Prefab Sprout’s secluded song magician talks new creations, Scott Walker and ‘The Shadow World’.
Changed from the lad on the motorbike on the front of 1985’s Steve McQueen, Paddy McAloon is dressed all in white and sports an Old Testament beard to match. He agrees his get up’s like something the Almighty might sport on a nice day; “Like God,” he laughs, “but without the wisdom!”
Sat in a quiet corner of the Marriott hotel in Durham, there’s still something miraculous about his presence. In the ’80s and ’90s, as voice and songwriter with Prefab Sprout, he was purveyor of immaculate, gold standard lyric and melody on Top 10 albums like From Langley Park To Memphis and Andromeda Heights. But lengthening gaps between releases would become ﬁlled with talk of epic, never-released projects (one a complete history of life on Earth, called The Story So Far), and latterly by reports of debilitating hearing and sight problems.
Until this summer, when new Prefab Sprout album Crimson/Red was announced; recorded in eight weeks late last year, it’s an inarguable re-statement of quality. Engaged and courteous, one of the ﬁnest songwriters this country has produced sips his black tea, leans back in a leather armchair, and reﬂects on how he got here.
How does returning to the fray feel?
I like the record. I’m proud of the songs, the run of them is strong, I feel. I know that people who like old-fashioned Prefab Sprout records will probably like this one, maybe more than Let’s Change The World With Music (2009 archival release) with its one theme, religious, God references. I’m sort of aware what plays with people. Those aren’t necessarily the things that I’m most interested in, though. I need to believe the ones that are more marginal and strange are better.
The whole of I Trawl The Megahertz, which is really a solo album, but only because in the end I bowed to the notion that a Prefab Sprout fan might say, “What the hell’s this?” And a man did come up to me in my village, guileless, and looked me in the face and said, ”You know your record? It’s like the inside of my head,” and he didn’t mean it in a nice way.
But you still appreciate classic songwriting. There’s a song on the LP about meeting Jimmy Webb.
The Songs Of Danny Galway.
I met him on a TV show in the early ’90s in Dublin. I wouldn’t have the nerve to do it now… it’s a vague chronology of that day, more of a fan letter, if my 11-year-old self had been able to write one to Jimmy Webb. Wichita Lineman is embedded in a strange school memory of having to go on a cross country run and passing this pub, hearing it on the radio and it doing something, like a chemical shift. That was the beginning, yeah.
How do you regard the earlier Prefab Sprout records now?
I don’t know how I see them. I see all my things outside of what I’ve done with them on record, all of them. I don’t hear the record, I see [the songs] as a kind of skeleton that’s either right or it’s wrong. I’m seeing the ghost of it, or the soul of it, which is the melody, the chords, and the words, and the truth is that on any given day, any particular point of the arrangement could be different. And there’s a whole lot of other memories to be plugged into which didn’t involve me – the other people my brother Martin, Wendy Smith, Thomas Dolby shaping things.
What if you sit and play them?
It is the most haunting thing. You’re taken over by a strong sense of who that person was, but you no longer are. I got that feeling most when we played live in 2000 — that thing that you’re representing another, younger person. Where’s he gone? A very, very dissociative experience.
How’s your health these days?
I’m OK, thanks. The hearing’s still not right. But I’ve learned that as long as one ear can hear the bass part I’m OK. I’ve had two cataract operations over the last six months, so I have my magnifying glass… but I’m quite jaunty! And I’m glad I’ve come up with something, so I can say, “Look, it’s not all just talk, or in the past.” I’m aware that the recorded output of Prefab Sprout is really quite small, but I’ve had 30 years of writing albums that haven’t appeared… I’ve got boxes of stuff!
Wasn’t there talk of Scott Walker singing one of your songs in the’90s?
I’ll tell you what it was. I’d been told that his A&R man said, “He isn’t interested.” I knew better. God Watch Over You from Let’s Change The World With Music… I thought, he’s got to like that! Word was, he liked it. But could he change it? I bitterly regret saying, “Please Scott, just do it as it’s written!” I have other things I think I should send him. Waltz To The End Of The World is one. I just have this feeling that one of these days Scott Walker’s gonna crack and do a song album, and I’d like to be there should it happen.
Tell us something you’ve never told an interviewer before.
If you want my secret, my secret is this. There always has to be a shadow behind the record that I’m talking about, a shadow world. The shadow world is what’s going to happen next, and recording slows that up. Any other songwriter or band you talk to, the life of it is the sharing, isn’t it? And I have withdrawn from that. I feel selﬁsh about it, but I also feel it’s part of the motor that keeps me going.