier issues than a normal Prefab Sprout album?
It’s not as overtly political as that but it probably coincides more with daily existence as we know it than most things that we do. One of the best songs on it, if I can say that, is called ‘Till the Cows Come Home’. It‘s about a provincial place. The fact that the production is so sparse helps that feeling of it being a very down-to-earth record.
They’re not strictly protest songs as Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg would recognise them but somewhere in that field.
You’ve another album in the pipeline called ‘Total Snow’…
That’s an LP we haven’t recorded; we have the songs for it. I’ve always been in love with the Phil Spector Christmas album and I also like the idea of more Christmas songs being released that have been written in the 80’s instead of digging back into the past. 50 I wanted to write a Christmas album and I’ve done that. Instead of it just being a big melange of sleighbells and songs about chestnuts round an open fire and all that business – there’s nothing wrong in that – I wanted to make one that was perhaps tied in more with a modern world. So it’s a kind of a modern Christmas album. I would like other people to sing my songs and that seems like a good way of bribing them to do it. I’ve not really got very far into all this so if I sound unsure about what I’m doing it’s because I am unsure and I have not yet approached anybody or played anybody any songs from it. It would probably go out as a Prefab Sprout album and I’d like it use lots of guests on it. I can relax more when I can hear other people sing my records.
You have a few ‘Superstar’ guests on your current album ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’.
The intention when we made the record was definitely not to rope in some ‘superstar buddies’. I should say that we hardly know anyone in the music world at all. But I did know Pete Townsend was a fan of Prefab Sprout. I wouldn’t normally presume on that to get somebody to play on a record but as the track was being mixed in Pete Townsend’s studio and as I was ill at the time and hadn’t played guitar for it and missed the mixing session, Wendy and Martin sidled up to him and said do you think you could fill in the gaps here. His daughter Emma is a Prefab Sprout fan and she was miming apparently behind his back while he was saying he couldn’t do it ‘cos he only plays a few keyboards now, and she knew he could do it. So the next day he came in and did it. It was a big favour, it wasn’t any superstar thing.
And what about Stevie Wonder on the song ‘Nightingales’? We had tried to do that song with a few English harmonica players and it hadn’t worked. It’s hard to do on harmonica, hard to get the right notes from a limited instrument like that and make it swing. And someone said ‘Why don’t you try Stevie Wonder’, as if you could just say ‘Hey, why didn’t I think of that?’ He was in England at the time and my manager got a tape to his manager, they know each other. He said Stevie Wonder had done a lot of this stuff before and he’s reluctant to do it but if he likes it …… he liked it and he was available. He’s a fine man very intimidating, great physical presence. He’s tall, big – he does have charisma. It’s a corny word, but he does have it.
He was led in through the doors of the studio holding the harmonica. He just has to play one note and I swear if you weren’t looking at him, you’d know it was him. It was a bit frightening: I was warned that he’d think we were a bit unprofessional, but he was so sweet about the whole thing it was just the way we wanted it.
Are you a perfectionist to the point that you irritate those around you?
99% of the time I couldn’t get a more supportive bunch of people around me, in that they believe in what I do and will do anything to help me do it. But I know that.,for example, Neil, our drummer, he likes to play. He was up ’till 4 o’clock this morning playing on some sessions with Sandie Shaw. He loves that. Martin (Paddy’s brother) would like to tour – Wendy perhaps not so bothered.
Neil, probably because he’s the best musician of all of us, likes to see us do things a bit quicker. He gets frustrated if I’m struggling over something because he likes mistakes to be left in.
Do you like playing live?
I don’t really, ‘though I hate saying that ‘cos if we do we’ll have people looking at us saying ‘Oh, he’s not really enjoying it’ whereas the opposite can be true. If you put me out there with a guitar in front of someone I can enjoy it very much but if you do that to me every night, I resent it.
What do you think of one current musical trend – scratch, hip hop, sampling?
I don’t like most of the music that’s made using the techniques. I find it pretty monotonous and if dancing is supposed in any way to have anything to do with SEX I find it completely sexless. Maybe that’s because there are so few songs involved, so many drum machines going, but I like the technology. I don’t think it’s being used very well.