The new Prefab Sprout album, Come Back Jordan, is a veritable potpourri of styles. Tom Doyle talks to mainman Paddy McAloon about singing, songwriting and his extensive use of Dolby T
ON WHAT IS REPORTED TO BE THE HOTTEST day of the summer in London, I walk into the expensively air-conditioned interview room at CBS Records in Soho to find Paddy McAloon providing a knee-slapping rendition of one of his humourous compositions from yesteryear for a small gatherings of record company employees. I ask him the name of it and then don’t quite catch what he said. He’s a bit too embarrassed to repeat it. After his press officer has jokingly introduced him as an international Rock star (it’s probably fairer to describe him as the successful college circuit balladeer), Paddy sits uncomfortably on the edge of the plush sofa and in an appealing way, self-consciously chats about the weather in his comely Tyneside manner.
He’s here to talk about Prefab Sprout’s fifth album (if you count the release last year of the ‘lost’ demo album, Protest Songs). Jordan The Comeback is the 19 track, 63 minute long follow-up to 1988’s From Langley Park To Memphis — a return to the more indulgent songwriting style of his earlier albums, which surprisingly is to be released as a single album. Nineteen songs? Some would say that’s enviably prolific…
“Aah yes, well I’ve written so many new songs because we didn’t tour the last album. It’s dead simple. What happens with me is that if I go off and play places, when I come back I’m always slightly out of condition in terms of getting into the swing of new things. When I’m writing the first song it’s always a bit tentative in its style, I’ve not really got down to it. But if I hit a rhythm of writing uninterrupted, I can have an idea a month, or two ideas a month. It’s not that I churn them out. All during the promotion of From Langley Park to Memphis, I could still keep up a rhythm of work and I was prolific for that period.”
The Prefab Four
If From Langley Park To Memphis was PREFAB SPROUT’s Purple Rain in its simple yet glossy adult-orientated way, then Jordan The Comeback is their Sign O’ The Times, an imaginative and yet sometimes daunting ramble through many different songwriting styles and notions, some of it hitting the mark, some of it wandering off into its own little world. There aren’t the STEVIE WONDER or PETE TOWNSHEND guest appearances of the last album, yet THOMAS DOLBY is still firmly seated in the production chair, as he has been since Prefab Sprout’s second album, Steve McQueen.
“It’s interesting you say that From Langley Park to Memphis was a more commercial album because apart from The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll being what amounts to really a novelty hit, it wasn’t a particularly commercial album in the sense that it wasn’t made with that intention. I suppose you always like to think you’ve got a few singles there though. “In the same way I don’t know whether Jordan is more indulgent. The thing with this record is that the songs break down into groups, bunches of songs. So the first five songs are just general pop songs, I don’t suppose there’s any deliberate theme, and you can you choose the one you like best. Looking For Atlantis works on that level because it’s basically a song which says stop wasting time, find someone and fall in love with them; Machine Gun Ibiza is an imaginary legendary figure, and if you’re really uncool, he’ll still be your buddy. He’s the uneducated bluesman, so he sings ungrammatical things like ‘If you’ve never been nowhere’; Wild Horses is a sex song — I wanted to write a song from the point of the view of someone older, like the book Lolita, the idea of the older man longer for the younger girl, without it being seedy or anything. It’s sort of afternoons in the hay, giggling with JENNY AGUTTER.
“Then with the tail end of the first side, from Jordan The Comeback through to Moondog, I had something in mind, which was songs based on the idea that ELVIS PRESLEY is alive and living in the desert. In the case of Jordan, it’s his monologue of how he’s made a balls of things the first time around, and how he’s going to come back with the right kind of song and he’s going to do it right. Then Jesse James Bolero and Jesse James Symphony, they are similarly a subject that maybe Presley could have sung about — someone mythic, someone who was once a little baby on his mam’s knee and then who tums out to live this life which is a long way from the cradle. I think that’s something that Presley might have appreciated; he might have just stood onstage there one night in Las Vegas and thought to himself, ‘I’m a long way from home’. Then Moondog is the sort of comeback concert, tongue in cheek, that COLONEL TOM PARKER would try to have him playing on the moon, you know with the little Elvis sample at the end, ‘There’s a lot of folks out there, boy!’.”
A Soft Touch
Considering Paddy’s rather unorthodox subject matter, it’s no surprise to discover that the rest of the group leave him to write and demo the songs alone on his set-up at home, the centre of which his Fostex B-16. He used to write on guitar; now he find himself writing almost everything on piano and then replaying it into the Atari’s C-Lab software.
“I find it easier to write on keyboard because there’s more range for interesting chordal effects. I’m also not deeply in love with a band sound, which might sound strange to you, but I like what I call abstract arrangements. In a sense, although it’s got bass and drums and guitar, I think of an abstract arrangement as being something like Wood Beez by SCRITTI POLITTI It’s hard to imagine that song working outside of a studio. But I suppose that thought is almost contrary to the reputation we have because I’m seen as a serious songwriter and that’s usually associated with the worthy acoustic guitar in hand. As a writer I get more of a kick out of trying to orchestrate a song in an unusual way. That’s why Thomas is great. It used to be that Thomas would do all of that, but the final versions of Jesse James, Jordan and Wild Horses are very similar to my original 16-track demos of them, except of course it’s drum machines doing it and I’m singing all the parts myself. When we go into the studio, Thomas does the keyboards in a much more musical fashion than I do and the drum parts are much better and the singing is more accurate.”
After Paddy’s gathered together enough demos of songs for an album, he sends them to Thomas Dolby for his comments. The band then get together in a small studio and rehearse them for a month, with Dolby on keyboards.
“What we do is we go in, get a cassette player running and we’ll say OK, Looking For Atlantis, then Thomas will say ‘Well on the demo of this I like the 12/8 feel of the drums, but the bass is a bit clunky, can you smooth that out a bit and what pattern are you going to play on rhythm guitar here?’. So we’ll sit and we’ll ﬁddle about with it and tape it, and really, he’s taping it just for the shape of the song — so the intro’s the right length, the verse comes in the right place, and so that Neil from day-to-day will remember what his drum part is because it’s all new to him. Despite all that when we go into the studio you still feel as if you’re starting from scratch, all you’ve agreed on is maybe the speed of it or the length of it. Then we’ll do a few takes and Thomas will eventually piece together the best bits of it. He has a great ear — from the very skeleton of a song he can tell what he wants to do with it.”
Dolby — Noise Reduction
In June of last year, The Sprouts began work on Jordan The Comeback in a small video post-production studio called THINKTANK in Fulham, where they transferred Paddy’s original C-Lab keyboard tracks into Dolby’s Fairlight; and then even spun off some of Paddy’s original Fostex backing vocals onto the two-inch master, with no fear for the quality drop.
“Then we chose to visit RIDGE FARM in Surrey, mainly because Thomas lives in America and so if he has to come over here and live in hotels and stuff, it can be a bit impersonal, so we needed a residential studio. Then we had a few problems there, because there was a heatwave and the air-conditioning broke down and Thomas got ill. But then there’s a great engineer there, a young lad called PAUL CUDDEFORD who was really great when it came to recording the guitars because he was really enthusiastic and he had his own Marshall amp, so he slaved it up for me which was handy because I’m more of a writer than a player and sometimes I can be slightly lazy about the technical side of guitar playing. I described my Gretsch earlier to someone as ‘orange’. I didn’t know the model name!
“After that we went to THE FARMYARD in Amersham where we’d mixed Steve McQueen, but to be fair to the place, they’re refitting it all with new gear now I’ve heard, but when we were there the gear they had in was coming to the end of its time. We started to second guess ourselves on the vocals because we weren’t sure whether we getting an accurate sound — the SSL had a few problems, it had been used for five or six years — and when you get paranoid about your vocal sound you tend to lose the plot a bit. What made up our minds for us was we went to METROPOLIS for a day and did a guide vocal on one of the tracks, and it sounded so much better, so we had to scrap the vocals we’d done at THE FARMYARD.
“Thomas always listens to the room to tell what microphone we should use to achieve a certain sound. For Machine Gun Ibiza we needed a harder, dryer sound; whereas something like Paris Smith, on the original demo I’d used chorus on the voice — something you’d never do — and Thomas liked that, so we used Dimension D so that it swirls a bit. My favourite studio is the CBS Studio in Whitfield Street. We ended up doing a huge chunk of the vocals and keyboards there and I don’t remember having any more than 10 minutes of problems there.
“We finished all the recording in December and then in March we mixed it in Los Angeles, mainly because Tom’s wife was missing him, so we stayed at their house over there and because we had a two month break before mixing, it gave us such a fresh perspective on it. I suppose in comparison to a lot of people’s records we’re quite brutal in mixing the vocals loud, and sometimes that isn’t always a great thing, but if the lyrics are good and you’ve sung it alright, then let them hear what- ever it is you’re doing. It’s like what your mam would say about not hearing the words, so you mix them up.”
Keeping A Clear Head
It’s perhaps unfair to say that Prefab Sprout are unadventurous in their production style, still they do tend to favour a clean no-nonsense recording sound. Paddy reckons you should never owe anything to fashion unless the song needs it, so on the new album, the elaborate, almost psychedelic backdrop of Michael and the currently fashionable wah-wah guitars of Machine Gun Ibiza tend to stand out above the safe wash of their established band sound.
“Haha. Well, we like to think of our sound as timeless. I suppose if Steve McQueen stands up today, it’s because of its clarity – we didn’t really go for any of the gimmicks of the mid-Eighties, the long reverbs on snare drums and so on. But now, for instance on something like Michael, the drums sound like they belong on a BOBBY BROWN record and there’s the very intricate background of samples from a Gregorian chants record. That’s a song about the Devil asking Michael The Archangel to help him write a letter to God to get him back into heaven, so as befits the subject, the sound should be pretty gothic. One Of the Broken is I suppose a companion song to Michael in the sense that it’s about God saying ‘Don’t just sing your hymns to me, do something for your fellow man, that’s how you worship me’. These songs are more about spirituality than anything else I suppose. Similarly Mercy is a more intimate plea, just me and the guitar saying ‘Mercy on me’. The first part of Side Two is altogether a more lighter thing, again no theme intended. I just think this album is all about contrast.”
But shouldn’t the album really have been a double? Don’t you lose quality cutting such a long album onto vinyl?
“The technical advances now are such than you can get away with it. What tends to happen is you lose volume, but the acetate I’ve got the bass is all there. I’ll have to check, but maybe I do have to turn it up a bit to bring it back onto par with other records, but it isn’t a big difference. We wouldn’t be putting it out otherwise, it’s not that we think ‘Oh, you vinyl people, you don’t matter’. Double albums are a bit of a marketing nightmare apparently, so I doubt whether we’d have been given the permission to do it unless we were massive. I suppose it’s a CD album, if you like.”
Hm. Just as we suspected. But vinyl-loving Prefab Sprout fans needn’t trouble themselves because, according to Paddy, in the breaks between recording and mixing this album, he’s written enough material for his next, probably briefer album which the group and their bespectacled producer will begin work on soon.
“I don’t want this interview to turn into a hymn of praise for Thomas Dolby but sometimes I can’t help thinking wow, he’s isn’t just listening for that, he’s got something else in mind. The thing I love about him is that he never becomes a producer. He makes decisions, but you can just say at any point in the recording process, ‘Look Tom, I think we’ve made a really big mistake. I think that’s bland. I think that’s rubbish’. Most of the time he argues with you and then when you hear the end result you feel stupid!”
No doubt Thomas Dolby is searching for a window in his Filofax at this very moment. .