‘I would have happily given it all up for a night’s sleep’ The indomitable PADDY MCALOON launches PREFAB SPROUT: The Comeback
OVER THE PAST couple of decades, a legend has gathered around Paddy McAloon. It whispers of a sprawling catalogue of unﬁnished and/or unreleased masterpieces piled up in his County Durham home studio, of which the world is being deprived by McAloon’s obsessive perfectionism and/or more prosaic ﬁnancial realities. These thwarted magnum opuses are said to include a historiography called ‘Earth: The Story So Far’, a suite inspired by Michael Jackson, and others of which little is known but their titles; ‘Zero Attention Span’, ‘Enter The Trumpets’, ‘The Atomic Hymnbook’, ‘Doomed Poets Vol 1’.
Is Crimson/Red, the new Prefab Sprout album, plucked from this mythical trove?
“It’s not,” says McAloon. “Some of the songs, like ‘The Old Magician’, were intended for a record called ‘20th Century Magic’, but I missed the deadline. Someone from [record label] Icebreaker asked if it was a new or old record, and I didn’t know what to say. It’s new if no-one’s heard it. The most recent song is ‘Billy’, from about two years ago, there’s some from as far back as 1997, and a lot from 2004-’05, just before my hearing disaster.”
There are reasons why Crimson/Red is only the third 21st- Century Prefab Sprout album (and 2009’s Let’s Change The World With Music was actually recorded in 1992). In 2006, McAloon was struck by overwhelming tinnitus.
“Either a blood vessel burst, or it was viral damage,” he explains. “Something happens in my right ear where bass frequencies disappear, so when I work on low-range things I have to shift them to a higher octave so I can hear them. It’s more or less manageable now, but I had a terrible six months when the noises in my head just wouldn’t switch off. There was a point where I would have happily given it all up, any talent I might have, for a night’s sleep. And my three daughters had to learn to be quiet around me, which is a terrible thing for children to have to do.”
McAloon, 56, has had little luck with his health. In the late ’90s, he was nearly blinded by the detachment of both retinas, an experience which tangentially inspired 2003’s largely instrumental solo album I Trawl The Megahertz (he ended up listening to a lot of radio). Last year, just before beginning work on Crimson/ Red, which he recorded at home between October and December, he had cataracts removed from his eyes. McAloon relates these travails without self-pity: he is, as ever, an invigorating onslaught of ebullient good cheer. A certain wistfulness descends only when he admits that Prefab Sprout aren’t really a band any more.
“There’s nobody else playing on Crimson/Red,” he says, “which is a great sadness to me. I never intentionally wound the whole thing up. But my hearing wouldn’t allow me to direct other people playing real instruments, and it’s too expensive. Martin [McAloon, Paddy’s brother and Prefabs co-founder] has a day job now. He’s very good about me using the name. But it isn’t ideal.”
Asked if there is a defining motif to Crimson/Red, McAloon enthuses about strophic form, a style of songwriting in which the choruses have the same music as the verses, or don’t really appear at all.
“Songs where you just pick up a guitar and tell a story,” he says. “You don’t have to invest much meaning, as long as you have a narrative — they’re the musical equivalent of a page-turner. There’s a few on the album. ‘The Best Jewel Thief In The World’, ‘Devil Came A Calling’, ‘The Songs Of Danny Galway’, which is a portrait of Jimmy Webb, ‘Mysterious’, which is about Bob Dylan.”
McAloon says that, on balance, he rates Crimson/Red “fairly highly”, and so he should: for all the years that separate them, it shares the incandescent joy at the possibilities of pop that deﬁned the prime Prefabs LPs: Steve McQueen, From Langley Park To Memphis, Jordan: The Comeback.
And will he ever finish those lost albums? “I will,” he laughs, “but I don’t feel like it at the moment. I know how to finish them off, but it feels like office work, like adding up your receipts. For me, the fun is the writing — that’s the real spark, the beauty of the whole thing.”
Crimson/Red feels like the most sincere and musically straightforward album you’ve ever made. Do you agree?
I know what you mean. But I have a problem with the word “sincere”. People take that to mean that you’re getting some straight talking from someone, and I don’t know that l like straight talking. It makes for earnest and dull records. But the goal l set myself this time was this: instead of fighting against simplicity, I’d try and ride with it. And I’d let the burden Fall on the lyrics or the melodic hook. I’m dead conscious that people prefer things simple.
“The Songs OF Danny Galway” is about meeting your hero Jimmy Webb in Dublin. What was he like?
It was in 1991 for a show on RTE about songwriters with orchestras. I did a duet with him on “The Highwayman”. He was very nice and very humble about his talent. I was too shy to say too much to him. I was just thinking. ‘You wrote “Wichita Lineman”!’
You’re 56 but you still have the same boyish singing voice that featured on “Lions ln My Own Garden…” in 1982. What’s your secret?
Gargling with virgins’ blood l always find helps. I think my voice is all right because I didn’t hammer it for two hours a night for 30 years. It’s a side effect of not touring. See… vindicated at last.