The Mysterious World of the Superfan

I’ve always maintained that my Prefab Sprout obsession has an ironic basis, in that I originally planned it quite deliberately to try out the idea of total completism. I could stop any time I wanted.

But somewhere along the way, you glance in the rear view mirror and you notice a line you crossed some time ago disappearing into the heat haze of the middle distance, with a lot of curious and rather concerned looking onlookers standing on it and peering at you as if you’ve lost your mind. Looking down, you notice that you have what appear to be three Langley Park to Memphis promotional paper bags stuffed into your belt, and you’re clutching a half filled “Hey Manhattan!” snowglobe. And you ask yourself “how did I get here?”.

I have to admit it’s not an entirely normal way to spend free time. But the thing is, it’s fun. It’s peculiar, but it’s fun.

Thinking back, the incident that nudged me over the edge was the the post you can see in the graphic. It was not my first Sproutnet post, but the first time I actually found something new that hadn’t been seen before, not long after signing up to the site in late December 2009.


From that point, where I realised there was a new world to explore, everything proceeded step by step. A footstep is indeed a small thing, but line them all up together, and you pretty soon find yourself dancing over deserted landscapes without a fellow traveller anywhere in sight. It doesn’t feel strange when you’re doing it – albeit there is often an oddly feverish feeling of excitement as something unexpected turns up – but when you zoom out and look at things in perspective, it’s not exactly normal.

I was musing on this this morning. I have a few days off, and automatically my thoughts turned to what I could do Sproutwise. I always laugh when I see interviews with Paddy saying that he hates touring because it takes his time away from what he wants to do, which is to write songs; well I’m essentially the same, every day not spent doing something to advance the art and practice of Sproutology is a day wasted as far as I’m concerned. I get a bit fidgety when I travel. There’s a sort of tension that builds up, and I have an almost addictive need to soothe it.

You could speculate on the underlying psychology, but I think it’s a form of escapism, it’s disappearing into a secret world where there are things to find, there are little projects and sub-projects everywhere, and you can be the king of your own little hill. When I’m in the zone, anything external that worries or depresses me is locked out. I’ve always done that: I retreat into my own personal space at times of trouble, and I think in some ways what attracts me about Prefab Sprout and Paddy is I sense common cause there.

But it’s not quite a static “collect music” thing. There’s a lot more to it than that.

During the last couple of days I translated a couple of interviews from Spanish, and one from French. It amazes me what is possible these days: you can scan, OCR and translate material to a pretty high standard basically for free. It’s a long way from what music fans in the 1970s and 1980s did to feed their obsessions – making cassette inlays using Letraset – you can create things to a professional standard using really great tools.

And that is at least half of what makes it interesting to me. It’s being able to do things well, and to polish them, and to learn new skills. I want what I do to be high quality, so I spend a lot of time finding out how to do things. Which are the best tools to be using? What techniques work best?

There is really nothing quite so enjoyable, for example, as the intense and brutal mindfuck associated with learning about video codecs, or how to demux a high resolution MP4 file from some weird format you’ve extracted from a webstream, or learning enough javascript to play music when a user clicks on a graphic of a singles review. This is head down, exclude the outside world, concentration, usually accompanied with total frustration (“WHY DO THEY HAVE TO MAKE THIS SO FUCKING DIFFICULT!!”)  and eventually a flush of triumph as everything slips into place. When I fail to go to bed and sit there giving it one last go for hours on end, it’s almost always because I’m just on the point of discovering how to do something. Trying to capture the elusive.

And then having learned a skill you apply it right across the breadth of everything, systematically, and mechanically, and there is an artisanal joy in doing that too. The interview translation process is a case in point – although it can be downright tedious to work through the 20th nearly identical Andromeda Heights pieces, nothing quite focuses you on what is being said as doing a translation, and from time to time fascinating little insights you wouldn’t normally notice pop up. There’s something deeply satisfying about ticking another piece off the list and moving onto the next too. It feels like restoring a bit of order to the universe.  Yes, all this must pass, and no, in 20 years or so when I cast off my mortal coil no one will be remotely interested, but for the moment everything is neat and well-ordered.

Then there is the sheer joy of the postman bringing something new – that’s something I’ve loved since I was young and sent off for things from magazines – of course. It’s more and more infrequent, as I have most of what there is to collect, but by creating slightly new categories of interest (most recently magazine articles) you can sustain and extend this particular endorphin source. The bounce of a jiffy bag on the doormat. Nothing like it.

And there’s the website, looking to find interesting new things to post – being constantly surprised by what people think is interesting and what they don’t – keeping an eye on page views, and gradually creeping up the Google rankings. In common with most people who do this sort of thing, the website is as much a way of attracting the attention of other people with goodies to share as anything else, but it’s very rare anything turns up. Maybe two or three times a year, someone will contact you about something they have. It’s good when it happens though. In the meantime, I’m learning a lot about WordPress.

But do I listen to Prefab Sprout a lot? Well no, actually not really. When I’m working on audio, yes, of course, and quite often in the car I’ll have a CD on rotate. Normally though I’m listening to other artists. It’s curious: I’d say Prefab Sprout were my favourite band, but if I were to list my favourite songs, they’d be well down the list. I’d go for things like Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas”, and indeed probably quite a lot of Brel (“La Quete” is one of the great covers, of “Dream an impossible dream”, where poetry is actually gained in translation), he was poet, performer and musician and for me unparalleled and unequalled. I’d go for Cole Porter, “Got You Under My Skin”. Torch songs by Sondheim: “Losing My Mind”. I’m listening a lot to “Black Star” at the moment, I also love John Adams, “On the transmigration of souls”. And so on really. There are, in my opinion, always better songs and music than Paddy’s. “Bewitched, bothered and bewildered” v. “Nightingales”? No contest.

But I see it almost like a marriage – you choose your life partner for a number of reasons, including of course the electroshock thrill of limerence from early in the relationship, but I would guess mostly because you feel comfortable with them where it would be difficult, for example, to be married to a supermodel or a saint, because the standards you’d have to maintain would wear you down. So it goes with favourite bands, our funny valentines.

I’m of the generation that had favourite bands too, I sense that is increasingly unusual as the level of fan commitment dissipates due to ease of access to anything via Spotify etc. And maybe that’s also a reason for the total obsession: I want to be committed, it takes me back to a simpler time, when I didn’t have every single album ever recorded available to me and had to love what I’d bought.

Anyway, enough of this. I discovered an A3 scanner had been delivered yesterday and was sitting in a puddle by the back gate, so I have to get that working and look at processing music paper interviews. The silicon seal on my snowglobe should now have cured, so that has to be checked and stored somewhere. I need to complete work on a quite wonderful “Ultrasonica” interview from 2009, and plan what I might post on the site over the weekend, bit short of page views this month…

And so it goes. Busy busy busy. The world of the superfan. It’s great. But don’t go there.



2 thoughts

  1. Ah, the madness of it all! I can validate virtually everything you say here. And the work you have done is really so incredible. Each of the “key” Sprout sites has gone well beyond the previous one, and for fans it is a welcome, largely no-effort, bonanza.

    For me it just got to the point where I could no longer find the desire to keep up with it, (and I was limited in the kind of technical wizardry you routinely undertake). Part of that was fueled by what I discerned to be a profound indifference to fans by Paddy. I’m not saying he was obligated to do anything in this regard, but without some sense of that it is hard to sustain the marriage, to borrow your metaphor. Also, the appeal of the work was lost to me somewhat with the departure of Wendy.

    I am largely without regret about my involvement in this endeavor. If I had one, it would be that my mania about it – there is no other word – was likely a contributory factor in the demise of my relationship with a wonderful girl. In all candor, it would have likely fallen apart for other reasons as well, but I do wonder if I hadn’t been doing the Sprout thing and invested that energy in her, whether things would have turned out differently.

    Nonetheless, I ended up with a wonderful wife (married since 1993) and incredible life post my peak Sprout involvement. I have never regretted letting loose 99% of my collection. I almost never listen to them either, mostly because their work is so deeply etched in my brain. I’ve continued my interest in music. I really like some current bands: Courtney Barnett, Melody’s Echo Chamber, and Tame Impala for example. I just discovered a Danish band that has been around a while, Mew. Good music continues to be made.

    I, too, move from obsession to obsession. Wristwatches have been largely a constant one since about 2000. Motorcycles became another one around 2007. That led to motorcycle racing and working as a marshal where I now work in pit lane for MotoGP, WEC, and even F1, (I have been a race fan my entire life). Giving up the Sprouts gave me the room for these other things I suspect.

    So my advice: when it is no longer fun, or costing you too much in other ways, just walk away. You may have gotten to the point where the marginal additions to the knowledge of the band are just too insignificant. If you leave it up on the internet it is still there for others to enjoy (I lost my site when a company went out of business and I was too uninterested to try to create it again – but there are internet archive sites where it can be rediscovered).

    And if you do walk away someday: No regrets. You’ve done an incredible thing and nothing can change that.

    1. Don’t worry, I do things to excess, stop, walk away and start doing other things. This is still fun. Something else will catch my interest in a couple of years probably. I’ve done all sorts of things, just intensively and one at a time. Usually you carry something from the previous interest into whatever it is that comes next. But I have whole collections of things I spent masses of time poring over and finding sitting in the loft, forgotten.

      There’s an entire piece around Paddy and his indifference to his fans. I think anyone with obsessive tendencies will recognise how his need to write songs drives him, and how irrelevant external considerations are when you’re in that sort of mindset. I think he (and myself) are somewhere on the autistic spectrum, which isn’t to say it’s not that I can’t be personable and charming or function in the real world, it’s just that at the heart of everything is a need to do something on an exclusive and very self-centred basis. I don’t think it’s a negative about Paddy in particular, I just think people need to understand that going to him with a solution to better reach his fans is futile. He’ll come to the fans if and when he wants to, he’s perfectly capable of figuring the options out.

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