Paddy McAloon was in Lisbon with Prefab Sprout to collect a silver record for the album “From Langley Park to Memphis”, passing by way of the Club Amigos Disney, where he met Mickey Mouse.
HE ENTERS the room, smiling and relaxed, quite the contrast to Neil Conti’s obvious tension. He’s apparently back from from doing some shopping, blue eyes hidden behind dark glasses. Smiling gently with a “Hi Guys! Very pleased to meet you!”, the exclamation immediately following his outstretched hand. He didn’t see much, he explains, but he did see that Lisbon isn’t like anywhere else. “England’s not designed like this, you see.” Neil Conti and the others have already escaped into the hallway. For Prefab Sprout the motto is “for interviews, all for one and one for all”. And “one”, in this case, means Paddy McAloon.
“From Langley Park to Memphis”, the latest Prefab Sprout album, marks a watershed in the band’s career. The studio work was done in the United States, names such as Pete Townshend and Thomas Dolby appearing associated with the final product, and the simplicity that shone through the two previous albums (“Swoon” and “Steve McQueen” launched to the US market with the title “Two Wheels Good “) was abandoned in favour of a more complex and exotic sound, split across multiple instruments.
“When you hear a new album from a band, you never think that maybe it was just what they happened to do, rather than what they would have liked to have done. That was always what happened with me and Prefab Sprout: we didn’t make the albums we wanted to make.We never wanted to sound like a rock band. In that respect, the thought was that people like the Beatles have already done everything; I try to find new ways to do it all. Probably because I keep great faith in the songs themselves and I don’t feel any urgency to go into the studio. That‘s to say that I’m in love with the songs, not the arrangements. And on this record what happened was we moved beyond a sort of music made with guitars to songs incorporating Gospel, Broadway, and whatever it is that is purely our own.
“The changes people perceive over the 3 LPs are Prefab Sprout finding their way, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Some people prefer the earlier albums. I prefer the new one, because it’s closer to what we originally had in mind.”
At this point the veil starts to lift, and the discourse on the band gradually becomes a discourse on the ego, on the little genius seeking his place in the pantheon of the immortals. In little ways, in phrases like “I can imagine the band doing all sorts of records, depending on the songs I write.” However slight, dry, anxious, Paddy seems honest and modest when he establishes from the outset that the emphasis should be on the enjoyment his work gives him.
“I have a kind of mental image, without any specific sounds, I have the image of a song that is something different from anything else. It’s almost like imagining an open door. If you want to be contemporary – and that’s above all what you want – you try to write songs that have never been written before, you try to go beyond the existing styles.
“But sometimes, all you feel like doing is to write a good song that touches people. ‘When Love Breaks Down’, for example, doesn’t seem radically different from songs that other people write. The chord sequences are quite familiar. It’s very different from ‘Technique’ on the first album, or ‘The Venus of the Soup Kitchen’ in the latest where we came to abandon the idea of being a rock group.
“You know what I said to Thomas Dolby? I told him: ‘Let’s make a record like a movie, a Walt Disney soundtrack, but with words loaded with more meaning.”
When he first met with Thomas Dolby, before going into the studio, Paddy McAloon was perfectly happy with the band’s material. But that faded a little due to Dolby’s “strange attitude”.
“To give an example, he told me: ‘I can’t really do this song because it contains religious references’. I argued with him from the beginning, which wasn’t great. But it turned out he was able to choose four songs he could produce without any problems. And I felt disappointed because I thought he could have chosen ten or twelve, and he hadn’t even chosen the best. But it’s hard for an artist to tell someone which their best songs are.”
But you’d work with him again?
“Yes! And very unusual reasons. I want to feel excited by the process of making the album. I like to be like a fan, not knowing anything. When we’re producing the record ourselves there is the satisfaction of knowing there’s nothing on the tape that hasn’t been put there by us. But also, it means there may be no surprises. And I like to be surprised, to find that the song eventually emerges slightly different from what I‘d supposed – or what I wanted – and you learn to live with it.
“That’s what happens with Tom. He likes us and keeps showing up and wanting more. But if he wasn’t willing to do that, I’d be desperate to hire another producer. I could do the job, maybe not as good as Thomas, on some things. But the people at CBS would like to see me doing the production, so there is not even any kind of commercial pressure to accept Thomas Dolby. But I’m a bit of a coward. Seriously. And Thomas is my guarantee. If I work with him, I’m confident.
“What we’ll do next will be slightly different. After we finished “From Langley Park to Memphis’, it felt good to write some pop songs, sit and see what happened when I was writing for fun, without thinking. I wrote some good things, probably because I felt more relaxed after finishing the record. I hope we’ll go into the studio in the summer. I’ll be meeting with Thomas Dolby next week, we’ll even try to do something different. It wouldn’t satisfy me to make another “Steve McQueen”, or another “Langley Park”. It’s important not to do that, it’s better to fail but to try do do something different.”
Take that risk. Prefab Sprout have become experts in the dangerous balancing act of being outsiders and so far have succeeded in remaining standing. Even if their work lies completely outside the new trends in the UK market, more engaged in dance music and the remnants of Acid-House.
“I feel good. And it’s better to be outside than to be part of a movement. When Prefab Sprout emerged, we were considered part of a new acoustic movement. Which takes us back to the first question and it may well surprise people, but it was not what we wanted. We used guitars because they were cheaper.
“We will always be outside British pop. The England we adore but which hates us. They even say we must be in love with America. But that’s wide of the mark. A song like “Hey Manhattan” doesn’t deal with America, it’s about myths, the power of the myth. I’ve nothing to say about America as a place, but I have something to say about how we relate to each other.”
But the fact of having recorded the record in America must have influenced the work?
“Not at all. It’s like coming to Lisbon: you see very little, you don’t get the feeling you’ve experienced it. We were in Los Angeles for eight weeks, but we limited ourselves to spending time in the studio. And anyway I work more with my imagination. I work mostly in my little room in the north of England. I’ve never written a song from having been anywhere or seen anything. It was all filtered through my imagination. You’re close to everyday things so you can get a sense of perspective. Today is like any other day, but there’s no time to think about things. Particularly on a promotional visit.”
Neil Conti comes in. “Sorry, guys.” We’re out of time.