In a song called “Carnival 2000”, released by Prefab Sprout in 1990, Paddy McAloon sang of the hope and blessings brought by the start of the new millenium. But in reality, the circumstances surrounding him as he straddled the century were far from blessed. An excess of staring at the computer screen, combined with “composer’s poisoning” caused a retinal detatchment, and he suffered also from Ménière’s disease and a hearing crisis out the blue. Despite the constraints of his situation, he released a fascinating album. When “Let’s Change the World With Music”, the missing link in his work, was released in 2009, he explained that “It’s impossible to make an album like we did in the old days”, and although his work as a writer and composer was alive and well, it seemed like his career was quietly fizzling out.
However, he seems to have recovered his former fearless confidence in his latest work, “Crimson/Red” which arrived unexpectedly. Listeners were delighted at the pop sensibility displayed in the scintillating synths in the lead song, “The Best Jewel Thief in the World”. In common with the previous record it was assembled from unpublished work that had accumulated at Paddy’s home, but this time the result is so good that the circumstances are unimportant.
The venerable pop godfather treats us to memories of the Taj Mahal, thrilling bargains struck with beckoning devils, tributes to his beloved Jimmy Webb and Bob Dylan, all with a romanticism that fits perfectly even if there are those who might laugh at it as outdated. “The Old Magician” sings of the demise of a magician who has lost his magic, and even knowing he’s a master story teller you can’t help but notice Paddy looks exactly like Santa Clause.
Althought the material was relatively old, by focusing uniquely during the creation of this work, with ideas and performance preeminent, and a lo-fi recording technique, a chemical reaction resulted creating a fantastic soundscape every bit as good as the golden age.
Paddy sings “three times brighter than the sun” at the end of “Adolescence”. The passion of this passage forms the heartbeat of the album.
– What have you been doing in the 4 years since the release of the previous work, “Let’s Change the World With Music”?
“I was intending to make a record, and I was working on some ideas. Writing the songs mainly, and a few arrangements. But I have a long standing habit of writing songs and arranging them, then putting them to one side to do something new (laughs). Because the thing I find most enjoyable is writing songs, not recording them. So the very simple answer to your question ‘What have you been doing’ is ‘I’ve been adding to my mountain of existing songs that I haven’t released’. But last year I realised that I was in the unfortunate situation of owing a record to the label, so I started ‘Crimson/Red’ in a hurry last October.
– Do you not find it easy to release something quickly if you don’t have a deadline or advance?
“The evidence I guess is that it’s impossible for me to do anything without a deadline. Why is that? I don’t understand it even myself. I this case I was able to focus my energies because of the deadline. I’d like to think that if I had enough time I’d be able to complete something myself, but clearly all that had happened up until then was time had passed. So I wonder if it would take me too long.”
– You write songs every day. What inspires you?
“Usually, inspiration comes from within. There’s a strong desire – similar to a feeling of hunger – to make new things, and only when I’ve finished writing a song does my body feel free of it. I’ve been doing it for a long time so when I don’t I feel uncomfortable and I’m on edge. It’s like an appetite – if I don’t eat, I can’t survive as a human being. Music is like that for me. For a few days after I’ve finished writing a song I feel like I have a full stomach, but after a few days, I want to write the next song. I’m driven by an impulse like when my stomach is empty. So what I’m doing for example if I take a walk is that I’m looking for something like a title or something that is likely to be the subject of a song. Of course you may also get inspiration from other music you hear. When I was young and heard the Beatles or Brian Wilson for the first time, it made me feel like ‘I want to make music too!’”
– Is there no more recent music that makes you feel like that?
“There isn’t anyone, but I don’t think that’s because music now isn’t as good as at it was then. I’m just not in an environment where I listen to music like I did in the past. It’s about your childhood. As I get older I’m busy with my own things and the music I make myself and I have much less time to listen to other peoples’ music. Of course young people listen to what’s in the charts, that’s natural. I’m sure there’s wonderful and adventurous music filling the world, but I have less opportunity to hear it now.”
– I see. Still, there must be records you listen to a lot, even old ones?
“Although it depends on my mood at the time, what I’ve been listening to a lot this summer is Lee Scratch Perry. Maybe Jamaican things are my favourite, I guess because it’s different from my own sort of thing. And some of Miles Davis’ records, I love the atmosphere they create. The work when he moved away from jazz to electric funk…”
– Like “Bitches Brew”?
“Oh yeah! I listened to that yesterday. I also listen to Joe Zawinul, I love his solo work and Weather Report. And I like pop, I listen to Katy Perry, my kids’ favourite. I like to laugh and have fun too. I have a wide taste. Scott Walker, the Beatles, Sun Ra, late 19th Century classical, early 20th, Ravel, Debussy. I always listen to that when I’m thinking about a song I’m writing or when I cook.
– You also do the cooking?
“It’s my job. Tomatoes with chilli and pasta is a classic. It tastes pretty good because I don’t have a big repertoire so I just use tinned or frozen things (laughs).”
– Even though it’s called “Crimson/Red” I was delighted to find the album is just as bright and positive as the title. What’s your own perspective on this work?
“Firstly thanks for your kind words. I like it very much. I hesitate to say that, but after I’ve finished making a new work, my head is full of it, and if I open my mouth I’ll sound like a boastful artist. But I really like it. For example in sonic terms it may not be as beautiful as the sounds we made for a time with Thomas Dolby in the 1980s. I made it my own small studio, my hearing isn’t so great. But even if it wasn’t perfect for sound, I’m very satisfied with it musically. On the whole, as an album, I feel it’s stronger than any work I’ve made up to now.”
– I’ve been told your eyesight and hearing are still far from perfect. Nevertheless why didn’t you ask for outside help, why did you handle it all yourself?
“That’s because I’m too used to recording in a different way than normal, the synths and sequencers, or out of date software packages. Because I use an old Atari computer. That makes you laugh? It’s very old fashioned… like a manual typewriter, no one uses them any more. But I use it because I’m used to it. For example my right ear can’t tell if the tuning is right. So when I want to interact with the bass sound, I raise the pitch of the sound in the computer setup, I put it on a high-register instrument like a flute, and so on. If you’re doing that sort of thing of course you could ask someone else to do it, but as I’m doing it while I’m arranging it I can do anything I like, so my flow would be disturbed by the act of explaining it to someone next to me. Of course I could also say ‘Let’s get Neil Conti in’ or ‘Let’s have Martin play the bass’, but by the time I’ve finished doing it by myself I’ve finished the record. Sorry this has become quite a complicated answer…”
– No, I understand completely. So it was part of overcoming these handicaps that affected the way you work creatively?”
“Exactly! My hearing problems were the most important reason I came up with this way of working. Originally it was typical that I liked to work on my own. This time I did the work of the engineers. I sat down at the mixing desk and pressed the buttons myself. Of course there’s no element of what you might call collaboration. In terms of the creative process there are some things that are gained, some things that are lost…”
– You use a lot of harmonica on this work, and I also remember Swoon and Stevie Wonder’s contribution on “Nightingales”. Why is this?
“It’s pretty simple. When I wanted to put something like a reed instrument, a saxophone, or even trumpet, violin on the record it would be nice to ask a pro, but like I said earlier I made it by myself. And I can’t play all those instruments. In that situation I thought it’d be possible to play the part on a harmonica. And if for example I was arranging it on a computer I could program it (laughs). ‘How would he play that here?’. By imagining that I wrote a generic Stevie Wonder solo and programmed it.
– (Laughs). By the way, when did you compose the songs you recorded this time? Because in one of the interviews when you released “Let’s Change…” in 2009, you were already talking about the title “Devil Came A Calling” as a new collection?
“Really !?! Did I say that? It’s funny, I don’t remember that myself. That song was written in about 2005. But as well as that one, it’s also possible that I’ll put the songs I’ve finished writing aside, ‘let’s review it later, let’s add a verse…’. It’s happened throughout the history of Prefab Sprout. The reason I do that is that even if it’s an old song for me, for the audience it’ll change to be a shiny new song when it goes out into the world. Whether it’s a month or a year ago… the point is it’s like a river that continues to flow, so I’m just going to get there by boat (laughs). I don’t intentionally choose to do that, but it’s eventually what happens. Writing and storing up a lot of songs, if you don’t make a matching number of records, at least you have choices available when you come to make an album.”
– You have to be selective.
“It’s true. It’s good to be able to judge things yourself, because I write a lot of terrible verses, choruses, boring tunes that never get out into the world. But if you never write a bad song, you don’t know what a good song is, and I’m not going to compromise on that. If I write a piece of crap, I’m not going to announce it to the world. I’ll tell myself that people will think I’m dreadfully bad.”
– Well at least none of that sort of songs that reached my ears recently are like that. They shine as brightly as the jewels the “Best Jewel Thief” is trying to steal!
“Thanks very much (laughs). I’m glad to hear you think that!”
– “Adolescence” is one of the key tracks on this album. How did that song originate?
“It’s a song I wrote a long time ago, most of the verses had been written prior to about 2003. So it’s ten years old already. Last year I added new lyrics about the Crimson/Red fireworks inside your head, which became the title of the album, and about SatNav. I was singing about my feelings about becoming an adult. When we look back at the past, we envy youth, and even though I think ‘It was great to be young, I’d love to go back to that time’, youth is also a time of anxiety. There’s a lot of uncertain elements that are unconnected with the changes to the physical body or behaviour. Because when you’re a teenager, everything is suspect and hyper-real. So at the beginning I say ‘Adolescence. What’s it like? It’s a psychedelic motorbike?’ It’s something that produces a lot of noise and if you don’t do it well you may be thrown off into the road. There’s a collage of images reminiscent of such a mental state… I also like to quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What I feel when I read that story is the passion of youth as it’s portrayed there. The young man in the middle of all of that believes that ‘this is everything’ and ‘this will last forever. That’s true in that moment, but as I look back I see it was just a period in my life, and I now know that things would change. So when I get to the end of the song, it’s from the point of view of a father who has a daughter. I’m a father myself, with three girls, so when my daughters listen to that in a few years they’ll understand my true meaning. It was fun to think about that while I was arranging, I guess it’s like an image in a video game. I made a pretty musical arrangement out of it it.”
– Did you feel like you ever missed out on things when you were young?
“Not really. I think I was doing basically the same things as the other young people around me. I smoked cigarettes for a while when I was 14-15 years old. It was a short period, and I now think I was right to do it. Especially because I don’t have any particular list of things I should have done. Sometimes I think ‘You could have made more records’. Sometimes I think it’s more important to have actually written a lot of songs than do that. Even if no one other than myself can listen to them.”
– The phrase “Now I’m just a dreamer emerging from a dream” from “The Dreamer” seems to be about you. What power does the music of Prefab Sprout draw from dreams?
“That song is a story of disillusionment, disillusionment about marriage… No wonder journalists don’t ask me much about that song, many people must think I’m singing about myself and may be afraid to mention it (laughs). But my marriage is going well, and I’m fine. However I watch the people around me and I see that actual married life is often not as happy as what is promised in a wedding, and in many cases doesn’t last long. In this day and age, if something is going wrong, it’s common to move quickly. It’s a song that sings about this sort of thing. Well anyway, to answer the question, I think I’ve been dreaming almost all of my life and trying to figure out the image of the songs from my dream. When I’m writing a song something like that will get into my head. Sometimes I think it’s dangerous. Sometimes I lose myself in it. If you’re working 9 to 5, it wouldn’t be tolerated at all. It’s a strange way to live a life. At the same time I consider myself lucky to be able to do it.”
– In the liner notes of the “best of” album, “A Life of Surprises”, in 1992, you wrote “It’s hard to feel nostalgic when you hope that the best is yet to come.” Is it possible to feel any sense of accomplishment writing songs day to day when you think like that?
“Oh sure, indeed. I wrote that! And your way of putting it is close to how my wife does (laughs). I’m always being told that I’m doing good things. There is some truth to what you and and my wife say. I wrote those liner notes a long time ago, and I guess I was thinking I had to be more impatient about writing songs. So I wrote something like that. In other words, a sense of accomplishment in life comes from having what you’ve done being recognized by others. I think that’s what gives you a sense of satisfaction in life, but there’s so much anxiety in me that I have no choice but to keep creating rather than have fun doing what I’m doing. I no longer believe that the next thing I’m going to do will be the best. I’m 56 years old. I don’t even know if the things I will make in the future will be better than in the past. But it seems the best thing for me is to create. Sometimes when I talk to someone like you, I feel that I’ve been recognized When I did some radio shows recently, they played a medley of old Prefab Sprout and I listened to the songs for the first time in a while and thought of myself, ‘I’m pretty good’. Maybe it would be better to enjoy what I’ve done (laughs).
– Do you still want to surprise the music scene?
“It’s nice to be recognized for what I did, yeah, I like it. I’d be happy to create a stir, and I also know there are more sensible ways of doing that. For example doing a live show, appearing on a TV programme… etc. But I won’t do that any more. There are mechanisms for making music more visible, but I won’t go there. I’ll talk to a few journalists and do some radio. That’s it. Of course I want many people to listen to my music. The lyrics are interwoven with a lot of information and attitude, and I think there is something you can feel. For example, the lyrics of “Devil Came A-Calling” and “Adolescence” are worth listening to. I don’t want to be self-serving, but I think so, honestly. Well maybe… I’m much more bullish when everything is going well. “Listen to this, be amazed…” (laughs).”
– But in fact the new work is also going well sales wise (Number 15 in the British charts) and seems to have been greeted enthusiastically by fans. Why do you think Prefab Sprout’s work is so appreciated in the 21st Century?
“I don’t know… I really don’t know. I’m truly grateful for what has happened. All I can say is that it has stood the test of time, and that people continue to listen to it. Listeners might be paying even more attention to music than people like us discussing it here. It’s wonderful. There is so much beautiful music in the world, and perhaps all of it is meant to be rediscovered by someone new after being listened to for a certain period of time, with some kind young person eventually coming along and telling others they’ve heard it. These days with the internet, people in all sorts of places across the world who share the same pure love of music have the ability to connect with one another. I’m sure that that had a big part to play.”