I don’t want to become a slave to a formula
Prefab Sprout’s recently announced new work, “Jordan: the Comeback”, contains an unusually high proportion of masterpieces. We ask the group’s song-writer, Paddy McAloon, about the journey which led to the new work and his current opinions about music.
There’s no longer any dispute that Prefab Sprout’s music, driven by Paddy McAloon’s superb and sensitive songwriting is in the top rank of anything recorded in the current era. This latest interview closely examines the secrets of his instinctive, open hearted, style of creation, which has never complied with the clichés of the pop craftsman.
I came across “Don’t Sing” as a single in ’84. I cried when I heard“When Love Breaks Down”, I shouted encouragement for the encore “Cruel” when the band came to Japan, I applauded the top five hit, “King of Rock’n’Roll”. And now we have in our hands a new work, “Jordan: the Comeback. And indeed what a wonderful person Paddy McAloon is! In the harshness of the reality we inhabit, his, his music becomes ever more romantic. Although we’ve passed the peak of the contemporary pop craftsman, I don’t think it’s over yet. And personally I was delighted to hear that Paddy takes so much care in making songs as I usually do when constructing a sentence. I wish I could become such a person.
– There are two and a half years between this album and your previous work. What sort of things were you doing in the meantime?
“After finishing making “Langley Park to Memphis” I spent about a year making a demo tape in a small studio in my house while writing songs. I was keeping in touch with Thomas Dolby from quite early on. So we went into the studio together in June last year and recorded for about a year in studios in London and Los Angeles.”
– It seems you were working at your normal pace.
“It was a perfect project except it took more time than expected. When I started it I thought three months would be enough (laughs).”
– I’d like to ask about your career before we talk about the new work, so looking back please tell me what each album meant to you. First, “Swoon”.
“It’s still a favourite, but if I could do it over again, I would make it more concise. Besides that my vocals aren’t great, I didn’t know much about recording. We decided to arrange the vocals beforehand so we couldn’t develop the music around the vocals. Now I record vocals ahead of time and the approach I then take is to assemble various sounds around them.”
– The next is “Steve McQueen” which has a strong identity.
“I rarely listen to my albums, but when I listened to the album last year I had a strong sense of being drawn back to the old days. It was the first album Thomas was involved in. And for example if you want to go from point “A” to point “B”, where you go through a twisty winding road on “Swoon”, here thanks to him it’s possible to go the shortest possible distance. In other words I came to understand that unnecessary elaboration interferes with expression. It was a great learning experience for me, and my lyrical style has changed since then.”
– The next, “Protest Songs”, saw the light of day last year didn’t it?
“Well, that was cooked up in 18 hours in Newcastle. It’s obviously an album we made for ourselves. So I kept the production to a minimum, basically I just put together what I hadn’t been able to put on the album. Even when I was working in the studio I said nothing to the CBS people. There was one guy who knew, only one person, but he told me ‘You should do it, but if it doesn’t sell it’s not my fault!’ To cut a long story short, he was a fan so he wanted to hear what we were doing!””
– (Laughs). And”Langley Park”, with the big hit single….
“It’s pretty adventurous in the arrangements of the songs, and it’s a work I rate highly even myself. It was my first experience with an orchestra, and it’s a great progression from ‘Steve McQueen’ and “Protest Songs’. ‘Steve McQueen’ if anything is a moody album, this is brighter and more fun. So is the album sleeve. I don’t think the people who knew us from ‘Steve McQueen’ had any idea what I wanted to do when they saw the jacket of ‘Langley Park’. I was saying ‘It’s Summer, here’s the sun!’. But probably there was a misunderstanding at the outset.
– Oh, did you say that? Incidentally, what strikes me after listening to these albums is that you’re an extremely self-sufficient songwriter who is absolutely not influenced by trends…
“Do you remember the Frankie Goes to Hollywood hits a little while ago?”
– Yes, I remember.
“The Trevor Horn arrangements of ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ was great. But even though I liked it I didn’t dress up in leather (laughs). I’m certainly not influenced by fashion. I don’t want to ignore the current music scene, and I keep my eye on things all the time. But I’m also 33 years old. I’ve seen it all before. I can’t keep up with Matt and Luke from Bros so I’m going to wear what I wear (laughs). Fashion changes weekly so it doesn’t matter if I know what it is, don’t you think? We’re making music for people who think we’re the most fashionable.”
– The new work, “Jordan: the Comeback” is a wonderful anthology that your instincts have brought to fruition, but were there any new sources of inspiration when you were writing the songs?
“I always try to follow the news, but I don’t to sing about that just because I’m popular, and I don’t want to preach, to decide on which things are wrong and right, but to do things from both perspectives. I wouldn’t like to say that there’s only one answer for things, there are surely other ways. Elvis is a new inspiration though, no?”
– The previous work also had a number called “King of Rock and Roll”.
“That’s right. I forgot it (laughs).”
– (laughs) But why Elvis?
“Because he was the first person to cause hysteria. Of course he’s a fantastic singer, but I think he created a blueprint for all of us. The Beatles are blueprints for bands, Elvis is a blueprint for performers. He wasn’t in a rebellious phase forever, and when he went to Las Vegas he was in a middle stage. ‘Kentucky Rain’, ‘American Trilogy’. How sexy he looked. And what was sad was that there were a lot of people who tried to make money from his death, people who spoke ill of him. I wanted to counteract that.”
– Originally, “Jordan”, including the songs related to Elvis seems to have been planned as a double album in three sections?
“No, its a four part composition (laughs). Firstly a section of general songs, from ‘Looking for Atlantis’ to ‘Carnival 2000’. Next the Elvis section from ‘Jordan’ to “All Boys Believe Anything”. A ‘love song’ section from ‘Ice Maiden’ to ‘Wedding March’ and a section on the modern way of death, ‘Death and Fate’, I guess.”
– And the theme common to the four sections is “comeback”?
“That’s right. Or I should say ‘rebirth’ or ‘renewal’. ‘Jordan’ is also where the name of Elvis’ backing band came from, the Jordanaires. Also the Jordan River is a place of resurrection. It’s difficult to explain, but everyone has a place they yearn for.”
– I heard you wanted this album to be “an album like a Disney movie soundtrack produced by Trevor Horn”. I always got something like the old joyful American pop from your music, were you attracted to that from a young age?
“Regardless of American pop, it’s true about Disney. Apart from being a fan of cartoons, I like colourful, bright and unusual things like Disney movies. Trevor Horn surprises people by throwing quite unexpected sounds and material into his albums. He makes it work reasonably well don’t you think? Even if a cartoon mouse runs into the wall it will get up and go onto the next scene! Even while I’m telling a story, I want to make music that portrays what is happening around it. Of course there must be light and shadow.”
– King David and the Archangel Michael appear in the lyrics, but never in a religious direction, deeply into the fantastic sense.
“Especially in the last section, “Death and Fate”, I wanted to figure out a response to situations if present day human beings were to appear in Biblical stories. What kind of attitude should I adopt were I to bump into to Jesus today? ‘Michael’ is about the Devil, he writes a letter to God and begs for forgiveness. In short, I wanted to write a modern scenario. I didn’t want to write an epic based on the Bible alone”
– That’s to say, you’re not preaching (laughs).
“Things are different now (laughs)”
– By the way, Thomas Dolby and you have become a pretty solid team, but what exactly is his role?
“He likes to try out a series of different ideas. He isn’t someone who want’s to rule with a producer’s attitude, and we try to bring out the best of each other. Because his attention to the sound is amazing. I’m a beginner at that. Anyway I can fiddle with the knobs all day long (laughs), I couldn’t tell you the fine details until there’s something I like, but he knows exactly what the finished product will be like. In other words, he’s a leader. When he says ‘If you sing it like this…’ I can’t see the reason at the time, but a week later it’s often the case that it was clear he was right.”
– I don’t think there are many good songwriters in the world at the moment, but I think you are one of them definitely. Some people – Elvis Costello for example – make different albums with different styles, but do you plan to take that approach as well?
“As we’re doing different things in each section this time, I hope a uniqueness is spreading in our records. I merely express honestly what I want to do at the time I do it. I don’t want to become a slave to a formula when writing and I don’t think I’m at that point yet. Up to now I’ve not been pressured from the outside, and no-one tells me to write hit songs. So at the moment I’m doing what I want. If it survives I’m happy, and if not I’m disappointed.”
– I’m hoping it stays like that forever. But to close, what do you think makes a great songwriter?
“I wouldn’t go as far as saying I’m a great songwriter, but I’d like the music I make to be something that would bring back memories of past events. For example the person who bought the record saying”I remember hearing it in the car on the way to the sea”, or “I’d just had a fight with her”. If I could do that I’d be proud of myself as being a good songwriter.”