When we last met, you told us you wanted to move yourself in the direction of a more commercial and accessible music. Have you got there?
When I told you that I was thinking about the public, I was certain that more and more of them were going to come and find our music. I never wanted to make it more commercial. In my mind I keep our music completely separate from public recognition. When I write, I do it because I enjoy it, to think ‘Oh, that’s marvellous’. Then I wonder if the rest of the world thinks the same as me. And it’s there, yes, that public recognition matters. Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote the lyrics for My Fair Lady, used to say that an avant garde musical comedy couldn’t possibly exist. He saw a contradiction in that, he thought avant garde music couldn’t ever be popular. Personally I think the opposite. Such music can exist. And the wider public is perfectly capable of absorbing our music. Even if a few of the songs are maybe a little obscure.
What do you mean by obscure? Is it something you strive towards?
Well, if the fashion is for dance music, for records where two words are looped as a hook, well my writing may seem obscure. Because pieces like Michael are written with depth, because they reference the Bible. I’m addressing myself to the people who are supposed to know what I’m talking about. Whereas you don’t need a lot of knowledge to appreciate a dance record, to jump up and down to Ride on Time (smiles). If you deal with subjects such as death and religion in the context of pop music, you have to be careful. You can scare people, push them away, a little as if you wrote a song about body odour. No one wants to hear a song about sweating (laughs)… Also I love to play with words. In the Ice Maiden I had fun writing with in a bombastic style, as pompous as possible. I give myself ten seconds every record where I’m allowed to do that. The language of Pop Music is English, no? I’ve always myself been fascinated by the way Abba write. Most of their songs show they try to think in English. Sometimes that didn’t work, and you sense they didn’t understand at all the rhythm of a phrase. For the Ice Maiden (dedicated to Agnetha Falkstog, the singer in Abba) I used all those phrases, ‘Welcome to the glow of high octane affairs’ or ‘standing on the boulevard, you wish to know my name’… They’re very stiff, they sound like bad English. I was allowed to do that for one song out of nineteen (smiles). For the others I tried desperately to keep things simple. I’ve never been obscure for the pleasure of it, but I wanted to be a pioneer. I thought people would get used to my style. I now know I need to encourage them to come to me. People don’t want to listen to a record they don’t understand the first time through. It’s an age of snap judgements: ‘I won’t read this book, it’s not for me’.
How far would you go to encourage the public? They want slogans, clear and direct lyrics.
I’ve never felt that politics works in a song. Opinions change rapldly, even faster than in journalism. Politics is much narrower than life. Songs about life, now there’s a good idea! But songs about politics… It’s like taking a photo of a very beautiful actress and only keeping a close up of her dress. Politics talks about life, but has no life of its own. Also the public is young. Every political position becomes a slogan for them. To the point where no one knows any more why they shouldn’t like Margaret Thatcher. All the kids do it because their mates tell them that’s how they should think. I don’t like that sort of didacticism.
PAUL NEWMAN’S HOUSE
I’ve always felt myself an outsider on the musical scene. Maybe it’s because I lack self-confidence. If I was friends with everyone, if I could meet all my heros, I’d maybe realise I wasn’t all that good. I’d find my voice was dull, my writing unoriginal… So I stay on my own so I can keep a little freshness. But I love watching music evolve, even if I wouldn’t buy a house or hip-hop record. I stay in my corner, looking for more traditional qualities, melodies, chords, words. New music doesn’t trouble itself with those. The key thing now is rhythm, is being different from my sort of music. It’s not modern music, but it’s youthful. And everyone envies youth. You don’t know it when you’re 21, but the 17 year olds are a lot more hip than you. So at 33 I find the 21 year olds very hip… But what can you do? I was hip when we started out, because we were new. Now I’m continuing my path, even improving, but I’m not hip any more, because I’m not new. But I’ve kept my edge. My thing, it’s words and melody. Maybe I’ll be more adventurous sonically in future. But for the moment we’re writing songs. Not rhythms, not grooves with a little singing over the top. I’ll never be able to give up my lyrics.
You used to say you never wanted to meet your heros. Do any remain in pop music?
Yes. But they stay heros for what they did when they were young, they’re no longer new. Some of them are dead. It’s the fan in me who would like to meet them, to tell them they’re wonderful. Not the musician, he’d be intimidated. We recorded with Stevie Wonder… How could you feel close to him? I’d never be his friend. Brian Wilson, there’s another hero! I could, if I tried a little, meet him. But I love his records, and thousands of people have already told him that, it wouldn’t be a long conversation. I’ve talked to McCartney. When I meet someone I can’t pretend to be blasé. It’s the fan who talks, and I’m very fond of this fan. So I said to him ‘Paul, you’re the best of all time.’ I had to start like that, I wouldn’t have been able to eat if I hadn’t (laughs)… He replied to me ‘I hear you, thanks a lot.’. After that we were able to talk normally, drink a glass and have a laugh. But you have to start by telling him ‘Listen, this is really one of the best days in my entire life.” That way the weight comes off (laughs).
Do you find yourself shielded from pressure, living in Newcastle a long way from your record label?
You have to fight to release records like mine. But no one has ever told me what I should do, told me to write in a more commercial way. On the contrary, the record label announces I’ll only have such and such an amount for my record. Now obviously it’s difficult to record a nineteen song album under these conditions. But you know, we live in the world of Phil Collins, of George Michael, of Madonna. Everything is on this level, and I want to be there, among them, but without changing anything. I wouldn’t be satisfied being like everyone else. You see, it really touches me that you come here to talk to me and that journalists respect me. Nobody tells me ‘You’re selling millions of records, you’re so good,’ they say ‘I like what you do, you’re good. Would you like to sell millions of records?’ That touches me. Here, I live well, I don’t need anything more. Why take the risk of losing that respect?
We had to do it, but I took the decision myself. It was necessary if I wanted to continue to make records in the way I conceived them, because it’s very expensive. You know, sometimes we’re very slow. Especially Thomas Dolby. Him. What a snail (laughs). .. I never make up my mind and he understands that. But it’s true I prefer the mystery of records to playing live. I worry a lot… I’m totally lacking in confidence in my singing and, also, I have a terrible memory. In the studio I have the words written in front of me. Otherwise I forget them. When we started Thomas Dolby used to yell at me, ‘Paddy you should learn your words” (laughs)… So when I’m on stage, I panic. Many times I’ve forgotten what I should be singing. But back to the pressure, that’s not why I live in Newcastle. You can sweep pressure aside, whoosh… The fact is I’ve never found a good reason to leave Newcastle. Here, it’s my patch. I stay in contact with life, no one recognises me. Anyway there’s hardly any more nightlife in Los Angeles than here. You can tell the whole world that! There’s more happening here, in Newcastle, than in California (laughs)… I love the atmosphere here. My life here is so normal… Each day I go out and walk around the town, so as to get away from my guitars and keyboards. In Los Angeles you can maybe go and see the stars’ houses. ‘Wow, there’s Paul Newman’s house!’ (laughs)… But I like the rhythm of my life.
Is staying here not an excuse to be lazy?
No, I’m not lazy. But wherever else I go in the world, it’s to work, and work is the same wherever I am. I don’t believe in travelling, I don’t think it broadens the mind. It’s here I want to write. I don’t think that’s provincialism. I could leave, I’m not nailed down here for work. I stay here by choice, without the slightest reservation. Anyway I can’t even go away on holiday, I never get around to it. Being interviewed is my holiday, when I’m not behind my keyboards (smiles)… Talking about myself, having a beer, it’s easy. I never get that relaxed on holiday.
One constant comes back in all your records, all your interviews, which is your boundless fascination with music. Do you not get frustrated when you watch Top of the Pops?
You’re right. And for that reason I don’t watch Top of the Pops. I do it only when we’ve released record to see what’s happening. What a joke! But if you go into a record shop, you can choose George Gershwin or Classical Music. You realise that there is an alternative to this kids’ fun fair, where you are the king for a day before disappearing. Now OK, pop music isn’t as good today as it was when I was young, but what can you do to fight the passing of time? You can’t pass your life sobbing ‘I only loved my child when he was a baby’ or ‘I only loved my wife when she was young and slim’. Pop music was invented for children. Elvis, the early Beatles, all for the kids. And then John Lennon heard Bob Dylan and he thought ‘uh oh!”… Then other elements came into pop. It didn’t stop children being born (smiles). And today, all they want to do is dance, they don’t want to hear old fogeys telling stories. But I’m not complaining. I’m in another place. I take such satisfaction from my own music that I hardly listen to anything new, I’m my own biggest fan. The only thing I look for in a pop record is escapism, not pleasure. It might be Prince or Michael Jackson. It isn’t what I would do, but I listen to them thinking ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ (laughs)… If I have to name one modern group I respect, I’d say the Blue Nile. I love the fact they work in such a narrow setting. My brother laughs at me: ‘why do you listen to that, it sounds like Chris Rea!” (laughs)…
You were a child yourself when the Beatles and Elvis played this ‘kid’s music’. Were you fascinated by it?
What really attracted me to music was very childish things, especially T-Rex. I though that was it, glamour, sex appeal. I realised later that you could have simpler pleasures, that someone without makeup on could sing good songs. When I was a kid I hated Elvis. I found him terribly boring, I couldn’t stand his three chord rock songs. People used to say ‘but Marc Bolan plays the same three chords!”. I didn’t believe them. ‘No, no, it’s different, it’s far better.’ I know now it’s exactly the same thing. But it made me want to write. Because I realised that all the people I liked wrote their own songs. For me, a song was something as mysterious as an egg. Where did they come from? What did you write first? I thought you had to write them all in one go, starting with the first note and finishing with the last. It worried me: how did you write a chorus, how did it work? I used to write words wherever I was, on little bits of paper. Then I put them in circles on the floor of my bedroom and there it was, I had a record, around me (smiles)… I was 13 years old when I wrote my first song. It was terrible and it annoyed me. ‘Why do I love Lennon and McCartney songs and not mine?’ And I understood my problem was the lyrics. Even if you only write ‘I went into a shop, I bought a paper, I read the news, they depressed me’, there’s a logic there, you’re telling a story, you’re suggesting images. It’s pointless to say ‘I bought the paper, my shoes are dirty, the window is blue, the sky is yellow’. Unless you’re skilful enough to suggest images. That was what my first songs were like, and I sang them without conviction because there was no linking of the phrases. I later learned to write more simply.
Our first album, Swoon, was released when I was already quite old. I’d been writing for a long time. And at that time, I’d wanted to return to a less simple writing style, more bizarre. I was trying to appear strange, obscure, again… I thought I was able to create an atmosphere. But I know now I wasn’t good enough to do that. There are people who prefer this record to all the others, who love its strangeness. And I would say that at the time I was sure I’d released a commercial record, capable of taking Michael Jackson on (laughs)…
When the group started you were studying English literature. Where were you expecting those studies to lead?
I became a student because my father wanted me to continue my education. I wanted to carry on working in his service station. I wrote my songs there. But he didn’t want that, he thought I was gifted in English and literature, that I’d waste my life. So I did what he wanted. I learned to read with more precision… What I really loved were the words, to write. I was fascinated by vocabulary. I listened to people talking with a maniacal fascination. But I wasn’t a good student, my teachers thought the same… Though I remember an essay I wrote about Anna Karenina. My teacher told me he’d shown it to one of his colleagues who had then wanted to meet me. It was the summit of my career (laughs)… I’d succeeded in touching someone with words. No one knew I wrote, I never talked about it. For the teachers I was just a student who turned up now and again… I’d love to be able to write something other than songs, a novel for example. I’d love to be able to explore a style in more detail, a song is so compact! That’s where the weakness of rock comes from: in a song you have to be intensely personal, sexy. You can’t lump a background into one song and complete the story in another. Whereas in a book you can develop your ideas as the chapters unfold. That forced me to be concise. Which suits me, because I’m not able to arrange all the ideas that fall from my imagination. If I wrote without limits I’d quickly become verbose. I recently wanted to help my little brother write an essay about American literature. I tried to give him advice. Well, what he’d written was perfectly simple and clear. Me, despite my mastery of English, I was bogged down.
You were passionate about writing very early on. Were you considered odd?
I was known as the ‘guy with the guitar’ at school. That name didn’t leave me for the whole ten years. My parents took it reasonably well, except when there was a bit of tension in the air. Then they’d attack me… ‘Do you think you’ll get yourself through life trailing that stupid tape recorder with you?’ I still remember that phrase perfectly. I spent my life with my cassettes, they found that extremely immature. I often felt hurt. I’m sure they never thought that I’d remember to this day… For them, Pop Music was nothing. That’s the reason I’m careful with my words these days. Even if I don’t like a record a voice inside tells me ‘be careful of what you say’.
And you, did you think you were different, better perhaps?
No, no. Even as a kid I never felt different. In fact I was already an adult when I became odd. But I’ve never wanted to isolate myself, I never thought of myself as strange. And I had the shock of my life there. For me, Swoon was pop music. And everyone descended on me saying “you’re really an odd guy”. I didn’t think I was different. But I thought pop music had an obligation: to take risks. So I did everything in this direction. It’s why Swoon wasn’t like anything else. Later I became more traditional, because I knew I should master grammar before taking myself to be James Joyce. And on Swoon I thought I was James Joyce (smiles)… Today I’m more modest with my ambitions. The only thing I wanted was to write a good song. And I’m still searching. I’m proud of some of my pieces, but I’m still not there… I’m not going to get there by writing ‘Hot Dog, Jumping Frog’ (smiles)… Maybe I expect too much of the public, but I’d like my songs to be known by everyone. That they become classics like the Beatles’. Not only because you and I love them, but because people who know nothing at all about music love them. I can’t stand groups whose only ambition is to limit themselves to a single kind of fan.
DO YOU NOT LIKE MY SONGS?
I think Prefab Sprout can be considered a real group. But we’re a modern group. That’s to say a group that never rehearses (laughs)… A group which, in fact, doesn’t exist. The common denominator is ideas, not ego. Neil Conti, the drummer, is a real old school musician. He plays with everyone, the Stones, Bowie. Now the rest of us, we’re not musicians. But we have ideas. And a lot of excellent musicians don’t have excellent ideas. They know how to play, it’s all that matters for them.
At the end of the day it’s you who takes the decisions though?
No, no, it’s not me. Even if we don’t work as a democracy… But it’s me who writes the songs. So the author has the right to say ‘hang on, that’s not how I imagined it’ when we play the song in the studio. When we recorded with Thomas Dolby, we considered him as a full member. If I said I didn’t like something he’d do his best to change it. He listened to the other group members the same way. We argued with Thomas all the time… ‘why are you doing this like that, I’ve never heard anything so bad!” And he’d never hold back from criticising my songs. ‘What, you don’t like my songs, you idiot?” (laughs)… I know him very well, the power struggles have stopped. Phil Thornally, who produced “When Love Breaks Down” snapped at me ‘Listen Paddy, who’s the producer, you or me?’. I was thinking ‘OK Phil, that’s it. If you can’t accept an honest exchange of ideas, it’s not going to work.” We’re not monsters, but his attitude disappointed me enormously. I’d never have been able to do that… ‘I am the producer’. You’d think you were in Hollywood.
Is it important to record a long way from home, in Los Angeles?
It was important for Thomas Dolby’s wife (laughs)… They’d been married for two years. And during these two years I’d had Thomas to myself half the time (laughs)… We’d started recording this album in London, but she told him ‘If you want to mix their record too, you come and do it at home’. So we all left for his place (laughs)… When we’d finished, she didn’t want to let us leave. I think it’d be very difficult to separate ourselves from Thomas now. I can’t see myself going into the studio with a stranger. He wouldn’t know I lack confidence in my singing, in my guitar playing. Thomas knows my limits.
To what extent is he responsible for the Prefab Sprout sound?
You’ve heard Protest Songs? The record we made without him? Well, there’s your answer (laughs). Thomas is fascinated by technology. But he doesn’t let it squash everything. I’d love to master this side of things, I have my computer now, I’m learning… When I was starting to write Steve McQueen, I only had a guitar and a few keyboards, and Thomas listened to the raw tapes and built everything around these elements. It’s incredible what he did from my foundations. But now he has less time and I want to more precisely define what I want on my records. So my demos are more and more detailed. Sometimes Thomas only has to refine them.
Though you wrote ‘Don’t spend too much time on your demos’ on the back of a sleeve…
Yes, I lose a lot of time on my demos. I’m worried people won’t see where I want to take them, so I have to guide them all the way. I like high tech records. So even my sketches become like that. I cant abide lo-fi groups. We haven’t been like that ourselves for many years… It’s not that I’m a maniac about the sound – the sound is Thomas’ department – but more on the writing. I’m never happy because the perfect version of each of my songs is playing in my head, and I can never quite copy it. So I get annoyed; ‘If only I could have another voice, if only the group was better, if only Wendy could sing better…’ I curse each of us in turn.. I’m not looking for perfection, but I want my records not to be like anything else.
Does being so ambitious inevitably lead to frustration?
Yes, of course.. But it was us who chose to place the bar so high. For us a record isn’t just a record… Everyone has to really outdo themselves. I’d love it, sometimes, if it was just a record. But I can’t get there… Actually no, in fact I got there this morning. The IRA had killed a politician and I thought ‘fundamentally, your album, it’s only a record…’ It didn’t last very long but I really did think that. I’ve really invested too much of my life in my records to skimp on my work.
You demand a lot of your partners. Is it difficult to be honest with your brother Martin and your ex-girlfriend, Wendy?
They treat me with kid gloves, because they know it’s me who writes the songs. They don’t dare tell me off. However it does happen, and they know I can take criticism. Unless it’s a song I’m really keen on. Then I don’t accept the least criticism. The fact we’re so close simplifies the relationship, they’re all very frank with me. Wendy can be very direct! ‘I don’t like this song, it’s terribly boring.’ Thomas doesn’t hold back either. ‘Why are you using this tat? It’s in all of the records in the Top 5.’ I couldn’t talk like this, I’d be hesitant of being so honest. But you know, they’re all just as involved as I am. Wendy, Martin and myself are very close, we all live up here, that counts for a lot.
Involved, certainly. But are they as obsessive, as excessive as you?
Excessive? In my private life, yes I am. Because I deal with people who care less than me about our music. Most people around us do their job and go home. If they like their work, they’re happy. But it has no greater effect on them. Whereas me, I live for my work, I love it. I want to make it perfect… If I was in the place of the record companies, I’d be happy to be dealing with an excessive group. We know what we want. What they have to understand is that Prefab Sprout can earn a lot of money for them if they give us enough time and resources. They have to know we deserve it. If we didn’t impose conditions they’d have no respect for us.
The last few years, your image has changed regularly. Short hair, long, long moustache, beard. Is it a game or is it vanity?
People only take photos of me once every two years. And in between I get bored. So I play with my follicular system (laughs)… It’s got nothing to do with professional behaviour, it’s just the only way I’ve found to cheer myself up. I’ve got the definite impression it’s only me it amuses. My entourage has never seemed convinced by my changes (laughs)…
Do you think you’re taken too seriously sometimes?
Yes, yes. I am serious. Excessively even, when it’s a question of work. But I don’t want to look like an uptight academic when I’m talking to you. And if you write terrible things about me, I’d be the first to laugh. I love that. But when it’s record at stake, then I would be serious. I plan the most minor details when I’m behind my keyboards. But anything can happen when we record, fate comes and plays with us. Thomas keeps all our outtakes, to recycle them into other things. So I always know I have to pay attention not to play the fool too much. Thomas keeps absolutely every unknown noise in his samplers. When we recorded “Machine Gun Ibiza”, a guy came to play the bongos. A the end of a take, he dropped his percussion. Thomas got really excited by the sound that produced ‘It’s superb, perfect!’ The guy didn’t understand. ‘Oh, sorry, I dropped my bongo.’ Thomas used the tape as it was. You hear the sound of the dropped bongos, perfectly on the beat. Our recordings often rely on that sort of accident.
In part you’re responsible for this serious reputation, wanting to explain everything, like a professor…
I’m too honest and I’d love not to be. I’d love to be able to resist the temptation to explain everything, because I want to preserve my songs. Previously I’d let myself go: ‘This song means blah blah…” And I realised one day I was killing them. Dead and buried, my records. So I have to prepare my answers in advance, so as to reveal nothing.
Your songs are always inhabited by mysterious characters – Johnny, Michael, Bonny, Nancy, Diana… Are these observations or inventions?
I try to capture a personality in a mixture of words and music. I don’t believe in words alone. If you read my lyrics to me I’d be embarrassed. But put them together with music and I’m perfectly happy with that. Music forces me to be concise. The words sometimes give you details about the person I’m talking about, the melody tells the rest of the story… If I tell you “You’re wearing beige trousers, a grey shirt, black shoes”, that doesn’t say much. But if I find the right melody, the person I’m talking about can make you happy.
If you like directing people so much, why not write a screenplay?
I’m trying to write a film where everything relies on image and sound rather than a dialogue or a story. And the character is Zorro. A guy who can’t help himself from being good.
The good people return continually too. Robin Hood, Michael… Even Jesse James is one in your world.
Yes, Jesse James started his life at his mother’s knee. How did he become a bad boy? That’s what fascinates me about murderers. I look at the photos of them as children and I ask myself. I like the dramatic side of this sort of writing. In Michael it’s the Devil. Can he come back? I find the idea of the return of the Devil to earth quite amusing.
Could your characters be real people around you ?
For the Devil, I’ve history in my favour (laughs)… No, I think I’ve invented them. The hero of Machine Gun Ibiza personifies the coolest guy on the planet. And in fact it’s more or less Jimi Hendrix. He was in the Marines before leaving the army to just play his guitar. But I also put a little of myself in my characters, in the manner they’re presented. If I write ‘Jesse James was a hooligan/Jesse was connoisseur – home cookin’ tasted stale’, it’s not innocent. Some people would write ‘Jesse James was an outlaw’. Bon Jovi would write ‘Jesse James was a gunslinger/he screwed all our women’ (laughs)… Me, I prefer to say ‘Jesse was a connoisseur’, even though I know he was a bad guy, crude and vile. That’s how I amuse myself… Same for Jordan. The song is a monologue by Elvis Presley, it’s him singing… He’s in the desert, he’s resting, and he’s waiting for the perfect song. Elvis is therefore not dead. He’s hiding himself away because he’s had enough of all this dreadful disco music. He wants to find the perfect song to come back
I understand this, Jordan. I understand that you can want to abandon an apparently perfect life because you realise you’ve lost what is essential. That’s what I make Elvis say. He’s spent 20 years playing an act for the kids, when all he wanted was to sing gospel. So he’s left and gone to the desert. I like giving advice to Elvis Presley.
I forbid myself from writing in a logical way, because otherwise I’d dry up. It’s the same reason that I never learn the words of my songs , so I don’t get hung up on them. As far as I’m concerned a finished album is in the final analysis just a record. I forget it and get excited about the next one. If I spent my time thinking ‘Jordan, what a hell of a great record!’, where would I get the energy to write the next? That’s the reason there isn’t much logic in our discography. Our career has been utter chaos… For example I wrote Steve McQueen years before Swoon, which came out first. If I’d wanted to sell tons of records, I wouldn’t react against logic, I’d keep things in the right place without letting my instincts loose. How can I expect to sell millions of records making believe that Presley is still alive? (laughs)… I should concentrate on ”Baby, I love you”. But my problem is that I want to write things no one else has written. That’s my challenge. I’m stuck in the rock framework, but I do everything I can to get out of it. It’s the journalists’ job to keep me a prisoner. My job is to escape. To do that I write every day. I force myself to do this daily workout. I can’t allow myself to wait for inspiration, I have to fight with it every day. When I was a kid I used to wait for the spirits to take me by the hand. But they never came. Now I know that all that is one of the rock myths. So I sit myself down and I write. I pile up loads of ideas, I store them, waiting for the right words, the perfect tune.
Do you regret not working in a more spontaneous way?
I can’t work like that. And I don’t want to. I’ve spent years writing some songs, in stages. You have to wait for them to mature. It can only take 20 minutes as was the case for the King of Rock’n’Roll. It often takes months. All these stories of spontaneity are only myths. Nothing forces you to create in a hurry.
Although that’s what you wanted to do with Protest Songs: record as quickly as possible, without a producer, in a rush…
We’d just spent months in the studio recording Steve McQueen. We’d never done a hi tech album before, and then we’d spent an eternity producing an album. As a reaction I’d wanted to make a rough, lo-fi, record. Today I wouldn’t have the slightest desire to work in that way, I don’t want any more roughness. My songs are too complex to be treated like that. But I’d believed too much in the rock myths – the first take is the best, this type of nonsense… John Lennon could get away with it. But my songs desperately need to be arranged, polished.
You were speaking earlier of your film about Zorro. Where are you up to with your other projects, your Christmas record, your musical. Do you feel ready for that yet?
I think you need to be trained before launching yourself into such an adventure. You need to complete a long apprenticeship. So for years I’ve been writing in secret, waiting to be ready… Telling the life of someone in detail interests me more than the ‘I do this, I think that’… The first person singular, there you are – with a leather jacket – another big rock myth. The public continues to think you’ve lived each situation you recount. I know you’re very big on that thing in France, that you think the character in Heroin can only be Lou Reed and you secretly hope he’s a real junkie rather than a chronicler. ‘Wowww, Lou has lived life to the full’ (laughs)… No one expects a director to have lived through what he has his actors do. It’s the same for a writer. Rock is very backwards, mentally.
What are you missing before you can show this musical to the public?
I’m frightened. Frightened of writing a contemporary rock musical. I want to do an old school one, like they should be. Only Stephen Sondheim can make modern musicals. The public doesn’t want modernism. And I want to make people burst with laughter. But rock, it’s small, four four time… How can you tell a real story, establish a drama, in such a ridiculously narrow format. If you want to tell a real story, then you have to be dramatic. You have to have a tension between the music and the words. Musicals take an eternity to develop ideas, without needing big statements. You can describe each of your characters, establish a background. Rock music is only interested in headlines, where everything is said but nothing explained. People don’t like rock from the point where it becomes verbose, when it starts explaining things. What they want is intensity. Heroin by Lou Reed, She Loves You by the Beatles, Brown Sugar by the Stones…. Intense moments, not stories. As for me, I want stories, melodramatic music. Not guitar riffs… Even Jesse James can’t be anything other than rock. How could I get any further in three minutes? In a musical, I would have spent twenty minutes describing the baby. Then twenty more on adolesence. Then half an hour on his career as a bandit. ‘Summertime, and the living is easy’ (he sings)… There’s a song which would have been ideal for the mother and her baby. It’s perfect. And it’s not rock.