This band is a dream I shared with my brother and my friends and the whole world, a crazy kid crying out into the cold desolate night…
A long lost work deep-frozen and preserved for 17 years has been brushed up and released at last. The “Pop Wizard” talks in depth about his band and musical philosophy.
Prefab Sprout has been miraculously resurrected. “Let’s Change the World With Music”, is pop wizard Paddy McAloon’s first new album for eight years since the release of “The Gunman and Other Stores.” The news that some new music was to be released was thrilling: I listened to it without being given any information upfront; rap suddenly popped up in the first song, elements of Soul and R&B drifted in, but the whole production and sound felt a little dated. In fact this album was a demo that Paddy made in his home studio, and which has been brushed up using digital technology.
Paddy has declining vision due to retinal detachment – leaving him blind in one eye, or so it seems – around the end of the 1990s, and he subsequently suffered from Ménière’s disease in 2006, leaving him unable to hear bass notes in a particular frequency range. So he has some physical problems. Nonetheless and despite these circumstances, he had previously released one work (his own performances of songs of which about half had been provided to other artists), and then in 2003 released his first solo work, “I Trawl the Megahertz” (given his hearing problems, the title has a specific meaning). In 2007 he made a set of acoustic versions of songs from Steve McQueen for the “Legacy” edition, which I think are amazing. The current album project was instigated by Paddy’s manager, and allowed the release of a demo that had previously been shelved as a product.
Even if the sonic textures aren’t contemporary, Paddy’s music, with its universal melodies and the brilliance of the original arrangements gives us a new work which can be enjoyed as much as any other of the wonderful pieces of Prefab Sprout music. I’d recommended it as much to people who are just starting to discover the band as to their existing fans.
Because of Paddy’s hearing problems, this interview took place as a written Q&A.
– You started “Let’s Change the World With Music” in 1992, and finally completed it after 17 years…
“I didn’t spend 17 years on the actual production, it’s basically the same thing as the demo tape I made for the band and record company to listen to in 1992, in September 1992. I had recorded it myself the preceding April using a 16 track tape recorder. I won’t touch on why we didn’t record it at the time, as it’s a long and boring story, I won’t go into that. But it wasn’t much more than a home recording. Calum Malcolm who mixed and restored it made a massive contribution. He transferred what was on the analogue tape to a digital format, removed the noise, broadened the sound and gave it depth.”
– Many of the lyrics are very direct. After 17 years, do you not feel a sense of incongruity or that you have changed your mindset?
“Even though the lyrics were written in 1992, I avoided falling into the trap of writing about current affairs because I wasn’t dealing with contemporary topics. I removed the songs about the late Princess Diana. Of course my way of thinking has changed since now and the time I made the album. I was younger and it sounds optimistic. I hear myself as I was before I had any eye and hearing problems at all. But I shouldn’t talk like that. As is often said, the bottle is half full (not half empty). The lyrics are certainly direct. I like writing this sort of direct lyric. I’m not going to deny there’s an element of irony.”
– Is “The Last of the Great Romantics” about you?
“Although it’s certainly a very straightforward title, the person who is singing may not believe in his lyrics. He’s not necessarily deeply connected with the perspective of all of the lyrics. For example, if you watch a movie starring Meryl Streep, she may seem to be telling the truth, but she may not necessarily believe it herself. She’s trying to breathe life into a situation for the audience. That’s what I’m trying to do. The lyrics express a certain story, or some feelings, and if you do it well, the listener believes in the song. That’s not to say I’m being dishonest, I just think that if singing isn’t more than something that’s just the truth it’s useless.
“I admire Stanley Kubrick’s movies, but Jack Nicholson talks about how Kubrick forced him to put in exaggerated performances during the production of “The Shining”. Nicholson was acting realistically, and was being true to himself. But Kubrick said, “It’s certainly realistic. But is it interesting to watch?”. He said that. I often think about Kubrick’s point of view. Some people may think the lack of genuine emotional connection is impersonal, but I think there is a positive benefit. Even if it’s a cold and calculated way of expressing something, the world he creates captures our hearts very strongly. I think you can do the same thing with music.
“I think the charm of music is born because most people believe it’s “real”. It is tempting to think that the writer’s experience or deep feeling has been converted into a song. But is what happened in my life as a writer directly related to how good the song is? The song isn’t really an encounter with intense emotions, but is born from the confluence of the world and the music. For example, for many critics, the fact that Bob Dylan divorced his wife Sarah at the same time he was making “Blood on the Tracks” is the main factor in the appeal of the album. That might be true. But what makes the music so interesting is the voice of Dylan, the view of the world he creates, and his music. In other words, the songs should be blessed with the chance to exist and to be experienced in their own right.
“I wanted to give the album real weight and presence. That’s born out of performance, and I’m sure Neil and Martin would have breathed life into the music. But the recording didn’t happen, and now it’s impossible. I’d have great difficulty standing in front of a drum kit or a loud amplifier. That’s why this album is the blueprint for a Prefab Sprout work that we never actually made. I dedicated it to them because of my gratitude to my old friends.”
– You put out a solo piece in your own name in 2003. On the other hand, Prefab Sprout is now your own solo project, but is there a theme or definition, etc, of music made under this name?
“The common denominator is that both are music written by me. It’s all my style, including the sad limitations that come from that style.
“The simple truth is that I can no longer make the work of Prefab Sprout like in the old days because of my hearing problems. So even if I’m the only person who sings and plays musical instruments on “Let’s Save the World With Music”, I hope there is a spirit unique to Prefab Sprout. It follows ‘Jordan: the Comeback’ and should be included in the discography alongside ‘Steve McQueen’. The solo album is called ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’; most of it is instrumental or spoken word, it’s different from the style you find in Prefab Sprout songs, so we decided it was better to put it out under my own name. Otherwise you might disappoint people who expect jumping frogs like in our biggest hit, ‘King of Rock’n’Roll’. But on the other hand I regret not having made Prefab Sprout into a mansion with many rooms, including works like ‘Megahertz’. But I think that concept of a band is so fluid that it might confuse the listeners.”
– When was it that you first thought of forming a band?
“I’ve forgotten, it was such a long time ago! When I was 14 years old I’d conceived Prefab Sprout as a label to bring out all my musical ideas to the world. It was a band with me and my younger brother and it was fun in the early days before we started making records. My brother Martin and my friend Michael Salmon and myself stood up against the world, almost like a little gang. We were young and idealistic, and the music was fresh. If I’m honest that was the period I liked the most in the history of Prefab Sprout. And we played together and constructed a style. It was rough hewn and eccentric, but sometimes it was beautiful.
“And besides, between 1977 and 1980 I was never troubled by compromises and financial problems. Later on, after we became known, sometimes we had to balance the Prefab Sprout that lived in our imagination with the responsibilities imposed on the actual, successful band. During the mid 1980s and 1990s I often felt I was living only to earn the advance payments for composition royalties and from the records. The problem was that I couldn’t write songs during the tours, and it took me time to do that.
“And when it wasn’t possible to record “Let’s Change the World With Music”, it was impossible to keep the band in the form it had been in since 1984. I wrote songs for other artists for about a year and earned enough money to work for a little longer with the band’s core members… Actually I got tired. I tried to find a way to keep making records on a smaller scale and for less money. One solution was to take on the arranging and programming without working in a big studio. But after ‘Andromeda Heights’, I was in danger of going blind. I lost my enthusiasm for carrying on in order to keep the band functioning. I tried desperately not to put anyone in a difficult situation. I had problems with my eyes and hearing difficulties, but I was able to conserve my stamina and work on my own. No, no, I’m sorry for the long boring story.”
– What is Prefab Sprout for you now?
“A dream I shared with my brother and my friends and the whole world, a crazy kid crying out into the cold desolate night…”
– These days you don’t need the album format, and you can easily release songs on the Internet digitally without fuss. In the future, do you feel you can be fleeter of foot? Releasing more and more new songs or things you made in the past? Your fans are waiting!
“Thanks for saying that, but I think the fans will get bored if I keep putting things out. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
– Is it true you’ve made a concept album around the theme of Michael Jackson’s life?
“Oh, sure, I made an album based on my own imagining of Michael Jackson’s life. I was going to call it ‘Behind the Veil’. I’ll try to dig it up, but it would be in bad taste to rush it out now.”