It seemed impossible, but in 2009, a handful of new-old songs from Paddy McAloon’s beautiful music machine, Prefab Sprout, re-emerged from oblivion. From expansive melodies to beautiful and rare reflections on the redemptive power of music, the songs belong to an ideal world that might just possibly exist in our own. Yes, “Let’s Change the World With Music” overloaded us with idealism. It elevated us. Juan Manuel Frieire took the excuse of the comeback to talk to Mcaloon, and excitedly assured us that talking to him was one of life’s unforgettable experiences
I bet you an arm and a leg that among this years releases you won’t find as beautiful an album as “Let’s Change the World With Music” (Kitchenware [PIAS] Spain, 2009), Prefab’s Sprout ressurected comeback, having been recorded to serve as a bridge between “Jordan: the Comeback” (1990) and “Andromeda Heights” (1997). Sony rejected it in 1992. Nearly two decades later, Paddy McAloon is giving it to the world. Before starting the interview, I tell him I appreciate it. “It made my year,” I say. He laughs and says: “And mine.”
Apparently it was Keith Armstrong (founder of the label Kitchenware) who convinced you to release it?
Yes, we had reached a while ago an agreement to do it, but I had forgotten. And one day he came to me and told me he had already got a deal. It was an album I’d tried – without much success – to get out of my head, because really it hurt so much it didn’t come out at the time. It grieved me, and I preferred to imagine the album didn’t exist at all. Also it was intended to be recorded with the band, not solo.
The Sony people had reservations about religious imagery, but those mystical references were already included in “Jordan: The Comeback”; the song “One Of The Broken” was sung from the point of view of God. Why the worry now?
This album was a continuation of “Jordan: The Comeback”. I don’t know why they were disturbed by those references .. If I’m honest, I’m sure the rejection was due to external factors beyond the subject material. Luckily, I move pretty fast in terms of composition. I thought, “This is a disgrace.” But I didn’t stop.
At times it sounds really cool, for example “Ride”. Did the engineer Calum Malcolm record some additional new elements, or did he work exclusively with what was on the demo’s?
Well, we went back and reprogrammed some of “Music Is A Princess”, but otherwise everything was already there in the original material. What happens is that Malcolm has a huge talent and has worked wonders with the old analogue tape: he created space, and cleaned up the voices, and by giving attention to certain details he liked he renewed the sounds of certain songs. The main difference from the demo’s is the disappearance of three songs. The record was too long. We removed the title track but I hope one day to record it. I won’t do anything with the other two, they are of their time, they talk about that time. Well, I like “Diana”…
Not the same “Diana” from “Protest Songs” (1989) and the B-side single “When Love Breaks Down”, right?
No, no, it has nothing to do with that. It’s not about Lady Di.
In these times of moral relativism, an idealistic and romantic album like “Let’s Change The World With Music” really shines with divine glory. It has a therapeutic beauty.
Well, it helps that people weren’t expecting it, they weren’t expecting ever to hear it. It’s an old record, a postcard, if you like, of an ancient sense of hopefulness. It’s a shame I couldn’t record it with the group at the time.
Do you still see them?
Yes, at least the guys. Neil lives in France, so it is difficult, but I talk to him by phone. And Martin I see often. They are well, they are doing things related to music, but not necessarily releasing it.
Why you have not given more unreleased songs to other artists?
I gave some, but I stopped doing it because I didn’t like it at all. I’d rather write for myself than leave them in someone else’s hands. And I should add that a lot of the music I’ve not released would be of very limited interest to the public. Maybe I’m wrong. People just want love songs, and very particular type of love song. It’s easy to become inane and I don’t want to be. I prefer to look after myself rather than let a record company do it. I have some things that do work, but to be honest I’m too lazy to deal with companies.
Prefab Sprout lyrics might be seen as somewhat oblique. Do you work at it intentionally or is the result of relying on the subconscious?
(Laughter.) I like the question. I don’t know why I write and write. I don’t always mean what I’m saying, I’m not expressing my point of view about something; It is like writing the script for a movie. I do use the subconscious a lot; some lines come to mind and I don’t understand them, but I know I should use them. And that may make great songs. It’s like poetry. It demands some work from the listener.
I’d say the sound of words is the important thing. Sometimes you get the feeling you’re listening to poetry or a sort of musical prose in the lyrics.
The way the words sound is essential. “Musical prose” is a nice way to but it. The meaning is important, but before that for me comes the tune; I hear a melody and look for ideas for lyrics in it. This morning I was talking to my wife about what is often lost when you translate poetry. And the first thing you lose is the music, which is a shame.
What are your thoughts on poetry?
I love poetry. Mallarme, for example. I’m interested in the whole span of culture, although music is my first love. I’ve recently been listening to Louis Armstrong and old jazz bands; music made for fun and to have fun to. I might well compose something like that. I don’t buy new records but I pay attention to what’s playing in the supermarket or on TV. I’m interested in new music, but I’m too busy with my own to go and buy records. And I’m sure I’m missing great things from young people. When you’re young you have the best ideas.
Are you aware of all the young artists who you’ve influenced? The list is endless: Sondre Lerche, The Changes, Junior Boys, Lake Heartbeat ...
I don’t know any of that, just Lerche. I liked his version of “Nightingales”. A long time ago people gave me CDs with songs by groups who talk about me or play Prefab Sprout songs… It’s lovely. But you can’t focus on that, what people think about you, because it’s not healthy.
I guess on this CD would be the indie group Blind Terry with the song “When Prefab Sprout Wrecked My Mind”?
No, Neil Conti told me about the song. He says it’s good. I don’t understand how young people are so familiar with the group. How old are you?
Since when have you been listening to Prefab?
Ten years or so.
It’s curious. People even younger than you, 20 or 25, are familiar with the group; I find it strange.
It’s not so easy to find such beautiful music. Turning back to the past, listening to Prefab Sprout renews the spirit, makes you believe in music and in life.
Yes, that must be it. Thank you.
You respect pop music and the listener. It’s easy to see that. It’s appreciated.
Pop music is important. I’m not saying it’s wrong to use it as many people do, as mere entertainment, frivolous … But there are people like you and me who see it otherwise.
It’s a shame you don’t like concerts and can’t do them, because many people in Spain would love to see you play again.
I’m sorry and it hurts, but I can’t, essentially because of my hearing. And I can’t go and see other people live. Even if I could, I don’t know if I would. I’d rather write.
I know you don’t like doing promotion. I’m sorry I’ve disturbed your morning.
No, please don’t worry. But it’s true that promotional tours were exhausting; they took my time away from writing. When they were finished I was depressed. My head was full of my own thoughts about music and they were blocked out. For this album I’ve done very little: some English press, Japan, a Swedish radio programme, one for Spain, nothing in France. Speaking for a few days. That’s easy.
Well thanks for everything. I’m delighted to have talked to you. I can retire from my job now!
Oh, come on, don’t say that. Keep going. Thanks to you and the readers of your magazine who still listen to me. Thank you so much.