PREFAB SPROUT –From Here To Eternity
“THE KING OF ROCK’N’ROLL”: A CLAIM. A PRIVATE DREAM. THE UNSPOKEN MANTRA OF THIRTY YEARS OF PARTIES.
PADDY MCALOON MAKES NO CLAIM TO THE CROWN. HE IS TOO COMFORTABLY INSTALLED IN HIS ROLE OF COURT JESTER, JUGGLING ADMIRATION AND MOCKERY, TEASING AND IMITATION.
ROCK MUSIC: MUSICAL MYTHOLOGIES AND DISAPPOINTING REALITY: THE ONLY WINDOWS ONTO THE SWEET UNIVERSE OF A CRAZY INDIVIDUALIST
Photos: Joseph Dilworth
If we haven’t shown much sign of life since “Steve McQueen”, it’s because all I was doing was the new album. It’s what excites me the most, what I feel most comfortable doing. Having said that, I don’t think we could have done this album any faster. We might have been able to get “From Langley Park to Memphis” out last year, just. But it would have been too rushed, and anyway we love to hear people say “three years already!” to us (laughs)… It was inevitable… 1985: “Steve McQueen”. The end of 1985: world tour. 1986: writing new songs. 1987: recording those songs. It never seemed like any of it was taking a long time. But I understand peoples’ reactions. We stay out of the gossip columns, show business chit chat, we’re not seen everywhere at parties. Otherwise I couldn’t write. I set the bar so high in my work I have to work constantly. I’d love to be able just to sit down and write songs two months before going into the studio… I’m really not capable of it, I need a lot of time and concentration to write.
You haven’t played together for TWO years!
That’s the kind of band we are. We’ve not played on stage since ’86 and I really don’t think we’ll return to it any time soon. Our drummer, Neil (Conti, who has played with Bowie and Level 42) plays all the time with anyone, anywhere. My brother Martin plays piano constantly in his corner, I also play keyboards on my own. We rarely play together like a regular group. I don’t think we’re like other groups. I suppose bands like U2 live for their group, rehearsing constantly. We don’t need that because our way of composing is based solely on one person and what he thinks. Not from jamming, improvising. It’s important I work alone. In ’86 we went to Japan and a reporter asked how long we’d been playing with our keyboard player. I realized we’d NEVER played together. When we went on stage he knew the songs from the records. I understand this may shock people who think rock’n’roll has to come from working at playing, the rehearsals. But we did that too in the past. When we formed Prefab Sprout we played every night. To be honest I think that playing the same pieces every night, even though it was my dream, killed something in me. I had to turn the page. Although I like to play new material over and over, I find that very difficult with old songs. I tend to go onto autopilot, which is very risky, you can’t allow yourself to drift.
Does that mean that you’re not at ease on stage?
I’m not, to be honest. Some days we go on stage without a second thought and it goes very well. The last time we played Paris, we had a great time, it felt natural. But unfortunately that’s not always the case. A good crowd doesn’t necessarily mean a good concert and vice versa. An audience that’s won over before we even start often pushes me into self-analysis and introspection. Whereas a hostile audience means I don’t worry, I can shout and have fun without being frightened I’ll disappoint. I don’t think I was born to play in front of people, I have terrible problems with concentration… Forgetting the words is very embarrassing (laughs)… It’s a horrible feeling of loneliness being on stage, in the middle of “Cars & Girls” and asking yourself what you’re doing there. During the last tour I got lost in the middle of a song. I found myself on my own, talking to myself, in front of thousands of people. I was terribly embarrassed. It was like losing my self control.
The group seems a bit of a family affair …
It’s a family affair, for better or worse. Hence the complexity. We don’t need to discuss much between ourselves to know what we’re going to do. I imagine groups like the Police must have to resort to votes every time they take a decision. In Prefab Sprout, it’s very easy for me, I play with my brother Martin and my girlfriend Wendy. Martin and I often think the same thing. If we don’t he’ll do everything he can to make my task as a songwriter easier. I know that secretly he’s dying to go back on stage, Neil and Wendy too. But none of them tell me that because they know I don’t like it, that I’m not at ease there, that I prefer to write, to compose. Wendy always supports me because she knows that a tour would affect me badly, would put me in a bad mood.
Your lifestyle also seems light years from the normal behaviour of “pop stars”
Sorry to tell you that we’re very boring (laughs)… I’d love to be able to tell you some juicy stories, but that’s not how we are. You know Newcastle? Well I go down there once every other day for a coffee in a small restaurant in the town. That’s all, really that’s all. Sorry for such bland details but that’s how my life is. I spend most of my time at home, playing on my little synthesiser. I write, that’s the only thing that interests me… Apart from drinking, maybe, but let’s not talk about that (laughs)… Newcastle has the advantage of being too far from London to allow us to be exposed to that sort of life, the concerts. Even when I’m in Newcastle I never go to concerts. It doesn’t interest me, I don’t want that sort of life, I’m a bit of a killjoy
You seem detached, uninterested in other groups. Is that also the case for music in general?
It’s funny, but, but I have absolutely no interest in groups, while music fascinates me. I love listening to the essence of things, I like genius, I can’t get interested in groups that are merely good. Sometimes I meet nice people who nevertheless make bad records. I’m sure they think the same thing I do: “listening to your records I thought you were this or that, but you’re lovely actually”. We have to separate these feelings from our love of music. Although I don’t like most of the music I hear, I still adore the idea of “great music”. It’s the idea I like, rather than its realisation. But I can’t tell you what I mean by “great music”. I like “West Side Story”, Leonard Bernstein, Steven Sondheim, that’s what I like. I know they have talent, although our styles differ. Who else? … Richard Rodgers, Jule Styne, George Gershwin. I love them and their music. Closer to home, I greatly admire the Beatles, early Bowie, Prince, because they do exactly what they want to do. I like some songs, despite not loving what their authors usually do, things by Donna Summer, Trevor Horn, particularly his pursuit of perfection. I also like people at the extremes, Pierre Boulez, for example, a charming man, even though I don’t understand most of his work. I believe, like him, that everyone should make their own music. I love that approach. When I was a kid, the Beatles and Marc Bolan really inspired me to form a group. At thirteen, I admired the incredibly cool attitude of Bolan. I lost that feeling as I got older. The Beatles really marked my youth, although I had none of their records. My family wasn’t the type to go out to buy albums. I was the oldest son of elderly parents, I was too young to buy the things the Beatles did, but my parents were too old. So everything came to me from the radio, the Beatles were always there, they were some of my earliest memories. Then later my mother bought a guitar to learn how to play. I was fascinated… I learned to play Pinball Wizard on one string. So logically I later came to want to write my own songs, because all my heroes did, they weren’t happy just playing cover versions. I started very early, with weird influences. Can you imagine me trying to sing like Mark Bolan? (laughs)… I lived and still live in a small village in the mining area, a few miles from Newcastle. The attitude of people is very hard, it leaves very little room for things like poetry, artistic ambition. The simple fact that I was a student already fascinated them. That was something vaguely exotic, artistic for these people.
So you had to fight to get there?
No, but I really had the feeling of being misunderstood. My parents understood. My father was a teacher and he dropped out of the education system to run a small service station. He loved it. He became very ill when I was seventeen, and he never made me do anything. So I didn’t have to fight, much less so than other adolescents I’m sure. My father had been on both sides of the divide, intellectual and manual. I was happy in his service station, just playing my songs. I knew that was what I was made to do. And even if I had never got a contract with a record company, I would be just as happy selling petrol as I am doing what I do now. Just as long as I’m able to write. But I decided to take English literature at Newcastle Polytechnic. “Bonny” and “Faron Young” were written while I was supposed to be revising for my exams. That’s what I loved to do. Every evening after school we played together. Despite my studies, I knew already I was preparing myself, programming myself, to make records one day.
Did English literature fascinate you too?
Yes, it was the only subject I could study. I was interested, but unsuccessfully, in mathematics. I devoured as many books as I could, no matter what they were. Detective novels, magazines, everything. I loved them more for the way they were written than the stories. Unlike Martin Stephenson, I wasn’t very comfortable with poetry, I’m not confident in this form of writing. People find my lyrics poetic, but I’m really not capable of judging what is poetic and what isn’t. I’d love to write a book, but it needs so much discipline… In a three-minute song, I can make a mistake, we can go over it again. In a book, a single mistake can be all it takes to bring the whole edifice down. I’d love to be able to find enough concentration to be able to do it. I’d like to write a detective novel, a very simple form that’s easy to work with, to graft something else onto. But that’s just a dream. When people find you can do one thing, they often thing you’re capable of doing other things. “I write songs, I’m able to do this, I can be an actor, to make films … aaah” (laughs) … Be careful. I’ve tried writing without any particular aim in mind, but a little voice in my head brings me back down to earth every time: “Do you not think you could write this much better in the context of a song?”. And each time I eventually give up to return to songwriting. It’s easy to write words that are not in themselves particularly interesting and then put them to music. If the melody or rhythm is good, I can make these words very persuasive.
How do you react to very the very serious and intellectual image that the press and public have of the group?
I guess it’s just the way we write. If you compare our songs to more popular records, it’s obvious they have a literary dimension. They’re well written, the language used is not the lowest common denominator. That’s enough to make people believe that the group is very intellectual, especially comparing it to what usually occupies the Top 40. Even Prince, however great he is, is different from us in that regard. Maybe this is my own fault. When I explain something I tend to be very serious, I get passionate about the subject. I could be very casual, give silly answers, be ironic. There are groups who are great at playing that game, and that in itself says a lot about them. The simple fact they don’t want to say anything serious ultimately says a lot. But I can’t resist the temptation of explaining everything. That isn’t well received in the UK. It’s the preserve of writers to explain pop music. I wrote a few songs myself on this subject, the whole idea of celebrity from pop music. But that’s a subject that’s really reserved for journalists, which explains their suspicion towards us. They want groups to have no consciousness of their position, that they limit themselves to being amusing without thinking. The only area of reflection groups are permitted by the press is politics. I’m right in the middle of all of it, by choice. But I wear funny spectacles, I don’t look like someone who’s waiting to bring me a big tray of drugs so I can stay awake, so inevitably we’re considered odd.
Is it a conscious effort, this search for originality?
When I was younger, it was my way of looking at things. “Alright, the Beatles exist, Bowie, Dylan exist; since they’re already there, why try to be like them?” As nobody is really original, you always end up sounding like the people you love. With this in mind you have to try to be different, so I really tried to be, especially in the era of “Swoon”. I’m not sure now that was a good idea. Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote “My Fair Lady” gave this sublime response: someone said to him, “I need to be original, I have to be.” He replied “Don’t try to be original. Try to be good. Because if you’re good, it will already be very original” (laughs)… That’s a very daunting thought when I find myself alone with a sheet of paper. I cared less for quality before, I watched the world through my own lens, thinking I was very original. I gained a lot more confidence in myself by dint of writing. When we started we were compared to existing groups. Now people know who we are. We were compared to anyone, bands like Steely Dan, whom I like, even if they’ve never been an influence. The only real influence is the Beatles. Listen to our first 45 “Lions in My Own Garden”. For me, it’s very close to” Love Me Do”, very pure, spontaneous. When it was released, the press compared us to the Scottish groups Orange Juice and Aztec Camera. It’s true that there were similarities, in that we had acoustic guitars at the forefront, but that was a coincidence. It’s funny now to see the number of groups being compared to Prefab Sprout. Poor people! I don’t have to worry about being original now. We’ve existed long enough to be considered influences, whether good or bad. Don’t take this as arrogance: there are many bands who sound like us and I really feel sorry they have to suffer this fate, ending up compared to someone they probably don’t admire.
By taking the first letter of each word in your title “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)”, you form the word “Limoges”…
Yes. My girl-friend had to go to study for a year at the University of Limoges. And as I have a rather complicated mind, I thought of “L.I.M.O.G.E.S.” and I found this title. I missed her and to me, this idea of having lions watching you in your own garden matches the feeling of insecurity coming from the abnormality of the situation. Something scary, expressed in a language of my own.
A more or less secret language, private, that you often use…
Yes, a private language. Although this isn’t a major part of my writing, it’s something I like to know exists. But I wouldn’t, just for the fun of it, want to become incomprehensible. That would be pointless. It’s like the credits on album covers, you have to be very careful that this stuff isn’t just a private joke. But it’s true I once invented words because they sounded right where I put them. The songs were dictating them to me. It’s like painting, there are many ways to paint a tree, realistically, cubist, etcetera. It’s good to have the possibility of using another language.
I perceive a clear influence from musicals in “King of Rock’n’Roll” or “Venus of the Soup Kitchen…
Yes, they’re something I really love. It’s so easy in a musical to write very extended melodies. The songs are too short for that in the pop music format, pop is short and repetitive. In that sense, the approach of musicals is very unfashionable, they exist in their own universe with their own conventions. There’s more room for melody, though many of them are boring, horrible. But they have such a spirit of openness within then, an undisguised joy for song… I love that spirit. Most rock songs are based on “I do this, I do that”, a very immature adolescent sensibility. Groups begin playing when they’re young, and grow up later. The environment they’re in encourages them to stay teenagers. How can you find personal revelations when you listen to Jackson Brown, James Taylor, rehashing again and again the “I do this, I do that”? Musicals deal with real emotions, but they apply them to characters. Their world is more removed from reality, but that doesn’t stop them discussing real experiences. I love the dramatic shaping of real things. Perhaps, because as I get older I don’t want to tell the world my secrets but present them in a different form. I admire people who write musicals even if I don’t feel able to myself. These people are using an older format. Just like pop music is an old format to me anyway. I wrote about the lives of people who are fifteen years old when I was that age, it’s normal to move on. I try constantly to find new ideas. For example, in a song like “Hey Manhattan”, instead of saying “dreams can lead to disillusionment” as a serious songwriter normally would, I try instead to invent a character who lands in New York. He marvels at what he sees, he is very ambitious. But in the second part of the song, his character has changed. He speaks of the place where Kennedy had stayed before dying, the dream becomes bitter. I find this form of writing more interesting, and just as personal. When I go to the movies, I don’t want to see an actor who explains everything to me constantly. I prefer him to show me his ideas, to show a dramatic situation that speaks for itself. But I may still change in the future, go back to “I do this, I do that”… Even if for the moment, I prefer to conceal my feelings inside small scenarios.
You seem fascinated by the United States…
No, I don’t think I have any fascination with the United States, even though I know this may sound strange when you listen to our records. Coming from a small and remote village, the only fascination comes from the movies, my youth. I like the US, but it doesn’t obsess me. For me, “America” will always be associated with “pop music”. Elvis, Springsteen… they all come out of that dream. I can’t dissect or analyze modern America. I’m better when it comes to just taking out a few basic words, magic keys, “Elvis Presley”, “Memphis”, “Albuquerque” and forming from them MY vision of America. I find that more interesting than writing about politics or the social situation in the US.. I love what Fellini did in”La Dolce Vita”. He rebuilt the studio Via Venito, remade Rome within Rome. I love that vision. Bruce Springsteen himself, uses American symbols to talk about the dream: “cars”, “highways”, “girls”, all symbols of ambition. And now I’ve written a song about his writing! I find his writing intelligent, even if many people don’t appreciate it. You have to play with this kind of basic elements. Pop music is thirty years old, it’s lost much of its innocence. The simple act of writing songs, making records, has become a topic of songs in itself. Now I can write songs ABOUT pop music, which was not possible twenty years ago. We had to write about cars, girls, soda. The innocence of that time no longer exists. Everyone these days knows about pop music. Even the man in the street can have his own theory. This world is more complicated and the fact of buying a record is much less innocent. We no longer buy albums because there’s a pretty face on the cover.
Your latest album is more accessible than your previous discography. Was that the effect you were looking for?
Yes, this is an evolutionary path we’ve been able to follow as we get older. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be even more accessible, much more so even. Many people would think that this would be limited to trying to write in a certain way, to pander to the public tastes. But I wouldn’t be any good at that game. I can’t second guess what the public wants to hear. As I grow older, I’m more lucid, I know what I want It no longer amuses me to listen to obscure records. When I was a kid I was buying records simply because they were unknown. For the pleasure of buying something I didn’t understand. That’s all over now. I find “Swoon” difficult to listen to, not because of the complexity of the songs but because of the weakness of my voice. If someone hands me this record I run away shouting “no no no” (laughs)… Now I can use my voice better and although I don’t like doing it I can listen to “Steve McQueen” or “From Langley Park to Memphis”. My writing is more structured too. But I do think I’m not very good at commercial judgements. I’m not able to pick out the easy-to-sell singles from an album. I’d never try to write just for a single, or an album intended to seduce American listeners. I guess they love “The Golden Calf” from this album because this song is closest to the kinds of things they already know. That song is very old for me, it was written in 1977.
When I first listened to Swoon, I had a profound feeling of nausea…
Really? That’s very interesting (silence). Did it really bother you? Yes? I think that may have come from the very particular mood, the prevailing mood on this album. I think it would be wrong to say that it’s a complex record. It’s just a very private record for me. Let me explain how we did it… Keith Armstrong (boss of Kitchenware and band manager) had released our first single on his own label which was then a small indie concern. The majors were running away from us at the time, they found us too complicated (Wendy brings a strawberry tart, joy!). A publisher advanced us enough money to record “Swoon”, but instead of doing the pieces we could and should have done, songs like “Bonny”, “Faron Young”, or “The Golden Calf”, we recorded all the songs we’d never played in public before. We had enough songs to make a more commercial album, but we’d never played in a twenty-four track studio before and we took full advantage. We created this imaginary world on the tapes, which gives the album a very strong mood. More than the songs in themselves, the atmosphere came from the limitations of the available technology and the instruments that gives a particular impression. I think you’re right when you talk of “nausea”. I think “Swoon” is too rich. I know I shouldn’t say this, I shouldn’t put off those who want to discover it for themselves, but listening to it is a bit like eating an entire box of chocolates. Something you might love or hate. I’m proud of this album, even if I prefer others. I know there are those for whom it’s their favourite album, who don’t agree with my own judgement on “Swoon’s” weaknesses and its excessive richness. I love “The Secret Life of Plants” by Stevie Wonder, which is certainly not the favourite album of all his fans. Everyone has a tendency to like the unusual things produced by other people.
You also worked with him on the last album…
Yes. Pete Townshend also came and played guitar on “Hey Manhattan” because I was sick. But I’m not usually a great fan of this kind of collaboration. I would ask myself questions: “Why do I want to work with such and such?”, “Just to meet him?”, “Dare I ask?”, “How would I take it if he refuses?”… When we were recording “Hey Manhattan” in the studio owned by Pete Townshend, we discovered he was a fan of the group. When I got sick, we absolutely had to finish recording a guitar part. Wendy went to ask him and he said it was impossible, he’d not played for years, it was out of the question. Five minutes later, he turned up, guitar in hand, in the studio (laughs) … Ditto for Stevie Wonder. We needed a harmonica on “Nightingales”. I tried with different musicians, synthesizers and nothing worked the way I wanted. Stevie Wonder was in London, we sent him a tape and he said he loved the song. He works very odd hours. He returned to the studio the night after his concerts at Wembley. He is very weird, very different, but incredibly kind. He can imitate perfectly accents, the cockney accent (laughs)… “All right, mate, how you doing?” (imitating Stevie Wonder imitating the East-end accent of London).
What happened to your album “Protest Songs”?
It was never released because “When Love Breaks Down” had finally managed to climb the charts months after the release of “Steve McQueen”, just when we were putting out this very different album. We recorded “Protest Songs” in a hurry, without using much new technology. Our record company was afraid that people would be confused by it. The same problem Prince had with his “Black Album”. He already had too many records on the market to take the risk of creating confusion. For two years now I’ve been telling people it will be released one day. We’ll remix, make it sharper. It was recorded so quickly that we did not finish mixing it. It’s a rough edged album, very different, and contains some of our best work. It was a total contrast to “Steve McQueen. We’d spent more than three months locked away in the studio and I thought “God what a long job this is” (laughs)… I wanted to rediscover spontaneity, record quickly, almost live. It was a reaction.
You’re arranging an album based on the character of Zorro…
Yes everyone thinks this is one of my jokes but I’m very serious. It’s just a result of my search to find a new way of writing, dramatizing. It’s also, to be honest, because we are not usually a group associated with videos or movies, but I’d love to do something very good related to cinema. Not as an actor, but rather write something that is an important part of the film. Both serious and funny. No connection with those videos showing pretty girls … even if I have nothing against the pretty girls (laughs) … I want something better, more ambitious than that. Zorro is only a pretext to do that. I also wrote a Christmas album and I’d like to invite different artists to sing my songs. I love Christmas songs, but there aren’t enough new ones written. I’d like some sort of modern version of Phil Spector’s Christmas album (he sings) … A real Christmas song, which evokes sleighbells, December, snow. A soundtrack to the fall of snow.