We’ve got a new album
“Oh yes? What’s it called?”
“Steve McQueen, of course.”
Prefab Sprout are not a band to go for the usual. They eschew the bright lights and dark alleys of the Big City for the hills and dales of County Durham, where songwriter Paddy McAloon and brother Martin, the bassist, have their family home. Harmony vocalist Wendy Smith lives nearby, and though they’ve recently acquired a new drummer, their first sticksman was another local boy.
“We used to have this drummer— he was brilliant and we got on really well.”
What happened, then? Why isn’t he with you now?
“Well, he worked in a clothes shop during the day and he decided that was what he wanted to do. That was his ambition, to work in a clothes shop in Newcastle.”
Their first album, Swoon, was released last year to critical acclaim and steady, though unspectacular, sales. Their second LP, Steve McQueen, has been released recently. Martin McAloon came to London and talked about the album, the band, the producer, the weather, the life of Pierre Boulez, the first album…
“We recorded the first album, all the backing tracks for it, in one day. Bass, drums, guitar, some of the keyboards, guide vocals, the lot. We just stood in the studio and played like a live band.”
You must have been very tight to do that.
“No, there’s mistakes all over it. At least one of the songs, Cruel, we didn’t really want to put out because it was so bad. But we had to, there wasn’t any time to do any more. Or money. The whole album only cost five grand or something. It was very cheap.”
It was produced by Dave Brewis, guitar player and one third of The Kane Gang. The connection is local; Dave is another Newcastle inhabitant and the Kanes record for the same label, Kitchenware, that licence the Prefab output through CBS.
“Dave’s pretty good, he’s a lot more eclectic than the other two would like, really, because The Kane Gang are into Funk, and that’s absolutely it. He went out to this music shop the other day and bought an accordion because he was interested in it as a sound. The others found out and said ‘you can’t have that! Funk bands don’t use accordions. Take it back!’ And he had to get rid of it. It’s sad, that.”
The new album, though, has got away from the local boy bias a little. Production on it was handled by Thomas Dolby. Not an obvious choice, really, for the Sprouts’ straightforward sound, with its emphasis on uncomplicated guitar lines, real drums, and Martin’s bouncing, simplistic basslines. But Dolby turned out to have the human touch that people who had only heard his synthesized microchip Pop doubted.
“There were lots of people who didn’t like the idea of us working with Thomas at all. They’d heard Hyperactive and decided that he was some sort of super-boffin. But he was really nice, a really pleasant person.”
How much of a hand did he have in the recording?
“Well, actually when we first planned the album we wanted to get him in then. Before the songs were even demoed or anything, so he could start early. We asked the people in his office if he could come up to our house and hear the songs. You know, meet the family, have some dinner, and then Paddy would play him loads of songs on his acoustic guitar and he could decide which ones we both liked and which ones we’d work on.
“But his management were all going ‘Don’t you know he’s a very busy man, he’s too busy to do that sort of thing, he’s very important, he can’t do that…’ you know, all that sort of thing. And then we got in touch with Thomas himself and he said ‘great!’ he came up, had a meal, chose some songs and then went back to London.
“Two weeks later his management were saying ‘what a great idea that was to send Thomas to your place…'”
The songs he chose were a little simpler and more direct than the Swoon material, but they were not by any means new. Some of them came out of Paddy’s back catalogue, a hoard of songs stretching back years. They’re all written on nylon-string acoustic guitar in his bedroom, or possibly piano in the front room. And he’s very prolific.
“Oh yes, Paddy writes loads of songs. That’s what he does. Some people work in shops, some people are dentists, Paddy writes songs. He goes through phases; at the moment he’s writing lots of funny songs. He’s written one called Heartbreak Hotel. He writes hundreds of songs, though. We’ve already finished the next album in terms of writing.”
Paddy’s influences are most definitely not Hot Chicks, Life On The Road, or Strutting Your Funky Thang. No, one track on Swoon, Don’t Sing, was based loosely on a Graham Greene story; a major theme that crops up time after time is the Catholic faith (Paddy was educated by monks in a Catholic boarding school) and with titles like Faron Young, Little Green Isaac and Lions In My Own Garden Exit Someone, there’s definitely no trace of conventionality in his wordsmithing. So what tracks are the Prefabs following, if any?
“We listen to all sorts of things, quite a large number outside the Pop sphere. And definitely outside the ‘sensitive singer-songwriter’ area we keep getting stuck with. One review of our last single called it a ‘gentle acoustic ditty’ and there’s not an acoustic guitar anywhere on it.
“But there’s just so many influences that I can’t list them. For instance I first picked up a guitar when I heard Fireball by Deep Purple. I used to love all that stuff, and I’m sure that comes out somewhere. Paddy not long ago read the biography of Boulez, and he loved it and then when we were in Paris he just came out of his studio and walked past us. Paddy was speechless—he went back the next day to photograph the spot where it happened.
“Burt Bacharach is another brilliant man. He managed to get all his songs to sound distinctively like his style, but not like each other. He’s very underrated. Lots of Classical music. Stravinsky, Ravel. Stravinsky’s symphony for wind instruments is fantastic — great sheets of chords, huge lush sounds which continually change. It’ll never make the charts, but it’s so good. And Soul — lots of Soul. Funk. That’s really worth listening to. Chic are absolutely/fas far as I’m concerned. Tony Thompson is such a tremendous drummer and their songs are so sparse. Have you heard that Nile Rodgers solo album? The Land Of The Good Groove? There’s no fat on it at all, most of the songs are just chants and they go on for ages. But it’s great, just the best feel in the world. Prince, he’s good too, he uses drummers and drum machines together really well. There are so many things out there, all waiting to be listened to and all good in their own way.
Don’t you listen to any songwriters at all?
“Early Bob Dylan. But not so much that I’d want to join Lloyd Cole and the Commotions.”
Their eclectic tastes are pretty accurately reflected in the album’s mixture of styles; from Rockabilly shuffle to string-driven ballad, it covers a fair amount of ground. And despite the fears of the doubting that Thomas Dolby’s influence would turn the band into The Prefab Twins, there’s precious little that sounds so ostentatiously synthesized. Drum machines are low-key, and Dolby’s much-prized Fairlight takes very much a back-row role. Not too surprising, though, for a band whose synthesis consisted entirely of a Roland JX3P for ages. But no longer.
“When we went into the studio with Thomas he was plugging in all this gear, you know. Emulators and Waves and stuff, and the sounds he was getting were just…fantastic! So huge and impressive and lush. So we’ve all got into that sort of thing much more. Thomas proved that it was possible to use it in a human way. He’d set up the Fairlight in the studio when were doing a take and play along; just set up a sound and get stuck in. Now Paddy’s got a little home set-up which he’s using to learn all about that sort of stuff; a DX7, an Oberheim drum machine, all that.
“And it’s important that drummers should learn whatdrum machines do and how to use them, too. You can learn so much from programming one.
“And the fact there was more synthesized stuff on it than on Swoon doesn’t mean there were any fewer mistakes on it, either. I mean, trying to play along with a click track can make the best drummer sound a bit inhuman, but our click track wasn’t having any of that — it kept going out of time!”
The drummer with the unenviable task of trying to keep in with the wayward click track is a lad named Neil Conti, a veteran of lots of studio experience who seems to have finally filled the long-vacant permanent percussion place. After their first man decided on Top Shop instead of Top Of The Pops, they went through a succession of people. Then one night they were doing a radio interview and mentioned that they were still looking for a permanent drummer. The enterprising Neil blagged his way through to the band and told them that he was the one for them. Faced with such enthusiasm, how could they deny him the post?
And, perhaps surprisingly, he’s fitted well into the close-knit family structure; he’s acquired the less-than-serious attitude they take sometimes; feel before perfection.
“If you listen to the new LP it’s full of mistakes, maybe ones you wouldn’t immediately notice, but they’re all over the place. Thomas helped, he just got such a good atmosphere going in the studio that we’d use a take sometimes which wasn’t technically perfect by any means but which had such a fantastic feel we kept it…bits where people are singing out of tune, where the tape stops in the middle of numbers, all that. But it sounds much more like a band playing together than even the first album.
“For instance, there’s one track called Horsin’ Around. Appropriately enough. We were in the studio just before a take, and Neil had been larking around, doing an impression of somebody, I can’t remember who, with his brushes in his eyes. He cracked up laughing, and so did I, and then suddenly Paddy said ‘one, two, three, four…’ and off we went. It was such a funny take — we were trying to make each other laugh all the way through. I was out of tune and the drums were doing funny things on the offbeat and the hi hat’s all over the place. Thomas was playing the Fairlight and doing really zany, wacky stuff. It was just mayhem.
“So we calmed down and did another one afterwards. It was technically better, the playing was more precise but it didn’t have any life or fun it it at all. So we kept the first one.
“And later on there’s a bit where Neil stopped playing because he thought it had finished, and the horns and guitars are still going. But we left it. I can’t listen to that song without laughing now. The whole rhythm of it just reminds me of people falling off bicycles…”
But with the Sprouts, songwriting is still the main thing. Perhaps not surprisingly for a brother, Martin has complete faith in Paddy’s talent.
“The fact is that I know for a fact that Paddy is…well, I’d hesitate to say a genius but it’s not far off. One of these days he’ll come out with something world-beating. Immense.
“You probably think I’m out of my head but I haven’t been up and down to London these past four years before we got a deal, hassling people and working to get us noticed, for nothing. I haven’t been just piddling around — I know that there’s something there that people are going to like.
“Paddy might not be as charismatic as Prince…but they were both born on the same day. I think Prince is a year younger. Same birthday as Tom Jones, in fact.”
Martin’s not alone in his belief in the band. CBS, the label they’re signed to via Kitchenware, seem to be equally convinced. They’ve signed the Prefab phenomenon to an eight album deal. The new one is merely the second. And it’s called…
“Steve McQueen, of course.”
“Why Steve McQueen?”
“Well, he was a great bloke. It’s a good name, isn’t it?”