With such a strange name one could expect anything. Undaunted, however, I set off to the interview, unfortunately arriving 10 minutes late due to wrong directions. On arrival I was pleasantly surprised to be met by a very normal, quite unassuming Paddy McAloon — writer, vocalist, guitarist and spokesperson for Prefab Sprout.
Coming from Newcastle, Paddy and his brother Martin, the bass player, had dreamt since they were kids of having a band. This was the same time the unusual name Prefab Sprout was conceived. Paddy explains:
“I was asked about the name so many times I used to invent stories about it. The truth of the matter is that I made it up. Around that time all the groups were supposed to mean something, with names like Fruitful Dead (sic) or Tyranassauras Rex (sic) and when you are 13 you think it’s profound, that there must be some secrecy. I liked the idea and so thought of two odd words, put them together and have kept it, basically because it reminds me of how I used to look at things”.
Paddy was educated at a catholic seminary school and learnt to play guitar from a priest. Leaving school at 18, he was then free to pursue his, and Martin’s, dream of The Sprouts. So with the help of Mick Salmon on drums, they began gigging in 1979 with a residency at a pub in Durham. Shortly after they formed their own record label, Candel, and released a single called ‘Lions’. I asked Paddy the ethics behind this and from his answer, I began to get an insight into how sussed this man is.
“’Lions’ was a kind of attention grab because we knew that radio stations don’t play tapes very often, and so at least if you make a record, no matter how amateur, you at least get a shot at John Peel’s show— which is what happened.”
One person who was listening was a certain Elvis Costello who liked what he heard and subsequently offered them support on his 1983 Xmas tour. Someone else was also interested in The Sprouts, Keith Armstrong, a Newcastle record shop owner. Keith was starting his own record label Kitchenware, with Hurrah and The Daintees and wanted The Sprouts to join.
“We didn’t want to join a label, we wanted a good manager so we could reach as many people as possible”.
So they reached a compromise, Keith became their manager and The Sprouts signed to Kitchenware. The Sprouts publishing was with April Music, (a CBS subsidiary). I wondered if this had helped in their eventual signing to CBS. Paddy was very adamant that if had nothing to do with it.
”Yes, we had a publishing deal with April Music a CBS subsidiary, but they have absolutely nothing to do with CBS the record label. We didn’t let the publisher go to the record company saying, ‘please sign them up’. Keith wanted to handle all that himself, hr wanted to do the negotiations. The publishers were helpful though in putting up £5,000 to make the album, ’Swoon'”
Before making ‘Swoon’, the band recruited a female vocalist Wendy Smith, then unfortunately lost their drummer Mick. For the album they used a guy called Graham Lant who works in a clothes shop in Newcastle, but have had no permanent drummer since Mick’s departure.
As I write, the band are currently touring England, to be followed by Europe. For the tour they have recruited Virginia Astley, (late of The Ravishing Beauties) on keyboards and Neil Conti (ex Linx) on drums. in view of the bad press The Sprouts received earlier this year at the ICA gig, I wondered how it was going.
“I’m very pleased with Virginia on keyboards and we have gone down really well — Dublin and Belfast especially. As to January when played the ICA we had only had the drummer a few weeks and he was the wrong choice. It didn’t work out as he wasn’t very good and we didn’t work together very well and everyone could see it. One gig was really bad and course, all the press were there, so it became ‘The Sprouts can’t play live’. We have only had Neil a fortnight but it is very tight and I’m really hot with him and don’t feel at all uncertain”.
Uncertain is never a word you could us to describe Paddy. The longer you talk to him the more you have to admire his unpretentious confidence, especially when he talks about his writing.
“It’s the most important thing, it’s got to be, I‘m a writer and everything I do is really just to support that. If we go on tour it’s to let people know that I’m a writer and we are a band that do original material. We don’t tour for the sake of it. I derive maximum enjoyment from writing”.
Their album ‘Swoon’ came out in March ’84 on CBS/Kitchenware and has sold 35,000 copies to date. A Prefab song does take quite a few listenings with its unorthodox arrangements and chord changes, but it’s fresh, interesting and certainly worth persevering with. A fact borne out by the 8 album deal CBS have signed them to.
“I’m dying for a hit single, and there are certain companies I could have been with, who would be pressurising me to deliver a hit every month or so. CBS see us in a different light, maybe not to appeal to everybody at first, but something that should be stuck with — a long term career”.
I asked Paddy how he would describe his songwriting.
“There’s two basic things that you go for. One where you talk about a set subject. The other when you can see from the song what thoughts went into your head while writing it. I’ll give you an example from the LP. There is ’Cruel’, which talks about one subject. It expresses a very down to earth sociologists’ approach to rock, expressing a very basic human feeling. Music can do little more than tell narrative tales about things that are happening. I think you can go beyond that — the difficulty is when it starts to become too vague.
“You can describe things in another way from that journalistic/sociologist approach. I like to score between the two —I like things that leave you with a strong emotional sense. The correspondence between the words and the real world. Our songs don’t have a definite message — you have to look much deeper”.
As you can see Paddy has a lot to say and a lot worth hearing. He is determined to make it without losing anything to become a commercial package, and CBS seem to be on the same wavelength.
The Sprouts intend to release a single in the autumn called ‘Diana’. Then an album to follow, when they can get the right producer. Paddy is emphatic that it should or rather it will be Arith Marvin who produced Hall and Oates’, ‘She’s Gone’, and Scritti Polliti’s ‘Wood Beez’. So determined is he that he’s willing to sleep on his doorstep to persuade him along with the rest of CBS, who are in full agreement.
Throughout the interview, I saw this same determination but never at any moment was he egotistical. His enthusiasm is infectious, and his eyes light up as he proudly tells me that Elvis Costello did a cover version of ‘Cruel’ on his solo American tour. Paddy is charming, witty and talented and deserves to succeed with or without rave ’live’ reviews.