I recently posted an audio recording of parts of an interview by Hanspeter Kuenzler, and when doing that contacted him to check he didn’t mind. He was kind enough to say yes, but also mentioned he had an earlier interview with Paddy from 1990 from the days of typewriters and manual corrections, which he scanned and sent. It’s a tremendous and sympathetic discussion, as usually happens when the journalist is also a fan. Note that two more interviews are posted at Hanspeter’s own site in the “selected interviews” tab.
Q: What has changed for you since the last album, musically or lyrically?
P: I’ve no idea what has changed, because it’s a difficult thing to address. If you’re involved in your life on a day to day basis, as everyone is, it’s hard to see things from that lofty perspective of “that album” then “this album now”. For me it’s so gradual. And the actual work itself is so all-consuming that it would worry me to get too close to that question. It would bother me, it might paralyse me if I realised, say, that I wasn’t as good now as then. So I try to stay away from thinking too much about how things have changed. Also – another answer to that question – because I’m so keen to do different things from song to song, each song is almost a reaction against the last one, that it may be that I do something now that has a spirit that I had 6 months ago but not 9 months ago. I’m always in a state of constant change. I couldn’t really give you a specific answer.
Q: Can you see any changes – if not in your work – maybe changes in your environment or ways of working?
P: My way of working has become more reliant, or more involved, in writing songs, but also trying to come as close as possible to the “perfect”… Well “perfect” is too.. I wanted to capture the atmosphere of the definitive version of the song rather than just… in the past I would write a song, hand it over to Thomas Dolby, and he’d make something out of it. Now I want to write the song and get the atmosphere going at home with the computer, what have you, do the arrangement and then hand over to Thomas or the band and then say “look, this is what I am trying to do.” To give an example “Jesse James Bolero” exists on the album very much like in the demo. Because I wanted to have some idea of a Bolero rhythm, but I also wanted to have the band, so there’s a drum kit in there, overdubs of snares that do things a normal drummer wouldn’t do. Also I wanted it broken up in terms of the arrangement, lots of different instruments playing small parts. I can only get close to that if I work at home. That’s a very recent thing for me to be involved with. It’s to do with having more technical equipment at home than I used to have. And to do with taking control, not only with writing the songs but also defining the sound world you wanted to be in. I could give you a song and you could take it to someone else, they could do 20 completely different versions of my songs… So that’s changed.
I suppose now I have greater fondness for using characters to tell a story. Which isn’t to say they’re not about me, or not personal… They’re still personal but instead of doing it in the first person singular, “I do this”, “I think that”, the ideas are transmitted in stories about Elvis Presley or Jesse James.
They’re still personal but they’re little dramas in the way a play or a TV drama will be about something, an idea… Amadeus is about whether genius is necessarily polite, decent, respectable or can genius be in spite of itself. An idea close to the author’s heart, but he does it through his characters. I like that as a style of writing. That’s a new preoccupation.
Q: The way you describe the way you work at home， finding an atmosphere and all that， and reaching towards your definitive version, sounds as if you’re trying to reach a kind of musical definition of one state of mind you’re in, rather than a specific thought?
P: Yeah. Well, depending on whichever day of week it is, I can decide… I can change any element of it, sing it one way one day, another another day. And all although… Depending on your mood, you could do a record a million different ways. So you’ve really got to try to get as close as possible, knowing that you could change it all. And that makes it hard to be definitive. But I view making records in same way as writing song. I write a song, I put aside, because I may want to change something in a few weeks time.
To some people that is a bad notion, because they think it’s not spontaneous. But to me there’s no value in spontaneity unless you’re happy with it afterwards. If it’s spontaneous and it’s bad there’s no…
Sorry, what the hell was that… (coffee arrives)
…Spontaneity, if you write something quickly, and it’s good it’s wonderful, I have done that. But often you get one little idea that’s great. Maybe the music, or title, or first verse, but the rest you’ve got to tease out. Because you have possibilities. You may think: “Great title”, you may have a little music, so you keep going over the fragment. “End of the road I’m travelling, I will see Jordan beckoning”, you ask: is it about the Middle East, about someone who likes Gospel music, about Elvis Presley, you can tailor the things you do, can push them in a number of different directions. It takes more time, to work out exactly what is going to be the best song for you to write. Because for any title for any song, you could maybe write it in a lot of different ways. It does occupy me… Sometimes I write number of different songs with exactly the same title: “Jesse James Symphony”， “Jesse James Bolero”, the same idea but slightly different directions. Or “Goodbye Lucille #1”, on “Steve McQueen”， I had other songs there that didn’t appear on the record, it was me trying to work out the best way.
Q: Sometimes I felt with people like Kerouac who pretend to write totally spontaneous stuff and all those people, often end up being less honest that if they had worked over it, because what can they do is, they write it down, but can always claim afterwards that they are now not of the same opinion, because that was that moment, and this is now.
P: You are dead right. One of those myths, spontaneity. What people really mean with that is: “Isn’t it great if I go into studio, just sing, capture the moment.” I understand that. Yes， it is good, in the playing to be spontaneous. But in the writing there is really no point. Because – that’s a perfect point – spontaneity covers up sloppiness of thought. Sloppiness even of feeling, if you really ask yourself what you really feel, I think it’s more complex than what first comes to mind. And there’s no great truth in being spontaneous.
So I’ve learned from my writing. The first draft of my writing is often really bad. I’ve written really really bad things. I sit there, go through it, I try to improve. After a few months I have pile of papers two or three inches high, I have different variations on an idea.
Q: It’s interesting what you said earlier, that you write new songs almost as a counteraction to the previous one. But you often use in the next song images from previous songs in different context.
P: Yes, that is probably, definitely a feature of this record, as opposed to the previous ones. There are links between songs. The idea of having your time again and doing things properly in coming back, a common regret that people have. No-one likes to think they wasted their life. Life didn’t work out the way they wanted, they wish it had gone another way – that’s a common thought. A few of the songs contain that.
So even if it’s not Presley lying in the top floor of Vegas Hilton in a darkened room, talking about his life, wishing he could do things differently, that’s one of the songs, it could be the devil across the divide of hell from heaven, saying to Michael the Archangel, can you do something to help me make a comeback, can God change his mind? And that idea, is funny idea, but is on the same theme of regretting what you’ve done. And it carries some sort of link between the various sides of the record.
As does “Mercy”. “Mercy on me，say that I’m forgiven”. You can read that as a love song if want, between two people who have fallen out, or you could read as a continuation of the song before, the devil singing a more intimate song than “My girl…” with computer drums, it’s suddenly much more intimate with the devil and the guitar. Those sort of thoughts were very present to me when I was making the record, I wanted to arrange the running order of material, so if you wanted to look for connections, you were going to see them. But if you don’t see music like that, you don’t have to follow the writers guide. You can listen to it just as a bunch of songs. But I did write it with that in mind. Maybe teasing people to draw them in after a few listens.
Q: “All The World Loves Lovers” seems to look at things from the opposite point, tracking things out before the relationship starts, so you won’t have regrets afterwards.
P: There is a little bit of that in it. The other idea I was trying to get at was that there’s something very romantic about saying all these things like “Going to be hard-headed about this, not going to make all those mistakes, not going to hope for all those things lovers hope for”，but secretly I want them to come true. And it’s romantic without being soppy. It’s to do with: “hey sure, I’m tough guy, but I would like all those things to happen”. Which is maybe true to life, when you’ve been through things where they’ve been wildly romantic, and then been brought down to earth by the truth of the world, then next time round, you change your attitude. Still, there’s something much more romantic about having a slightly harder attitude， but privately you’re still hoping for the best.
Q: Why did the figure of Elvis appeal to you so much?
P: A number of reasons. For a start, it’s very dramatic. Good for a story, dealing with a figure everyone has heard of. Whether you like him or not is irrelevant. It’s funny, as well. I wrote it nearly 2 years ago, but since then the idea of him still being alive has become more and more real. I like the oddness of the premise. The strangeness of the idea that if he were still alive, the idea that he would sing a Prefab Sprout song, and would be telling story of his life in a monologue. I found that entertaining. I wanted that people be entertained by it. In same way as if I told you there was great film on down the road, and the plot was Elvis in a darkened room talking to a tape recorder about his life, and he’s just waiting for someone to write the right song for him to make a comeback, they would want to see that. How they handle that theme.
I feel also, it was a good way to talk about something serious. Which is… It’s the sentimentality to do with looking back at your life. And saying: “You know, all right I didn’t do everything correctly, I wish I could have done… I wish had another chance to do better.”
Also it’s an answer to the Albert Goldman book, the Elvis book, but I tried to answer it in the way Elvis would have… it’s a scurrilous book, he draws a lot of conclusions. I’m not a fan, it’s not because I’m big Elvis fan who’d hate to have my hero injured, that’s irrelevant. It’s that the book takes a lot of facts and makes a big mountain of them, and somehow presumes it has made a more convincing’ narrative, seen a better truth in his life, than the common idea of Elvis, he has a viewpoint opposite to everyone else’s. And I think the truth is such an elusive thing anyway, that this spurious idea, that just because puts forward a fact that he wore a nappy in his last days, a big diaper, and he took piles of drugs, and was very unhappy, that that meant that committed suicide. It doesn’t add up to me. All right, he died, he had a heart attack, in a way he did kill himself because he took a lot of drugs, but his conclusions don’t move me very well. And then you’ve got to put against this biography the weight and pleasure the music brought. The music tells a different story, belies the sordid facts.
And I thought I’d write – Presley wouldn’t have attacked the book by saying: “but this is just an intellectual New Yorker’s attack on a Southern boy.” He would have said: “All those books about me, there wasn’t much love in them boys.” He would have said: “Couldn’t he have found one word of love in it?”
That’s from my recreation of Presley, that’s how he would have reacted… I wanted to capture some of that like a play, a movie, a novel.，and put it into song… It moved me. And I’d hope it would move other people, that they would appreciate the attempt to capture his voice.
Q: But if you take a figure like Presley, you have in it also the connotations of sexuality, the black/white thing, etc.
P: Yeah, hence I tried to refer to spirit moving in mysterious ways. It’s a religious idea, you don’t know how God works, He may have hidden plan behind things we can’t see. Be slow to criticise what someone is doing, because the pattern may only become clearer later. And he says, “the spirit moves in mysterious ways, it sure made me move in mysterious ways, they wouldn’t film me from waist on down.” And I just thought there were enough references in songs to actual things he did, that I could put into some pattern to suggest that one should be slow to condemn, because he had a remarkable life. And that goes for anyone. Everyone has a remarkable life. It is about compassion. It is about being cautious to judge people, because everyone is dealing throughout their life… dealing with things for the first time. Everyone – it doesn’t matter that you have fallen in love before – if we fall in love it’s for the first time. And reading all about it is not much help, you have to experience it for the first time. And it’s very well for Goldman to write a 500 page book about Presley from the safety of 80s. Because Presley was living for the first time ever the experience of being that famous, that rich, that quickly with that background, that education. At the time was all novelty, not the fodder of professors from Yale to write about it… All right, I was interested to read Goldman’s book, interested in some of the theories, it has a certain degree of truth. But I wanted to put another kind of truth, more sympathetic, imaginative… I wanted to write about Presley, and criticism about Presley – criticism of anyone for that matter.
Q: You mentioned “Jesse James Bolero”， I like that particular sequence. Why bolero?
P: Because it goes back to Presley. My starting point was: I wanted to write a song for Presley. So if he was still alive, and I was going to write a song for him, I asked myself, “what would he like to sing?” And it seemed to me that, that he would like to sing – in his late Vegas period – about American things. There’s song “American Trilogy”… Presley sings ’’Glory glory hallelujah”. He became a symbol of America himself, a piece of Americana. I thought, “give him a subject that he can identify with， bad boy, outlaw, who has come long way from the cradle, his hometown, ended up long way from where belonged, is on stage in Vegas”, and he must have thought at times, “how the hell did I get here?” I wanted to write song that would encapsulate, would be about Jesse James, but secretly, it was a subject that Presley could have identified with. The listener doesn’t need to know that, to enjoy the song. But then I thought, Jesse James, like Pres1ey, lived a certain kind of life, and maybe envisaged a better end to it then what happened. Jesse James was shot in the back hanging a picture on the wall, hardly a glorious way for an outlaw hero type to go out. So I got the line: ”Jesse James was never part of life’s great symphony. All he heard was penny whistles out of key”， which immediately brought the idea of him waiting for this glorious music to start, he maybe pictured himself dying in maybe a more glorious fashion.
He didn’t get fanfares， he got cheap penny whistles. The thought was to continue the metaphor of music fitting the way you die – Jesse James’ dance is a dance on the run… all the references to music, seeing yourself having a glorious finish, a Bach fugue, and all you get is barbershop music， cheap music. It seemed to tie in with the way of living your life not the way you imagined it. We all like to think we will die in old age in bed. Few people do. I was trying to get some of that idea over in music. The reference to a Bolero, a stately dance, but a stately dance going nowhere. Jesse James’ Bolero is a dance where every step proclaims that he… I can’t remember my own lyrics, I write them and forget them!… ”Every step proclaims he’s a wayward son.”
Q: Why is theme of regretting, having gone the wrong way, such a strong thing with you?
P: I don’t know. Might be just a fear that you don’t… I like to fill my days so that I can’t ever say I’ve wasted my time. It used to worry me when I was younger. I never like to be bored. It worries me, the idea of a life lived where you’ve not done things you wanted to do. You turn round, I wish I’d done that… I can think of few things that are more sad.
Q: You seem to have been really lucky in that respect. From early on you were able to live off music.
P: Yes, I know, you’re dead right. And yet when I was 17, 18, I was very very worried about what I wanted to do. I used to think… I didn’t like to think about it. Yet, even if we hadn’t made any money from this, it’s still rare to have something that occupies your mind or life, to the degree music does with me. I would have been happy to do another job if I couldn’t afford to make records, would be happy to do a job that allowed me free time to write music. I would still be happy with that. I wouldn’t think “bye bye music”. I’m very lucky to earn a living, and with the possibility to earn riches, not just a good living, and to be doing something I love, that is so rare.
Q: I expect you were quite surprised with your previous records selling so well considering what you are doing is so outside the mainstream?
P: Yeah, well 一 I can only do what I think – I can only entertain myself and hope it pleases others…But I know there’s enough there， in music, in texture, to maybe draw people in. If they want to get into the lyrics, it’s there… When I write a sentence in song, I spend long time weighing it, that it’s just right for me. There’s always someone who knows what I mean…But yes sometimes it does surprise me that we’re that successful.
Q: “Looking for Atlantis” is quite unusual for Prefab Sprout, with two chords all the way through. It takes a while to get used to the fact that the verse is over the same chords as the chorus…
P: I have quite simple tastes in what pleases me on record. I always hope people get it on first listening, although it usually takes three, four listenings. I suppose in some respects I have the worst view of all, because I’ve heard it so many times. I tend to forget it takes a while to get what it is… Because in writing I can see connections, I’ve played verse the verse a hundred times, worked on the chorus.
Q: And it’s your own sense of logic…
P: That’s it, my sense of logic isn’t the same as anyone else’s,
I realise that. I actually sometimes have problems with other people’s records. I listen to them, I think, “I can’t follow that, I can’t work out the verse, chorus”, and people say to me， “What do you mean? That’s perfectly straightforward.”
Q: You still seem to draw on the imagery of your Catholic background very much. Is it a lapsed Catholic looking at it, or a practising Catholic in full flow?
P: It’s childhood I think, drawing on things heard as a kid, that you don’t know are any less real than Santa Claus, or Cinderella… Not wanting to be disrespectful to anybody’s beliefs, but what I mean is: When you’re a kid, you accept everything on the same level. You’ve probably heard some names in bible so many times, I’m not trying to make certain points about religion, more that I just share a bunch of symbols, images and characters that I assume everyone else knows about, and depending on how educated you are, you may and you may not know. Michael The Archangel in Catholic theology was one of the good angels in the fight against Lucifer. Probably a big presumption to make for general record buying audience. But I’ve always written from point of view of writing on my level. I never try to write less than I know. I never think this will be too much for people, this reference too arcane or obscure, because I think the people… when I was younger if I didn’t understand something, I tried to find out about it. Also religious characters, stories in the Bible, are excellent for denoting certain things. Devil versus God raises a whole bunch of issues. Can an all merciful God forgive his arch enemy, can God exist if there isn’t a devil? Is there such a thing as… Isn’t it just a strange notion and good subject for a song, to have God sing: “Don’t sing me any hymns of praise, look after the people around you， don’t write me any fancy psalms.” That – whether you believe in God or not – I think that’s a warm notion to have for people. I think it tells you something about the way we should treat each other. So I kind of just draw on a bag of symbols from my Catholic background. But I couldn’t write song about “you must believe this and that.” I don’t like religious music much at all myself. Off-putting. I don’t like things where someone found a light and they’re going to hit you over the head with a torch. Haha…
Q: Do you think your angle is in any way different because you live in the North?
P: I don’t know. I’ve spoken a lot about this before. But I’m not clear about what to think about it, I think it’s home, always been home, no real reason to change that, unless I’ve got to, unless I’ve got to find work somewhere else. Whereas I’ve always written at home. And when I’m away, on tour, I’ve always found it hard to write. So I associate writing with home, which reinforces probably living in the North-East as the place where I’ve written most. But really I don’t know how much it affects me. I used to think that being in London would get me drawn into some sort of social scene that meant you were very concerned about being famous, or being part of what was happening musically. Then I suddenly realised it didn’t do that to me at all, when I’m down here. When I’m in Newcastle I’m no more isolated then when I’m here. Down here I behave in exactly same way as when I’m at home. I think the place maybe doesn’t have such a big effect on me than is sometimes thought… Hard to have perspective about it. I like living in the North-East， it’s different. A bit more resistant to trends than London…
Q: Talking about places, how come about “Paris Smith”? It’s quite difficult to say, isn’t it?
P: It is, hard to sing, no-one pointed that out to me. You’re right. It is hard. You want to put that barrier between the two s’s. It came about because Wendy said if she ever had a kid she would like to give her an unusual name, and Smith as you know is pretty common name. She wanted to find something as incongruous as possible. Her first choice, was Rock Smith, after Rock Hudson if it was a boy. If it was a girl, Paris Smith, a mixture of exotic and very normal and simple. I wanted to write song about talking to child, to use this imaginary name…
Q: That line “death is a small price to pay to get to heaven” is in that song as well.
P: It’s in the medley, in “Ice Maiden”.
Q: Got so many rings of irony to it as well.
P: I won’t spoil it for you by talking about its specific meaning in the song. “Ice Maiden” was about being ABBA, I wanted to write not from a kid’s point of view, but when I was a kid I saw Agnetha on TV, I thought that was very glamorous. I wanted to write anout that image of glamour that you only have when you’re a kid. When get older you think they’re not so glamorous, just normal human beings… There’s a Swedish sensibility in Abba’s lyrics, a frosty glamour.
Q: What are you reading at the moment?
P: Almost anything. From escapist cheap fiction to “Lolita”， Nabokov…