Would anyone seriously have expected it? In early May, Prefab Sprout, the masters of postmodern pop songs, release their first album in seven years, and with “Andromeda Heights” they have pulled off their finest work since the classic “Steve McQueen”. The record, a counter-zeitgeist offensive in support of the ethereal, transcendant and universal power of the concept of “love”, drawing on the spirit of Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From The Heart”, provides impressive proof that a contemporary songwriter with the inventive character of George Gershwin , Burt Bacharach, Scott Walker or Brian Wilson is able to create a unique sound world. In conversation with Christoph Gurk, Paddy McAloon explains why the rigid pigeonholing of the record industry took him to with a hair’s breadth of ending his career, how music has the right to use even the simplest platitudes, and why the idea of trying to write the perfect love song is deadly.
Apologies if I rub you up the wrong way by asking a question you’ve certainly had to answer a thousand times in the past few weeks, but why did we have to wait so long for a new Prefab Sprout album? There were rumours you withdrew two finished albums just before release. There was talk of a songwriting crisis.
Paddy McAloon: I’ll have to disappoint you. I can’t provide you with a story of tortured artistic genius. The truth is quite boring: I’ve been working hard, very hard; so hard that it is almost embarrassing to say I can show you only a fraction of the results at the moment . The only problem was that I’ve been working on a number of very different projects for years, and “Andromeda Heights” is simply the first one that I could finally bring to a conclusion. I’m very relieved.
So there is no “Great Lost Prefab Sprout album”?
It depends how you look at it. When I’m working on an album, I write the songs, then I take a demo and play it to my record company, to see if the result meets with their approval. In April 1993 I had such a demo, which was entitled “Lets Change The World With Music”. The people at Sony liked the tape, but they told me: “All your songs are great. You have so many ideas. Maybe too many. Why not concentrate on one aspect and build a single concept from it?” I was happy with this response. Normally, a record company says simply: “That’s good. We want more, that sounds great ” So I went back home and began work on a “History of the World”.
In all seriousness you wanted to write a history of the world?
(laughs) That’s right, and I’ve come pretty close to it. It’s based on a song called “Earth, The Story So Far”. I wanted to extend it to a piece of about 60 minutes playing time, until I realized that I couldn’t write such a long song. So I chose the opposite approach and over the course of six months I created a track consisting of 20 to 30 short songs. The record is written, but it became clear to me at some point that it would take years to arrange the material. In itself that wasn’t a barrier, but I wondered what would happen if I went to Sony with the finished demos. They’d asked me for a piece around a single theme and I’d be bring them a record with as much variation as “Let’s Change The World With Music”. Another problem was the funding, because the way I’d like to make the record, the cost would be enormous. l’ve yet to find a way that is less time consuming, less costly and not so dependent on the consent of my record company. I still want to make the disc , and I’m sure it’ll see the light of day eventually. l think increasingly on a longer timescale, and now I have a more pragmatic Master Plan I can start the realization of my dreams. I learned that by working on “Earth The Story So Far”.
How have you kept yourself financially afloat? You can’t live from royalties alone, surely?
I’ve written a few pieces for other artists, including Cher, Kylie Minogue and Jimmy Nail.
Yes, that helped me a lot, because his album “Crocodile Shoes” on which I have several songs, became a million seller. It came at exactly the right time. I couldn’t ask Sony for further advances because I had nothing available for them to hear. That being said, the commissions were a welcome break. They gave me the opportunity to step out of my own thought world and put myself into the context of a different artist. It may be that I will take these pieces back for myself again, because some of the songs such as “The Gunman” or “Cowboy Dreams” form the basis for another concept album. The Wild West as it presents itself from the perspective of Newcastle. Prefab Sprout covering international hits that they have written for other artists.
Can you say how many songs you’ve written in the past seven years?
More than I can probably ever use. Enough for seven to eight albums. Many of them, I count amongst the best music I’ve ever done. For this reason alone I’d hate it if people thought I’d had problems coming up with new material. Believe me, the opposite is the case.
How long did it take to compose the material for “Andromeda Heights”?
Frankly, I can’t answer this question because the songs come from very different periods of my work. I wrote “A Prisoner Of The Past”, in the spring of 1989, just before we made “Jordan: The Comeback”. “Swans” dates back to 1988. The idea for the title track came to me again two years ago, in the summer of 1995. What unifies the songs, is not their time of origin, but the subject matter. They are love songs, if you like. The whole disk revolves about personal relationships or more precisely life in general, using “Space” and “Stars” as metaphors.
Yes, in almost every piece there is the word “Stars” at least once.
Nevertheless, you need to be careful when speculating about the ideas behind this record. People ask me all the time: “What is the general theme? All your albums have a common thread.” But basically it’s not this that forms the thematic framework at the centre of this record, it’s the sound. Because the pieces come from different periods and therefore have little in common in their construction, I’ve tried to group them using sound and arrangements, without harming them. I solved this problem by using very disparate elements. You hear a vibraphone, harp, harmonica, strings, sometimes a saxophone or whatever. I wanted the overall picture to be one of an unusual grouping – in contrast to a normal record where the sound is determined by the concept of a “Rock Band.”
“Andromeda Heights” is not an album from Prefab Sprout the band?
No, that’s over for me. The opening track “Electric Guitars”, a song about the Beatles, forms a final reminder of that era. Today I think of Prefab Sprout as a virtual orchestra first and foremost, as a pure artefact that is created in the studio. In order to realize this vision, I spent years buying and putting together modern equipment, including computer software. The disc contains a lot of elements from the past but it was produced with tomorrow’s technology. Essentially I’ve transferred methods usually applied only to dance music to the song format.
A closer listen and you can understand this. The record gathers thousands of elements from the past, and yet paradoxically it sounds hypermodern. Overarching everything is this strange, transfigured, partly chromaline sheen which creates a sonic vastness. Space is stretched so far into the unreal, that all substantive limitations are overcome. In this respect, one can speak in the most literal sense of a metaphysical record. The semantic relations both with regard to the text, the composition, and to the arrangements – are the result of pure imagination.
Exactly. This is exactly what I’ve been working towards.
In one of your songs, I think it can be found on “Jordan: The Comeback,” you write that civilization has achieved almost everything, except one thing: “photographing the spirit “.
You mean the title track, where I’m talking about Elvis and I sing the line “that’s where I started to think of something else, ’cause They couldn’t film The Spirit”?
Exactly! To transfer these thoughts to the new record, we could say that you’re changing everything, moving from the photograph to music?
Yes, it’s my goal to capture the human spirit on record. From now on, my music will absorb this license, this gloss, this glow and reflection. Look, when you listen to the record, you get, like everywhere else, certain information. You hear the lyrics, the melody, the chord progressions, the rhythm but then there is something else, and you can only get this through hard work in the music. It may sound very simple, but much of it comes from the arrangements. I combine instruments that nowadays nobody bothers with. However, this specific form of combination achieves a sound you can’t hear anywhere else. This is the heartbeat of humanity.
The song is not a dead medium for you?
Basically, yes. I have the impression that the sense of adventure has completely disappeared from pop music. The creative energy of humanity, if it is manifested in sound, has transferred to dance music. But if you concentrate hard enough on the song you can change this media also. It’s a matter of vision and of spirit, making this vision become a reality. That’s where the problem begins: people rely on the 4/4 format, which isn’t in itself bad. But they don’t think about it, how within these parameters you can make space for imagination. Have you played my new record on your Walkman? If you do, you will hear that the acoustic action has shifted beyind the speakers.
Space is expanded.
It’s expanded, and we did it with a new 3-D processor which is often used for film production. We used it in the mix for some of the different instruments, not for all, because that would have sounded too gimmicky in some respects, but in the way we dealt with it, we were able to achieve a sound that doesn’t build up in front of you, but forms around you. It seemed to me that this fits well with the theme of the songs. They only make sense as long as you seem to be in the same room as them.
Do you agree with me when I say that your new album, maybe even your entire career, revolves around the idea of “desire”, even if word itself appears nowhere in “Andromeda Heights”?
It’s not about compliance, but about desire.
Desire. You find it everywhere. This is the principle that causes humanity to live on. In recent days many people have told me songs like “Anne Marie” or “Swans” are about love affairs, but I find this interpretation far too restrictive. That would be the autobiographical dimension, which I’m not interested in. Any song that’s any good, doesn’t just say I fancy someone, but achieves a universal level. Which says: “I’m only on this planet for a very short time on this planet, and in this time I want to find out things which go beyond my existence, my unique destiny.” When I sing “you gotta make the most of the passing moment” in “Life’s A Miracle”, it’s about recognizing the principle of transience, but also that you have experienced the things that have happened in the time that passes. They belong to you, as a memory, even if you don’t own them. It’s in this sense you can say: “you can make a moment last.” In the full awareness that no one can stop the time.
Do you think that you’re moving more and more to universal statements, as evidenced by the tendency to use simpler lyrics in your songs?
I think so. It’s a mutual thing. The more words you use, the more the lyric goes into unnecessary details. For this reason I tried to reduce the amount of words in “Jordan: The Comeback” as much as possible. Back when I wrote the songs for “Steve McQueen” I’d wanted to be as different as possible from the music in the charts. That’s why I built intentionally complicated phrases or used words that were never used in pop songs. Many people like that in my music, but I’ve now come to believe that simplicity can be much more powerful. Sure there are still cases where I enter deeper water. Then I allow myself the luxury of being a little obscure, but that happens less and less often. My concern is to move people. This works only if you understand what it is I’m talking about.
Have thought about writing the perfect pop song? A piece that encompasses the whole world? After which nothing more can be said?
That’s a very dangerous idea. If I achieved it, then I would be dead, just because there would be nothing more to say, and it strikes me as a very aggressive attitude. Maybe Brian Wilson was broken by this, a desire to write a song in the face of which everything else becomes superfluous. Those who try to rise above the world with their ambition are punished by life.
But he has come very close to doing it.
For sure. I very much agree with Paul McCartney when he says that “God Only Knows” is almost the perfect pop song. But then you hear “Summertime” by George Gershwin, “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael or things by the Beatles. These are all songs you could say the same thing about. The truth is there are always new ways to say things, and there are always new ways to get there. All those pieces, of which I speak here, with which I am surrounded every day, are just beautiful. But when you hear something wonderful, it doesn’t wipe away the other wonderful things that you know well. They can co-exist. At different levels.
One of the most beautiful songs can be found in the last third of “Andromeda Heights”. Referring to the Book of Revelation of the Bible you sing: “Love is the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.” This idea is likely to seem pretty cranky to a lot of pop fans.
The Bible recognises four horsemen of the apocalypse, plague, war, famine and death. But l say that love is a principle that can survive all disasters, if you just believe in it. This is of course an idea that is extremely rare in pop music, and I wrote the lyric in the full knowledge that its content is almost absurdly presumptuous. In fact, those who use such imagery are intentionally flirting with disaster. It’s precisely this challenge that attracted me to sing, “Hey guys, there are four horsemen of the apocalypse, here is a fifth,”, because I’m carried away with my passion. I’m working at a level of total sincerity, which is intended to be romantic, but the text is transparent as well, so that at any time I can be accused of megalomania. I’ve not just consciously accepted the risk, but you can even say this risk is itself the subject of the song. What went through your mind when you heard the song for the first time?
l looked at it on the Lyric Sheet without hearing it, and thought. “Now he’s finally flipped” When the music and the vocals were added in, I found everything completely justified. But I couldn’t help smiling.
That’s how it should be. One should take the song seriously but not too seriously. It lives on the boundary. You know, people make a mistake if they think my lyrics are poetry. A poem can and must stand on its own. But a pop lyric needs the music to obtain a certain degree of plausibility. I myself, for example, don’t trust my words, unless they’re accompanied by the instruments and my voice. But that’s the wonderful thing about pop music, that you use the most banal phrases and through the setting you can give them a dignity they otherwise wouldn’t reach. The music enables the piece. Take a song like “The Mystery Of Love” or “Life’s A Miracle”. By themselves, the lyrics consist only of platitudes. If I’ve managed to make it something bigger, but still part of life, I’ve reached my artistic goal.
You talk about your work as being a natural part of pop music. But do you actually feel a part of this world?
Not really. From time to time I know a song I write just might have a chance on the radio. But basically I have decided just to do what I myself want to hear, and that’s a music radically different from the mainstream, different from the dance charts, from boy bands or girl bands. Of course I want to sell a lot of records, if only for pragmatic reasons, because I can finance my new projects with the proceeds. It’s also not the case that I’m not thinking about my listeners. I’m not naive. Only that when I put my hand on my heart the price I have to pay for the big prize is too high.
Frankly, your new record is not only not part of the pop world, it seems not to be part of the world. It’s completely unreal from the first to the last note.
(whispers): Yes, I know.
Do you think your art would automatically be ugly if it was focused on the material world?
I think so. My concern is to create something beautiful, which illuminates the world from the inside, that shows to people their emotions and thoughts are so important that no second of their life should be regarded as wasted. Achieving this means you can’t concentrate so much on the physical.
Then it’s almost a good thing that at least you are sitting in the flesh before me.
(laughs) What am I doing here, is a compromise, albeit a pleasant one. Actually, I’d made up my mind, what I wanted, to the very last detail. No interviews, no pictures of me, no proof of my physical existence, but only the music and a voice that seems to speak from beyond the grave. Completely invisible. Extra-terrestrial. That was also the reason why I’ve spent so much time and money in recent years setting up my home studio. I hate being in places connected to the mechanism of the music industry. Even the thought that my name appears in business magazines alongside Michael Bolton or Mariah Carey makes me sick. Messages in press releases: “Prefab Sprout are recording the tracks for their new album in such-and-such a studio. It is produced by so-and-so. The Engineer is so-and-so. The record company has great expectations and will place advertisements in such-and-such.” I wanted to disappear completely from these magazines, and the only way was simply to make the record myself. No one in the music world would know what I’ve done in recent years, what I’m working on. I love the idea that these people are now holding the finished record in their hands and wondering: “Oh boy, where does this come from?” (Smirks and slaps his thigh).
If this this record is so completely alien, what does it tell us about the real Paddy McAloon?
Very much and very little. Any form of writing is of course a very personal matter. But as I said earlier, I’m much less interested in autobiographical songwriting. Moreover, I prefer to take an idealized perspective. From there I imagine myself as the person I’d like to be. If I write a song, my mood is often very different than what I express in it. Writing means that I can rise above everyday problems, which I have just like every other human being, for a period of time. This is a valve, a very liberating feeling. Far away from any hustle and bustle.
And we have to wait another seven years before the next Prefab Sprout album comes out?
l hope not. There is so much music I’ve already finished writing that it will take no longer than two years until another job is completed.
Otherwise you’ll probably go down as the Stanley Kubrick of pop music in the history books.
Right. I asked myself that a lot in recent years: “What would Stanley do”?