“I owed the record company an album”
“Sometimes I sound ungrateful when I talk about the early years of Prefab Sprout, but I’m not . We lived from one day to the next”, says Paddy McAloon.
Prefab Sprout was one of the great bands of the 1980s and 1990s. The last decade has been tough for Paddy McAloon . But despite eye disease, tinnitus – and huge reluctance – he has managed to create a new masterpiece.
“I remember the exact second”, says Paddy McAloon jovially over the phone from his home in Durham in North East England.
He has just lifted the handset (after a single ring), we have exchanged a few pleasantries and I asked him to tell us about the moment when he decided to record a new Prefab Sprout disc.
The answer is surprisingly straightforward, coming after a moment of silence.
“I owed the record company an album, and the deadline had passed. I‘d been telling myself that the time it was taking didn’t matter as long as it was a great record, but the legal department had a different opinion. On the 12th of October last year, I started work”.
So it is a record you didn’t want to make?
“I hate to admit it, but yes”.
He doesn’t sound the least bit bitter, oddly enough. A little bitterness would be justified. The past decade hasn’t been easy for Paddy McAloon. In the early 2000s, he suffered eye problems and had to undergo several operations to save his sight. Just as he was about to recover from that, tinnitus struck. The crippling, madness inducing variety.
“My hearing disaster was horrific. It’s not simply because I’m a songwriter that it was a tragedy, it was a tragedy because I don’t know how anyone can get over such a thing. I felt I was going mad. I was so scared!”
Paddy McAloon, one of the great songwriters who, during the 1980s and 1990s sold millions of albums, had to live in silence. His sight was too poor to read and he couldn’t tolerate noisy environments. When he eventually got better and returned to music, it was with the experimental solo album “I Trawl the Megahertz” in 2003, inspired by the long sleepless nights when all he could do was listen to the radio. In 2009, he released the Prefab Sprout album “Let’s Change the World With Music”, which was based on seventeen year old demos, but aside from that it’s been quiet.
But Paddy McAloon has never stopped writing. At home, he has a gigantic collection of partly finished songs, and when the record company rang last Autumn, he put on hold a complicated thematic work (“about a mysterious event in a forest”) that he had yet to finish. Instead, he rooted through his store and chose the ten songs he thought would be easiest to record.
“I saw the “Crimson/Red” as something I could do quickly and that wouldn’t be too demanding. It didn’t turn out like that, of course, it was more laborious than that. And the album turned out better than I’d hoped.”
There was no joy in doing it?
“I was questioning myself the whole time. I was angry with myself, and it was a weird feeling. But I’ve learned over the years that it’s entirely possible to create music even if you don’t feel like it, and when you are ready, you… fool people. They don’t know what mood you were in when you were recording it.”
Paddy McAloon also managed to fool himself. Once the record was finished, he could take a step back and see it for what it was .
“I threw myself into the project and thought, ‘One day I’ll be able to enjoy it.’ Now I have good associations with the album that have erased the bad.”
During the 1980 – and 1990’s the core members of Prefab Sprout were Paddy McAloon, his brother Martin McAloon and Wendy Smith. “Crimson/Red” is published under the name of Prefab Sprout but it’s a one-man project. Paddy McAloon recorded it himself, all instruments, all effects. Hearing problems have made it necessary for him to work that way, but the decision to release the album as Prefab Sprout wasn’t easy.
“I asked Martin. I said: “Okay, it sounds like Prefab Sprout, the voice is Prefab Sprout, but I’m not sure …”. He simply replied, ‘Put it out’. I’m not happy about it, and I apologize to everyone who wants to hear Martin and Wendy, but this was the best I could do. Sometimes you just have to try to stay afloat so you can survive another day.”
What are your best memories of Prefab Sprout’s early years?
“Sometimes I sound ungrateful when I talk about those years , but I’m not. We lived from one day to the next. One great memory is when our producer had moved to Los Angeles, and we hicks from England went over there and lived on Hollywood Boulevard. We laughed so much about it! We were young. We had no responsibilities, no children, we could jump on a plane and go anywhere. Today I don’t even have a valid passport. I didn’t renew it, I don’t think I could ever fly again.”
How do you feel thinking back to that time?
“It feels strange. I don’t know how to put together the pieces of the puzzle, don’t know if the memories are true. I’ve reached the stage where I’m not sure what really happened and what is just stories I tell myself.”
In the song “Adolescence” Paddy McAloon writes about youth, of the raw nerve endings and big emotions that characterize the “Crimson/Red fireworks inside your head.” It‘s the lyric that gave the album its title, but the colour red has had an impact in Paddy McAloons adult life.
A few years ago he began wearing a pair of bright red shoes.
“I was sitting at home a lot and started buying clothes to amuse myself. I would see a pair of red shoes and I just bought them. I had funny clothes at home where no one could see me, but eventually I forgot that the clothes were ridiculous and didn’t bother to change them when I went out. I looked like a clown. I’m not particularly exhibitionistic, so it puzzles me how I ended up there!”
Eventually he noticed that the clothes, ridiculous or not, helped him. They were able to place him in some specific state of mind.
“Now when I say it out loud, I hear how crazy it sounds. But it’s kind of like how Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) put his feet in a box of sand. The clothes were my sandbox. If I didn’t want a song to be too melancholy I put on those shiny red shoes. But I stopped wearing my red things a few years ago, I don’t like people staring at me on the street. Oh my God, do I sound like David Lynch now?”
He ‘s not the worst role model!
“No, but he used to wear two ties. I have two pairs of sunglasses. A special pair that doen’t let any light in, and then a bigger pair of glasses on top to protect my eyes. I realize I’m sitting here trying to justify very strange behavior now, and I probably seem quite eccentric.”
So … what are you wearing right now?
“Hahaha! Boring clothes. Black chinos and a brown shirt. But if you want you can tell your readers that I have a plaid suit instead. That’s quite all right!”