His delicious Prefab Sprout was a band beloved of Nick Hornby. Now Paddy McAloon is back, and his music still scintillates. He had thought, he explains, that he was going blind:
“I wrote. I closed my eyes and I wrote. And with my eyes closed, I heard Miles Davis’ trumpets, Sakamoto’s keyboards, John Barry’s film music. A song is a cage, but the framework protects you. And instead, I arrived at something 22 minutes long. You see? When I realised that I’d written a single song that was just a little shorter than the whole of ‘Steve McQueen’ it gave me a jolt. And I said to myself ‘Who the hell do you think you are? Ravel?’”
This “new Ravel” has just released “I Trawl the Megahertz”, a homage to music “without words”, to the trumpets of Miles, and of Burt Bacharach, a tribute to the power of radio to console, a tribute to many other things, even those that have temporarily been lost, like Prefab Sprout, the group that left its melodic mark on the 1980s, and which Nick Hornby celebrated (with “When Love Breaks Down”) in “High Fidelity”.
“Ah, Prefab Sprout. I’ve lost sight of them… I’m not joking, it’s the truth. I’d love to go back to making a record with them, with my brother Martin, but I don’t know if it will be so easy to go back and work with them.”
In fact the 44 year old Paddy McAloon’s eyes have had two difficult years:
“It’s a disease that usually affects sportsmen, but I’ve never even run for a bus. They had to operate on me. They told me I had a detached retina.”
The jokes fall a little flat. Once, Paddy, in singing “Cars and Girls” (from the 1988 album “From Langley Park to Memphis”) had quoted Springsteen and his imagery.
“But now, given the situation,” he says, bitterly, “I could launch myself into ‘Dancin’ in the Dark’. Or ‘Blinded by the Light’”.
But there’s more danger that the new CD might be credited to Paddy “Blind Dog” McAloon. Twenty years ago when “Swoon”, the first Prefab album, came out, Paddy sang in “Cruel” about wanting to give his “contribution to urban blues”.
“And who better than a blind man,” he explains, “to know what the blues is?”
So what is behind this sudden change? Why the instrumental album?
“It’s not such a sudden shift. I’ve written instrumental music for years, and “Andromeda Heights” already contained arrangements like that. The real problem was the voice. That was the main thing.”
Oh God, is he losing his voice too?
“Sometimes I’d like to lose it, in the sense that I don’t want to feel enslaved into being forced to imagine music accompanied by vocals. Above all by mine.”
He has never had a good relationship with his voice. What was the story about him and Marvin Gaye? Opposites that didn’t attract?
“It occurred to me when we were recording ‘When the Angels’, one of the songs on ‘Steve McQueen’. Gaye had recently died. His songs were buzzing around my head, we had the cassettes in the studio. But we made things worse: it was as if we were dealing with a guest carved from stone. Do you remember the cover of ‘Hear My Dear’ with Gaye turned into a statue, like Socrates or I don’t know who else? Well we had that feeling: being overwhelmed by a huge force, by music, but above all by the voice of a great artist. We were thinking: ‘he’s dead, and here we are to mumble our way through ‘When the Angels’, but isn’t that absurd?’ That song seemed made especially for the later period Gaye. And from that moment I realised that as a singer I wasn’t worth a cent, that nothing in this world could be more weak and vapid as my own voice.”
No-one else would say that. The way he expressed himself in the evergreen songs of the mini-musical, “Jordan: the Comeback”?
“And yet, throughout the making of that record, I realized that the Prefab Sprouts could no longer perform live”.
Prefab, XTC, Steely Dan. All perfectionists. And everyone, like the Beatles, suddenly gave up playing concerts. Because?
“Different reasons. It’s a flattering list to be in, but it’s not reasonable. We only did poor concerts. We didn’t work in the way we should have. There are fans who still write to me about live performances of songs like ‘Bonny’ which for them were extraordinary. To me, quite sincerely, it seems exactly the opposite.”
So he managed to remove his voice. But he still managed to get this 22-minute piece, this Ravel story, out…
“I considered it a challenge”.
Legend has it that he has at least seven records ready to be released. For years. To continue the legend: one is about Michael Jackson, one on Zorro, one on Donald …
“Take Donald Duck away, but the rest is all true. The truth is that I can’t live without writing music. I’ve been writing since I was 12 years old. Damn it: my whole life has passed by doing it”.
Could we call it a drug?
“A drug in the sense it puts me into a creative state, which isn’t far from being a state of confusion. But there was a time when writing songs bored me, I felt of it as a burden. Music. Words. All very normal but also exhausting, frustrating. Writing isn’t the same as publishing. Just as loving doesn’t necessarily mean declaring oneself. People say that having an illness helps you focus on the crux of something, or the crux of the song… In the last two years there were times when I couldn’t even focus on the keys of an electric piano. But I managed to get out of that predicament.”
What you meant by closing your eyes?
“Sometimes it’s like opening them.”
And what do your children listen to now?
“Firstly, they don’t listen to their father! But I have patience. I force them, you know, to listen to Motown records. The eldest, five years old, is listening to the Four Tops. And she gets to dance. It’s quite a show!”.
Twenty years of Prefab Sprout: one word per album?
“’Swoon’, Artisanal. We looked like Captain Beefheart. ‘Steve McQueen’: the triumph of the producer, Thomas Dolby. That said, a successful challenge. ‘Protest Songs’ was just demos, but some of the songs deserved a better fate. ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’, except for some songs (‘Nancy’, ‘I Remember That’) it was a record without a basic idea. There was too much music in ‘Jordan’, it cost us an immense effort and also a lot of money. We’re still paying for it. ‘Andromeda Heights’ was marvellous, yes.”