STRIKING FROM THE HEART
The new troubadours of sentimental pop, the boys from Durham, discuss their mysterious “Protest Songs”, a new album due to be released in coming weeks, and their conception of melody.
Paddy McAloon, the voice, guitar, and brains of Prefab Sprout, is a teenager in adult clothing. He is angelic, composed, shy, and demolishes a sandwich while telling me why the Sprouts had been dragged to Sanremo.
“Obviously it comes down to promotion, everything is promotion…” and as he speaks his eyes turn to Wendy who is holding out a drink – but there is another reason. Apart from Great Britain, Italy is “the country we’ve sold the most in. In America the critics were very positive but the sales were low. And then there’s the tour, and then….”
– Let’s talk about the ill-fated “Protest Songs”, the album that never gets released. How come no-one knows anything about it?
– (P. McA.) To be honest I don’t know much either. The fact is that we made a record we hadn’t planned to do, it wasn’t expected so wasn’t in the label’s plans. We’re still busy promoting Steve McQueen, and to put it out during that would have created problems. There are many reasons why I thought of doing “Protest Songs”. Firstly I wanted a record that was ready in no time at all, and it’s not a coincidence that the album was made in 12 days. If you listen carefully to the record you’ll realise that. Secondly I thought that for a number of months now life for the group has been completely hectic and mapped out, so we needed a moment for reflection.
Last summer I had three weeks of freedom, and I started to write. I don’t like touring. I mean I like to play in front of people but I can’t bear to sit still for a long time without writing.
Since we were about to start the UK tour I thought it would be better to have more material available. “Protest Songs” was supposed to come out last Autumn. At least in Britain. It crossed my mind to think about the rest of Europe: the material is very unusual and I don’t know whether it would be very successful, there’s the feeling it was recorded very quickly. But it will be released in Italy before the end of the Summer.
– What do you mean by the title “Protest Songs?”
– It’s a bold title. I’ve always been critical of the bands who make protest music, who espouse social causes and preach while they’re staying in beautiful hotels or playing in sparkling concert halls. The music that’s called protest music today is really only saying “We’re right, you’re wrong!”. I don’t like that approach, it’s too formulaic, it doesn’t recognise the complexity of life, the human mind, it colours everything black and white. In my opinion a song should stimulate people in a different way, not propose a Manichean division between good or bad. If you want to write about social issues it’s better done through journalism, through the medium of TV, which is more effective. But songs, no, those are conceived taking into account that you are using imagery and words designed to play on peoples’ emotions, and to protest in that way you need to be more subtle, witty, than most of today’s bands are.
– Who is Paddy McAloon protesting against?
– I don’t want to label and trivialise my songs, but I’m talking about things like unemployment, terrorism, religion. I’m Catholic, but I spend 99 percent of my life wondering if I’m doing it wrong. They’re personal protest songs.
– What’s the difference between your protests and The Style Council, to take an example?
– I don’t want to dwell on the Style Council, but they’re a good example. I work on the basis that what I write must stimulate me first and foremost. Many British bands forget that they influence the people they’re talking to, they limit themselves to preaching, and this bothers me. I hate this kind of approach and I hope I’ve made a record that doesn’t make me look like a preacher. You know in some songs I can tolerate a didactic style as long as it sounds good while you’re explaining. But everyone is looking for something personal in a song. I hope to be able to create a balance between the sound and the lyrical elements such that I never harm the listener, never insult the listener’s intelligence by saying obvious things. And if you do that you’re using a finer lyrical fabric, more acute, more elaborate. I’ve always been wary of those people who make a career from taking advantage of social causes, they must have had big issues in their teenage years.
– The uniqueness of the band is in conveying difficult and engage lyrics using accessible and immediate music, isn’t it?
– Sometimes it seems more complicated than I would actually want it. I guarantee I don’t try and write complex things at all costs. In the past I was cerebral and I’d be the first to admit it, but I’ve changed now. I don’t regret what I did in the past, but it’s more accessible now because I’ve discovered that the simplest things stimulate me more. I don’t deny that I like complex music, things that make me think, that provoke me, but now I want to make complex, challenging things by writing things that are at the same time familiar to the listener.
– You sense cultural influences from Joyce, Mann and so on in your music. Why is that?
– I read a lot. I just finished the biography of Richard Almond. Joyce also interests me because he loved music very much, he had a very good singing voice. I’ve narrowed my interests to composition: as soon as I get home I feel I shouldn’t waste time, I have to write, because everything else is just repetition. Playing live is repetitive. Joyce wrote always, every moment of his life, he worked for hours. Now I don’t want to compare my songs to him, because it would be insulting to him, but I too like to withdraw in complete isolation and seek inspiration, I never wait for it just to fall from the sky. When I’m not writing I’m reading. I like good literature but also the most stupid things – even those can teach you something. I like American literature. I’m interested in Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and newer authours like Kurt Vonnegut.
– Is there time to dream in the life of McAloon?
– Very little dreaming. Long ago I realised that my dream was that I’d do anything to teach me how to write good things.
– How do you feel living in Britain, Paddy?
– I don’t follow a lot of what goes on in Britain. I just think there is nothing new, in my opinion there never has been. Every year the same things are put forward, and then you end up relying completely on yourself. Personally I never felt part of a movement. I always thought something should be appreciated on its own merits rather than what it represents. Many times I don’t realise what’s happening in England, then after 2 or 3 years I figure it out, but on a subconscious level I always have a feel for what’s going on. Politically, Britain is a country where young people are looking for hope. Here in Italy it seems completely different, life is more relaxed where we are frenetically trying new things, in Britain everything burns faster. Yesterday I was talking to our manager about why groups never emerge from Italy. Maybe it’s the language barrier, but you have to admit the Sanremo festival is a little old fashioned…
Wendy comes in and gives him a minor telling off, warning him of trouble ahead. There’s a photo-session for Ciao2001 that’s about to begin. As the manager’s threats begin to land in my ears I ask him about Wendy.
– She’s in the group entirely for musical reasons, not because she’s my girlfriend. My voice is very dark, rough. Hers is light and fragile. It’s the contrast we were looking for……