Arnd (“Arnie”) Zeigler has in recent years been responsible for some definitive interviews with Paddy McAloon, two of which are hosted in the audio section of Sproutnet, which, I might add, is a wonderful place to poke around. Last year he visited County Durham for another; since Sproutnet is no longer being actively updated it was never hosted there directly, so I’m making it available here with Arnie’s permission.
It’s a wonderful and wide ranging interview: indeed all of the 2013 interviews were hugely worthwhile, finding Paddy in a receptive and chatty frame of mind, and they each have their own character. It helped that many of the interviewers were also huge fans of the work (I’d point particularly at the wonderful Rephertoire interview here) and so were able to probe slightly less beaten track areas and avoid the obvious “why are you called Prefab Sprout” sort of questions.
For listening convenience, I’ve joined the audio together into a continuous stream and included a transcript with the questions included. It’s a lovely way to spend an hour.
If you like this, during November I’ll be starting to publish a completely exclusive interview with Paddy from the same period, so look out for that.
Interview Audio and Transcript are (C) Copyright 2013 Arnd Ziegler and are not to be reproduced in any form without his written permission.
On positive reviews for the new album
Well I’ve read very few of them. I… I… I haven’t really gone near them. But I noticed that the reaction from a lot of people who came to see me,they were very pleased to see me, which is always a good thing that they were pleased to see me as opposed to looking away embarrassed as if I’d done something terrible. So, it’s wonderful. It’s really, really wonderful. And this is where I say the awkward thing. I… I never really know what to do with praise… because you then have to move on and do the next thing. So if someone tells me that they really, really (laughs) like the record, part of me thinks ‘I wonder if they’ll like what I’m doing now? I wonder if they’ll like the next…’ Which is madness. But that’s how I think. It’s lovely… it’s… it’s wonderful that people are so keen for it… to enjoying it.
On the mixture between pressure and motivation Paddy receives from positive reviews
Yeah, yeah. It’s wonderful. It does adjust my feelings about the things that I am working on. Because I start to think ‘ah, okay, I wonder what it is that they like about this so much?’ And then I have to go back to it and think ‘okay, all of the lyrics on it are pretty direct and they are very different from each other.’ And they are, um, quite, um… there are no bad lines I don’t think on the record, they are all quite, it’s all kind of quite strong… and concentrated whereas sometimes I am writing a song: I always think the lyrics are good if I’ve finished it. I, I work hard to make the lyrics good. But I’m looking at this particularly carefully, thinking ‘this is maybe harder than the things I’m working on. Maybe tougher, and maybe it’s the toughness that people like.’ So, so… It makes me doubt myself a little bit. But that’s a, that’s a private writer’s kind of problem, you know? I should just be grateful that people like it.
On the use of the word ‘ASSHOLE’ on “Crimson/Red”
(Cackles of kind laughter)… Yeah, yeah, it’s great, it’s great. Yeah, well I struggled you see. I knew it was the right word to use for the song and I tried other versions of things but it was uh, Callum (Malcolm) – the engineer – when he heard the word, he said to me, he said: ‘you’ve got to use “assholes” you’ve got to say that… and I said “yeah” ‘. But when I play it at home, I have versions where I’m saying ‘crass souls’ — I’ve changed it into two words, yeah. (laughs). ‘Assholes’. It works… it’s the right word.
Was it a good feeling that he could create a proper album out of existing, old material?
Yes, yes. That is true. It’s also slightly uh, slightly, it’s slightly worrying because a lot of the time that I spend is on doing things that are, um, more abstract; I like music that’s more abstract and more complex. And this has made me really think ‘okay, how many songs have you got that are as simple and direct as that?’ And I have a few, but I don’t have a hundred of them. But I have a few. Um, it’s a great thing when you, when you see that people… their feeling is a sort of relief or their feeling is ‘ahhh’.
Is it a new experience?
It’s an old experience. It’s a… critics have been generally very kind to what I’ve done… to what Prefab Sprout have done. People, critics, I would say have been very, very kind. But I would say it’s been a combination of having been away for so long and maybe having made a good record that you see this intensity of expression from all over the world of people saying ‘that’s good, that’s nice’. And I think it’s even surprised some of my friends, you know, I have friends who‘ll know I make music but they’re maybe not huge Prefab Sprout fans, but they will see me in newspapers thinking ‘alright, somone’s taking me very seriously’. And I’ll say ‘yeah, there are a lot of people out there now who have waited for something like this’, you know. It’s a… it’s a great feeling.
Why does the album sound like a proper album, not like a compilation of tracks?
Because, really. Because in the end it really is a genuine album. Because all I’ve done that’s different from most people, the only thing I’ve done that’s different is, I assume, is that most people is they record songs they’ve written over the last year or two, you know, the new album is the new songs. With me, it might be over the last year, the last two, it might be longer. So for me, this is just a selection of things that all go together, but I’ve picked them from a larger period. Which is what happened with Steve McQueen. Because even when I was 28, Tom Dolby picked the songs that he liked. I played him a whole bunch of things. He didn’t know how new they were. He didn’t know how old they were. So, my method is no different
Is Pop Music an old fashioned thing now?
Yeah, yeah. I think the whole scene has atomized… it’s kind of, you know, you try to keep up with um, Dub Step or Grime. I wouldn’t know what these things are. You know, I kind of think how would I know if it was Dub Step or how would I know if it was Grime? I wouldn’t be sure. And it’s baffling to me. To keep on top of that must be very, very… if you are a journalist it must be really really tough to know you are not making a fool of yourself by using you know, you know… the wrong category. So yeah, I suppose the thing that I retain is that memory of, first of all – I should say – that album that doesn’t go on forever. It goes on for about 40 minutes, you know? We chopped it down a little bit. A few minutes, maybe missing a couple of seconds, here or there, but it’s possibly better for that. I listened to something recently and I don’t remember what it was and it only lasted about 35 minutes and I thought: ‘that’s great’. It was an old record and it made me want to start again. You know and I thought ‘okay, there’s something in that’.
Thinking in vinyl track order categories when creating Crimson/Red?Yeah, I wanted it to end, I wanted it to end with “The Old Magician”. But for some reason, it didn’t work nearly as well. I wanted it to go, to go, “Mysterious”… “The Old Magician”. But it didn’t quite work. Ah, Callum said to me, “It just works better if you flip them over.” Yeah, yeah. It’s right. In the beginning, I know, that people had copies from that SoundCloud thing, and I think they’re just in alphabetically order. You know, I think that’s what happened and… I did wonder where to put “Best Jewel Thief in the World” when I was working on them, because I thought it was the one track that sounded like, almost like, I was doing a Prefab Sprout… like being a Prefab Sprout from the eighties, and I didn’t like that idea. I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to sound like I was trying to be myself, if you know what I mean. I didn’t want to copy myself. But the way that the production went on it, it turned into this big thing, all glossy and shiny and silky. And I think there was only one place to put that. Possibly because the opening line, like the chorus, it grabs you… you know, “Masked and dressed in black” it’s almost like there’s nothing whimsical, or mild… it’s just down to business, and that’s a good place to put that kind of song.
On the infamous project ‘Trapdoor Melancholy’ which he might have mentioned in the past
No, I never mentioned Trapdoor Melancholy. [Interviewer: You didn’t? I thought I read somewhere…]. Yeah, no I wonder where this phrase came from? I saw someone told me about Trapdoor Melancholy? It’s got nothing to do with me. I do mention the word ‘trapdoor’ in one of the lyrics of “The Old Magician” but no, no I don’t know where that phrase came from. Unless [Interviewer interrupts: So someone has never asked you to prove…], no, no, unless it’s something that I’ve said where people have misunderstood, where I’ve said, I’ve said the words the wrong way? Or something else? But I can’t think of what that would be. But I don’t know where that has come from. Does that spoil your question completely? [Interviewer: Yes.] Yes, (laughs) right.
Might his way of composing prevent him from becoming boring like many other mature artists?
No, no. I think I have the capacity to lose it just like everybody else, clearly. I worry about it, I think about it. Um. It’s not that I sit down and write a bad song. I sort of write unfocused material and like it, I quite like the fact that something I might be working on… you’re not sure what it’s about. Whereas every song on that album, most the songs on Crimson/Red you have a good idea what they’re about. Maybe other than “The List of Impossible Things”… most things you’ll see, you’ll see that something like “Danny Galway” you’ll see that it’s a tribute to somebody, whether he’s fictitious or he’s real. The thing you asked me, it fascinates me. Part of it is what they say, they sometimes say about mathematicians or physicists… that they’re good at it when they are younger, and a songwriter, you may be just… let me put it like this… I’ve said this before, but not very often… when you start out to write a song and the first time you rhyme the words “blue” and “you” or “skies” and “tries” – you’ve those simple rhymes, the first time you do it, that’s okay. Because that’s the first thing you’ve ever written. But a year or two later, those rhymes don’t work so well, because you have been there. [Interviewer: mmmm]. And I think that the people that you name – the great songwriters – they wrote so many great things when they were younger that maybe a kind of exhaustion sets in in terms of what their vocabulary is… you’ve just kind of done it. That’s almost like asking why an athlete they can’t run the 100 meters when they are sixty, it’s… you have to be an extremely, ah, um, self-conscious musician to try to evade the problem you’re describing. I try to be self-conscious. I try to do it, ‘okay, is this like something I’ve done before?’. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it shockingly is and you don’t realize that sometimes you write a line and then realize that it might just be in another song. So you just gotta try to keep your wits about you. But I don’t know how you completely evade the problem.
How does he feel about fans discussing his work in a sometimes obsessive manner?
I don’t mind that obsessive aspect. It means someone is paying attention to it, which is rather nice. Um, but I don’t read a lot of that, I just don’t because I don’t think it will be very helpful. I might be tempted and I will say sometimes to a friend ‘you know what’s happening out there, has anyone said anything… what are people saying?’. And that friend will get the things, the phone and say ‘oh look you can see the reviews’ or ‘I can show you a blog’ or sometimes the record company will send me things that people have said, but I’m not sure about any of it. I kind of… I try to keep my distance from it. But it is nice that it generates an interest. I… I do like that. And would thank people for being… from the bottom of my heart… it’s a genuine response of thank you for liking my music. It’s wonderful. But the best thing, the strange thing is to write the next thing, you really must forget about that. Otherwise the problem is you sit and you think ‘oh, I’m supposed to be good at this’. You know, or maybe I’ve said that to you before, I’ve possible said that to you before. My worry is I’m supposed to be this guy who does these things; and if you think like that, I think you will short-circuit your inspiration.
On other artists covering his songs
Yeah, yeah, she really likes that.. Kylie Minogue really likes that track doesn’t she? She plays it everywhere, it’s fantastic. Yeah… I’ve never met her. I’d say hello.
I LOVE Joakim Milder. I love him. I’ve never met him either. But I really like it. He’s got a great ear. Ummm, particularly some of his things I think are better than my version. I like God Watch Over You and Nightingales, and I like his abbreviated Megahertz, he’s really tremendous. I think he’s coming to Newcastle to play, I believe he is, but I don’t think I’ll be there. It‘s all a bit loud.. Music’s all a bit loud for me now, I have to have quiet. But I wish I could see what he does. I sent him a card saying “Wow!” when I heard Quoted Out of Context, but I’ve never spoken to him. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s done my music other than Jimmy Nail who’s from Newcastle. The point about cover versions is, and it sounds like a politician’s answer, it sounds like a diplomat’s answer, but the truth of the matter is if someone can.. if someone chooses to do your song you should be grateful just because the world is full of music, you know, and for someone to be so bothered by it, it’s wonderful. So I don’t think I’ve heard everything that’s been done, but I’ve heard some of them, and I’m always amused. And I always think that everyone’s a better singer than me, that’s my other thing, I always think everyone is a better singer. I see myself as a songwriter who happens to sing. So that’s what I think about that.
On his strange method of creating new music and if it always had been this way
It probably started like that, it probably started as something that you wanted to see.. first of all I wanted to see if I could do it, write songs. Then at a certain point where I thunk… (where I thunk!) at a certain point where I thought that the songs were good, I probably thought ‘oh we could play this live’ so I did think at some point we should play this live. The problem became that I got more addicted to the writing than the performing so it became an addiction, which it still is to write.
When it started? Um, I think it became more of a… oh it’s always been there in some form, but because we made records there was a command if you like or an imperative that if someone liked Steve McQueen the pressure was then on to follow that up, so I think I just got into the habit of being continually working, that became my habit so since probably about 1986, but before then I was also just um, I was obsessive, but I didn’t write… I don’t think I wrote that many things that I liked. You know, maybe ten or twelve a year, which is enough, but it was… I wanted to write more. So I think that’s where it started and of course now, the problem is.. and it is a good question. whoever… where it looks like you’ve reversed the normal order of things, it’s not that I don’t want people to hear these, it’s not that: I would love people to hear them, um, I noticed in a review of an album yesterday, I read a review in a magazine that Nick Lowe had a Christmas album. And he covers a song called um ‘Hooves on the Roof’ by Ron Sexsmith, who I’ve heard of him but I don’t know the song and I saw that and a little part of me went: ‘ahhhh’…, because I have a really great Christmas song called ‘Madman on the Roof’ which is about Santa Claus coming down. So I tell you that story because as time goes by, some of the things I’ve written, some of my titles, I see them elsewhere. That’s a kind of a penalty for doing what I do, um, that’s the downside of it. But I don’t.. I don’t do it to be perverse, I’m not doing it just to, just to be um the man in the ivory tower, that’s you know I don’t want to be someone cut off from the world, but it’s just, it’s gone that way a little bit, that’s all.
Has he heard of other musicians working in a similar way?
I don’t know. I think most songwriters, it has occurred to me, there may be many songwriters you could be talking to who could say to you, ‘well I have boxes of stuff that’s unused, what’s so special about his, you know, they might say ‘I do that as well’. I think in general, most people probably record what they’ve just written. Someone like Sting will write an album. I think… and then he records it, and then he is kind of dry and empty, until he has the next one. I think that’s more the pattern.
On the unnamed project he abandoned when he had to finish Crimson/Red
Well, what can I say about that? Um, I haven’t gone back to it, I left it. I could just record it, I could start recording it tomorrow. But the reception to this record threw that one into doubt because I really liked the other one I was working on, I thought it was great. But now I’m starting to wonder, maybe it’s not direct enough, it’s not… the other project is all songs that seem to describe something that’s happened in the woods, like you’re looking into a forest at something that’s happened, and you’re not quite sure what but something has happened. And because of that it’s slightly more of an abstract record to the one that you’ve got here, erm, but I was just.. I had second thoughts about it. I still want to do it, but I don’t know whether I would do it as a follow up to this.. Maybe, because it’s almost ready to record. You know, I’m kind of almost there with it. I don’t know. I’m going to keep the title to myself just in case it gets used up somewhere else.
Was that project inspired by Kurusawa’s movie “Rashomon”?
Do you know I know what it is, of Rash… I know it… No it’s not, I’ve never seen Rashomon, I know it’s the one from different points of view.. Yeah, it’s famously from different points.. But I’ve never seen it. No, no it’s not, and I don’t want to make too much of the fact that it’s seen from different points of view, it’s quite… you get the feeling… it’s not even hard to figure out what’s been going on, it’s just that the narrator is unreliable, that’s all it is, the narrator kind of isn’t the most trustworthy of people.
On how he works with his vintage Atari equipment
The Atari? I use a 1040STE with a four megabyte chip inside it. You can only get them second hand now, reconditioned, you can’t… they’ve gone. It’s extremely, extremely unreliable. I have a hard drive attached to it which when I switch on it sometimes doesn’t connect with the computer, it just doesn’t. So the first 20 minutes of any morning are me switching this on and off, on and off, and then when it fires up it works. And then sometimes I will lose things from it, so it’s sort of.. sometimes I will just, I’ll spend all morning working on a part and it’ll disappear. So I try to tell myself to save every 5 minutes so I don’t lose too much. Um, it only records midi information, it doesn’t record audio, what I do is I.. stop me if I’m getting really boring… but if this guy wants to know what he wants to know… I um.. even record guitar parts into it, I can do that because I’m a guitar player and while I can’t… I don’t like midi guitars where you connect them… what I do is I program each stroke of each string, I place it on a stave, and I write the dynamics into it. So it takes me about a week to do a guitar part. It’s tedious. It’s sounds extremely exact but it doesn’t sound real. So sometimes I will use bits of that but what I’m really doing with it is I’m using it as a skeleton to flesh out the songs, so I’ve got this kind of electric electronically programmed guitar that isn’t real but may be thrown away in the end. But while I’m working on the song, I’ll hear someone strumming very precisely. And then I work on all the other parts, I’ll work a few bars on the drums, bass; for a vocal, if I want to know where the voice is going to sit among all of this, what I use is a flute sound. So I play my melodies, you know, um Jewel Thief, instead of “masked and dressed in black” it’ll be “beep be bee beep beeeep” (sings) sound like elevator music. And it doesn’t sound good, but it’s useful. And then when I take that flute melody out, the track sits around this space, and when I sing into that space, it sounds good. So it’s kind of.. it’s sort of like using things that are difficult and un… err,… not… I use not flattering sounds because then I’ll know that the structure is good. So if it sounds okay with a bad flute, it’s going to sound great when there’s a real voice. So that’s how I use the Atari, and then I warm the whole thing up by putting real instruments on it or replacing things, so I’ll put real guitar on or I’ll put harmonica, whatever it is. And sometimes some real drums… or Callum, my engineer, has a machine that reads my bad drums and puts in things that he says, ‘Look, that snare is better than the one you’re using‘, but he reads what I’ve written or what I’ve played. So that’s how I use the Atari, so… I’ve given him as full an answer as I can there. (laughs) I hope he’s happy! Or she! Probably a he.
Does a tight deadline help him?
I don’t think it does, I know what you’re saying, I know what you’re saying. I think what helped me on the last bunch of things was that I happened to have ten really strong songs, unused in a box. That was what really helped me. I knew the kind of material that I had to do to make a record in a hurry. And that probably means, yes they were strong songs that could be communicated with just a voice and a guitar. Um but the deadline it didn’t help me, I’ve spent most of this year trying to recover from the effort, I mean I.. I’ve just… I was exhausted with it. And it hasn’t made me want to record again. The first thing I thought I would do is, having been through that experience, I thought well ‘don’t let that happen again‘, so record a new album slowly, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it so I’ve recorded nothing since. I’ve written lots of things, but I don’t want to make another record. I feel like “woah! oofff!”. But at some point I’ll have to, so I might even repeat that pattern so I’m hoping not to sign any pieces of paper, I’m hoping not to sign anything so that no-one can come to me and say well you agreed to do it. So that’s been the effect of it, it’s sort of put me off making a record, it kind of made me think, “woah”. Um, it turned out well but I think I was lucky.
On “Billy” and why the melody of this this song works so perfectly
I think Billy sounds like… well I know how it was written. It was one of those songs that are almost a gift to you, to the writer, um, nothing terribly original about the music, just started strumming and that tune came out, it could be someone else’s tune for all I know, there are songs like that, you know, it’s a kind of.. sort of um… ah… I think the lyric helps it, the lyric is unusual, you kind of think who… even I think… “who are these people?” and “why has he found a trumpet?” “why couldn’t it be something more conventional?”. But that’s a gift from your subconscious. I suppose it’s just like… it’s a Hey Jude kind of thing, you know the thing where McCartney wrote his line…the thing that I like is that McCartney says he was going to change the line about the movement you need is on your shoulder, and John Lennon says “no, just leave it, that’s okay, you don’t need to put that right”, and I think Billy is my song where I did think, “Why has he found a trumpet? What is this?” and then you turn it to your advantage you know. I don’t know, to answer your question, there’s a certain euphoria to the track, there’s a certain… and it just builds.. it doesn’t go anywhere, it just kind of just builds and builds and going round and round, there’s not even a middle eight, just same chords, I think, um but that in itself is very um, it’s very common in pop music, that’s what a lot of pop music does, it cycles. I’m glad you like it. I like Billy too, I can’t really explain it. But I like it.
Yeah yeah yeah… ‘holding on…’ (sings), yeah yeah. You’re answering your own question. You’re setting the question and you’re answering it. And I think that format, that way of looking at the lyric is quite good. It’s just like an unusual thing, you know, where’d you do it, and I’m giving you the answers and what you should do in next bit, and it probably helps that I’m pushing my voice quite a bit. I’m more comfortable singing it you know.. if I sit at home with it I will sing you know (croons softly) “where’d you find that trumpet Billy, I said, where’d you find that trumpet Bill, I found it on some wasteland, buried in the snow” , but when you’re making a record, I do.. I sang that, I sang it on tape like that for three or four takes, really quiet stuff, and then I thought: “ah, just try: ‘Where’d you find’ (straining)” and then you get into “I found it on” (straining) and then I left it up to Callum to choose the things that he thought worked. I kind of… I wasn’t sure what worked, to be honest with you, and he pieced it together and then I thought, “Okay well then that’s it” so I kind of shirked my responsibilities a little bit.
Which music is Paddy currently listening to?
At the moment? What have I been listening to? Erm, over the summer I listened to a lot of Lee Scratch Perry, I listened to a lot of Reggae. Um and recently I’ve not listened to much… what have we had in the ki… when I’m making my tea in the kitchen.. I put things on. My wife was listening to Jah Wobble, compilation of his stuff, very good, and ‘Low‘, David Bowie, always a good… it’s a beauty isn’t it? It’s a beauty. And erm…. I like, I notice there’s a.. I haven’t got it here but there’s a magazine out called Uncut and they had a big thing on Joni Mitchell, a very good interview with her, and um the journalist, I’ve seen him review one of her records before, he doesn’t like Mingus, the one where she wrote the lyrics to Charlie Mingus, and I really love that record. So I’m always in my head on the verge of writing a note or typing a letter saying to Uncut saying ‘look, this is a great piece on Joni Mitchell but that Mingus LP, it’s fantastic, it’s just different to what she normally does‘ . So I like Mingus, that’s one of my favourite of Joni Mitchell things, I’ll listen to her. And I listen to Miles Davis, which might seem like a bit of a muso’s answer, I like all sorts of things from different eras, I like his electric period very much, you know, “Silent Way”, even some of “On the Corner”, I like the area he was moving towards, that kind of free form Sly Stone based bedrock with him floating on the top, and also him being influenced by Stockhausen. I quite like.. I like the idea of that, where you’ve got the rhythm and this sort of strange stuff happening on top. But if I’m honest, recently I’ve not listened to a lot, I’ve been writing music and I think when I do that, when I’ve finished doing that, I tend to read more than listen to things.
Does he listen to music in foreign languages?
Only opera, or classical music. I rarely… I mean I like um.. I don’t listen to much pop music full stop. So I don’t know… you know… the words of foreign songs, to me foreign songs… I don’t… if I can’t hear the words, erm, it’s not that I can’t enjoy it, but I don’t seek it out. But the flaw.. the fail… the flaw in my argument is that I have no problem whatsoever with listening to classical music that might be in Italian or German or French, I love it and I don’t even need to know what.. erm I don’t need to know what the libretto to Albernberg’s (sp) Lulu is. I have a good idea, but I don’t need to hear it for it to be right.
On meeting Jimmy Webb as he did in Dublin many years ago for their live performance of ‚The Highwayman‘.
Ahhh… it was.. apart from the fact that I didn’t really like my singing, we did two takes of it, with the orchestra, and I thought that the first one was better but I think the orchestra, there may have been a mistake somewhere, I could be wrong, I could be wrong… but I know that I got the words right on the first take; I get the words wrong to Jimmy Webb’s song, and I hated myself for that. I sing “coast road” when it should be “coach road”. So he didn’t say anything to me, but he must have thought “Ah, who is this guy? He doesn’t know the words to my song”. Um, but no that was a great day, you know I was there with my brother Martin, and Phil from Kitchenware Records, the three of us went out, and to be honest with you, just seeing him was enough, I didn’t need to sing with him, in fact I’d have probably been more relaxed just to say hello to him and watch him. And I also thought he has a good voice, some people I’ve seen reviews of him saying that his voice is this or his voice is that, but I think he’s … he’s quite masterful, you know on that song, he sounds really like he’s in charge of it. I’d like to, in a way, to have another go at that, just that I wouldn’t do it now, but you know, now that I think about it, I think I could sing it, I think my voice is better for sure than it was then.
I don’t know… it sort of slightly scares me, the notion of reincarnation. I suppose the beauty of reincarnation is that you’ve forgotten that you’ve been here before, because I don’t know how you feel, but the idea of coming round to have to try and do it all again and go through it all again is a wearying thought, I quite like the idea of oblivion, you know I kind of… Oblivion is okay. Just as long as I’m not unhappy getting there.
Did Paddy learn anything from reading Jimmy Webb’s book “Tunesmith”.
YES! yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, he has, he is very strong in his tastes, and the things that he doesn’t like, and some of it amuses me, the things that he doesn’t like, and I understand it. It’s partly to do with the time he came from. For example: are you a musician yourself, do you play? Okay, the things that he doesn’t like which are: movements in a semitone, which is a kind of an old fashioned movement on a keyboard where you go “ummmmmahhhhh” (slowly rising), and he doesn’t like melodies that do it, he likes melodies that have huge leaps of a fourth, of a fifth, and what have you. And I can see that, you know I am a lineman to the county, Wichita Lineman, these things, they have great spaces, great spaces between the notes, and that is more modern in a way, but I feel that because I’m slightly younger, and because people don’t do it as much, I quite like the idea of rehabilitating the old style of having these melodies move by a semitone, but it can sound old fashioned, that’s for sure. Erm, there are other things in it that are, that are quite interesting, that, I don’t know how much you can learn from him other than….. (pauses) He writes a song throughout the book, doesn’t he? He goes through it bit by bit, and I think that’s good as an exercise in showing you just how his mind works. I think, and I’m sure it’s true of a lot of his own songs that when it comes right down to it, the moment of inspiration cannot be… err… detailed, it cannot be written into a book. I was saying to someone recently and it had just occurred to me that… writing a song in a strange way is a bit like falling asleep. That if you’re waiting for that moment it never happens. And it only happens when you can’t notice it happen. And for years I’ve tried to think what is it about writing a song that… you suddenly know it’s right, and you’re on the right path, but up until that point you don’t know and you’re kind of messing around and you sound clumsy and you sound stupid, and you know the early attempts might be bad, but at some point it’s almost like you’ve fallen into something and you’re going with it and the next thing you know you’ve crossed some bridge. Now I think that Jimmy Webb will know that, I don’t think he can describe it. But I love his things about A&R people as well, the business things where songs that have been ruined by someone saying you can’t do this or you can’t do that. It’s a good read, a good book, yeah.
Songs that ALMOST were featured on Crimson/Red but were dropped?
Yeah… it was.. I had a song.. and I will still do it because it’s a good song, it’s called “Evening Town”. The only reason it’s not there is it was too similar in some way to “The Old Magician”. Not musically, not even the lyric, it was the mood of um, ah, the theme was kind of mortality. And I thought: “you’ve done that with the Old Magician, you don’t need to do two songs so close together with that there, there’s enough on the record that has that feeling”. It’s one of my constant themes about, you know getting old, or losing something or what have you, it’s always there. But I will do that sometime, so I hope you’ll like it, it’s called “Evening Town”. That didn’t make it. But apart from that, I don’t think.. I didn’t record anything… I didn’t even record that, I thought.. I had a list, of songs that might work together. That was part of it I thought, “which ones are easy to play, which ones will work together.” And I didn’t have more than a couple of titles beyond that. In fact I can’t remember what the other one was.
Could the way in which he had to complete Crimson/Red (although he didn’t like working with a tight deadline) probably have positive effects on his work in the future?
Yeah.. I don’t know what I’ll do next. It’s really made me feel like I don’t want to be in my studio. Maybe that’s just… maybe that’s just a passing feeling. I have been in, in August I did. I thought “start again, do something else”, um, but there’s a part of me that just feels like, um… I feel as if I need a big new idea or a new big idea. I feel that I could make a perfectly good another record with songs people have never heard, and they might like it as much as it’s possible they would like it as this, but a part of me feels like… I’m very wary of sequels, I don’t like the idea of doing something that’s more in that vein so I maybe need to change something or to do something like a solo album which has a completely different feeling to it. Because that for me was my attempt at making a Prefab Sprout record or a song record, with the blessing of our… with the blessing of my brother even though he’s not on it, but I’m not sure if I want to rush into doing that again, I kind of feel as if, “no..” it’s just you need to do something… I need psychologically to change my feeling about it all.
On writing a musical
I was once asked to rewrite the music to, um, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Which had had music written in the sixties, and someone sent me you know the adapted lyrics, Chaucer really, Geoffrey Chaucer. So that would have been a McAloon/Chaucer collaboration which would have been good. But um, I wasn’t really tempted. And beyond that, no, no-one has contacted me to do it. I don’t think…I don’t know if I’d be good at it. I just don’t think I would. It’s the sort of thing that once upon a time I thought I was interested in it, but what I think I’m interested in is… the nature of songwriting. And how you express character through song. So that I’m interested in a point of view. Like in the… like in the Devil Came a Calling, or even in Jewel Thief, where I’m using language that I wouldn’t normally use, but it’s the right language for the characters. Now that’s a bit like writing musicals. But I don’t think I’ve… I don’t think I’ve got the interest to write every different kind of song you maybe need for a musical. Unless of course there’s someone out there who’s heard what I do and thinks this would work together, you know the things you’ve already written would work as a compilation piece, but I don’t know about a musical from scratch. I think it was one of those ideas that appealed to me when I was in my thirties, and I’ve woken up a little bit. But I think about it, and I’ve thought about it, I just… I think I overestimated my skills. That’s what I did.
You’d have think… Yeah, you may be.. yeah.. I was.. I played that song to myself the other day, the one that’s missing from there, the title track, I actually played it to myself and thought, “when are you going to do this?” Cos I started to do that, when I saw you last, I’d been doing it and the mixing desk exploded or caught fire or something, and I stopped work on it. Literally just went to pieces. Maybe you’re right
On the finally completed version of the Beach Boys’ SMILE
Oh, I’m glad that he managed to finish something. I think.. part of the joy of the whole project would have been to have seen it completed in 1966, 67. But anything after that it will always be very good because the music is beautiful… um, and I think his band are fantastic, you know that live version of it is a truly stunning thing that they can not only sing it but they can play it. I didn’t go and see that but I have a DVD. Did you see them do it? Tremendous, aren’t they?
A wonder mix, yes. Really there’s no praise high enough for their skills, I would say, as good a band doing any music as I’ve ever come across. But I think part of the mystique of Smile has to be that it belonged in a way to 66/67 and undoubtedly had he been able to finish it then… but of course he couldn’t which is one of the big.. you couldn’t actually.. you’ve got all these pieces floating about and the real world comes in and…. I also… I should say this… you know that, loving his music as I do, and understanding where he’s coming from, I also could see why other members in your band might think: “oh, you’ve taken too long on this, it’s never going to be done, it’s only pop music after all”. I can understand that point of view, I would even… you know… I would think that if you know my brother Martin or Wendy or Neil ever thought “why does it take so long?” you know “what’s your problem?”, I could understand that, how frustrating it must be to wait on somebody else. I think. I can understand that. But um, I feel as if he just made so much beautiful music that whatever he does, um, he’s done it, it’s OK.. he got there in 1967, even the version, even the Smiley Smile, I thought that was beautiful in its own little way, not quite what he intended, but still beautiful, you know. But that title, that track “Surf’s Up”, what an astonishing piece of music. It’s a piece of magic, it is. Um, almost unrepeatable, there’s something glorious about the, you know, even just his piano version where the chords move, and if it’s true that Van Dyke Park’s lyric was written in the course of a night, that’s quite something, you know, that’s not an easy thing to do with such an impressionistic piece, it’s very like James Joyce or something, and quite remarkable.
On rumours about a box set called ‘DECADES OF DENIAL’
Ha, ha, ha ha, no! no! What a great title: “Decades of Denial”. That’s a great title, no, where do these things come from? That’s fantastic!
On him painting
Yeah, for a laugh! I paint for a laugh, and I kind of tend to do a lot of things all at once, there’s no… there is no artistry in this, I’m amusing myself. Just to put things on the wall in my studio. Colours, really, I don’t know how to, I don’t have any skill at all in that department.
No.. it’s … err, no it’s not. It’s purely, um, it’s purely that the room that I’m in, it only has a small window. For sort of security reasons, the room I’m in has a very small window, so there’s not a lot of light, and with my eyes being the way they are, I could use more light. So what I have in the room are tons of lamps, and um… I try to brighten the room just by painting these canvasses. And when I started to do them I did it to make my wife laugh and make my children laugh, so I have kind of sporting themes to them: tennis players, but they’re really bad! I’m not being modest, they’re just not good.
On the infamous BMI list of unreleased Prefab Sprout tracks
It’s, it’s, it’s honestly… but I think I know what it will be, it’ll be an old list, a lot of things I’ve probably never intended to record, but I was just when someone had asked me what are the names of the songs that you’ve got, I will have written them. A lot of them, I probably couldn’t play them for you and they probably… some of them probably wouldn’t be very good. But there might be one or two among them. I’d like to see it… I suppose I’d like to see it if you can find it.
This is fantastic… OK. Ambassador. Yeah, there was a good song called the Ambassador. I can’t play it. Can’t remember it. The chorus was good, that’s what I remember. And “Chess is Beyond Me” was not good. That is the foll… if you think about it, “I Never Play Basketball Now” and “Chess is Beyond Me”, that’s a kind of follow up sentence. Um, “Bizarre”, we routined that for Steve McQueen, we rehearsed it with Thomas, Tom Dolby.. Um that was an interesting strange sort of.. it had a eastern sort of feel to the chorus… “Boy Let Love Take Over”, yeah, I sent that to um Dusty Springfield, but she didn’t cover that. It’s like a, um, something from the old days of pop music, like the brill building: “Boy let love take over..” (sings) it’s a kind of…it’s old fashioned, deliberately so. “Charity”, yeah that was not good. “Dignity”, that was good. “Doing a Garbo”, yeah, err, that was the 90s, it’s not Earth the Story So Far. “Don Quixote”, no, not Earth the Story So Far, “Don Quixote” was written with a strange tuning on the guitar. “Don’t pin me down, this is the Hapsburg sound” (sings) “and it means so much to me…”, it was one of the first Prefab Sprout songs we rehearsed. “Faith Cowboys”, nothing to do with the Gunman or Earth the Story So Far, erm, yeah, that was a funny one, it had a coda to the song called “Hal and Bert” about Bacharach and David, it was a very odd, very odd song. But I know at least one friend out there who really loves that song, so hello to John Sunter. “Fall From Grace”, was a very early Sprout song, not the instrumental that’s on “I trawl the Megahert“, “Far From the Madding Crowd”, that was just a little song, that was no, nothing to do with Earth the Story So Far, it was from the 1970s, I would have been around 16 when I wrote that. “Fooling with the Icons” is about 1980, not very good. “Frozen Wheel” was just a title. “Fumbles”, not very good. “God Bless America” was… no… wasn’t “Earth the Story So Far”, and it’s not the Irving Berlin song either. The “Lucilles”, yes, good find! “Goodbye Oranges and Lemons”, that’s fantastic! No, I don’t think so. “Happy Christmas World”, yeah, I sent that to Cliff Richards (sic), I sent that to EMI who really liked it, but they said we have to send it to his manager, but I didn’t hear anything back so I assume nothing happened. Um “Happy to have secrets“, ah, that had a great chord sequence, “Hunger” is not Earth the Story So Far”, it was probably me having read Knut Hamsun book “Hunger”, that’s what I think it was. “I won’t be Far Away”, I think I wrote a song called that; “If you were mine” was an attempted B Side, “Igor Stravinsky” was an early… “Igor Stravinsky”, the chorus was something like “you’re not what you thinksy”, it was some terrible some terrible… it was like some novelty area, but that was an early Prefab Sprout song. Joshua and the Fried Bread, oh really “demo exists online”, “June Parade”, I can’t remember how to play that. “Lone Wolf Blues”, I think I wrote that for Jimmy Nail, “Lucifer Show” I wrote that for an Italian film, it was a kind of James Bondy thing, they didn’t use it, it’s not good, it’s rubbish. Terrrible, Terrible. “Lucky the Dancer”, oh that’s weird, I was probably about 14 or 15. “Ma Cherie”, no, no such thing from me, “Madonna and Child”, yeah, there was a song called that, we used to play it. “Marian Flame”, we never played that. “Mary Queen of Scots”, “Me and Melody” these are titles. Yeah, some of them I couldn’t even remember what they go like, but they are… these are… “Neon Opera”‘ was a good song. Oh, some of these are things that Jimmy Nail… Some of these.. Neon Opera I wrote for me, but I gave it to Jimmy Nail and he really liked that. He never recorded it, it’s a sort of um… it’s a kind of um.. the way I look at it is, do you know that Neil Diamond song, “It’s a Beautiful Noise”? It has that kind.. it has that k… it doesn’t sound like it but it’s that kind of picture of the noise of the city, an old fashioned song, and I really… that’s a very good, if I say it myself, it’s a good one. It’s an easy one to play, um “Molly Malone”: that was a funny early Sprout song we used to play, “Moonlight”, I kind of had something vaguely called that which I scrapped. “The Mortimer Family”, early Prefab Sprout, in our live set, “On a Dangerous Street” was a song I wrote for Jimmy Nail; he never recorded it. “One is a Traditional Number”: I did write a song called that, it’s worthless. “Runaway Train” was extremely strange early Prefab Sprout song, it was… the music did one thing, the song, the chords, the rhythm and the bass did something else. So this is right, your list is kind of right, it’s clearly some sort of.. some sort of thing… “Sarah be my Valentine” was a song originally about Winona Ryder, and I changed the lyric and gave it as a new song to Jimmy Nail, but it was originally a song about Winona Ryder way back in the day, just like a funny song. About her appeal. So you’re kinda, yeah, it’s almost an authentic thing, other than “Ma Cherie”, I have no idea what that’s doing there.
I wrote a speculative song in a hurry for that movie (“Tomorrow Never Dies”) but they didn’t, they were quite right, it wasn’t very good, it just went round and round. It was an attempt, just after um, not I Trawl the Megahertz, just after um Andromeda Heights, someone said… someone said to me “they’re looking for a Bond song and I haven’t got it yet” and I thought “ah, I don’t really have the time for this, I haven’t got enough time in which to do it”, so I wrote one in a hurry, and I wish I hadn’t. Although f.. I’ll tell you a James Bond story, I did write a song called “Devil May Care”, right? Years ago. And I always thought it should be a James Bond thing. Years after I wrote it I see that Sebastien Foulkes wrote a new James Bond story called “Devil May Care”, so I thought “I was right with the title”. But I never… I didn’t send it to anyone, it just sits at home, it’s a kind of James Bond song, so I have a spare James Bond song if anyone needs it. So yeah, those are.. it’s a kind of authentic list.
(Interviewer): You should collect them all for Decades of Denial..
For (laughs) Decades of Denial. And I mean of course, you know, it’s true but I mean, you know you know, when when people like what I do, if people like what I do, or they write about it, or they are as we say obsessive about it, then they must understand that there has to be some quality control. And there are things that I’ve done that even I think, well it’s interesting or it’s funny but it’s not great, and it doesn’t have the depth, the lyrical depth, that things on um Crimson/Red or Jordan have. They’re kind of more amusing. I think I was more of a joker when I was twenty. You know, inclined to be more optimistic. As you are. Um, so I think something changed in the tone there slightly. I just got older I suppose, you know?
On recording all alone in his room and if it causes insecurity
Sure.. I think the moment that you do it, you can have a tendency to do one of two things. You can dismiss it as not very good, very easily, or you can overrate it; or you can think “that’s really good”, and it’s only later when you hear it, that you might readjust your opinion. Often I’ll do things and I’ll think “ah, that can’t be good”, and then I’ll think “ah actually that wasn’t… that’s okay”. For me, the real problem is, and it slows me down with recording, I get into um almost, almost obsessive compulsive territory, with my vocals, with what I’ve sung or sang, whichever the word is, um, I’m never sure whether it’s quite good enough or whether with one more take, you could deliver the line better, so that’s pretty fatal if you’re trying to produce your own record and you can’t tell.. or you’re weary of judging it, if you get weary of judging all of these takes of music, then you need someone else’s help. So um, yeah, I suppose it is the same for me, you’re not always sure what is good at the time. And you can look back later and think “okay”. That’s a strange phenomenon. I don’t know… you know, if I sit down to write a song too late at night, and I.. usually I don’t do it because I know it doesn’t work for me, it just… I can’t record late at night, I can’t write late at night. But the other… once or twice recently, for some reason I’ve been drawn to the keyboard and I’ve started and then I’ve felt “this is just not getting the best out of the situation”, and inevitably, the next day or a week later, you’ll wake up and your mind will have worked on it, so I don’t envy you doing anything late at night, I mean if it’s your habit, and you have to do it, and I know people do, that’s one thing, but your whole body kind of fights against it in other respects. Especially if you’ve got children.
On his daughters and how he spends an average day in his life
Well I don’t spend it with them, unfortunately, I wish I did, but I’m kind of um, you know, they’re in the school phase, that’s what they’re doing. And I make the tea for them. Um. I suppose. How do I spend an average day? I struggle in the mornings, I don’t know what it is, I don’t sleep well, and I find it very difficult to get going. No, my average days are um… I try and get some music in there somewhere. You know. Work on something. Finish something off, start something, think about something, um, usually writing, rarely recording, I know I should do more…. Every day I try…. Every day I’m thinking about writing. And that might sound like I’m not actually doing it, but what I mean is for example, before I came out to see you I had a good chord sequence and a very unusual tune. Which is great, but it’s also not so great. I sometimes write music that is difficult to put lyrics to, and I hear it and I’ll think “that music’s really good” BUT, it’s not evenly measured, it’s kind of… has unusual lengths and strange rhythms, and they’re very difficult to sit. Titles, and… it’s just there’s a certain kind of music I like to write that I then hate to write lyrics to, I’ll think “what are you doing with this?” and they tend to be the songs that are more unusual and abstract. I don’t have any songs like that on Crimson/Red, they’re much more even, easier to write the lyrics to, any of those tunes are not difficult to write lyrics to, but this one is. So, today, I made a sort of breakthrough with the words, they’re still a bit abstract, not as clear as any of the music on Crimson/Red, but it has a feeling to it that works. So today I’ve done a little bit of work. For an hour, an hour and a half, it doesn’t matter, I might not even have sat at the keyboard at all… as it happens I did, but what I would normally do is if that tune had still been hanging in my head, I would have been in here maybe waiting for you or coming through Durham and I would have been trying out lyrics on it. So I can work when I’m walking around. So I do a lot of work like that. What I don’t do is sit in the studio and make the record, which I should. I put it off. I think there’s part of me that often wonders can I do it again, like a fear. You know? Kind of… If I need to I know I can, but I don’t like testing myself. And then when I do it, I think “there you go, you know how to do this!”, so it’s probably time I got back to that.
Oh you’ve seen them? So you’ve seen them? Of course, I forget that those pictures were… because I was reluctant to have photographs taken. But I felt as if you need these things to say what it is that you do, I’ve always been reluctant to do that. But yeah, you can sort of see what’s happening in there, I tidied it up for the photographer coming, it was much worse than that, it was like a warehouse. You know. Yeah. It’s like chaos. But there’s a corner of it with a little mixing desk, and a computer, and there’s a certain degree of order there
The end – with a special thanks to the people on Sproutnet
Is that OK? Thank you very much… thank you for your lovely… that’s great, thank you for your questions and your internet related questions or your Sproutnet related questions, they’re good. Yeah, yeah, yeah, thoughtful, I can see that. I love the strange things that people tell me that I don’t know about. Decades of Denial… A Decade of Denial, it’s a great… it’s good title. I wanted to call our first compilation album “Ten Years on the Launchpad”, like some rocket that hadn’t taken off! Everyone said “you can’t call it that!”, that was me being defensive, you know?