Paddy: The Comeback
An account of a delightful meeting with a delightful man, and the extraordinary artist within him. Prefab Sprout have returned after a long silence. And they don’t seem to have noticed grunge, jungle, drum’n’bass. We’re really happy about that.
It’s often – if not always – the case that lead-ins to interviews with more or less well known public figures are really nothing more than a sort of not particularly adept slalom around a careless jumble of platitudes.
Or worse still, a geometric assembly of clichés, in which – for example – you describe the weather at the moment of the meeting (‘on a grey morning in this early Roman spring…’), the place where it is to take place (‘the yellow room reserved for the PR is opulent, but welcoming..’), the initial impressions the subject in question leaves on our brave interviewer as he makes his first appearance (‘X comes forward from the shadows, and as he extends a hand to us, smiling, we notice how much weight he has put on since the last few times we’ve met him…’).
Then as the sentences flow, the prose becomes less breathless and frantic, and you can face the rest of the interview more or less prepared, more or less ready. Far be it from me to cast aspersions at this kind of trend (after all, we’re all responsible for the crap we write) which even if we don’t agree with it is the result, in most cases, of a long sequence of events and meetings and utterances and words that gravitate around the warm planet Normal.
Those of us who had, in the mid-1980s, or even some time before that, chosen to listen to music in the shadows, far from the bright lights and delusions typical of the “first teams” of those years – those that burned out quickly, in short – those of us who chose the checked shirts and simple T-shirts rather than the Le Bon branded jackets, those who preferred to sit and think for an extra minute while the frenzies of others whizzed past, those of us will agree that when we are talking about Paddy McAloon and Prefab Sprout, there is nothing normal at all.
Unless it’s normal for you that at the mere recollection of a melodic phrase that has been hiding in the warmest corner of your heart is enough to send a tingle of nostalgic pleasure across your skin, that a fleeting vision of a cover photo transports you with violent sweetness towards the scents of lost adolescence, that the whisper of a voice formed of fire and mist will return to you the wonderful perfume of the black hair that you were sure you would be able to carress forever. McAloon’s group, although certainly without being aware of it, is of that very rare breed who know – through the sonic alchemy of their songs – how to break down the barriers between the players and the listeners, so much so that your instinct – restrained only by the intrusive force of logic at the last moment – is to embrace an old friend, regardless of the special asymmetry of the relationship that exists between an artist and the public.
So although struck by his extraordinary kindness and affability, by his British aplomb free from any temptation to snobbery, I have to refrain from quoting one of his most moving compositions, and not to begin, as he shakes my hand, with “Paddy Joe, do you remember me?”
All the same, I let him know that being without them for all this time is something I’ve regretted more than a little, even if during these years I’ve fallen in love, I’ve rejoiced, I’ve suffered, and, somehow, I’ve grown up. But I can’t deny I’d have been happy to see an extra star shine in my own little firmament. That elusive yet dazzling star of Prefab Sprout.
Was it necessary psychologically for you to distance yourself from the world of music?
It’s a state of mind I chose, because it better matches who I am today. I love the idea of being on the edge of things, of what is happening. All this time I completely lost interest in what other people were doing. All the same there are still things that infiltrate you when you happen to hear a song.
Well, there are several groups that owe you a debt. What do you think of the Blue Nile?
The only group I feel close to is the Blue Nile. I don’t personally know Paul Buchanan, but I’m very fascinated by the way he knows how to measure the weight of words. However, life’s too short for me to find the time to both write songs, and to follow what is going on. In England, the press has been saying I live as a recluse – which makes me laugh – because I disappeared for a few years. I’m absolutely normal: I have a girlfriend, friends, I live an ordinary life, except that I spend most of my time writing and composing. I just chose to dedicate myself to one thing.
Isn’t there the risk of finding yourself gradually disconnected, in a kind of creative impasse?
I’ve never felt like that. I read a lot, I watch movies, I feed myself on stimulating things, I don’t live locked up in a box. I simply don’t listen to the same music that 20-year-olds listen to – I’m too old for that, it doesn’t excite me anymore – and that’s why it’s even harder for me to write. These last few years, I’ve been listening to a lot of French music from the beginning of the century: Poulenc, Ravel, Debussy. Subconsciously, working on Andromeda Heights was my own pathetic attempt to get close to Ravel’s genius. A young girl asked me yesterday what I thought of drum’n’bass. What could I possibly make of drum’n’bass at the age of 40? I don’t want to pretend to be forever young, it wouldn’t make any sense. I don’t know anything about Tricky’s records, nor about Blur, I just do what I can do.
Are the other band members still in the Prefab Sprout project?
We tried to keep the idea of being a group. After Jordan, we didn’t have many chances to play together. Neil Conti lives in London, I don’t see him anymore and since we haven’t made records for a long time I couldn’t afford to keep a drummer at my disposal. Thomas Dolby, who is virtually the fifth member of the band, is gone. He lives in California, has three children and composes music for video games. He was available in 1993, but not three years later. On a personal level, I’m sorry my finances haven’t allowed me to keep the group together. Today we’re a sort of virtual group, very flexible, with Wendy and Martin helping me to realize my projects without really being involved. From the outside it may seem absurd but it is the truth: in the last seven years I’ve not had a moment to keep them up to date with how things were going. A quarter of an hour on the phone every day would have just have meant losing a great deal of time. Sometimes I feel guilty of being the soul that decides in place of others, but that’s how it is. Ever since Prefab Sprout started, I’ve organized the music in the same way as when I was a kid organizing group games. I think Wendy and Martin have made their decisions and get on with their lives quietly. They’re both teachers at Newcastle: Wendy teaches singing and my brother organizes pop music courses for young teenagers who have certainly never heard of Prefab Sprout.
Concretely, in these seven years, what have you been working on?
We didn’t mean to disappear for so long. After finishing the promotion of Jordan: The Comeback I was already working on a new project, but I had no idea it would take so long. People may struggle to believe it, but I’ve been very active during these last seven years. I should have at least seven or eight records ready. In 1993 I was on the verge of going into the recording studio with Thomas Dolby in production, with a view to recording a record called Let’s Change the World With Music, which Thomas loved a lot and I was very proud of. Then I met some people from the record company who told me: “You write beautiful songs and there are no problems, but you often make albums with lots of ideas. Why not simplify and take one of these ideas and build an entire a record around it?” Record companies never ask for foolish things, and they rarely encourage an artist to overreach themselves musically, they just want to know where the single is. So under these circumstances I preferred to slow down, cut the bridges, and work on another project – Earth The Story So Far – in which I intended to tell the story of the world in one long song. I composed small fragments of music, about thirty, but I was going in the opposite direction to what they had asked me to take. I didn’t have the courage to defend this project and this partly explains the reason for my long absence: none of the projects I’d entered into had anything to do with what I’d been asked for.
What happened to all these different records?
Let’s Change The World With Music is ready to be recorded. The project hasn’t dated, except perhaps a song about Princess Diana that would be less relevant today, but the rest is quietly waiting. I also worked on a musical film, Behind The Veil, based on the life of a young black man who becomes a superstar like Michael Jackson. I wrote some very melodic and sometimes rhythmic songs, like on Off The Wall or Thriller. I also have an album of Christmas songs put aside, plus a musical comedy that starts with the character of Zorro, Zorro The Fox, and finally a record that’s very close to Jordan, The Atomic Hymnbook. But all these projects, especially those that need to be staged with visual support, are difficult to put together and I don’t have the kind of strong credibility in the musical world that would give me the opportunity to do them. As for Earth, The Story So Far, it’s at the stage where I should sit myself back down at the desk to think about arrangements and recording. I haven’t yet been able to do Earth demos because I need a good studio and they’re very expensive. I prefer to wait to have my own private studio, which I’m going to call Andromeda Heights, and which I’ll put together during the next few years of abstinence.
How much time did you spend on Andromeda Heights.
They’re songs I’ve written over the years. Some are from 1988, others from ’91 while Electric Guitars and Andromeda Heights are from ’95. In May 1996 we started recording for six months. It might seem like a lot, but it’s less than a hundred days. Compared to Let’s Change the World With Music or Earth, it’s a simple record. It was just that there was a need to finally produce something. Andromeda was born by accident, when I realised I had enough songs that didn’t belong to any of the other records I had in the pipeline. This time I had a common thread using the theme of space as a central image. Musically I was thinking of a state different from the terrestrial. I’ve always been obsessed with playing differently to all the other groups: like with Pet Sounds I wanted people not to feel it was the same band throughout the whole 50 minutes. It’s been a long time since I’ve been excited about writing songs for two guitars, a bass and drums. So I tried to use numerous instruments, flutes, vibraphones, sax to try to bring out this musical idea.
Have you ever thought about returning to the simplicity of your beginnings?
Every now and then I get nostalgic about how we were before we even recorded the records as a three-piece: a drummer, my brother on bass, me on guitar. This narrowness offers a range of possibilities that perhaps at the time we didn’t sufficiently explore. I could have seen myself at the head of a group like the Police: a tight three-piece, vital, playing for the moment. At that time we were very different from what people think of as Prefab Sprout, including on Swoon. It’s a shame there’s no recording to bear witness: imagine a song like Bonny, you know it from the very clean version on Steve McQueen, but with distorted guitars and me screaming. It would surprise a lot of people. We were harder, we played a lot louder, like a punk band. I think at the beginning our idea was just to create a group that might have accompanied David Bowie on stage, during the Station to Station era. I still think the choice we made was right, because of my voice, and because I wanted a wider, more malleable and richer musical spectrum. I often tell myself it must have been someoone else who wrote Swoon – being original was so important to me at the time that I was struggling to write really contorted things, even though I didn’t have anything close to the ability of the Beatles or Brian Wilson. The essential thing was that no-one would confuse Prefab Sprout with another group.
Despite this you were immediately assimilated into the Glasgow scene, Aztec Camera, Orange Juice…
It was very curions because even though we were geographically close to Scotland, we didn’t know what was happening there. If there was a rivalry it was only at the level of the record companies or for the press. We were assimilated into the new-wave groups because that was what the times demanded. In 1978-79 everything was new-wave! I learned in those years to try to break away from the ephemeral clichés to go towards more timeless things.
Will Prefab Sprout’s long silence continue into the future?
I’d be lying if I told you that during all these years I’d never wanted to give everything up. I love what I do so much that sometimes I think it would be great to make music only for myself. I’ll consider this plan if I become a billionaire. For the moment I get great satisfaction in finding myself alone in a my studio with absolute control over my own small world. But anyway I couldn’t stop myself composing, nor to surprise myself and to surprise others. My music may not be what the world needs, but it does exist.
Andromeda Heights, your latest work, seems closer to the mood of From Langley Park To Memphis than it is to more recent works like Jordan...
Seriously, I couldn’t answer that. I’m too close to all these things to be able to take an objective point of view. If you say so, I believe it, without any irony; as far as I’m concerned, though, I don’t even know what the mood is for this or that piece of work.
We’ve been told you’re not going on tour to promote Andromeda Heights, are you?
Unfortunately that’s the truth. I’m an old man (laughs) I couldn’t do it, I’m too tired. On the other hand, with the time that saves we’ll make more records, we’ll no longer have to waste all that time.
I ask him to write down the names of the five albums that changed his life. And all the while I’m a heartbeat from asking him ‘Paddy, do you remember that concert at Teatro Tenda Seven Up, in 1985, when you stopped Appetite to argue with an indelicate gentleman in the front row who was going a little too far with his appreciation of Wendy…? Or that bunch of flowers that…”
But while he’s thanking me for my review, that Gabriele has just translated for him, I renounce my intentions. I’m embarrassed. A little embarrassed. But as he takes his leave with that authentic elegance all of his own, something tells me that, who know how, who knows why, he understood me. And yes, he remembers. Paddy Joe, don’t you remember me?