Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon on why he prefers his own company.
Pop music loves its troubled geniuses: Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Preston from the Ordinary Boys. In light of recent evidence, we may have to add another name to that list. Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon has always marched to the beat of his own drum (or, more accurately, twirled to the tinkle of his own triangle), but more than ever these days he resembles a true eccentric. He’s certainly got the look down pat. In the days when he was singing smart, sophisticated, rather unfashionable pop songs like When Love Breaks Down and The King of Rock ’N’ Roll on Top of the Pops, McAloon was a whippet-thin dandy. Nowadays he looks like a cross between Charles Darwin and Jerry Garcia, “pottering around” his hometown of Consett in the north-east of England, writing scores of songs and letting us hear almost none of them.
Since 1990 there have been just two Prefab Sprout albums – Andromeda Heights in 1997 and The Gunman and Other Tales in 2001. The band hasn’t toured since 2000. Always regarded by McAloon as the “umbrella term I wanted to slap on any work I did,” any concrete notion of the group has long since dissolved.
The other members – his brother Martin, co-vocalist Wendy Smith and drummer Neil Conti – may have drifted away to full-time jobs, but McAloon has not been idle, and nor has he been battling writer’s block. Far from it: during his absences he has written and partially recorded a dizzying array of weird, wonderful and as yet unreleased pet projects, from Beyond the Veil, a concept album about Michael Jackson, to Zero Attention Span, a relatively recent suite of songs turning their pitying gaze on broken Britain. Sample titles include Davina and Uncool Ringtone.
This is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are “boxes and boxes of things,” admits McAloon in his lilting Geordie accent. “It haunts me. It’s not that I’m anally retentive and can’t let go, it’s that a commitment to make any one of these projects means that I’m looking at at a least a year of my life, and I find that difficult to come to terms with as I get older.
“It’s also to do with how much pleasure you can squeeze out of the day, and usually for me that involves writing the new stuff rather than recording an old one.”
It is, therefore, entirely apt that the new Prefab Sprout record is 17 years old. Recorded in demo form by McAloon in 1992 as “a very detailed blueprint”, Let’s Change the World with Music was intended to become the follow-up to their 1990 album Jordan: The Comeback, until it met with some resistance from his record company, Sony. “We had this meeting and it seemed to me that no-one had really listened very closely to it,” says McAloon. There was also a question mark hanging over the subject matter. Spirituality has been a recurring motif in the songs of this former Catholic seminary boy, and this time he was “interested in rhythmic music with gospel and religious themes, but the God word scares people. I think I came a cropper with that. ”Nowadays he characterises his own beliefs as “an ‘agmystic’: a cross between an agnostic and a mystic.”
Chastened by Sony’s lack of enthusiasm, he abandoned Let’s Change the World with Music and instead wrote an entire concept album based around one of its tracks, Earth: The Story So Far. Before he knew it he had a suitcase full of songs and a year-and-a -half had elapsed. “They were trying to stop a man from making a 16-track record and I was turning it into a 40-track record,” he sighs.
For a while he busied himself with simpler pleasures, writing songs for Jimmy Nail and Cher and composing the theme tune to ITV’s Where The Heart Is, until towards the end of the 1990s his health began to decline. First he suffered a detached retina, a degenerative congenital disorder that almost caused him to go blind (three operations later his sight is – “touchwood” – just about okay), and then in 2006 he was struck down by “major tinnitus and a blockage” in his right ear
“It’s calmed down, but I don’t really hear bass frequencies,” he says. “I can’t stand in front of big instruments like a drum kit or a bass, but I can play my machines at a low level.”
These illnesses aside, McAloon’s retreat seems like a simple lifestyle choice. He was never particularly enamoured with the grind of the rock ’n’ roll life and the sacrifices it demanded. “I’ve witnessed bands on tour and I’ve thought: ‘You’ve spent too long on a bus, too long in male company, too long drinking, too long in your own little bubble’,” he says. “I couldn’t see that as any life for a sensible person.” Married to Victoria with three pre-teen daughters who “find it very strange that I could possibly have made a living like someone from High School Musical”, he values “the texture of the school run, smoking a cigar in the garden, the nice little things. I don’t think you can unify those two lives very easily.”
It’s all a long way from the days of hot dogs and jumping frogs. Did he ever enjoy being a pop star? “Over the last few years I’ve had such a downer on myself I’ve disowned it,” he says. “I felt like, ‘What a waste of time’. I really wish I could feel more philosophical about it and tell myself that I had a good time, but for some unfathomable reason I get very melancholy about it.”
Considering he’s an anti-nostalgist who admits to “cultivating amnesia” regarding his past and is heretical when it comes to 1985’s wonderful Steve McQueen – “I’m not sure the second side is up to much, personally” –why has he returned to Let’s Change the World with Music? “My manager listened to it and said there’s still a demand for what I do and people are still interested,” he says. “He talked me into it, but I like it. I like my singing and the intentions of some of the songs.”
It is indeed a beautiful record. Sincere, romantic and at times crushingly beautiful, musically it’s in thrall to Quincy Jones and Prince, while lyrically it marks the point in the Prefab Sprout story where McAloon’s writing turns away from poetic obfuscation and seeks out a kind of profound simplicity. The title is tongue in cheek and deadly serious. “She’s richer than money, bigger than fame, and love is the reason I’m playing this game,” he sings at one point, a love-struck suitor wooing his mistress. From most writers this would be an empty platitude; in McAloon’s case it has all the force of a heartfelt manifesto. “There is something mysterious about the power of music, the way it seeps into people’s lives and seems like it’s conveying some kind of information, though we’re not quite sure what it is,” he says. “I keep coming back to that.”
I tell him my pet theory: that his self-inflicted exile is really a kind of heroic protest against the cheapening of music, a last stand against disposable culture. “There is something in that,” he says. “I don’t like the climate of music being something that people expect to be given with a newspaper. I resent that. When I saw Radiohead releasing their record in that ‘honesty box’ way I felt that was a craven gesture. Try that if you’re a plumber. It’s Stockholm Syndrome, identifying with the pirates so badly that you give it away for nothing.”
This all sounds rather precious and po-faced, but really it’s not. McAloon is funny, direct, self-deprecating and a real joy to converse with. He’s also a pop tart at heart, at 52 still infatuated with the possibilities of the three-minute symphony. Among his daughters there has recently been, he says, “much whispering about Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl. I like the cheek of it, the calculated naughtiness of it.” He laughs. “I like to think my instincts are still there, that I’m still functioning as a Tin Pan Alley man.”