Or how to get what you want, even when the record company don’t understand you. Paul Colbert talks to Paddy McAloon on the new Sprout sprouting.
IT’S THE FIRST question in the interview and Paddy McAloon, Prefab Sprout’s singer, songwriter and moving force, sets off conﬁdently.
”Well, it’s a really simple answer.”
Ten minutes later he’s still delivering it. The Sprouts have not been unsuccessful. An immediate public embrace for their first album “Swoon”, then greater commercial acclaim for ”Steve McQueen”, topped by professional and public accolades for the constantly maturing songwriting of ”From Langley Park to Memphis”. As a writer, record maker and conversationalist — Paddy McAloon likes to develop his themes. And give value for money.
”Jordan the Comeback” took root around the concept of a mythical resurrection for Elvis, and ﬁnally blossomed as an album with 19 songs where the record company had been expecting ten. Why so much material in such a burst? This was the question still being answered several hundred feet into the ofﬁce C90.
”Well, it’s a really simple answer.
”I’ve got a funny attitude towards the choice of subjects for songs. Maybe it’s because at the back of my mind I’m a little bit frightened I might run out of them one day, and not find anything that fascinates me. And sometimes you just don’t think that you’ve really done justice to a subject.
”I started to write about Elvis Presley, somewhere in the desert, and the notion of him making a comeback. I was trying to find a tone of voice that he’d maybe use, being a down home southern boy. Like he would never say about the Goldman book [Albert Goldman’s wartish proﬁle of Elvis] that this was an intellectual, New York critic’s view of rock and roll. He would never have used words like that. He’d have said ’there’s not much love in this, boy’.
”Having caught that feeling I wanted to give him a chorus that suggested he was going to live his life again, and do it differently.
”And that got close to the Prefab Sprout version of gospel music.”
Not, McAloon admits, that anybody else would see it that way. But he likens their route to ”Jordan” to Brian Wilson’s geography of ’Good Vibrations’ a place for white spiritual music: ”and I know exactly what he meant. It’s all the gospel inﬂuences you’ve absorbed and been inspired by that shape the songs you’re writing, even if no-one else can hear that.”
Coupled firmly to the Presley story, McAloon then wrote a song for the risen Elvis (’Jesse James Symphony’) and had manager Colonel Tom Parker stage his comeback on the moon (’Moondog’). But there was a problem.
“I’d got four Presley related songs and others which weren’t about Presley but were close to his idea, like a song about God singing to people (’One of the Broken’). But I felt honour— bound to give people who liked us, but maybe didn’t want to follow the Presley idea too far, some songs of their own in a different world. Hence songs like ’Iron Smith’..er…’lron Maiden’…no, hang on, my nephew can remember these better than me and he’s 19 months old…’ICE Maiden’ and ’Paris Smith’. McAloon grins. ”And I can’t remember my own lyrics either.”
So they ended up writing an album of Sprout songs PLUS the Presley material. And he would never do it again. But that’s for later.
One of the reasons “Jordan the Comeback” can shoehorn in so many tracks is that most of them are short, punchy attacks on the material: straight in to the subject, and out again while the chorus is still catching its breath. This is guerrilla songwriting.
“I’m delighted some of these are only three minutes, which in the past I’ve never done,” admits McAloon. “Our magic number was always about 4.20. I like the segment ’Mercy’ which is only 1.20. It could have developed into something else, but it said all I wanted to say in that little verse. Normally you might put the aside, or write something else, but you have to trust the stuff to tell you it’s okay.”
McAloon has emigrated from guitar to keyboards the former is still his home, but the latter offers all the fresh opportunities and inspiration of a new land. ”I started making records late, I was 25 I suppose, and I’d been writing on guitar from 14 and loved it. But I began to find I wasn’t writing the sort of things I wanted, and I was in a rut. So I bought a keyboard and my working methods changed completely, because you have a choice of harmony you don’t have on the guitar. ‘When Love Breaks Down’ was one of the first things I wrote on keyboards.”
Even while labouring on guitar, McAloon reckons he was secretly preparing for a move to the ivories.
”I’ve always played in a very clawed style”, he explains, spanning out three right-hand ﬁngers across an imaginary six strings, then bringing them up to keyboard level. Sprout tracks often seem to have keyboard lines shadowing the vocals. “I probably do that just to bolster my insecure voice. I’ve got a little tape recorder on top of my Roland JX3P synth, and I try to track the melody as I’m singing. Also I’ve got an Atari computer.”
And that, says McAloon, is one of the best and the worst things that’s happened to him. Best because: ”it allows you to prepare songs at home and that undeniably lets you get more variety in the studio.” And worst because: “these Atari people… what is the deal with them? Why can’t you get anything ﬁxed? Don’t they care? My computer was away for nine months being ﬁxed and when I got my original back it still had chips missing so now it’s a 520 instead of a 1040. I’d buy another one, but I’m damned if I’ll give Atari the money….”
The first Prefab Sprout album was guitar all the way through, but McAloon fell out of love with that method.
“Despite the image of ’tousle-haired, wordy songsmith’ or whatever it is people say about me…po-faced, tousle-haired wordy songsmith, probably…l like to have music that’s not reliant on the instrument it’s written on a splintered arrangement. One which is shared out. I admire people like Arif Mardin and his orchestrations, or Scritti Polliti. Prince is another one, but he’s a strange guy altogether. What bothers me about him is the speed at which he works. He just won’t wait for the time it takes the tape machines to sync together, he’ll go around them. Or if a desk is set up for a mix of one song, he’ll record a new one through it, without changing anything. That wilful abandonment of a structured way of working that’s good if you can do it.”
The mistake Prince imitators make is to plan which rules to break, and that never works. “They’ll say ’oh, Prince has used a lot of wah-wah lately so maybe that’s permissable now’. I shouldn’t think the idea of it being permissable ever entered Prince’s head. He just went ahead and did it.”
What Prefab Sprout went ahead and did was record a double album on the advance for a single one; to spurn a record company marketing department who were actually insisting the public wouldn’t buy “Jordan” because there were too many songs on it (”Seriously, I wanted to kick some of these guys to death”); and to take six months over something which was originally scheduled for three.
”I love the music, and when I look back I think of the good things, but as it was happening I had a pretty bad time of it.”
Co-producer on “Jordan” was compatriot of the last two albums, Thomas Dolby. ”Thomas is great. He’s known for being a keyboard player, but he has a real understanding of other instruments which many keyboard players don’t. And even though he uses the Fairlight, he’s not hooked on it. He says, ‘well, what did you use at home on the demo? You like that? Okay, we’ll do that then.’
”Thomas is a slow worker, he takes his time, and that’s great, but to be really honest the problem was that we swapped roles. As producer the burden of putting the album together, the logistics of it, falls on Thomas’ shoulders. I have the responsibility of writing the songs and getting the demos ready. But I was worrying about the budget, and trying not to let him know I was worrying about the budget, because he would then worry about working faster on the material. Then he got ill and when he came back I got ill… aah.
”I was waking up at 4.00 in the morning, bolt upright, clutching my chest, saying I will never, ever do this again. I will never over-reach.”
The band had told the record company they didn’t want any larger advance than for a single album, otherwise they could just see all the money vanishing in a bottomless bin of tape. For their part the record company were bafﬂed. If it had ten songs it would still be a great album. Why bother with 19?
Despite the physical and mental pounding, McAloon retains his sense of humour about the affair. They’d recorded in England at Ridge Farm, Farmyard and CBS studios, but mixed in a small Los Angeles spot. “You really want to know why”, he challenges with a disarmingly honest grin.
“Because Thomas thought this album was going to take three months. He hadn’t been married long, and after six months in England his [American] wife Kathleen was going up the wall. She said, ’you want to work with him any more, come to LA.’ And she had a point! It was really hard on them, and I did feel bad about it, but we said we just can’t afford to go out there. So… they put us up at their house. The Sprouts as house guests. We did this deal whereby we did the dishes and they put us up… ha,ha… literally.
“I know people will be reading Making Music and saying ’this geezer has been given money to do 19 songs and he’s complaining about it’. But in the end, it’s either the record you wanted to make, or it’s the record you gave up on halfway through. I had an overall picture in the demos of what I wanted to do, and it worked. I couldn’t be doing an interview with you now saying, oh if only you could hear what we left out. It was great.
”You know at the time it’s costing more and more money, and there’s a chance, once the bills are paid, that you might never see a royalty cheque. But you’ve got the chance to do what you’ve always wanted to do, ever since you heard ”Good Vibrations” and “Blonde On Blonde”. “If I never make another record I can always say: ‘this is classic Prefab Sprout. This,” stresses the man, “is what I did.”