On the eve of Prefab Sprout’s new album release, Paddy McAloon talks about the inspiration behind his songs, and why guitars don’t like him… Interview by Michael Leonard
“I’LL BE VERY CAREFUL if I do anything like this again — I nearly had a heart attack with this!”
The speaker is Paddy McAloon and ‘this’ happens to be Prefab Sprout’s new album, the majestically titled ‘Jordan: The Comeback’. Prefab Sprout have always had the most stinging of criticisms ﬁred at them; that they are very afraid to rock While ‘Jordan’ is more ammo for their detractors, by the same token, it’s perhaps their best defence of lush pop so far.
Rather than going with the ﬂow, they’ve blazed an idiosyncratic trail ever since their formation in 1978, regardless of press and public opinion. Their ﬁrst taste of success came in 1985, with their second album ‘Steve McQueen’. Later that year, and at the. third time of asking, the wistful When Love Breaks Down ﬁnally broke into the singles charts. 1988’s ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ spawned a further hit in The King Of Rock And Roll, and songs like Cars and Girls conﬁrmed McAloon as a songwriter of rare (and wry) literacy.
A year ago, in the middle of the ‘Jordan’ recording sessions, ‘Protest Songs’ — the album originally recorded in 1985 — was ﬁnally released. Harder and less studied than either ‘McQueen’ or ‘Langley Park’, it nevertheless garnered overwhelming critical acclaim.
As singer, songwriter and guitarist, McAloon is, to many intents and purposes, Prefab Sprout. ‘Jordan’ sees his writing showing new ambition — a 19 song collection, with a number of recurring lyrical and musical themes. With such a wealth of material it’s surely a double album?
“No, it’s a 63 minute single album — Hey mate, we’re living in the CD era!” he laughs. “It sounds ﬁne — it may be a bit quieter than the others, but that’s just the way it goes. Today, I feel as though I’ve been causing extra work for you guys and the record company, but believe me, I’ve caused extra work for myself too. I naively hold on to the thrill, as a fan, of discovering something that works. It’s usually nine or ten songs, but I think these 19 songs work in the same way, and that’s what kept me going.”
I know you’ve not always toed the line in the past, so were CBS in agreement with an album of such length? “I’ll be frank. Muff Winwood, who’s our A&R man, ﬁrmly believes it’s the best album we’ve ever made. He was only worried about the reaction of people who don’t know about us. This album is a tall order, but we’re like that anyway. My philosophy is to be completely true to the spirit of what you do — and if you do sell a pile of records, rest assured there’ll be a million people afterwards who try to imitate what you’ve done. There’s nothing particularly groovy or trendy about Pink Floyd or Mike Oldﬁeld, but they did what worked for them. And I think we’ve got to take the same attitude — we’re not 19 year-olds any more, we’re not going to come out with the latest club classic or whatever…”
‘Jordan’ does see the band moving further away from their guitar roots, plumping instead for a heavily textured sound. McAloon’s lyrics are perhaps sharper than ever, but isn’t it all a bit pretty and soft?
“Well, it’s very pretty,” admits Paddy, ”but I have trouble with words like ‘soft’ because you might apply them sonically, and I immediately think that puts you in a bracket of music that’s easy on the ear and easy on the soul. But I don’t think we’re particularly soothing, because the lyrical ideas are usually about something much harder, weird or sinister… For example, Michael is a song about the Devil asking Michael The Archangel to help him write a letter to God, to get him back into heaven. Scarlet Nights is a song about death and wishing you could have your time over again. When people use words like soft, I’ll always query that. I’m not saying it’s hard on the ear though — it’s not metal machine music.”
One of the most intriguing lyrics must be Machine Gun Ibiza — what’s that about?
“It’s my little cartoon of someone who’s the personiﬁcation of cool — and even if you happen to be untrendy, he’ll still be your friend. It came about because I was in a pub with Dave Brewis (of The Kane Gang). We go down to the pub on a Saturday night and discuss hypothetical records —- a Phil Collins record, a Gary Numan record, Frank Sinatra, whatever — and what they’d be called and what they’d be like. And Dave had been going on about Jimi Hendrix and the song Machine Gun. With all the chatter in the pub, he suddenly changed tack and said something about Ibiza, and all I heard was ‘Machine Gun Ibiza’. I thought, what a great idea for a song! Dave immediately said: ‘I can see the video – it’ll be a Fuzz-face pedal on a robot, walking into this disco with a machine gun, and mowing down all these people dancing to these poxy records!’ So it’s the portrait of this imaginary, but legendary star…”
That explains the wah-wah, but what about the lyric — ‘he’s a stoned delta bluesman / he’s a top romo star’?
“It’s just tongue in cheek really. Romo is the name of my home studio — named after one of my many Michael Jackson dreams, ’round about the time of ‘Bad’. I’m a fan of Jackson’s, and I was eagerly awaiting the follow up to ‘Thriller’ and I had this dream that it was going to be called ‘The Flimsy World of Film’. I actually heard all these songs, which I couldn’t remember the next day. I was really pissed off actually, because if they were any good we could’ve covered them,” he laughs.
“To cut a long story short, I was in the studio with him and his brothers in this dream, and he’s talking about how they get certain sounds and one of them went, ‘Romo’, and made this little symbol with his hand. And I said ‘What’s that?’, and he said ‘Oh, it’s something that we borrowed from our legal affairs adviser, that’s when a deal is extra sweet… Romo’. And I woke up wondering what on earth does Romo mean? And in the end I -used it with Dave and the people at Kitchenware, so it kind of stuck – ‘he’s a top romo star’.
“It’s like Come Together by The Beatles. A lot of those lyrics — ‘here come old ﬂat-top, he come groovin’ up slowly’ — it’s sort of nonsensical, but you know what he’s on about. I wanted to do something a bit like that, where you’ve got all these words ﬁred at you; and it’s not about anything particular that exists, it’s just an idea…”
Do you deliberately aim to be vague?
“I’ve got to balance it, because I used to have a reputation. People would say: ‘oh, I think your records are great, but I haven’t got a clue what you’re on about!’. Even when I was being what I thought was ‘on the money’, some people still didn’t I get it. So now I try and blend things carefully. “One Of The Broken is very simple — a song about God saying ‘if you’re going to worship me, be good to the people around you’. It’s just a simple idea, and if you agree with it or not, I think you can encapsulate it”
The ﬁnished song has Paddy as God — some people get all the best parts — but as he conﬁrms, “the problem was how to record the ‘voice’ of God without being really pompous, to have him saying exactly what happened in The Bible, but make it contemporary…”
Shouldn’t ‘He’ have been a woman in that case?
“Neil our drummer suggested that actually,” he laughs. “She’d have been called Wendy…
“Anyway, there wasn’t much nonsense on ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ — each song was about something deﬁnite. This one has that, but I relished more the use of words in a tongue in cheek way. Like the Ice Maiden is about the image portrayed by bands like Abba — a European band, singing in English, on some records coming up with great work, on others more stilted. That’s why I have that bit in the middle at vari-speed: ‘Welcome to the growth of high octane affairs, Esperanto style’. It’s so pompous, but it’s tongue in cheek. And I get pleasure from using words that don’t ‘belong’ in songs, but I ﬁgured I could do that on a 19 track album.”
Jordan: The Comeback and the two Jesse James songs — Symphony and Bolero seem linked by an American ﬂavour, schmaltzy cabaret and western respectively. With the line ‘now they call me a recluse / been in the desert so long…’, are they perhaps about one of McAloon’s interests — Howard Hughes?
“lt’s actually Elvis ‘doing a Howard Hughes’, realising that maybe this novelty music he’s making — rock’n’roIl, which made him a lot of money — wasn’t close to his heart. Have you seen the ‘Live In Vegas’ ﬁlm? You hate all that? I think a lot of rock’n’rolI sounds the same and I didn’t used to like him at all — but there’s some great moments in the live clips. There’s a couple of moments on those later things, where his real interest is obviously gospel, or something more spiritual, and there’s a moment where he just stands back and lets the Jordanaires sing — he isn’t singing but he looks happier than any other clip you’ve seen. And that set me thinking about writing a song that would talk about his life. Not in the way that Albert Goldman would write about him — without an ounce of love or respect, where it’s always the big, fat baby who had everything — which is one reading of his life. But I wanted to give him a revenge piece, which is ‘I’m not dead, I’m in the desert. And I’m going to make a comeback, I’m just waiting for the right song’.
“Jordan comes from that, and the idea of him singing something spiritual — ‘End of the road I’m travelling, I will see Jordan beckon…’ The music in the verses is supposed to be the Las Vegas band — nothing too speciﬁc, just a texture — and it’s Elvis speaking over the top, before he bursts into this song. Obviously there are limitations — I’m not Elvis Presley for a start – but there is a little plot there, a little script.”
If you didn’t do press interviews, do you think people would be able to work out your songs?
“With a bit of time. The Elvis one, with the lyrics coming with the record, it would be apparent that there was something going on. I start from a strange hypothetical view — like, ‘today I’m going to write a song for Elvis Presley when he lost his fascination with rock’n’roll’. I like the idea in some of his records, like American Trilogy — ‘Oh I wish I was in a land of cotton’ — all the glory, glory, halleluiah stuff. And he liked to take on these big subjects, and identiﬁed, with them.
“With Jesse James Symphony and Bolero, I wanted to write about someone from the mythic West — at one time he sat on his mother’s knee like everyone else, and ended up as this asshole who gets blown to pieces ‘cause he’s a yob with a gun, right? If you were Elvis Presley, you can read things into the subject — ‘how did I end up on the stage; at one time I was being dandled on my mother’s knee?’ — big stars like to do that. Stuff like My Way by Frank Sinatra — there’s a lot of looking back.
“So the Symphony and Bolero are about that — on one level he’s singing about Jesse James, but there’s also bits in there about himself, Elvis, references to Tupelo. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to ‘get it’ though, to get enjoyment from the record.”
If all this sounds a bit like the script from a musical — something like ‘Elvis: The Real Story’ — it’s not surprising. McAloon is a fan of musicals and the genre’s narrative style is an obvious inﬂuence.
“I come from a tradition of songwriters. For most things in the charts — the Top 40 — that tradition has been abandoned in favour of a particular element of dance music. I work in a more speciﬁc ﬁeld of songs that are more adventurous in a speciﬁc area — in a lyrical ﬁeld, more literary. It’s not a side I like to play up, because it makes it look as though you only want to appeal to people who’ve read as many things as you. It sounds like that, but you can’t deny things you know about, and I think one of the worst things you can do if you know a lot, is to write down to an audience. You know, ‘Hey, I’ve read Nabokov, but the plebs out there don’t know who the hell he is…’ That’s very dangerous. As long as you don’t write songs called Nabokov, you’re alright!” he laughs.
“What I’m saying is, I know just how hip I am, and I’m not, in terms of the cover of this week’s music press, but I am in terms of longevity. Now, you can say it should be throwaway stuff, but the best of it lasts — the best of it is covered in some form. You can only assume people do a George Gershwin song or a Beatles song today because it’s lasted in some way. If you’re doing your job properly, then your stuff would last as well. It’s like; I don’t think there’s been anything much better written than West Side Story…”
I was going to say, All Boys Believe Anything and The Wedding March sound like things out of a musical. “I don’t like the really corny musicals, but I like the idea of drama and music being put together in an amusing way. I like ‘West Side Story’ so much because of the music, which is just beautiful. The Wedding March is lyrically quite hard, despite the music and the fact that the voices sound like Huey, Duey and Louie, but the lyric is almost mean. I like songs where the music goes completely against the spirit of it. But The Wedding March didn’t really stem from a love of musicals, though I do like them — Gershwin, Richard Rogers all that stuff. Some of it is corny, but, as a writer, I respect anybody who can write such beautiful tunes and lyrically write something different. Rock music’s not very good at that — it’s about sex, or about self and it’s not very good at expressing any other viewpoint other than me, me, me.”
AS A CHILD, McALOON’S heroes were the likes of Marc Bolan and David Bowie. He started to play guitar because his mother had one; the lyric writing began as a game.
“l thought if I wrote the words on a bit of paper that was circular, it would be like making a record! And the chord that made me want to play guitar was the suspended 4th at the beginning of Pinball Wizard. I thought it was the best sound I’d ever heard — so I learnt to do just that. Then I started playing lots of old folkie stuff — ‘bottle of wine, fruit of the vine’ — corny stuff. I liked a lot of Bolan, Bowie, The Beatles. I even went through a pomp stage where I liked some Genesis records. I was fooled by it, the press going ‘this is the merging of classical music and pop’. Then I got to know something about classical music and realised Genesis had nothing to do with it, they just tied together little bits.
“I think I pull on all that, even that sense of what’s ridiculous. Even when you’re being ironic in a song, that comes from knowing what is terrible, and knowing what is terrible in a good way. I hate lazy lyrics — I can’t listen to a song with a lazy rhyme in it, or a clichéd thought… I just switch off.”
By his own admission, McAloon is not one for drooling over guitars — when we ﬁrst meet he apologises for not having done his homework, and not being able to reel off his current tools of the trade. It emerges that The Kane Gang’s Dave Brewis — whose guitar collection was featured in September ’89’s Guitarist — is Paddy’s unofficial guitar-consultant.
“Yeah, he sells me his guitars. The ones he doesn’t like, I end up with! I mean, I’ll admit I don’t know too much about it, and he’s the only person I can trust enough. You’ll gather from the nature of the records, although there’s a lot of guitar there, it’s all in the service of the songs. Dave’ll say, if you’re trying to do different things, have different ‘colours’ in the sound, the one thing you’ve got is the guitar. I mean, I have a Gibson and a Strat, and I obviously know enough to use those — but other things I tend to borrow…
“But I mainly use the Strat, which is a 1962. Dave sold me that, and it’s a lovely guitar. Then there’s a Martin dreadnought, and a Gretsch. It’s… an orange one! I did have two, but I sold one — a shame really, because they’re worth so much money, if anything got broken, it’d be useful to have. And I’ve got a Telecaster, but that’s a pretty recent vintage. I’ve got a Chet Atkins nylon string as well, which I used on Carnival 2000 and Paris Smith. The sustain goes on for forty days and forty nights with those, and they go out of tune so easily. You’ve really got to stroke them. The intonation’s pretty good — but you’ve just got to tickle it. I also have a little £75 nylon string Ibanez guitar, that I used for the rumbly acoustic on Looking For Atlantis.
“I used to write all the time on guitar, and that was my real interest in it, not the physical pleasure of playing.”
A lot of people say that guitar is a bad writing instrument, because the obvious always suggests itself, and you end up doing the same thing all the time…
“Mmm, well I gave up writing on guitar in 1984. Almost all of ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ and ‘Jordan’ were written on keyboards. I just swapped, the day after I wrote When Love Breaks Down for the same reason you mentioned — you can only get so many shapes, and I’ve been through some wild shapes,” he smiles. “Occasionally, I’ll write a guitar song — Looking For Atlantis and One Of The Broken — but almost everything else is keyboards. It’s not that I don’t love the guitar; I went through a terrible thing of guilt when I stopped writing on guitar. It was a serious thing. I knew I would never be able to play the guitar as well again… and I haven’t. I felt that I lost my afﬁnity for it. And I know this sounds made up, but I would actually think it was looking at me reproachfully from the corner of the room. So when we were in the studio, it would know — ‘Oh here he comes, the smartass who uses a Roland GX3P to write, to play them on me on the record’ — and it sounds terrible.
“It takes a long time to get the guitars sounding decent on the records, and I think that’s the most they ever do – sound decent. But what can I do? I just ﬁnd it more inspiring to write on a keyboard because of the choices you can make. But I’ll write stuff on the keyboard that I know will sound good on guitar. My guitar style has a lot to do with clusters — sort of ‘dum da-da-da-dum da-da-da-dum’ — and Jesse James Bolero was written with that in mind.”
Do you have any musical training?
“No, I don’t. I’m trying to teach myself to read — not even for ﬂuent purposes, but mainly to be able to recognise things like someone saying ‘come in on the fourth bar’. It’s a terrible admission, but I didn’t know about counting — even when we made ‘Swoon’ I didn’t understand bars. Chordally, and melodically, it was complex, but other things I didn’t understand. I’ve got a computer now and the C-Lab software with the musical staves. It’s such an education, it really is. In the privacy of your own room you can make mistakes and learn what it’s all about.”
With the band back on tour in October, McAloon will again be trying to get a ‘decent’ sound out of his guitar and making mistakes in public. ls he looking forward to touring again?
“Am I looking forward to it?! Have you ever had anthrax?” he laughs. “For younger readers of Guitarist that’s not a reference to the legendary thrash group, but to the legendary disease that the government probably invented… No, I love making records, I love writing… it’s closer to the glamour of the thing as far as I’m concerned. I understand the hero aspect of the live thing — you know, you’re in a room with your heroes and it is great — but if I’m really honest with you, I prefer to make records. But yeah! We’ll do good,” he smiles. “We’ll ‘do the stuff‘ on tour…”