Paddy McAloon: Total Dreamer
To mark the release of his sumptuous new album, “Andromeda Heights”, Paddy McAloon, the founding father and leading light of the legendary Prefab Sprout, has agreed to interrupt seven years of introspection and explain how passion is the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse.
– What does the title of your new album, “Andromeda Heights” mean?
It’s a solar system, it’s about two lovers who decide to build a house. It’s a very simple idea, actually. The difference is that they use only natural materials: iron, wood, glass… They have respect for what they are constructing, and when they’ve finished, they call it “Andromeda Heights”, because in England people give names to their houses, often linked to how high up they are situated, but also in relation to the stars, to the galaxies that surround them.
I love the word “star” and I try to use it as often as I can. “Star” is a word that sounds good in a song if it’s well placed. For me, it has nothing to do with science fiction. I really want to be part of the stars, to dance with them; it’s very important for me and my music.
– Is the whole album a love story?
All the songs are in a romantic mode, even “Electric Guitars” which is essentially a love song, a kind of tribute to pop music, via the Beatles. The other songs on the record are from a more mature perspective, and go beyond “Electric Guitars”. At a certain point in your life, you realise you no longer hold love by the reins, there is more of a nostalgic side to it. It’s your passion for life itself that takes precedence.
– When you compose, do you start with lyrics or music?
I always start with music, but for example for the song “Andromeda Heights”, I didn’t know what it was going to be about; maybe it would be about a space station, or a million things relating to space, since “Weightless”, the previous song, refers to Yuri Gagarin… But the music seemed really terrestrial and I decided it would be the name of a house solidly anchored on the ground, but with a breathtaking view of the stars.
– At first hearing, Andromeda Heights is your most simple and then after more reflection the most complex: what do you think?
From my perspective, that comes from the lyrics, which are quite direct. That makes the piece initially quite accessible, if you take it at face value. There’s nothing that seems obscure there. The subjects I deal with are more transparent than Jordan, more understandable than Steve McQueen, because I decided several years ago after listening to other styles of music to spend my time on things that were easier to grasp, forgetting the idea of being part of a band and working on concepts all alone in my studio, behind my machines.
Andromeda Heights is the most orchestrated of all my records, not the most sophisticated but it’s exactly what I wanted deep in my heart to hear. I have to thank Thomas Dolby for pushing me to continue in this vein, even if he didn’t get involved directly in the production of this new record. Thomas, who co-produced most of our other records, now lives in San Francisco, where he’s started a company, and he couldn’t collaborate on Andromeda, but he encouraged and advised me from a distance. In the end, I produced it myself, with the help of Calum Malcolm, an engineer who worked with Blue Nile, one of my favourite bands. He was in the studio every day, recording all the instruments used on the album onto the computer… The effect was slightly different if you compare it to a band that plays live and records using microphones, as it would have been for example had Neil Conti had been playing with a real drum kit.
I looked after the arrangements myself, extracting one by one the sequences I’d recorded on the computer so we could integrate them into the live guitar or piano parts. So we assembled all the orchestrations and then we had to replace them, like a jigsaw puzzle, into the final configuration. The saxophone, played by Tommy Smith, is real, but recorded on its own. There’s no “big band” on Andromeda, just little bits added together to sound like a big orchestra.
– All this needed a lot of work, you were at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the chain...
I work more and more with the computer, a fabulous instrument if you know how to use it. I composed “Avenue Of Stars” as a full collaboration with the computer, including the long instrumental introduction. I put all the elements into it, but nothing was written with a real guitar or a piano: it’s just an interactive work between me and the computer. I wrote the beginning of each line on the screen and I waited to see what would happen. It’s a new way of working
– Who are the real musicians?
It’s Martin, Wendy and myself, plus a dozen or so assorted musicians, such as Paul Smith on percussion. All the strings and violins come from the computer, thanks to the best CD ROMs available. The result is really incredible, you would believe you’re hearing a real symphonic ensemble. I was keen to record all the guitars in my own studio, trying to blend the mixture together, to try and create the maximum homogeneity to it all. I ended up nicknaming the ensemble “the virtual orchestra”, there was so much magic there.
– At times, Andromeda Heights is reminiscent of film music…
Thank you! That was one of my ambitions: to succeed on different levels. When I was working on the record, I was trying to paint a painting, to make a movie. I’m glad you noticed it.
– The album still seems less produced than the previous ones, more “raw” perhaps.
I wanted Andromeda to be more ambiguous, perched in a kind of unknown space, so people would ask: “Where did this music come from, how could it be made?”… A drummer who knew his stuff perfectly helped me to program the drums. There’s a symbolic aspect to this way of working. It’s more complex to put together, but the result retains a human feel.
– Did you take a lot of time to write the scores of all the instruments?
You know, I work almost completely alone… For Andromeda, it took me six months to do the first demo and then we had to start all over again to get a better result than on the demo. Meanwhile, I worked on many other things, including a history of the world, as well as on a television series and a musical film that I’d still like to produce. I try to put myself in a position in which I can execute all my projects. It’s essentially a question of power and money, and also to be able to present a project close to its final form. I had to build my own studio first, to complete this process and give myself the means to realise my ambitions, because Sony-Columbia thinks that my ideas are good but expensive to produce.
– Would you like to make a movie, a musical, for example?
I’d love that. I have some ideas in my closet. The reason I haven’t already dived in is that I’d need years and years to do it. I’m waiting until I’m less busy because if I launch myself into doing a film, I won’t be available for anything else. I wouldn’t do it on my own anyway, I’d need an interpreter able to put my ideas into images. Anyway if I venture into this niche it would be at the expense of my albums, and I still have enough material to record seven more records. It’s a terrible situation for me.
– When I listen to Prefab Sprout’s music, it reminds of of the music from 50s and 60s musicals, Gershwin and Cole Porter.
I love all of these composers from the past, it’s a great compliment. I think a lot of modern music takes its inspiration from their melodies. But today for many people it’s the rhythm that predominates. Which is great, that gives me enough space to do what I want to do, to serve my own vision of pop music which is completely different from what is current, for example what U2 do. I feel closer to the later records by Steely Dan, who looked a little more towards jazz; their lyrics were superb, every word in exactly the right place. I like this approach. Prefab Sprout’s music, even if it’s quite close to Aja or Gaucho, isn’t jazzy music, at least it’s less American. My hero is Maurice Ravel, he makes me imagine other worlds. I don’t want to compare my music to Ravel, but like him I want to lead the listener into other worlds, using a harmonic structure that’s closer to classical music than jazz.
– Do you not want to be fashionable?
It’s not important to me. I know the names of the fashionable bands. I prefer to throw myself into pop music and see what happens.
– Do you plan to take Andromeda Heights onto the live stage?
We’ve retired from playing live. It’s not that I don’t like doing it, but I’m not someone like Springsteen who spends half his life on stage. I want to make records, more records. I understand this saddens our fans, but my universe is the studio, definitely. Maybe like Springsteen I’ll do a world tour with a piano and guitar, but that’s far from certain, I don’t really need to do it.
– Is the name of your group, Prefab Sprout, a way of thumbing your nose at the system?
I chose the name when I was a kid. It sounded good, I was 14 years old. I thought it sounded impressive, like a sort of sign warning other groups to steer clear. I didn’t realise how nonsensical and crazy it sounded. I didn’t have the slightest idea how people would end up perceiving it. The fact is that “Prefab Sprout”, which doesn’t mean anything in particular, isn’t something that respects or is anchored in the system. I often thought of the names of American bands, Grateful Dead for example: they seemed imposing to me, and I said to myself I wanted a name like that, something that attracts attention and makes you think. I tried some combinations of two words, like “Light Recorder” and people said to me “What do you mean by that?”. People in England didn’t understand the meaning of Prefab Sprout at all, they hated it. I’m not against the system, I don’t know it very well. I’m writing the music I want to write and as I now have my own studio, nothing is going to change any time soon. It’s a bit like Frank Zappa’s approach to life: do what you have to do and if a record company agrees to release it, thanks very much. Otherwise you have to find another way to get there.
You now, the last seven years have been particularly long for me, especially with the project of the history of the world which contains 28 songs, that Sony wanted to release but in the end didn’t.
– When did you start making music?
I started playing guitar at age 13, at school. My parents weren’t musicians and didn’t buy Beatles records, or the Rolling Stones or even classical records. I heard some things in other peoples’ houses, and meanwhile my brother was learning piano by ear. I first heard Sergeant Pepper when I was 16, in 1973, when it was five or six years old. I’d started writing particularly hideous songs when I was 14, but I was writing at least.
– Did you already know how original your voice was?
Not at all, I didn’t even want to sing, and we were all looking for a singer for the group. Eventually I took the microphone because we couldn’t find anyone else. It’s funny, believe me, because when Prefab Sprout was born, in 1977, we used to play in a garage every night, like a rock band, with beer and local groupies, and above all with completely distorted guitars. We were trying to construct a repertoire and at the same time also find a good singer. Now, when I look back, I realise my voice was linked to the Prefab Sprout sound, in the same way that Bryan Ferry’s voice sounds perfect in Roxy Music. Every group is unique: I have a particular voice I use in a particular way.
– Is it possible to make a better record than “Jordan: The Comeback?
I think it’s entirely possible, especially if we don’t go in the same direction. Some of the songs like “Swans”, “Life’s a Miracle” or even the title-track are at the same level as the best of Jordan. My favourite song on that album is “One of the Broken”, I love its spirituality. During the past seven years I think I’ve composed more accomplished songs than in the 80s, songs more in harmony with “One of the Broken” and the best bits of Jordan.
– A bit like Jordan, Andromeda Heights feels like a concept album…
Rather in spite of myself it became a concept album, because all the songs are romantic. They weren’t written at the same time, I just brought together things I felt were linked. I really like Jordan, but I tried not to think about it during the long period I was working on Andromeda. I didn’t have any problems of inspiration because all the songs had already been written, it was just a question of organisation and motivating myself to do something I consider to be the equal of Jordan.