“The important thing is to make beautiful and melodic music. That hasn’t changed since the beginning.”
Prefab Sprout follow a path where melody reigns supreme. After six and a half years they have just released a new work. Paddy McAloon, seeking a more universal kind of pop, talks about his musical philosophy.
Music can be the happiest thing in the world. I have no hesitation in describing Prefab Sprout’s sound in such terms. Music plays on a variety of different emotions, but music that makes me feel happy in this way is not so easy to find. Melodies refined by a love of music, shining with nostalgia, warmth and absolute beauty, but at the same time sadness and fresh surprises aren’t forgotten.
And the melody blends perfectly with the sound, the rhythm and lyrics as if it was fated to be so. It’s amazing something coming from a combination of just 12 notes can move the heart so much. I reviewed it in this magazine last month, I still find it magical.
Anyway “Andromeda Heights” is a new work, which was indeed in preparation for six and half years. But the pop alchemist behind it, Paddy McAloon, was not idle. He was working on a project called “Let’s Change the World With Music”, and a magnificent project called “Earth: the Story so Far” (neither was completed). In the meantime he was writing songs for Jimmy Nail (a British singer whose album “Crocodile Shoes” became a million seller) and Cher (!). And he provided a song for Kylie Minogue to cover (!!).
That’s right: they weren’t starving… Neil the drummer is no longer with the band, but Wendy’s crystal clear voice and the bass of Paddy’s younger brother Martin are both alive and well.
As the new work becomes more universal, and takes on a more conventional pop music form, Paddy himself says that “Prefab Sprout isn’t a band, but closer to an orchestra”. But it’s wonderful that the mode of expression has been lifted to another level, the highest level of “pop”, and is something quite different from the languor of “easy listening”.
Although the surface is calmer, rather than dramatic or giving a feeling of elegant exhilaration, that’s not a reflection on the quality of the music. Lyrics that have become much simpler also leave plenty of freedom to the imagination of the listener.
They have created their own studio, also called “Andromeda Heights”, so from now on it’s likely we’ll see Prefab works at shorter intervals. That makes me happy. I will be able to live with Prefab Sprout as well as Beck and John Spencer. In my interview, Paddy spoke at length, sincerely and frankly.
– During the past six and a half years you were actually doing a variety of things, but have you always had Prefab Sprout in mind?
“Well, apart from writing songs for other artists, everything was a Prefab Sprout project. For me, Prefab Sprout is much more than the music, unlike most peoples’ notion of a band or group. For us, making a record is exactly…. Yes, it’s like making a movie. We’re like a film crew and we’re all involved in making the film. And the most important thing is the screenplay. The songs are the screenplay, but the script has to be fresh and different every time.
“Although it may sound strange when I say this, Prefab Sprout is like a label for all the music, and even if the style of music being done on the record is different, everything is Prefab Sprout. We try to work in a flexble way. Even all the songs I’ve written for other artists are written with the possibility they might be Prefab Sprout songs, and I hope to record them myself in the future. And I sure I don’t have to explain to you that I’m able to continue with Prefab Sprout thanks to the money I made offering songs to other artists.”
– (laughs). Recently I heard that you said you were not interested in the “band”, the important thing is the music itself.
“It’s really that you don’t want to be bound by the idea of a band when you’re working on creating songs, you don’t want to be restricted by the kinds of instruments you use on records, for example drums and guitars The best way to escape from the idea of belonging to a band is to concentrate on only one point, which is that you write the music you really want to write. I was trying to say something like that.”
– I see. The new work has become a pop or song collection that is very orthodox and simple.
“That’s right, the view that the songs are “orthodox pop songs” is partly correct, but when I say that I feel something will be missed because of the obvious simplicity of the lyrics. Because it’s written about simple honest truth, but I think there is as much depth as there was in the previous album, ‘Jordan: the Comeback’, just that I chose to express it in the format of a love song. A love song is the simplest, basic, most orthodox format, but if you listen carefully I think you can see that these are not just songs written about the relationships between one person and another. They depict a human craving for immortality. Because I feel myself life is short. I try to overcome that feeling by hoping to make life more meaningful and better than it is now. And I think that love songs make that possible.
“Although I’m using a more direct method of expression, less ambiguous, this time, I think myself that it’s as deep as before. In that sense I think that it is very similar to ‘Jordan’, just that the way I express that has changed. Actually some of the arrangements are experimental on the new release, and songs like ‘Anne Marie’ and ‘Andromeda Heights’ are quite different from what I’ve done in the past. Up until now, there have been few instrumental elements in our music, but the new work has plenty of them. ‘Avenue of Stars’ and ‘Andromeda Heights’ both start with an introductory section that is filled with various elements. I think that’s a kind of progression. I also have a lot of experimental rhythms. It might not be the shape that you might have expected, but I think there has been a more holistic musical development than just in the lyrics. But there is truth in your question. There were many complicated songs about religion, Elvis Presley, the Devil, etc, on ‘Jordan’. But on this album I decided to focus more on the characters of each person.”
– With regards to the sound, an ordinary band basically has guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, etc. There are various ways artists have of adding additional sounds, but in this album I have the impression they were all treated on an equal basis.
“Yeah, that’s right!”
– And I felt you had assembled the songs so as only to use the sounds required by each song.
“I can only say that you’ve got that exactly right. For example, the Rolling Stones write songs based around guitar, bass and drums which are the constituent elements of the band, but that wasn’t important in this record of ours. The songs themselves led us to the sounds they needed. So we can say we’re closer to an orchestra.”
– I think you are always conscious of “good melody and good sound”,did you have any other specific intentions in the making of this album?
“In the new work, I wanted to express myself more directly. I think that people are more touched by directness, it’s something that has become more important to me compared to when I was young and I was struggling to be original. I thought I had to do something different from other artists to be original. I was so desperate because I was a newcomer on the scene. But now, although there are a lot of new listeners who certainly don’t know us, I have more confidence and I can do exactly what I want to do, and this time I wanted to give a deep emotional experience to the listeners.”
– Looking back, what is the essential part of Prefab Sprout that hasn’t changed from the beginning?
“I sometimes want to do something that’s an extremely different kind of music – such as dance music – but it’s always important I make melodic music, melody, every time I make a record I say to myself ‘Let’s think about making melodic music, let’s write as beautiful a melody as possible.’ That hasn’t changed since the start.”
– Is that so? As we’re talking about sound, I think about the reverb, that is to say the way the sound lingers, and which seems to be very striking. I think it’s an important component of your music alongside the combination of of melody and sound. Are you conscious of that yourself?
(Paddy seems surprised but pleased). “Ho, that’s the reverb processing. I guess I won’t be able to explain it properly. That’s the engineer, Calum Malcolm, he’s a very experienced guy and was also the engineer for the Blue Nile. I’m the producer but I really trust the engineer so I left room for the reverb that’s in there. Sure, I’m not trying to do everything on the records by myself (laughs).”
– In terms of the drums, you don’t hear snares and cymbals and so on.
– (laughs). I thought rather than beat or rhythm you were emphasising the flow of the entire song?
“Yeah, that’s right, yes. The drums on this record are secondary compared to the other instruments, in other records the drum is placed at the front of the sound. But yeah, I wanted to do more orchestral arrangements. There’s lots of percussion in the body of the work, but it’s scattered and wandering throughout the space. It’s different to the other records.”
– By the way do you hear a finished song in your head from the beginning? Or is it pieced together from smaller fragments?
“Both cases are possible. When creating the whole picture at the start I’ll sketch out the whole song as one sort of thing, sometimes I’ll work on smaller fragments, but when it comes to making a record I try to think of the whole image. The order of the songs is decided at the time of recording the demo. The song order isn’t changed until the record is completed. Because by thinking of the whole thing, each song can have many more times the power it has on its own, it’s important to know in advance what kind of effect it will have. You can change it later for the better by modifying it, but I like to know what I am trying to do beforehand at least.”
– Is it true that you changed the title of “Weightless” from “First Love” and that changed the sense of it?
“Yeah, that’s right.”
– But there are a lot of clichéd words on the album, right? “Love is an avenue of stars” or “There’s no mystery like the mystery of love.” If Michael Jackson were to sing that, for example, it might be irritating but you can get away with it. What do you think is the difference?
“That’s a complicated and difficult question. I think about this as well. You may be accepted, but others might be received in different ways. I don’t really know why that kind of difference arises. Maybe the people who listen may be influenced by the fact they have more faith in the person who is singing. Also there’s a difference between using constructed phrases and everyday expressions. It’s important not to simply join clichés together but rather to use what they really mean. If a phrase continues after the first and second lines to suggest a strange image that is different from the usual one that everyone is familiar with, I think the contrast can be very powerful. Then there is also a big difference between the lyrics in a song and the lyrics without music. Even words that seem banal when they’re written on paper, as soon as they are put into a song they start to mean more in your mind. That’s how I think.
“Anyway when I work on lyrics, I write in a different viewpoint and style than what I would say in real life. For example, what I really wanted to say in a passage “Love is the avenue of the stars” was about the goal to which people are going, but there are various ways to express it. For example … ‘Yes, love is a jewellery shop on the diamond boulevard/But I am living in the slums”. It has a different feeling to the stars and images of the universe I’ve written. But it’s really a technique as a writer rather than an expression of my own mind. So I like to think of it like a novelist or film maker who is writing a love song.”
– Technique or… well I used the word “magic” in a review of the new album, did you never say to yourself “It’s awesome! I am a wizard!”?
“I write a lot of songs about magic, but strangely enough, the title of the album I’m working on right now is ’20th Century Magic.”
“But I have to finish it in a hurry before we get to the 21st Century (laughs). I think about magic a lot so I’ll accept that review as the best kind of compliment. I’m trying to cast a spell on people with music. I want to sprinkle magic on them. I think music can do that. So that’s why it’s a wonderful and brilliant compliment.”
– You’re welcome, thanks. Which do you think you are, “artist” or “professional musician?
“Yeah, I think there’s an artistic side to what I do, but personally I’m reluctant to call myself an artist. I don’t know if that’s what other people call me. I want to make something that entertains people, and I want to engage peoples’ minds. I hope my work will be seen as that of an artist, but I’ll leave it to other people around me to decide, and I’m not going to trumpet it myself (laughs).”
– You may well be (laughs)! You said before in another interview in this magazine that you don’t like your singing voice. Is that true?
“Yeah, I don’t have confidence in my voice”
– But I think your voice is perfectly suited to your current songs and sound.
“I’m really happy you think so! I myself felt my voice matched my music, but I always wanted it to be more powerful, for example I’d like to be able to sing in a higher register. I shouldn’t say negative things about my voice, but I think it’s better if you have more power.”
– Really? Well anyway while you pursue your own music regardless of fashion you said you were always keeping an eye on the current music scene. Is there anything you find interesting at the moment?
“In the past I certainly watched the scene, but now I just read the music press or I’ll see something on TV for example. I don’t know much about drum ‘n’ bass, it’s quite far away from the music we’re working on now because I haven’t abandoned melody and a certain kind of chord progression, but I like to listen to it and there are some wonderful things coming from there. But I guess I should leave that to David Bowie! (laughs).”
– In other words you dig things up from within yourself rather than getting ideas from the contemporary scene.
“Oh, that’s right! Yes, that’s exactly how it should be! Since I was young, I never wanted to know what was going on around me or to be the same. When I was 15 or 16. I did try to imitate the music of the charts, but at some point, the chart music started to sound too simple to me. So I got away from it, to find my own style. That’s what I experienced a long time ago. “