PADDY McAloon unhurriedly rolls his cigar around in his hand before lighting it, letting the anticipation envelope him, savouring the smoke and flavour. Eventually he puts the match to it, and as he puffs away at one of Havana’s finest, he looks like a businessman relaxing after a good day’s work – except that it’s only 10 a.m., and the leader of Prefab Sprout has a full schedule of interviews ahead of him.
So, Paddy, I ask, why the fat cigar? “I’ve always smoked them,” says McAloon in his soft Newcastle brogue. “I wish I didn’t.”
The 39-year-old singer/song-writer/ironist/arranger doesn’t get out much, if reports are to be believed. He prefers to stay holed up in his home studio, working on the kind of shimmering, orchestral sounds which permeate Prefab Sprout’s latest album, Andromeda Heights, the first in seven years so it has been quite a while since McAloon has had to do the media whirl of promotions and interviews.
“It’s been okay,” says McAloon. “People in general, because of the length of time since the last album, are more interested. If it was every year, it would be more routine. So, I felt a little bit special.”
Nobody has said to you: “Oh, Prefab Sprout were an 1980s band, we’re not interested anymore?”
“No, that hasn’t happened to me – but it has been put to me, that syndrome, where do you fit in? And it’s always a bit difficult, because for me nothing has stopped. For the past seven years I’ve been working, and I’ve never really seen myself as someone who could possibly be obsolete because I’ve never really thought about the mechanism of the music business.
“Nobody likes to think of themselves as just a little cog in a well-organised machine.”
Paddy McAloon is a bit of a spanner in the music-market works, a man who, it seems, can’t be bothered to keep the wheels of industry oiled with regular output. Here’s the evidence: the 1990s are nearly over, and he’s only just released the follow-up to 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback; he’s written enough songs for several albums, but is not in a hurry to release them until he’s satisfied with every last note, semiquaver and even demi-semiquaver in the arrangements; he doesn’t plan to take a hand on tour to promote the new album, and he’s only doing this promotional jaunt, because, well, he really ought to do something for the record company.
“It’s a line you have to walk every time with a record; you’ve got to weigh up how much you think you’ve gained by talking about it, and how much is lost.
And I sometimes think, from a personal point of view, I would love to have gone the completely secretive route, but I’m too much of a coward to do it.
“I feel I’ve already taken so much away from the record company’s stock of promotional tools by not playing live. If you take that away, they look at you like, what is it you do? We give you loads of money to make a record, and you stay at home!”
Strangely enough, by staying at home, Paddy McAloon may he saving his record label a lot of money. Totally absorbed by the songwriting and arranging process, he could easily blow a triple album budget just trying to get a middle-eight to sound right, and the studio costs for Jordan: The Comeback, while not quite as astronomical as the legendary blow-out for My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, still shot dangerously high into the stratosphere.
Building his own studio, he confesses, allows him to indulge in the kind of complex sound structures he so obviously delights in, without having to watch the clock ticking away the tenners.
“I thought the only way we would have a future in the music business would be by doing things on a scale that allows us not to have a huge investment in what we do. The style of things I want to do dictates that the arranging – is everything. It isn’t that haphazard in that you can gather a bunch of people together and say, let’s busk this. It doesn’t really work like that. You could make a record like that, and we’ve done it before, but I don’t really like listening to them. I like them to be more thought out, more orchestral. Everything has to know what it’s doing.
Your average rock person might call Paddy McAloon a bit difficult and your average Britpop combo would find McAloon’s obsession with endless knob-twiddling a little trying. And d’you know what? McAloon probably wouldn’t care.
“In some respects, I’m sort of the enemy of the traditional rock ‘n’ roll approach, but that’s fine. I’m happy to let that go.”
But there must he a part of you that’s still in love with rock n roll. What about the strident guitar riffs on Faron Young, from 1985’s Steve McQueen album, or the tinsel-clad irony of King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll?
“No, that’s just a memory McAloon says. “A memory of being a kid, and thinking the guitar was everything, and the first thing you would do when you get up in the morning is reach for the guitar and try to work out the chords for some song that you loved. When you were 19 or 20, the notion that you would be famous was very attractive, I can’t deny that. I wanted people to think I was great. But then, past a certain point, that was replaced by the fact I could actually do something I thought was pretty good, and being so relieved by that. When I think of the songs I wrote when I was 19 or 20, the ones that worked, it was pretty random. Some of them are on Steve McQueen. But if I’d been a little more sussed, just 5 per cent sussed, they’d all have worked.”
McAloon is not completely dismissing the 1980s output of Prefab Sprout, mind you, although some will think he’s being a bit harsh about his past works.
Against such decadent dross as Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo and even Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the albums of Prefab Sprout put a timeless sheen into a pop scene which had become shallow, disposable and even faintly embarrassing. As we speak, hoary old 1980s hands like ABC and Heaven 17 are making comeback attempts, still wearing the same suits and making the same super-annuated sounds as before.
Andromeda Heights, on the other hand, seems to sit comfortably among the trip-hop, techno, Britpop and post-grunge offerings of today, sounding strangely like a diamond-encrusted combination of The Divine Comedy and Mantovani.
“I deliberately try to be timeless,” says McAloon. “It sounds silly saying it, deliberately trying to be timeless, but I do. I try to make sure that the melody or the lyrics that I’m singing aren’t going to be pinned down to a 1997 attitude. You can’t have too many local references in it, for example, if the lyrics Were about Tony Blair or something, oh, boy, that would entomb it forever.
“But the rest of it is what you choose to do with the instruments, keeping an eye on just how typical they are to the times. So there are no huge drum loops from Chicago on this album, or wherever the latest sound is coming from.”
McAloon has dropped all pretence of being “in a band”, and his fellow Sprouts, bassist Martin McAloon and singer Wendy Smith, are simply the supporting cast in McAloon’s grand musical drama.
“Well, I think that past a certain point, it gets very difficult for other people, because you get into solitary habits, and there’s a thin line. You reach a point where you realise the phrase, ‘set in your ways’ might be applicable. And it’s a shock.
“I’m 39, and I was thinking, 10 years ago 1 had all these long-term plans which relied on me living till I was 257 years old. But now, in the last five years, it has dawned on me, when am I going to get this extra surge of time?”
The hermit of Andromeda Heights has not just been tinkering away at the one album for the past seven years. He has written, songs for Jimmy Nail’s television series, Crocodile Shoes, including the million-selling Cowboy Dreams, and he has also done a tune for Cher. He’s got a Christmas album in the bag, and he’s been working on his most ambitious project yet, a project called Earth.. The Story So Far. Hopefully, it might see the light of day before the end of the world just as soon as McAloon has those darned arrangements nailed down.