Not long ago I installed an irritating “Save Our Sprouts” pop up looking for lost treasures. And this is the first fruits of that, an uncirculated and unpublished interview by Frederic Granier. An article loosely based on the interview but containing no quotes was published in TGV Magazine, but Frederic didn’t like listening to his own voice and questions in the interview – this isn’t uncommon, I was the same with my Thomas Dolby one – and did nothing else with it.
So this is its first outing, carefully transcribed and edited, and I think you’ll agree it’s a pretty good one. And if you agree that, why not let Frederic know in a comment? Maybe he’ll eventually agree to let me publish the audio…?
Of course more of the same will be gleefully accepted should anyone be sitting on a recording or transcript.
F: First of all, congratulations. It’s a wonderful record. The first question I’d like to ask you is, is it one of your long lost albums, or did you record it recently?
P: Well, thank you for your compliment. I’m glad you like it. It was recorded in the autumn of last year. It’s not one of the long lost albums, but a lot of the songs on this new record I’ve written over the years. They weren’t newly written just for this album. I went through my boxes of songs and just picked out ten strong tracks, and started to record them in October of 2012.
F: Okay, so it’s brand new. It’s great.
P: It’s brand new, yes, absolutely.
F : You said that you picked up several songs that are on your treasure trove, I don’t know what you call that… And yet, it has some kind of unity… Some of your albums share a heavenly tone, a celestial tone like Andromeda Heights or Let’s Change The World With Music. But this time I have the impression there is something about this album that’s a bit Faustian, a bit devilish, am I right?
P: [laughs] Yes, yes, yes. Yes. You know, you’re right. I don’t always write in that style that you describe, although it looks as if that’s the only thing I do, the celestial kind of very pure thing that’s going on, you know. I can understand why you say that. A lot of our music might sound otherworldly. But this one is much more, how can I put it…this one is much more earthy. And certainly with something like Devil Came A-Calling or even The Best Jewel Thief, there’s a kind of darker lyrical mood in some ways. I think maybe it’s to do with aging, you know, as you get older you see the world in a harsher light. And I just wanted to write stuff that was…that told stories, really, about the world, You know, Devil Came A-Calling, I think everybody has that feeling at some time in their life. Maybe when you’re older but you know, you look back and think, “have I done what I should have done, have I behaved in the right way? Have I sold out?” You know, “have I been the kind of person that my twenty year old self would have wanted me to be?” And these sort of questions can only come to you when you’re older.
F: So it’s a bit autobiographical…
P: There’s always a bit of autobiography in all of them, but my desire was at the time that I wrote some of these songs, my desire was to tell strong stories that could be played with just a guitar. That was the starting point. With things like Mysterious or The Old Magician or even Jewel Thief, they are very strong songs if you just play them with a voice and a guitar. There was a point last year where I thought, I might just do these as a really, really stark kind of bald record with nothing on it but the voice and the guitar. But I lost my nerve doing that, it just seemed a bit too unplugged for me.
F: That’s not the first time that you promised, you know, a stripped-down album, just you and a guitar… A whole record in the style of “Dublin”.
P: Yes! You’re right. It’s not the first time. For some reason I get, you know…if I’m really honest with you, I don’t know how interesting my voice would be with just a guitar for ten songs. I feel as if there have to be other things happening on the record to make it a bit more interesting. That’s the truth of it. So I like layers of sound, I like a record to be a thing that you can re-visit and get into what’s happening in the background. I enjoy that aspect of making records.
F: One of my favourite songs on this album is The Old Magician. It’s very tongue in cheek, a bit nostalgic. Is there a part of yourself in this magician, and do you think the whole song writing craft is not as prestigious as it used to be ?
P: Well, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know if the song writing craft is not as prestigious as it once was. I feel that those people who have ears to hear will notice the subtleties of song writers who try and stretch the form. But I think the tone of that particular song, as you point out, it’s a bit tongue in cheek, it’s a bit nostalgic, but it’s also facing up to the fact that unfortunately at a certain point most of us will lose our powers or we will, you know, we will kind of…maybe not be able to do what we did when we were younger. So I wrote that song about sixteen years ago, anticipating the day when I wouldn’t be as powerful as I once was. So there was a bit of that in it. But I thought rather than write a downbeat song about mortality, I would try and cast it in a much more…like a busker on the street with a guitar, I’d try and do it like something that’s a little bit more entertaining and less morbid.
F: On this album you also pay tribute to some of your heroes, Dylan on Mysterious and I guess that’s Jimmy Webb on Danny Galway.
P: Yeah, yeah.
F: You did work with him…?
P: Yes, yes, very briefly. I met Jimmy Webb, like the song said, I met him in Dublin in 1991 or -2, I can’t remember which, probably 91. I did a television show with him and I sang a song with him. I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think I was particularly good. He was very good. But my sections of the things that I did, I wasn’t very pleased with. But it was a thrill to meet him, because as a boy I did enjoy a lot of his music and, you know, Witchita Lineman, I thought that was an immensely beautiful song. So I wanted to write a tribute to him, but also beyond that a tribute to the power of song. So both Mysterious and Danny Galway are a similar kind of thing. They’re about people but you don’t necessarily need to know who those people are or to enjoy their music in particular. It’s more that the craft of song writing is something that obsesses me.
And I feel it affects a lot of people. We all have our own equivalents of Jimmy Webb or Dylan. We all have people that we like. You know, your favourites might be different. But everybody has that sensation of music getting into their bloodstream. And that’s what I was trying to get at, I was trying to suggest how powerful and mysterious songs can be, you know. I think about it all the time. I don’t know how they work. I don’t know… Even in my own songs, I sometimes feel like a stranger when I listen to them, or I feel like an outsider. And it’s quite an interesting thing, especially if it’s your job.
F: When you were a teenager, you imagined, I don’t know, the wild west that Jimmy Webb depicted? Was that a fantasy for you?
P: No, I must say, I get that kind of question quite a bit, usually from european journalists. Usually from France or from Germany. So I’m aware that there must be an awful lot in my music that suggests that I want to be American or something like that. I can see how people think that. But it’s not really true. I think what happened was that my day to day life or my ordinary life maybe seemed, you know, too boring to write about. And so I looked for other images from other places. But it’s funny because I still live in the same place I’ve always lived, I never moved to America. I’ve been there, you know, yeah. I think this is an imaginative world that is only there for my songs. I’m not terribly curious about it in the way that you might imagine.
F: But, for example, what I like about The Gunman album, is that it’s not a record about cowboys, it was more about a Newcastle boy imagining what a cowboy life could be.
P: Yes, well, thank you, you do know that a lot of those songs I wrote for someone else, don’t you? Did you know that?
F: Jimmy Nail, yes?
P: Yes. That’s right. A good number of them, a few of them at least, five or six of them, I wrote for him because he was doing a television series. And that was the perfect excuse for me to imagine what a northern song writer might imagine about America. You’re quite right, I was forgetting that, it’s true. And one or two of the other things I just wrote because I thought other people might enjoy them. You know, I thought that Cher for example would enjoy singing a song like The Gunman. But I’m not sure that…I think she may have been talked into doing that version, I’m not sure if she really liked it. Have you heard that?
F: Yes, well, I have to admit it was not as epic as I would have imagined it.
P: No. No. no, maybe not. I have a demo tape of her somewhere, singing the song with just a piano and her voice. And that’s really fantastic, but I don’t think it’s ever made it onto an album. I’ll have to try and find out where that is. Somewhere in the archives. [Frederic laughs] Somewhere in my treasure trove.
F: Release it one day !
F: You mentioned I’m French and I’d like to ask you a question about your whole song writing process. Because I have the impression that it has changed a lot over the years. I’m not completely fluent and I remember the first time I discovered Swoon. And I had absolutely no idea what you were talking about, the Bobby Fischer reference, the James Joyce references. And now I have the impression that your lyrics are now more “universal”. Is it something conscious?
P: Yeah, yeah. Thank you. Some of my earlier songs I was much more interested in a striking use of an image. They poured out of me in a very strange way. I would get a line and I would think, oh yeah, I like that, and I would wait a long time before I got the next line. And without analysing it too much, it was a bit more like painting. I used to think it was closer to building up a picture of something. Like an abstract expressionist picture. And that’s what I was trying to do. Now, since then, a lot of my lyrics are much more straightforward. But occasionally I will go back to that style, because I do like both styles. I like the songs that are pretty direct, and communicate hopefully directly with the listener. But I also enjoy…let me put it in, not in French, but let me give you a French reference. I am a fan of Stephane Mallarme. I’m interested in the…not quite the obvious image. I’m interested in things being slightly obscure, within reason. I’m not just trying to make people feel baffled. But Mallarme, one of the things I remember reading about him was “don’t paint the object, paint the way it makes you feel”. And I sometimes have tried to do that, where I’ve not directly just said what I am talking about, I’ve not directly said it, but I’ve tried to just hint at it and to suggest it. But both points of view are quite valid, and some of my songs as you say are more universal. And others, they are difficult. I feel sorry for anyone encountering Swoon for the first time. It’s not easy even if you’re English, you know. [both laugh]
F: That’s very reassuring.
P: Your English is fantastic, I think, you know really, really, it’s very good.
F: Thank you. It’s very comforting to see that you have released a brand new album. Because I remember a portrait of you when you released Let’s Change The World With Music. I think it was three or four years ago.
F: In Uncut or Mojo, I don’t remember exactly. And you were depicted as a, I don’t know hermit, a secret figure.
F: Frankly, it seemed that you wouldn’t ever release brand new music, and I have to say it was a bit of a depressing read.
P: It was a terribly depressing read. Mojo…I don’t know what happened there. I think that…and Matt Snow who writes for Mojo, he wrote the profile. I was not in good shape. I was still depressed about my hearing. But I have to say, I told Matt Snow all about my enthusiasm for lyric writing. I think I even was talking about Mallarme and poetry. But really I think he wanted to talk about…naturally he wanted to talk about Prefab Sprout’s career. And I don’t really think too much about that. It’s a small part of my life, if that makes any sense to you. I don’t go around thinking about Steve McQueen all day or Jordan. I think about all those records that I’ve yet to make. But you’re right, that was a sort of depressing time, and I can see how someone might think I would never make another record, I can see that.
F: Yeah, yeah. I’m very pleased to interview you right now. Frankly at the time I wouldn’t know if it could be possible.
F: It was a bit depressing I have to say.
P: Yeah yeah, you’re quite…I thought so too, and the people who knew me thought it was very, very dark. But it’s true, what he said was true. When my hearing…when I had problems with my inner ear. I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was very very frightening, I was very scared. But over the years, although it has not repaired, the hearing won’t get better, at least I’m not in any great difficulty. You know, I don’t have any pain and I don’t have any noises in my head usually. So I can get on and write music and just hope that I don’t get any worse really.
F: You mentioned your condition, and one of your records which I absolutely love is I Trawl The Megahertz. The one and only words you sing on it are, “I’m lost, I’ll grow a long and silver beard,” [Paddy laughs] “and let it reach my knees”. It’s very emotional. Was there a moment when you really considered giving it all up?
P: Yeah, yeah yeah, there was. It wasn’t just to do with my physical condition. I think for a long time that I felt as if…this will probably strike you as a strange thought, but I’ll tell you it anyway. For a long time I felt as if…I enjoy just wandering around, writing music maybe in the evening or in the morning, and the rest of the day just thinking about things or going for a walk or reading when I can. And I felt as if the whole career side of being in music… I didn’t enjoy it very much. So, you know, it’s nice talking to you about this record and I can hear that you really like various aspects of what I do, so I feel quite touched by that. But sometimes I think that if you talk too much about it, it makes it difficult to go back to doing it. Because, for me, my memories or the 80’s and the 90’s are going around talking an awful lot about my songs and records. And when I would come home I would find it difficult to find the peace of mind to start a new record. Does that make any sense to you?
F: Yes, of course. There are a lot of questions about Steve McQueen, about the frenzy of the late 80’s…
P: Yeah. I would get a lot of that.. People would talk about that a lot. And I would just find… I think some song writers or some people who are in bands, they clearly can just switch from one aspect of the job to another very quickly. They can switch from telling you about the songs to going on stage and playing the songs. And then they can disappear and write a whole new selection of things. Where for me, the best way to write new music, and I see myself basically as a writer rather than anything else, and the best way for me to write is to do that all the time. So I don’t like to take a break from being a writer, I just like to make that my main hobby.
So I suppose what I’m trying to say to you is that there was a time when I thought I might give up the music business to become a writer. That’s all. I thought I would write more music if I wasn’t a salesman for the music. But that’s sort of impossible, because you’re trying to do something that’s a paradox, you know. If you want to make records and you want to sing them, you need to talk about them to raise the money. But I did try round about the year I would say 2003, ten years ago, I just was going to pack in completely, so I was just going to disappear. But, you know. I’m not rich, [both laugh] so you can’t do that.
F: Well, you can make for example, I don’t know, something that would be called the Paddy McAloon songbook and sell the songs to other performers.
P: Well, it’s a nice idea, but I sometimes think that you know there are people who like my songs, but I’m not sure that they’d always want to perform them. I’ll hear of people, other artists, and I know that they are fans of Prefab Sprout, but I don’t know that they would necessarily want to, you know, record my songs. And I feel as if a lot of musicians and a lot of bands who do look for books of songs from other song writers, are usually looking for something that is specifically a hit, or something with a romantic theme. And I don’t know that I can just sit down and do that. If I do it, I tend to put those songs in a box and then leave them there and then tell myself, “oh, you really should send that to so-and-so”. And then I never get round to it. So I suppose I’m a little bit careless. [laughs]
F: [laughs] Yeah. But don’t do it, please record. We would miss your voice.
P: Thank you, thank you.
F: We were talking about Megahertz. I remember Nick Kent said it made him cry. So you made an old punk weep, so that’s a big compliment.
P: Is that what Nick Kent said, did he?
F: Yeah, yeah. In Liberation (a french newspaper) actually. It was his album of the month. He said it was a huge masterpiece. And that you made him cry.
P: Ahhh. I’m very touched by that. I met Nick Kent once, and I was huge fan of his, you know, I used to read him writing about Pink Floyd or Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, and I was very very influenced by him. So the fact that he likes one of my records, it means a great deal to me, you know.
F: Yeah. It’s so far away from what you would imagine Nick Kent would like, you know, it’s not very punkish.
P: Yeah. Well, Nick Kent likes the darker decadent song writers. He likes Miles Davis, and he likes the Stones, or he liked that kind of, you know, the kind of more Dionysian aspect of rock. And I think that he spotted something in my work that it does share something with that stuff. It doesn’t look like it on the surface. But deep down my music does have that longing to it, and emotion, it’s there. And I’m very touched when yourself or anyone else spots that in the music, you know.
F: Well, the album was not…it was very critically well received but it didn’t really sell that many copies.
F: I’ve read that it hurt you a bit.
P: Yeah. Too much was made of that. That comment that I made to…I made a comment to Paul Lester of The Guardian about it.
F: I read that in The Guardian actually.
P: Yeah, that’s right. That was just one…that was meant to be an aside, that was meant to be just a little thing between us. I said to him, oh actually, The Guardian didn’t review it and I looked every week for it. But you know what, it wasn’t that people didn’t really like it. I have a feeling a lot of people just didn’t know it was there. It wasn’t really promoted. It’s not a pop record. So I could see why, you know, I could understand why it wasn’t on the radio very much because it’s an unusual album.
But I did feel that, I’ve got to tell you, the magazines that did review it were generally very, very favourable, you know. Especially in the U.K. which I could read, I could see that some people thought it was a fantastic thing. But it’s not a three minute record, is it? It’s kind of, you’ve got to get into it. That’s the truth. I’m over it now, I’m not particularly bothered. Maybe we’ll re-issue it, maybe we’ll do something with it. But it wasn’t promoted, you know. It didn’t get any promotion from EMI. They weren’t…they didn’t really want that kind of record. They wanted a song record, and that’s okay.
F: An album full of Cars And Girls…
P: Yes. Yeah, exactly, it was a different thing.
F: Well, there’s something…I recently read The Guardian interview and it was a very good article. But there’s something about success that I find a bit contradictory about you. On one side you regret that some of your records weren’t more successful. And on the other side, you said that you don’t want to appear on TV…
F: You don’t want to do the Jools Holland show…
F: I’m sure that you would be a great guest. If I remember well, the last time that you appeared on TV was on The Lottery Show for Andromeda.
F: So how do you explain that you want media coverage, but you don’t want the circus that surrounds it?
P: That’s a good question. For me, again, the issue of television is an interesting one. But I don’t think that television is very good for pop music. That’s my personal feeling, and I think in general, with some great exceptions, it’s just not built for rock music. Television is built for itself. And you fit into that if you want to do it. I’m not sure that television is mysterious enough for the kind of music that I like to make, I just think it’s very…it has a look about it that just doesn’t inspire me.
But also, I’ve just reached an age where I suppose I’ve got more selfish as I’ve got older, in a certain way. In the 80’s and the 90’s, I tried to do what you were supposed to do if you were in a band. And as I’ve got older, I’ve decided to do less of that and just do the things that I really want to do. So I will concentrate on thinking about music, and hopefully to record music, but I’m not going to spend any time wasting my days doing things just because you’re supposed to do them. That’s what I mean. I have nothing against television in itself. There are lots of, you know, great clips of people doing things from TV. But I don’t trust it in a way that, you know, you’re supposed to trust it. I think people who make television programmes are making television. They’re not making things for you.
F: Yeah, I can understand that.
P: You know what I’m saying? It’s its own world. And that’s fine. I think you have to understand that world, and I think it sometimes can reveal not too much, but it can just show things in a light that is not mysterious enough where the record, if you just have a record, all the mystery still stays in the record. If you have a bad video, or if you have a bad TV show, that can take away from the music so I try not to do all the stuff that I don’t like.
F: Yeah. I have to say that the lip sync of Prisoner Of The Past, didn’t sync well. It’s not your element really…?
P: No, no. you’re quite right. You’re quite right. I didn’t really want to be there, that’s the truth. [Frederic laughs] That’s how that is.
F: Are you aware that there is the huge community of Prefab Sprout obsessives on the internet who fantasise about your lost concept albums?
P: You know, I don’t go on the internet at all really. My children will sometimes be looking for things. But I am aware of it because people tell me about it. But I don’t know what to think because it’s very… it’s nice that people like the music, I love that, you know, I’m touched by that. But I’m not sure that it’s good for the soul to read about yourself. I try not to read about myself usually, I really try hard, unless someone says to me, “look, you’re quoted as saying this, or you’re quoted as saying that”. And then I’ll go and have a look at the article just to see where, you know, where the problem might lie. But I’m aware. It’s quite interesting isn’t it?
F: Well, it’s not surprising, I have to say. It’s not surprising. I remember that there’s another song writer who’s about your age. You probably know him, it’s Lloyd Cole, and…
P: Yeah. Yeah.
F: Recently, you know, he’s like you, he has a treasure trove of lost albums, and one day he decided to release them all in a four-CD box set. Just to clear the vaults so that he could move on finally.
F: Is it something you ever wanted to do, you know?
P: Yeah, I would like to do that, but a lot of my albums, they’re not recorded. A lot of these lost albums only exist in outline in, you know…it’s not that they’re all recorded and sitting on a shelf waiting to go, it’s not like that. They exist as cassettes of me playing the guitar or the piano or whatever. I have sheets of paper with the melody and the chords and the lyrics. But I haven’t turned them all into albums, they’re just in boxes. And in each box, they will have the name of an album.
So really it’s a bit like what I have is a pile of scripts for unmade films, that’s what it is. So it isn’t quite the same as having a lot of music that’s on CD. When I start to work and put them onto tape or put them onto hard disk, that in itself is, you know, it’s usually quite a lengthy process. And I would much rather write a new song than clear the backlog of the old ones. I just don’t know how to go about getting rid of the mountain of material, because some of it I’ve actually forgotten, you know. Some of it, I know it’s in a corner of a room in a box. And my memory of it is that it’s quite good, some of it’s very good. But to dig out the old songs is a huge physical activity! It’s actually not easy to do. So sometimes I’m just daunted by the…trying to find out where the box of songs is. Does that sound mad?
F: No, but it’s a bit disappointing, because I would have imagined you, you know, to release all your lost concept albums all at once.
P: No. I would like to do that but I don’t know if that’ll ever happen. I think there’s too much music to do that. I think I’ll have to go through them one by one. And I am working on some new things now, you know, I’ve started to record a new thing.
F: The last time you talked about one of your concept albums, I think it was in a French newspaper. It was something about a song cycle about celebrity and…
F: …something about Rasputin and Angeline Jolie.
F: At first, I thought it was a joke! Do you plan to release it ?
P: You know, I arranged all that. I haven’t put it all on tape, but I’ve got it all arranged. It’s called Zero Attention Span. It was about the modern world, that’s true, that’s exactly right. You know, aspects of the modern world, the way people…the rise of the lottery, the Euro lottery, and paparazzi photographers and just the fact that everybody wants to be very famous all of a sudden.
And so I wrote a lot of songs about that. The trouble is, the trouble is really this. That if I recorded and release it, I’d have to spend a lot of time talking about it. Some of the records I make, I don’t really want to talk about. I like to talk about Crimson/Red. I don’t know. It seems to me a good subject to talk about. I don’t know if I could spend all day talking about Zero Attention Span. I could make the record, and I could release it, but I would be pretty unhappy if I had to talk about the downside of the celebrity world. I would feel that that was a bit of a spiritually un-nourishing thing to do. And that is the problem with a lot of my records, and a lot of my songs. I write them very quickly, and I think that would be good to release, but I don’t want to always talk about the subjects. So that puts me off putting them out. That’s the trouble with Zero Attention Span. I just didn’t feel like having to promote it, if that makes any sense to you.
F: Yeah, absolutely. You know, please release it, and I won’t do any interviews !
P: [laughs] Well, you know, there is that. Someone said to me “why don’t you just release it anyway?”, but of course you need the money to make these things and…I don’t know. It’s complicated. Usually, if someone gives you some money to make a record, they would like to have a couple of singles off it or tracks that will get played on the radio. And Zero Attention Span, as it happens, I think it would have. It has a couple of songs on it that I think could be big hits for sure, I know that. But I just don’t know if I’d want to talk about it, but that’s…you know, each album is different. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood, having written it, I’m just not in the mood then to spend a year recording it. That’s what happens sometimes, I want a change from it. But in the end I hope to get round to a lot of these records then making them.
F: Recently I really enjoyed the stripped-down version of Steve McQueen that you made for the anniversary edition.
P: Thank you.
F: Do you plan to make more re-makes in the same vein in the future?
P: That’s a good question as well. Some of the albums I think I would just leave as they are, but the truth is if I could re-record them, yeah, I probably would. I think I know what I’m doing now. Sometimes I fantasise about doing a different version of Swoon where the music is richer and I spend a bit more time on getting it just the way I’d like it to be. And also singing it in a different voice. So that’s the one that I’d probably go back to. And I might do that.
F: Oh. I would love, love to hear that.
P: You know, a different version altogether. Just play around with the elements and treat it almost as if I was doing cover versions of it. I don’t think it would be like the Steve McQueen 2, I don’t think it would be like that. It would probably be much more ambitious. But I haven’t quite decided how I would do that.
F: A lush-er Swoon. Why not?
P: Yeah, yeah. Something that’s not pared down. Something that is just in a different world altogether, because I really like some of the songs on it, but I’m not really a fan of the way I sing them. That’s my real problem.
F: Remember you’re one of Rod Stewart’s favourite singers!
P: [laughs] Yes…
F: I read that once.
P: I read that once. I was astonished. He’s always very nice about me, Rod Stewart. Lovely. I’ve never met him but I sometimes get messages from him. You know, sometimes he talks to someone who I know very well. And so is Pete Townsend, he’s a fan as well. It’s lovely really.
F: No, well, don’t worry, your voice is incredible. And on the new album too.
P: [laughs] That’s kind of you to say sir. Thank you.
F: Well, thank you very much. I don’t want to bother you any more, that was a pleasure. And finally I would love to say that I discovered Andromeda Heights when I was eighteen and…
F: …and it’s…well, it changed my life really. There hasn’t been a month when I don’t listen to it.
P: That’s really…I’m really touched. I can tell that you know all my music, I can see that, thank you so much.
F: Well, thank you very much, and I hope I will do you justice in this interview.
P: I’m sure you will. You’re a true fan. Take care.
F: Thank you very much. Bye.
P: Bye bye.