The Age of Reason
PADDY MACALOON ISN’T AT ALL LIKE THE NORMAL SORT OF ROCK STAR, SIMPLY BECAUSE HE’S NOT A ROCK STAR, HE’S A SONGWRITER, A BRILLANT WRITER OF BRILLIANT SONGS. THOSE AT THE TOP OF THE CLASS ARE NOT ALWAYS UNLIKEABLE. PADDY MACALOON IS THE PROOF.
Paddy MacAloon is one of the good guys. As a younger man, he described his experiences in complex songs with multi-layered references and the most convoluted melodies possible. Student songs obscured by arbitrary complexity perhaps, but in these post-Clash times they had the merit of introducing intelligence as an essential element to contemporary taste (not that the aforementioned four Londoners were stupid, but that the main quality of their music was the incredible energy it carried, precisely unlike Prefab Spout). Having now reached the age of reason (31), he writes beautiful songs. So much so that he had the foresight to include nineteen of them on his new record, which, like those preceding it were made with his girlfriend, his brother, and his mate. All the same his songs have this time a taste of déjà vu (as the English describe it). The last album was a fashionable of great songs recorded using bang up to date techniques, without any particular concern for breaking away from the mainstream. Obviously the quality of the songs made it a well above average album, but in truth it was very much of its time, as they say. And now the current music is acid house, and that means about as much to Paddy as punk. Hence the need to dive back into the remains of a former age (and a taste of déjà vu), so as to purge himself from a movement whose narrowness and passion had without any doubt passed him by.
So we go back to the fifties and the old days of Bernstein musicals. Firstly because he has always been a fan of the American composers of that era, but also and above all because during this period such songs were mass entertainment, without consideration of any connection to higher forms of art. And we’d also be well advised not to perceive “Jordan: The Comeback” as a brilliantly executed nostalgic record, because even if it is based on thirty year old forms, it’s nonetheless one of those albums which seems to indicate the trajectory of tomorrow’s pop music. If his writing breaks the Eighties tradition derived from punk which would have it that you can only fully express yourself by tearing apart people and emotions (Cure, Smiths), it’s because he wants to have it all: whether you laugh or cry the essential is to taste everything, and who cares if the feelings aren’t as deep? In short, his record is as revolutionary as a Dollon film on being in a good mood. So here is the interview.
“Jordan” is your fifth album, how do you assess your progression?
“I don’t like doing that, because it’s very difficult to turn around and look behind you. Even in terms of evolution, because at the time “Swoon” was released, I had already written of some songs on “Steve MacQueen That said, “Swoon” was a challenging record with very unusual songs so that “Steve MacQueen” was a little easier and more accessible. However, I know that some songs were easier to write than others, like “King of Rock ‘n Roll” or “Nancy” which are relatively simple songs, where “Venus of the Soup Kitchen” is a fairly strange song. Whenever I’m sitting down to write I try to create a song which is different from those I’ve written before, the evolution is more from one song to another than one album to the next. I’m not trying to dodge your question but it’s difficult for me to think only in terms of albums.”
Sometimes I get the impression your songwriting influences are shared between pop and musicals, in “Nightingales” particularly.
“Often when I write, my mental imagery is closer to musicals than pop music. But I don’t think this is a deliberate attempt to reference musicals, it’s more a question of writing technique. When you want to tell a story by putting yourself in the place of one of the characters who you make talk in the first person you’re coming absolutely from one of the traditions of the musical, but most of the time if you talk in the first person people think it’s your own point of view. Take for example Iggy Pop, when you hear one of his songs you might be tempted to think that he expresses his own point of view, which isn’t always the case, because he’s sometimes a very theatrical writer. Also, when I write a song I try to always keep in mind the simplicity of pop, but at the same time my songs are more sophisticated than most pop songs because I also use the vocabulary of the musical , which enriches songs that are usually simpler. You know, it’s just a matter of musical background. If you are really open minded, you can use all the musical influences that you want, and in my case that’s the Beach Boys and the Doors on one side to George Gershwin or Steven Sondheim on the other; simply stated, what they all have in common is they belong to the history of American popular music. In the case of “Nightingale” it’s a song whose structure is very close to more traditional music, but I treated it like a Rock song…”
Your songs don’t contain some of the urgency or aggression that have characterized pop history from the drum rolls of “She Loves You” up to the beat of “Fool’s Gold”?
“Hmmm … aggression … I don’t actually think there is any really. It is difficult to speak in the sense that you use, ultimately you could speak of excitement, but it’s true that aggression is not the first thing that comes to mind when you listen to Prefab Sprout.”
In this sense, one might compare your records with those of someone like Gainsbourg, or more generally the French “chanson”: Brel, Piaf …
“Yes, it’s true, but I don’t want people to associate us too much with this genre, because even if I try to write songs as an adult and therefore to give them more depth it should be remembered that there is a facet that’s exciting or simply entertaining in my songs. I like the idea that my songs can be appreciated by people who listen to them when need be with the lyric sheet in front of them, and from another direction by people who don’t know who we are and who’ve just heard us on the radio or play the record from time to time. They don’t have to be one thing or another.”
How did you learn to write songs?
“I believe that writing a song is a peculiar experience. It’s like learning to ride a bike, once you’re on it you have to do what’s needed to keep your balance, but when you know how to do it you can’t remember any more how you learned. I started very young, around thirteen; it’s been almost twenty years now, so from a technical point of view, writing is something very mysterious. Why do I put such and such a reference in such and such a piece, why this or that title, sometimes with a single title I could write maybe three or four songs.”
So there are no songs that are easy to write?
“Oh, no, it’s more like a set of surprises, at least that’s what I want. I try to be continually surprised by what I write. I sit at my table, I work at it over and over until I get to move from the words and music to make a song, and sometimes it takes more time than others, I mean by that that the words marry more or less well with the music. The important thing is to get something original, so in fact it still is hard work.”
What did Thomas Dolby contribute to the sound of this album?
“We met before this record (he lives in the US, so we don’t see him very often) to talk a little about the record and the album was considered in its entirety, because even if I wanted certain things for some of the songs, like “One Of The Broken”, the large number of songs forced us to limit the possibilities so we kept some sort of coherence to the album”.
But you didn’t try to search for sounds without a specific aim, like a sort of game?
“No, not at all. In fact, I would have liked us to. I do this from time to time for the demos; I find particular sounds that I send to Thomas and he makes something with them. But in general I don’t have enough time.”
You don’t seem at all adhere to the star system in the sense that you don’t push forward your own personality in your songs, you even have Wendy singing very theatrical vocals as if she was playing another character giving you a reply, which adds a little more to the influence of musicals on your records…
“Yes, but that’s because you have to dramatize if you don’t want to become boring. Increasingly my songs are stories told in different forms, but stories nonetheless. People are tired of all these singers who talk about their problems in their songs. Look: “Jordan: The Comeback” is a song about a character who is alone and waiting for the song that will put him back into the spotlight and who says: “One day, I know, I’ll be at the end of the road.” So here, instead of making a song about regret and nostalgia, I told a story that is accessible to everyone, that remains entertaining and also speaks in a long and introspective monologue.”