There was a moment in my interview with four members of the Newcastle band when I started feeling a little lost. I was certainly talking to Paddy McAloon, but there were times when he didn’t seem like the same Paddy McAloon who sings on the records.
I wrote about him in the liner notes for Prefab Sprout’s “Steve McQueen”, and about Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera and Paul Weller of the Style Council. But where Frame and Weller are in reality very similar to the impression their music makes on you – naive and youthful in temperament – Paddy McAloon has something of the university lecturer about him. Even in the way he looks – with his thin moustache – he doesn’t seem like a musician. He talks a lot, he’s very logical, he’s not one for emotional outbursts.
His younger brother, Martin, does a fine line in comedy too, and it ended up being quite an extended chat.
Given this is a band that came out of Newcastle, a city iconic of the downturn in the British economy, I had a preconceived image of rough, unrefined people. And in that sense it was an interview that reversed my ideas as a music fan.
Amongst other things, we talked about the Dream Academy’s Nick Laird-Clowes, and the story of the Beach Boys and “Smile”. Paddy McAloon is very attuned to pop culture, and it seems to me that his song-writing is like a presentation of a personal research project. But it’s certainly true that his songs, created with his childhood friends in a suburb of Newcastle, offer a striking sharpness and freshness when compared to current pop music. As often happens in life, I’ve found something new and interesting.
It certainly seems that the Japanese concerts were generally well received, but I’d already heard a lot of good things about this band from the English provinces, formed nearly ten years ago. And the encore, “Cruel” was the best thing I’ve heard all year.
Present for the interview were the three band members Paddy, Martin, and Wendy Smith (the drummer Neil Conti was absent), and Keith Armstrong from the Kitchenware Records label.
I asked the last question because I’d read that Paddy McAloon had wanted to be a priest, but this turned out to be a misconception.
– First of all, I would like to ask you about the place in which you grew up, this was in the outskirts of Newcastle?
[Paddy] That’s right. A place called Durham. Newcastle is an industrial area, but we were born and raised in a place full of farms. The first band we formed was 1970, and we were all childhood friends, we didn’t recruit members from adverts in newspapers, it was more of a childhood thing. I wanted to be a train driver or a football player, and it was only around 1977 that I seriously started working on the band.
– It’s beautiful countryside, wonderful views…
[Paddy] It’s not conventionally beautiful, but it has a certain power.
– The Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” song is about a song about Newcastle, what did you think of it when you heard it?
[Martin] it’s not Newcastle, it’s about Liverpool, isn’t it?
– No, Nick Laird-Clowes said it was about Newcastle
[Paddy] I know the song but I don’t remember the lyrics very well. Newcastle is a depressed place, so there will be dark images, but when we started the band we weren’t aware of that. It’s certainly not California or Los Angeles, but we were proud of it. Just because you come from an unfashionable place, you don’t make music with that in mind. I think everyone wants to be more than that when they start a band, for example Dream Academy were influenced by the Beatles. And when we’re young, we all think we’re the best, the place we come from is the best.
– In 1977, just after the explosion of Punk in London, but you were in a town some distance away and it took a while to catch up…
[Paddy] My musical taste was formed by that time, so I didn’t throw away my existing record collection and jump onto new ones. There were a lot of people like that, but I hated that attitude, I still dislike it. And by the time the epidemic arrived in Newcastle, the movement was nearly over. TV was slow to catch on, and we were mostly interested in American bands, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, and so on. And also Bob Marley.
[Martin] The Stranglers and Boomtown Rats turned up late and missed out.
– What sort of musical taste had you developed by 1977?
[Paddy] What kind of music did I listen to? David Bowie, Hall & Oates, The Beatles, Iggy Pop, Steely Dan, the Beach Boys, Jimmy Webb, Bob Dylan… I listen to all the music that comes on the radio. Even if you hate the songs, you can listen and think about what’s wrong with them.
– Did you have a hero when you were a teenager?
[Paddy] Mark Bolan. Mark Bolan and… no-one after that (laughs).
– Did Prefab Sprout play in a club called the Soul Kitchen in Newcastle?
[Paddy] We only played once or twice in the Soul Kitchen.
[Keith] The Soul Kitchen only lasted just over a year…
[Martin] The first band that played there was New Order…
[Keith] ...it was Aztec Camera. They were around 17 years old.
– Did the bands like Orange Juice and Aztec Camera that came out of Scotland influence Prefab Sprout?
[Paddy] Not at all.
[Keith] I created the Soul Kitchen because that kind of band was appearing, the choice of the name was very deliberate. But my musical policy was more eclectic, we played jazz records, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and more. I wanted to make it a place where everyone could feel included, no matter what clothes they came in wearing, but it didn’t generate much excitement and it folded.
– Prefab Sprout’s music is very much based on the song-writing.
[Paddy] That’s right. The songs on “Swoon” and “Steve McQueen” weren’t written at the same time, they span many years. I wrote “Faron Young”, “Bonny” and “Goodbye Lucille” in 1980. The songs on “Swoon” are newer. “Cruel” is a song from 1984 and it’s very complicated.
– How do you learn the complicated chord changes like in “Cruel”. Are you completely self taught?
[Paddy] That’s right. I don’t know what the names of the chords are. The reason I used complex chords is that I didn’t have the confidence I could write good songs with basic chords such as C, F, G7. I’d have loved to be have been able to write a song only with C, F or G7, but I couldn’t do it. I used strange chords so I could believe I was doing something that was really my thing, something different from others. However more recently my desire to write simple songs has become stronger. “Appetite”, “Desire As” and “Moving the River” are relatively new songs, and are becoming simpler.
– When Roddy Frame said recently that all the techniques of songwriting had been exhausted, you argued this isn’t the case…
[Paddy] There‘s still a way. The other day Leonard Bernstein said that all the melodies have been written now, but that’s also wrong. I’m not writing songs to solve maths equations. It’s certainly very difficult to write original things, but it mostly depends on what kind of topics you want to write about. There aren’t all that many interesting topics.
– How was it that Wendy joined the group?
[Wendy] Why do you ask?
[Martin] She was very shy and didn’t talk at all when we were recording.
[Wendy] I only said yes and no
[Paddy] Two or three years ago, Wendy’s boyfriend was an avid fan of Prefab Sprout. That’s how we got to know each other. I didn‘t have confidence in my voice, I still don’t. When it comes through the PA system we have, it’s horrific. So, I thought that if I added vocal harmony, I might be able to do a little more. When there were just three of us we were more rock’n’roll, but I wanted to be a band with harmonies, like the Beach Boys
– Do you have any plans to add keyboards?
[Paddy] Nobody knows who the keyboard player is (laughs). Gary Hughes will play the keyboards in tomorrow’s concert, it’s the first time he’s played with us. I think a band should be small. If you have a saxophone player like Spandau Ballet, you have to put a saxophone in every song. Thomas Dolby plays the keyboard in the studio and I can play a little, so I think that’s enough.
– How did Thomas Dolby come to produce “Steve McQueen?”
[Paddy] I heard him on the radio choosing his favourite records. We didn’t figure in the list, but the Beach Boys, Robert Palmer, Marvin Gaye, etc., were quite interesting choices. So we’d already started thinking about Thomas when by chance he called CBS and asked who Prefab Sprout’s producer was. He was perfect because he’s very experienced in a recording studio, and we we were looking for someone who could play keyboards. We’ll do the next album with him too.
– The difference between “Swoon” and “Steve McQueen” is probably due to Thomas Dolby’s work.
[Paddy] The arrangement of “Steve McQueen” is perfect. I don’t think we were paying attention to the tonality of the instruments, but Thomas was looking after it behind the scenes. We couldn’t believe that anyone would take a month deciding on the drum sound, we only spent five or six days rehearsing.
– What was the difference in intention between the two albums as regards song selection?
[Paddy] The songs on “Swoon” were my personal thing. I think it’s a good selection, but at that time we had very little experience playing concerts, so there are things that you can’t easily play live. That’s why I thought it would be nice to be able to play “Steve McQueen” live. The song selection was done democratically with Thomas, but what was interesting was that he chose a few old songs without knowing it.
– Where does the title “Steve McQueen” come from?
[Paddy] When I was making the demo tapes, I came out with it, but it was so weird that everyone laughed out loud. There’s no reason. But I didn’t want to name it after any other film star.
– The sleeve style looks like something from a youth movie from the 1960s. The bike looks really old.
[Martin] The bike was actually more purple and the tank was yellowish gold.
[Wendy] Wasn’t that photo black and white, and it was coloured later?
[Paddy] That’s an idea from Prince’s Purple Rain. It’s a typically Hollywood style. But you can’t get as many as four people riding a bike. How can that look normal?
– Do you like movies?
[Paddy] Martin likes them. I often watch classic films.
[Martin] I watch the latest ones. I also like black and white films. Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant, I enjoy everything like that.
[Paddy] I like movies, but I find it more interesting to read the lines of a script. When I was younger I often wrote songs influenced by books. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to rely on books and movies, so now I’m starting to write songs based on my own experiences. And I don’t like travelling. David Bowie shifts the cities he lives in when he’s writing songs, but I couldn’t do that. I went to New York, but the pace was so frenetic I didn’t feel like writing a song about New York when I was there. It’s more relaxed in the UK, so I wrote a New York song there (laughs).
– You have your own world, and you imagine the rest from there…
[Paddy] Reading books can give you things that you can’t get by going to the country directly. That’s how it works. Bernie Taupin now lives in LA and writes poetry about his new lifestyle based on his British experience. I think that’s great, but I’m not going to leave Newcastle for the time being. The other members of the band say they want to live in the United States.
[Martin] If I had a place to live and the money, I’d live in Japan.
– Finally, let’s have your views on religion
[Paddy] That’s a big change of topic! Personally I believe in God. Not like a Hollywood God, I believe in the spirituality of God.
[Martin] I‘m a Catholic and a believer. If I’m asked if I’m a Christian, I say I believe I’m a Catholic… I’m just kidding!
[July 1st, Shinjuku, Tokyo Hilton]