The focus being still very much on interviews, I’ve been looking at ways to post magazine and press material without just cutting and pasting scans as graphics, eventually settling on use of “FreeOCR” with a bit of hand editing. Here’s the first fruits of that, an early Langley interview from iD magazine by John Godfrey.
THE PRIVATE LIFE OF A PREFAB SPROUT — Paddy McAloon grows up
He hasn’t had -a haircut for over 18 months, and it shows. The light brown locks run half-way down his back and he’s peering at me through wide wire-framed spectacles. Paddy McAloon couldn’t have looked any different from the biker jacket bravado of Steve McQueen if he tried. And he’d obviously tried hard. “I know that it infuriates CBS a bit that no-one knows what the lead singer of Prefab Sprout looks like”, he tells me. Somebody from his record company said that Paddy would probably cut his hair after the album was released so nobody would recognise him. “He is always disguising himself,” they said. The last time anybody recognised him was three years ago and that’s the way he likes it. Paddy McAloon enjoys his privacy.
The recording of the new album has not been without its problems. Original producer Thomas Dolby was in prolonged litigation with Dolby the company over his surname and his film soundtrack career seemed to stop before it started with Howard the Duck. Rumours of a nervous breakdown however, are untrue, although there was a period when Prefab Sprout were without a producer and uncertain who to approach next. Paddy McAloon admits that he’s “a knit-picker and big pain in the arse in saying that after Thomas nobody was good enough”. Ideally he would like to work with Quincy Jones.
Their second album Steve McQueen was hailed as a pop classic and Paddy himself declared his songwriting ability as “the best on the planet”. There were few who argued. But that was almost three years ago and with a new single Cars & Girls out now, a new album, From Langley Park To Memphis out at the end of March and a new haircut, Paddy McAloon and Prefab Sprout are about to discover if anybody still cares.
Paddy is a pop perfectionist who cares about songwriting. In the past people have emphasised the literary references and precious nature of Prefab Sprout, or simply labelled them as ‘an acoustic band’. But Prefab Sprout have grown up and it’s time everybody else caught up with them. Paddy McAloon wants to sell as many records as Madonna and prove that they are more than just “a band with a daft name”.
Do you think there’s any danger of being unfashionable because of your absence?
Paddy McAloon: I’m unfashionable and proudly isolationist in the sense that I’m very self conﬁdent in certain ways. I follow my own drum and I know that I’m totally contemporary in the fact that what I do is of its time. I just know that it’s state of the art songwriting – I know that. The worst thing that could happen to me is to get tied up in some circle of fashionability where I might even be seen to be following trends. It’s lovely to go to London and record and it’s novel for a couple of weeks, but it’s no more. I don’t need that. I live up in the country near Newcastle away from everywhere else, but it’s not as if I’ve got my head in the sand. To me work is everything.
Are you worried about having been away for so long?
God, I don’t know. Maybe the week the LP comes out I’ll get a big shock. It doesn’t really bother me because I’m confident, and this would go for any artist, if you’ve made as good record you might not get your just desserts in the sense of it might not be a platinum number one album, but word of mouth is astonishing. Steve McQueen sold on word of mouth. The one thing people don’t forget is if you have the big build up – “They’re back!”, and you bring out a crap record. Alright, you might fool them for that album because they’ve already bought it but they’ll remember it for the next.
Today’s music scenario is different to 1985, have you been aware of what’s been happening?
Yeah. Sampling I’m well into anyway, just because I’ve always been interested in modern classical music. I don’t like it much but I’m fascinated by the techniques involved and collages of sound. Collage is such an old technique anyway. Once upon a time I would buy every music paper across the board and read every word so I would know of every new band that was out. This time round I bought the Xmas NME, saw their top 50 albums, and I didn’t know the names of any of them. Spoonie Gee, that’s the one that sticks in my mind as a hilarious name. Have you ever heard a Spoonie Gee track?
Well there, see, I’m completely out of touch with detail but I know the broad pattern that the music is going in and I’m not greatly thrilled, because I think the emphasis is so much on rhythm now that melodies have gone out the window. And that’s not me just being some old fashioned guy who just likes the old fashioned songwriters, which I do within certain limits. I like the guys who wrote musicals, I admire them for the strength of the melodies, I envy that. It’s not that, I love for example, Sign O’ The Times — that to me is a fabulous record. Most people don’t reach that level of interest across the board, and generally the lyrics aren’t good if the rhythm is good. To me it’s an isolated thing – a rhythm doesn’t exist by itself. But I love the idea of collage and use sampling a lot. The minute you say you’ve given up on current musical forms is the minute you’re finished. All I’m saying is that I’ve not heard anything that’s reached the potential that I think it should have. If you’re going to do something that is a cut’ up of sounds I think you can do better than a drum machine pattern all the way through. I just don’t hear a level of genius at work there, but as you say it is new.
Do you ever see yourself experimenting more obviously with it?
I use sampling a lot. Usually the daftest samples you can imagine, which I won’t mention because I could get sued, but I don’t think I would experiment any further in the sense that you mean because I’m a songwriter and that’s my field. But I’m getting more interested in production and there are certain things I would like to do to broaden the pattern of the sounds we use. What I would like to do is instead of taking samples of other people’s records, I want to sample myself.
The Coldcut Crew say they don’t regard themselves as musicians and that there are probably a lot of musicians out there who are pissed off with the attention they’ve received.
They’re wrong — they are musicians. If you take something and make something new then you are a musician. It’s collage, an old fashioned technique, so they’re simply old fashioned musicians. When you get musicians who complain that they’re getting replaced by technology it’s a pile of shit. If they’re that good they’ll be in work. What the world needs are good drum machine programmers. People laughed about Frankie Goes to Hollywood being a producer’s band, but all you need to do is swap the labels so that Trevor Horn is the musician. That’s the truth of the matter – he is. The Clash and Bowie always used to say they weren’t musicians.
You once said that you were the best songwriter in the world, do you still think that?
That was a bit facetious, I should backpedal from that. I’ll tell you why I said it – the journalist annoyed me by saying that the office girls laughed when he told them he was going to interview Prefab Sprout, the band with the daft name, and I got annoyed. Of course I don’t think that, I’m only the third best.
Do you resent being pigeon-holed as some sort of literary pop band?
Yeah, we’re not how we’ve been portrayed in the past. We’re not pretentious or precious. You do things because you want to move people, but you can’t help talking about them in analytical terms. Most people typecast us as some kind of acoustic band but it’s never been true. I was having this discussion with Muff Winwood (Head of CBS A&R) a couple of months ago and he was talking about bands and he said it’s got to the point where he can tell whether a band is from Liverpool, Manchester or Scotland because of the acoustic guitars. But it’s only because the bands are poor and don’t have advances. When you’re just starting you can only afford cheap acoustic instruments.
On the new LP you’ve virtually dispensed with the literary allusions that you used in the past.
Oh, that was something that I’d given up on a long time ago but because my songs take up to ﬁve years to surface I’ve had to talk about things when really I’d moved on from them, thinking that it wasn’t such a good idea to write a song “about a book about a ﬁlm”. That is now verboten. Now I just try and be more conversational although there are a couple of little things in there that are meant more playfully, just for fun.
In the past you’ve always emphasised your attempt to avoid rock tradition but there’s one song on the album called Golden Calf, obviously inspired by Marc Bolan and seemingly out of character.
Do you know why? I was 19 when I wrote that. Everything else on the album I’ve written since over the last two or three years, except that one which I did as a b-side. It was one of the early Sprout songs from when we were playing the pubs and had a much more rock‘n’roll oriented set because that was what I liked. It’s a bit like doing a cover version because I don’t remember what it was about.
Besides teething troubles with producers, why did it take so long to do the album?
Steve McQueen came out in 1985 and we toured the rest of the year in Britain and Europe and then went to Japan in early 1986. So I haven’t had time to write songs to the standard that I hope I write them. I don’t write songs six weeks before I go to record and they’re not jam sessions. They take me a long time to do. I will write on average 12 songs a year so I’ve written a lot of stuff since that was finished. After McQueen came out, we had a few weeks off and I just wanted to go back in the studio. I did Protest Songs which hasn’t been released yet. It’s sort of a downhome funky session recorded live in the same way as our ﬁrst album with no fancy production. It didn’t come out because when Love Breaks Down became a semi-hit, CBS thought we’d confuse people who hardly know who we were anyway. S0 we shelved it. The further away we got from Steve McQueen the more Protest Songs would have seemed like a follow up album and the next big statement, which it isn’t. It’s a humble record, a low key job. So we started working on From Langley Park To Memphis. I’ve also written a Xmas album called Total Snow which I hope to get other people to sing on and I’ve got a top secret project which I’m half way through, so I’m busy as hell.
What sort of protest songs?
The title of it is a bit ironic in that it isn’t Bob Dylan writing about the Cuban Missile Crisis or the events of the day. It’s called that because maybe more than on any other of our records it refers to an outside world, like everyday life in Newcastle. It refers to unemployment, although I shiver when I say that because it sounds like the typical thing pop stars do.
This is something that people who bought Steve McQueen would think would be the very antithesis of what you were doing there. lt’s not Billy Bragg goes to Newcastle is it?
No, it’s not like that because that never appealed to me anyway. I’ve always felt that if you’ve really got something to say in an essay form you should do it like that. People say that a song has to have a message, but you can interpret a message in a million different ways. If you’ve made a record that’s moved someone, to me you’ve done far better than to have gone all foot-stomping and journalistic and that’s always been my style. This LP is still my style and I call it Protest Songs because I suppose its meaning is more obvious than some of our other songs. But it’s a slightly ironic title in a way because they aren’t chest-beating, ‘what’s wrong with the world?’ songs.
When did you ﬁrst start writing songs?
I was 13 and at a seminary, a Catholic training college for priests. It’s an old fashioned concept because they don’t take them as young as they used to, they used to take you in when you were 11. You’d get a conventional education with mass every morning and it wasn’t as heavy on religion as most people presume.
When did you ﬁrst meet girls in any sort of social situation?
There was always the holidays but there were no end of term dances I’m afraid. I was probably about 18 or so when I first met girls…girls, it’s mysterious really isn’t it? What do they think about? What does go through their minds?
So your initial experiences were purely platonic, not carnal?
I’m not telling you things like that, I’m a wise old hand at this. I’m not going to tell you anything like that. I’m Mr Non-Controversial.
So sex didn’t enter into it?
Sex didn’t enter what?
I mean I would never discuss questions of a sexual nature just because you see so many people who get battered in interviews and let themselves be led into things they don’t want to talk about. Some things are private, bits of your life that people shouldn’t know about. I don’t even like to talk about religion because I come over as some sort of proselytizer for it when really I don’t know much about it on a formal level. If you were to say, what is Catholicism? I wouldn’t be able to say…other than that you should respect life, people aren’t just a sum of their reﬂexes and chemicals and there’s more to people than their bodies. It’s a pretty general sense of religion really.
What about love?
What about love… yeah? [smiles]
When did you ﬁrst fall in love?
You’re on that subject again.
Well, you do write the occasional song about it and one doesn’t necessarily include the other.
I know, I know, it’s something that I can’t talk about. I really can’t because as soon as you do it you involve other people in it. Other people read it and go I knew you then, were you talking about me? Sorry, I’m not uncooperative but you understand. Some people would be dead happy to talk about that. Love in general I suppose I could talk about, but I don’t know if even as a songwriter it’s the massive theme of what I do.
I know people who have cried to Prefab Sprout records.
Really?…[laughs] I must resist the temptation to be stupid, like they cried when they heard it and thought dear God is that the best they can do.
In the same bedroom angst as Tracey Thorn.
It wasn’t you was it?
It’s amazing what people do with your records, I’m so divorced I’ve never been like that. I would sit and listen in private but not to the kinds of things people would probably expect me to like. I don’t know anything about jazz which people seem to think we’re inﬂuenced by. I like classical music, I like Maurice Revel, Stravinsky…I mean I mention these names but I don’t listen to these guys every day. If I wanted educating and moving I would listen to them and think how can they be such masters of music as that? They would make me wonder. But I get most of my thrills from writing things, so if I wanted a song to perform the function that you’re talking about I would probably play, this sounds terrible, I would probably play one of my songs to myself on a keyboard.
Why didn’t you want a photographer to come along?
My hair’s been long for the duration of this record, although I am getting it trimmed a bit. I think it’s more the point that we want to do carefully controlled pictures where we can get the entire mood because these will be the first pictures since the beard shots. It’s more a degree of control. Okay, I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I wanted control over all of that, just for aesthetic reasons of it looking crap and making decent pictures.
Is this going to be a ground rule for every interview?
There aren’t going to be many interviews because let’s be honest about it, you need publicity but there’s a border line between-keeping it interesting. The more interviews you do the more you formulate your answers. I want to have a bit more control over it. You should tell people about yourself but you should always keep something back. It means you’re not a little pop tart who’d sell his arse for a 12’ b-side.
Are you going to play live?
No, I’m not interested in it. I want to spend my time writing and if I was to take it as seriously as I do songwriting I’d have to spend months and months working on it. The Sprouts were a great live band in 1980 when we were a three piece and rehearsed every night. But when we made our ﬁrst record I was 25 and had already gone through the romance of playing pubs and wasn’t really interested in it.
CBS earmarked Terence Trent D’Arby’s LP as their big new album of last year. Have they said anything about this one?
Yes they have, but then I would never dare repeat what they said because it’s a claim that would embarrass them if it didn’t come off. Not because they’re going to go out and try to sell the arse off it, although I hope they do, it’s just because they would look really naive.
You’re being very guarded.
I’m being more coy now because I know how things read, I know that even if you don’t want them to read badly they can be edited and distorted. I’ve made quotes about people that have been quite generous and key words have been lopped out and it looks like you don’t like them. That’s naivety – you’ve got to be aware, that’s why I try not to be too derogatory about anybody although when you turn that tape machine off I could bitch away with the best of them. click