Prefab Sprout’s second album, Steve McQueen, was a watershed in 80s Pop. Now, two years later, their third album and the single taken from it, Cars and Girls, threaten to break them big.
I did this Swedish interview yesterday and got off on an awful tack. This girl, who was really good, said she was suspicious of all gloom and melancholy, and I started to talk about Dostoyevsky!”
Paddy McAloon says this in the tone of voice other men use to tell you that they drank 10 pints of Guinness last night and were still standing.
“It was like a Woody Allen film. It was like an airplane going into the ground at a million miles an hour and I was trying to pull back on the wheel. What a day I had yesterday. Sorry to digress.”
Digress is something that Paddy, singer and songwriter for Prefab Sprout, does a lot. He’s got one of those agile, shifting minds that doesn’t operate best in strict focus. For the last two days he has been holed up in a hotel room in Tottenham Court Rd, besieged by journalists from all over Europe asking every kind of question, and he loves it.
Prefab Sprout have a new album out after a silence of two years. From Langley Park To Memphis took a year of sporadic recording in London, Los Angeles and their native Newcastle to make. Thomas Dolby, whose sensitive, atmospheric production shaped what may turn out to be the definitive Sprout album, Steve McQueen, was used on four songs (The King Of Rock’n’Roll, I Remember That, Venus of The Soup Kitchen and Knock On Wood – not that version). Andy Richards did Hey Manhattan, which features the guitar of Peter Townshend, and John Kelly produced the remaining four songs, including the first single, Cars and Girls.
The band is very much a family affair. Paddy’s brother Martin plays bass, and they both still live with their parents in Newcastle, where Paddy does all his writing and demoing. These two have been playing together (as Prefab Sprout, mark you) for over 16 years. I spoke to Martin first.
People invariably speak of Prefab Sprout in the same breath as Aztec Camera and Lloyd Cole. What is the McAloon view of people who make these comparisons?
“They’ve got their heads well up their arses, haven’t they? We’re of the same age group I suppose and we tend to stay in the same hotels, but that’s as far as the similarity goes.”
In Paddy, too, there is a kind of unease with the position that they occupy in the music marketplace.
“You’ve only got to open a music paper to see that all these people who were swept off the face of the planet in 1977 are all back. And they’re all ‘album bands‘. I’d hate that tag to be applied to us, but if we’re honest we have to admit that what we do comes over best on an album. I’d love us to be a ‘singles’ band. When I turn on the radio and listen I think; ‘I don’t make records like that, don’t want to — want to be on the radio, though’.”
The comparisons that are usually drawn surely stem primarily from the words. Literate and considered, strewn with cultural references.
“Yeah, I sit and write all day.”
“Even Christmas Day,” Martin adds.
“I sit and grieve for hours about things like awkwardness. Things like, you know, if you’ve expressed an idea and you’ve squashed it in there. It’s not good enough, really. The older I get and the more I do it, the less I’m happy, and I’m more finnicky about making the words easier with the music. When I started I had different aims: I wanted to be Pablo Picasso with a JX3P synth. But now I want to be like….”
“Yeah, Steven Sondheim with a JX10.”
What about a songwriter like Elvis Costello, who often manages to cram enough words for a short novel into two bars?
“That’s bad. To me, that’s an appalling thing to do.”
“Have you read Alan Lerner’s book The Street Where I Live?”, Paddy continues, taking his cue from a remark that I made about the heyday of the lyric in the 40s and SOs (Lerner wrote My Fair Lady, Gigi and other classic musicals). “Lerner talks about a lyric being ‘watertight. That’s his word for it. Like if you rhyme ‘dream’ with ‘Dean’, it doesn’t rhyme properly, so it’s not watertight, it’s not quite satisfying. If you decide to use rhyme, and you’ve done it properly, it’s also easier to sing. I’ve found that sometimes I’ve written things that I don’t feel I want to sing, and so I shouldn’t have written them. You should write things that you can sing.”
Lerner used to go through his songs eradicating all the ‘s’ sounds in order to make them easier for singers to perform.
The mood of Langley Park to Memphis seems notably more optimistic than Steve McQueen and songs like the single, When Love Breaks Down.
Cars And Girls
The first single to be lifted from the new album From Langley Park to Memphis is Cars and Girls. The cover consists of a matchstick model of Bruce Springsteen – with its head on fire. It’s a cheeky gesture this, considering that Prefab Sprout share the same record label as the great man from Asberry Park. The song itself is sometimes satirical, sometimes affectionate. How did it come about?
“I got the line: ‘ Brucie dreams life’s a highway’, and just thought ‘what else can I do with it?’ To be honest, as soon as I got the line I knew the subject matter would be Brucie’s way of looking at the World. I thought it was a good thing to do, and to be able to put it into a driving sort of form – it’s fun. I knew it’d make people laugh. I’d like to think that if he heard it, he’d think it was alright.”
Good sports, then, the people at CBS. “Yeah, but you have to be careful about things like that. If I’d put Michael Jackson on the cover with his head on fire, I’d have been in deep trouble!”
“I was thrilled when I wrote When Love Breaks Down, ‘cos I said to myself ‘I’m going to write something simple as Hell, like a Folk song almost. But there’s a criticism I read somewhere, where our melodies are described as ‘pianistic’, that is, as though they’ve been stumbled across on a piano, and sound like it. Now my criticism of When Love Breaks Down is that the sort of intervals I used (he sings part of the verse) might be described as piano-based things.”
“Lyrically there might have been a slight shift away from relationships in the sense that they’re not love songs, but they’re still personal. Most of my songs are still about the idea that you’re going to lose something, the idea that something’s going to disappear.”
“Because everything does disappear. It’s an inescapable fact.
“Now, rather than write a song (as I might have done in the past) saying, ‘I’m ambitious and I look at life in this way, and life has its ups and downs, blah, blah, blah‘, I would write a song like Hey Manhattan where in the first half you have a young kid who’s very enthusiastic and in the second half you’ve got somebody who’s world-weary.”
The jibe about Prefab Sprout songs having a pianistic feel to them might in the past have had some validity. For the past couple of years, Paddy has written exclusively on keyboards, eschewing the guitar – his first instrument – in the belief that he is too familiar with it. For the purposes of writing, he has a home recording setup that consists of a Fostex B 16 and Seck desk. His preferred vehicle for composing is indeed, wait for it, the Roland JX3P.
“l always write on the JX3P. I have three of them. I also have a JX10, a DX7, a Mirage and one of those big Casiotones. The JX10’s the best, but I never use it, it just sits there, ‘cos I have certain sounds on the JX3P that I’m comfortable with. I’m in love with synthesizers.”
To my surprise, he also uses sequencers and drum machines, although he’s slightly wary.
“I love sequencers (I have an MC500) but my idea of using sequencers is probably different to other people’s. I’ll use 64th notes, and take out all the chords, building up sequences that suggest the chords. I like that.
“That’s why, although I love someone like Prince (and Michael Jackson, for the record), I wouldn’t want to write like him, even if I could. The idea of switching on a drum machine and working out a little T’ pattern that you could dance to all the way through, it just wouldn’t appeal. I’d feel like a bit of a cheat, as though I was constructing a song the wrong way round – you know, the song to fit the beat. Look at your demo pages, where you see criticism, and some of those criticisms are where people have obviously got the technology, but they’ve never bothered with the structure of the thing.”
Paddy plays nearly all the guitars in the studio (“if someone comes in to do guitar parts, I can’t stop myself from going ‘oh, you missed that finger there‘ and stuff like that”), using his Gretsch Ovation and Takamine acoustics, and on the new album mainly his paisley Telecaster, along with a Fender Strat. Although he also played a fair smattering of keyboards this time round, so did the respective producers, and of course when Thomas Dolby is around you don’t tie him to the mixing desk. As it turns out, Dolby played all of those lush, spiralling keyboards on Steve McQueen, primarily with his Jupiter 8 and the Fairlight (“he’s not a DX7 man”). Paddy and Martin obviously enjoy working with him very much and all it takes is the mention of his name to set the praise ﬂying.
Paddy: “He’s not a technocrat. He would never try to, in his own words, ‘blind you with science‘. He’s impeccable on the feel of things and he’s great at explaining timings and rhythms.”
If you’ve ever listened to Swoon, the first Prefab Sprout album, you will have noticed a marked change in Paddy’s voice by the time he got to Steve McQueen. This transformation is again down to Mr Dolby.
“On Swoon the voice is wooden. It’s stiff singing. Thomas likes me singing in a breathy voice – he made me do that. He would never have allowed me to sing the Golden Calf vocal (on the new album) the way I sing it. There are certain tones he doesn’t like.”
As From Langley Park to Memphis slips into the shops, Prefab Sprout find themselves in that middle ground between the cult and mainstream. Talking to friends about them, it’s surprising how many of the most unlikely people express admiration for their understated, almost private, music. Of course, should they hit that vein of popular acceptance, many of the original admirers will be lost, but this wider acceptance is something that Paddy wants very much. His work, he would say, deserves no less. There is, however, an awareness of their achievements so far in the back of his mind, at least. Asked how many copies Steve McQueen sold, he tells me that it is somewhere over 900,000 Worldwide. The figure forces its way past his lips almost dejectedly. ‘Oh come on, that’s not so bad’, I say.
“Yeah, I know,” he smiles, “Thomas told me off one day for wondering why we didn’t sell more. ‘You sell more than I do!’ he said.”
The difference between Prefab’s Neil Conti, and a lot of other drummers is not only in the fact that he’s an extremely accomplished player, he’s also into what you might call ‘song interpretation‘.
“My idea is that the drums ‘shine’ by playing something that enhances the mood of the song, so much that you don’t notice them. In other words they fit the song so well that they’re just part of it. It’s not something where you listen to the drummer and say ‘wow’ that’s really clever. I don’t actually feel like a drummer, I feel like a musician. I never think about the individual beats. To me drumming is the same as singing, I just happen to be singing the beat. Whenever I get together with a roomful of drummers I feel uncomfortable because the last thing they ever talk about is the music. They don’t even seem to think about songs. All they want to talk about is equipment and in that situation l feel lost.”
We talked for a while about some of the bands he’d been in before, so inevitably I asked how he actually got the job with Prefab Sprout.
“I found them, they didn’t find me. I heard their first album on the radio and was just amazed by the songs. They were so natural and l liked the way the drums were being used in them. I managed to call Paddy McAloon up and said, ‘Look I know you’re not going to tour with the drummer who played on the album‘. I suggested we got together, even though they were auditioning other drummers at the time. They came to London and we had a ‘blow’ and everything worked out very well.”
The original drummer is evidently a good player and Neil says he could have made a good job of playing on Prefabs and other people’s albums, but he wanted to keep his job with Top Shop in Newcastle and is said to have turned down Pete Townsend! Neil, on the other hand is more than happy.
“Prefab have learnt that the drummer has a lot to give to their music. With them it’s definitely not just four musicians and a drummer. It’s not generally known that they actually cancelled gigs to allow me to play at Live Aid with David Bowie!”
Speaking of Bowie, how did that gig come about?
“Thomas Dolby produced the last Prefab Sprout album in l985 (Steve McQueen) and through that I met his manager, a guy called Andy Ferguson. And when Bowie came over to do demos for Absolute Beginners he asked EMI to put together some session people who could be relied on to be steady and come up with the goods. Andy rang me up to say he’d recommended me for it.
“We went to the Penthouse studio at Abbey Road and demo‘d the Absolute Beginners single as well as a track for Labyrinth and that was that. All Bowie had for Absolute Beginners was a couple of chords and half a song so everyone sort of created it. He’d say things like, ‘could you play it in a Brazilian style‘, and he really used the musicians creativity, saying ‘See what you come up with‘. Bowie is from an older generation where he’d say ‘just play‘. If he didn’t like it he’d say ‘Try something else‘, but never tell you what to play. I was in my element saying ‘how about this’, and ‘how about this‘. He played the chords while we were learning the song and all the time the tape was rolling and we ended up using that as the ﬁnished demo, and I didn’t even know what was coming next — I was just playing! But sometimes that’s the best thing, because then what you‘re playing is totally you. You‘re not thinking I’ll play that ﬁll that I learned the other day. Anyway, then Bowie sat down on the ﬂoor to write another chorus and said; ‘What rhymes with ‘door’ guys?‘ I couldn’t believe it. Completely off the cuff.”
“We did the demo and he liked it so much he asked us to play on the master. One thing led to another and we became his band for that period of time.
While we were on a mastering session for Absolute Beginners Bowie said we’re going to do a single for Live Aid and Jagger’s coming in later. So we started running down Dancing In The Street and Jagger comes in – didn’t say hello to anyone, threw his coat in the corner and started giving it all his strutting movements and winding everyone up. I thought he only did that on stage, but he’s the real thing. The guy really is a Rock and Roller! It was great seeing these two guys singing together for the ﬁrst time. There was a lot of energy on that session. We had to get it done quickly because they had to go off and do the video at l o’clock in the morning, and this was like 10 o’clock at night. So it’s all live, there’s none of this overdubbing nonsense and you can really hear the energy in the backing track.”
Towards the end of last year the music world was buzzing with rumours about Neil’s involvement with Level 42, and he was anxious to put the record straight about it. “Basically I was on loan to them but their management got excited and put out a press release saying I’d joined. Subsequently they apologised.”
But how did he get involved in the first place?
“We’d just finished this latest album and had a couple of months with nothing to do so when I was approached I jumped at the chance. I had a blow with them and knew it would be fun because their attitude was very relaxed. They’d done so much live playing that they were very tight, but loose. They were very trusting – I didn’t have to play Phil’s parts too exactly. The nice thing about Level 42 is that Mark and Mike are both drummers so they tend to have a better understanding of what the drummer is playing.”
We discussed his drumming influences and I was surprised to find that they were not at all what I’d expect. Nor were they necessarily drummers.
“There have been two guys who’ve been sort of musical gurus to me. One is JJ Bell, who was originally in Lynx with me and turned me on to the Ohio Players. And, although he’s a guitarist; he’s also a solid drummer and he taught me about playing simply. He used to point out when I rushed and he had a lot to do with my development. The other is Clive Chaman (the bass player) who helped me to get steady. If I came out off a break early he’d stay on the real beat. I’ve learnt a lot from singers too; particularly Bobby Womack who will often suggest a drum pattern to me by his vocal phrasing.”
But surely he was inﬂuenced by drummers too? What about Steve Gadd?
“I used to listen mainly to people like Stix Hooper and a guy called Diamond in the Ohio Players who I’d say was my main inﬂuence. I don’t know if it was a deliberate thing not to be inﬂuenced by Steve Gadd simply because everyone else was into him; but I love his attitude. Just to watch him play is lovely. I’ve been inﬂuenced more by people’s attitudes and never sat down and tried to copy anyone. Billy Cobham was a phase I went through (when playing in Jazz/Rock bands in Leighton Buzzard) before I came to London when l played in a reggae ‘band called Ozo. I don’t know why they kept me on, they were playing really strict Reggae and every four bars I’d be putting in a ‘ibbly cobbly, ibbly cobbly’ type fill.”
Equipment-wise, Neil’s into a minimalist thing, using a very small, almost Jazz kit from Yamaha. However, when he was with Mark and the boys he was using a much larger, multi tom set-up with some electronics integrated to better reproduce the tones which Phil Gould had utilised and which had become part of the tunes. Generally he’s more interested in expanding himself within the framework of a set which consists of the bare necessities.
“There’s something which appeals to me about sounding good on a really small kit. There’s something neat and economical about it. I’m fascinated by drummers like Andy Newmark and Steve Jordan who sound great on a small kit. Guys like these and Steve Gadd and Bernard Purdy have got so much character in their playing that if you put them on a hi hat, snare and bass drum you could still tell that’s one hell of a drummer.”
For him it was a challenge to make himself sound interesting and varied on a small kit. His main one is a white Yamaha 9000 Recording kit with a 22” Power bass drum, a 10” X 10″, and a 15” X 13″ mounted on the side and a metal snare drum. Otherwise he’s got an old Gretsch with a 14″ X 12″ and a 16” X 14″, which Eddie Ryan chopped down to improve their sound. He still uses his original ‘odd sides‘ Eddie Ryan set too which he used with Lynx. All the drums have the same relationships of shell-to-head diameter, viz 10″ X 8″, 12″ X 9″, 13″ X 10”, 15” x 13” and 20″ X 17”. He maintains that any drummer who cuts a couple of inches off the bottom of a 16″ X 16″ and mounts it on a stand will be amazed at the difference. The sound really spreads out. All of these sets are invariably used double-headed with Ambassadors (coated or otherwise) and have their toms mounted on the Rims system. Neil’s been using these for years and is surprised that more people aren’t turned onto them since they improve the sound so much. He refuses to use any tone rings and hates the sound.
Neil’s a Zildjian endorsee who uses mainly K’s for a dirtier sound.
“My basic set up is a 13″: ‘K’ top with a Quick Beat bottom for more Jazzy things, and a 14” ‘K’ with a ‘Z’ bottom which is so heavy and a lovely sound for touring as it mikes up so well. Cymbals are 16″ and 18” dark crash brilliants, (which adds a little bit of brightness), and a 20” ‘K’ heavy ride.”