Paddy McAloon: It was something I chose to do because it suits me better these days. I like the idea of being outside things, outside what is happening. During this time I was completely uninterested in what other people were doing. Of course sometimes there are things that seep in, when occasionally I hear a song I like. The only group I feel close to is the Blue Nile. But otherwise in my opinion life is too short to be able to both write songs and follow what is going on. The press in England will tell you I live as a recluse because I’ve disappeared for a few years, which makes me laugh. In fact I’m someone who is completely normal mentally: I have a fiancee, friends, I live in a completely normal way, except I spend more time than other people writing and composing. I just chose to be good only at one thing.
Wasn’t there a risk you’d find yourself little by little going offline though, in a sort of creative impasse?
I never had that feeling. I read a lot, I watch a lot of movies, so I was well fed with stimulation. I wasn’t locked away in a box. It’s just that I don’t listen to the same music as 20 year olds. I’m too old for that, it doesn’t really excite me, and it would be much more difficult for me to write like that. In recent years I’ve been listening to a lot of early 20th Century French music; Poulenc, Ravel, Debussy. Unconsciously my work on Andromeda Heights was a sort of feeble attempt to approach the genius of Ravel. Yesterday a girl asked me what I thought of drum ‘n’ bass. What could I think of drum ‘n’ bass at 40? I can’t pretend to be young forever, it would be meaningless. I know nothing about Tricky’s records, or the new Blur album, but I do what I do.
Are the other members of Prefab Sprout still involved in the group?
We tried to maintain the illusion we were a group. Since the time of Jordan, we haven’t often found an opportunity to get together to play. Neil Conti lives in London, I don’t see him any more and because we didn’t record for years I couldn’t afford to have a permanent drummer. Thomas Dolby, who was virtually the fifth member of the group, doesn’t figure either. He now lives in California and has three young children, and he composes music for video games. He was available in 93, but three years later no longer was. I regret my financial resources didn’t allow me to keep all of us bonded together like before. Nowadays we’re a kind of virtual group, very flexible, with Wendy and Martin just helping me to realize my projects without being really involved. It might appear absurd from the outside, but it’s the truth: during these seven years I didn’t have any time to spare to call the other group members to keep them up to date with how things were progressing. Spending fifteen minutes on the phone every day is fifteen minutes lost to writing, and I’ve not stopped writing during all these years. I sometimes feel guilty for being the elder brother who decides in the place of the others, but that’s how it is: since Prefab Sprout started I organise the music in the same way as I organised our games as a kid. I think Wendy and Martin are gradually making their own way and continue to live their lives quietly. They’re both teachers in Newcastle: Wendy teaches singing, and my brother teaches courses on pop to young teachers who have certainly never heard of Prefab Sprout.
Very specifically, what did you work during those seven years?
We didn’t intend to leave it that long. By the end of the promotional period for Jordan: the Comeback I was already at work on new projects but I never imagined it would take me so many years. People will find it difficult to believe but I was very prolific during those seven years. I must have the equivalent of seven or eight completed albums in my drawers. By 93 I was about to go into the studio with Thomas Dolby producing to record an album entitled Let’s Change the World with Music which Thomas liked and which I was quite proud of. And then I met people from my record company who told me “You always write good songs, there’s no problem with that, but you often end up with albums on which there are lots of ideas. Why not simplify, keep only one of those ideas and expand it into a whole album?” Record companies’ demands are never stupid but they rarely encourage you to excel musically, they just want to know where the next single is. Under these circumstances I preferred to cut the ties and work on another project, Earth the Story so Far, on which I had the ambition to tell the story of the world in one long song. I composed a lot of small fragments of music, about thirty, but this was clearly the opposite of what I’d been asked for. I didn’t really have enough strength to stand up for this project, which partly explains the reason for my long disappearance: no project I felt like doing corresponded to what was expected of me.
What happened to these albums?
Let’s Change the World With Music is still in boxes, ready to be recorded. The subject matter hasn’t dated, except perhaps for a song about Princess Diana which would be less relevant today, but the rest is waiting quietly. I also worked on a musical film, Behind the Veil, based on the career of a young black man who becomes a superstar in the mould of Michael Jackson. I wrote some songs that were both rhythmic and melodic, like on Off the Wall or Thriller. I also have in reserve an album of Christmas songs, and a musical around the character of Zorro, Zorro the Fox, and finally another record quite close to Jordan, the Atomic Hymnbook. But all of these projects, especially those needing film or visual media are difficult to do and I don’t have enough credibility in the musical world for people to trust me. As for Earth the Story so Far, it’s at the stage where I should sit down again at my computer to do the arrangements and consider making the record. I wasn’t able to make a demo of Earth because it needed a good studio which would have cost too much. So I preferred to wait for my own studio, called Andromeda Heights, which I built during those few years of abstinence.
How long have you been working on Andromeda heights?
I wrote those songs over a period of years. Some date back to 88, 91, and the ones I’ve written most recently are Electric Guitars and Andromeda Heights, in 95. We started recording in May 96 for a period of about six months. It seems a long time, but it was only a hundred days of actual work. Compared to Let’s Change the World With Music or Earth, it’s a simple album. It was a relief to finally complete something. Andromeda Heights was born by accident when I realised I had enough songs that didn’t belong to any of the other albums in progress to bring together and make a record. As I can’t help myself from establishing a common thread within my albums, this time I’ve used the theme of Space as a central image. Musically I attempted to suggest something other than a terrestrial state. My main obsession is to sound different from all the other groups. Like with Pet Sounds I didn’t want people to hear the same band formation for fifty minutes. It’s a long time since the idea of writing for two guitars, bass and drums excited me. So I wanted to use a bunch of different instruments, flutes, the vibraphone, saxophone to attempt to fulfill this musical dream I’ve been chasing after for years.
Have you never wanted to return to a more direct mode of operations, such as when you started?
Sometimes I’m nostalgic for what we were before we even made records, a trio with a drummer, my brother on bass, me on guitar. This sort of restriction offers a lot of opportunities that we maybe didn’t exploit sufficiently at the time. I could see myself leading a group like the Police: a very tight trio, lively, very of the moment. At that time we were very different from what people know of Prefab Sprout, including Swoon. It’s a shame there’s no recording to attest to that: imagine a song like Bonny, known to fans in the highly polished version on Prefab Sprout, but with guitars and me yelling. It would surprise many people. We were harder, we played stronger, almost like a punk band. I think I remember that in our early days our only idea was to start a band just to accompany Bowie on stage at the time of Station to Station. Looking back, I still think the choice I made was the right one, because of my voice and because I wanted to have at my disposal a more complex musical palette, richer and more malleable. Sometimes I think it must have been someone else who wrote Swoon: originality meant so much to me at the time that I forced myself to write things in a really tortuous way, even if I wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the Beatles or Brian Wilson. The important thing was that Prefab Sprout wouldn’t be confused with other groups of the moment.
Yet you were immediately connected with the new Glasgow scene, Aztec Camera, Orange Juice…
This was strange because although were were geographically close to Scotland, we knew nothing about what was happening there. If there was a rivalry it was only on the level of the record labels or the articles in the music press, the groups had no contact with each other. For our part we were already old hands, we’d been playing in pubs in the area for years, and we’d become part of the new-wave scene because it was what the period demanded. In 78-79 everything was new-wave. I’ve learned since that time that if you want to try and stand out from what’s happening around, you have to move to more timeless things.
Do you think this searching for timelessness has resulted in the new album, in songs like Swans or Weightless?
I hope so, although Andromeda Heights is in a way a condensed version of what I wanted to do with Earth, the Story So Far. I’ve always wanted to know what the state of weightlessness feels like, so I tried to approach it musically, to use less and less rhythmic structures which nail the songs to the ground. My ambition was to perpetually exude the feeling you have when you fall in love for the first time, that feeling of suddenly becoming detached from the material world. It’s probably a consequence of my Catholic education, I’ve remained a good little Catholic boy, that’s probably it. I’m still obsessed with the question of the existence of God, even though I’m less attached to religion these days from a practical point of view. I’d love all of these things to be true, and I admire immensely those people who do things by Christian charity. Sometimes I have the impression these people live a life that is full of meaning, where what I do is totally egocentric.
Yet you never speak of yourself in your songs.
I think of myself more as an observer, a chronicler. I’m undoubtedly a darker person than my songs show. I always have this desire in me to show reality on an ideal day, to speak of things as they should be and not as they are. I’m 40. I should have been married with children for a long time, and instead I lock myself away in a studio imagining the stars. But at the same time I wouldn’t exchange these seven years in my little village, away from the music business and the crowds, for the world. When I wrote Electric guitars it’s obviously not coming from Prefab Sprout but it’s a kind of journalistic exercise about the Beatles. No-one will believe I’m talking about my group when I talk about Greek Gods, riots in airports, hysteria… We were so far away from all that (laughs). All the same I remember that at the time of From Langley Park to Memphis we did flirt with this sort of thing. I was asked for autographs, girls wanted to put their hands in my hair, touch me. We were so uncomfortable that my reaction to all this was quite violent. The glamorous aspect of our music has always been for me a way of showing how we as individuals are the opposite of this glittering world. This is also why I now refuse to do concerts: people who like our records would be too disappointed to find us so ordinary in the cold light of day. I have a terrible memory of the first time we played in London, 1984. All the press was there and it was the worst concert a group ever played. And the criticism was very clear: “they told us these guys were great, but they were rubbish”. It took me years to get over that.
Does it also hurt you when your words are taken literally?
It upsets me to hear people saying Prefab Sprout is a “clever” group. But every time I had to justify my lyrics I felt stupid. I’m always afraid my own comments on the songs aren’t as relevant as other peoples’, so I prefer to play dumb rather than answering. The songs on the album are quite romantic, but how could you not find in them an extreme melancholy? In the case of two of them, the subject is adultery, impossible liaisons, but again it has nothing to do with my personal life. One thing is certain, I never had an overriding desire to seem intelligent, I’m just obsessed with finding the right word, which falls at the right moment, even if the subject isn’t particularly interesting. When Faron Young died last year, I was very embarrassed that the papers talked about the song I’d written which bears his name. I’d just chosen it because it sounded good, but I barely knew one or two songs by Faron Young. It was in no way a tribute, as we explained afterwards.
Will Prefab Sprout’s long silence continue?
I’d be lying if I said at no time during the last seven years I’ve not felt like giving up. I enjoy what I do so much, while actually making records has become such a burden, that I’ve sometimes thought that I should make music just for myself. I’d revisit this solution if I became a millionaire, if I won the lottery. The older I get, the more satisfaction I feel in finding myself alone in my studio, with complete control over this little universe cut off from the world. But there’s no way I could stop composing, to no longer try to surprise myself and maybe other people. My music is maybe not one the world needs, but it nonetheless exists.