Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon loves Meryl Streep, lives in Consett, and rarely mixes with anyone famous, but he still fronts one of Britain’s most consistently groovy bands. Paul Lester talks to him
We’ve just started the interview, in an Italian bistro, and Paddy McAloon is already wandering off the point. “I was talking to a friend the other day and he said, ‘Why are you never seen around, why don’t you ever get written about in gossip columns?‘ And before I know it, I’m feeling really self-conscious, and I’m launching into a justification of how exciting I am. ‘I was at a Warren Beatty thing the other night,‘ I told him. But actually, I was thinking: ‘My God, I’ve turned into Steve Davis! I’m really interesting!”
Paddy McAloon. Singer with Prefab Sprout and writer of arguably some of Britain’s most beautiful songs of the last six years, recently spied Beatty across a crowded South Bank room (the star/director was giving a lecture on his forthcoming film about legendary multimillionaire, Howard Hughes), but unfortunately did not seize the chance to grill him about the relationship with Madonna (Warrens, not Paddy’s).
This was one of McAloon’s rare brushes with the rich and famous. It may be his last for some time. Paddy lives miles away from the tacky fuss and hollow glamour of London, way up north in Consett, County Durham, about 19 miles south-west of Newcastle. He enjoys this physical detachment from the so-called centre of the music industry.
“You feel normal up there,” he says, between sucking on strands of spaghetti. “You don‘t go round thinking, ‘I’m in the music business.’ I love that, the anonymity of it. You don’t get caught up in the whole thing. Living in Newcastle, I feel a lot freer.”
Paddy’s insistence on staying in his native north-east makes him a far more relaxed conversationist than most pop stars, desperate to promote an image. His soft Geordie accent is indicative of his personality, a quietly confident musician who has no worries about the vagaries of the pop industry.
“This is really important. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently,” he says. “When we started back in 1983, we were young – just like Happy Mondays [young?!] or whoever today — we were of our time, and we were good. In the eyes of the press, we were part of a ‘movement’, something new, ‘happening’, and they wanted a part of it. Now, we’re up against all these nineteen or twenty-year-olds, and it occurs that maybe we weren’t loved at the start just because we were good, but because we were good and new.
“Now we’re not new, we’re just good — and that’s the best thing to be. You’re not here because SKY Magazine thought, ‘Oh, we better cover Prefab Sprout.’ Everyone who interviews me does so because they really want to meet me, like the two guys who flew in from Paris this morning. That impresses me, that degree of respect, and it’s not due to anyone wanting a part of something that’s meant to be fashionable, cos, as far as that’s concerned, my fashionability’s gone!”
Paddy’s possibly the least defensive, most casually confident man in pop, and with good reason. Prefab Sprout have released four spectacular albums, from 1984’s complex, puzzling song-cycle, Swoon, to 1985’s endlessly playable Steve McQueen, to the rhapsodic structures of 1988’s From Langley Park To Memphis, and finally to last year’s Protest Songs, an LP of tunes that was originally intended for release after Steve McQueen. Prefab Sprout’s fifth album, Jordan: The Comeback, is possibly their best yet. No wonder McAloon doesn’t feel threatened by the new kids on the block, specifically the New Shaggies currently sweeping the nation with their baggy clothes and floppy rhythms —The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays et al.
“No, I have no downer on them”, he says. “There comes a time when it’s tempting to say what people have always said — ‘Oh, music’s not as good as it used to be’— but you’ve got to let them do what they want to do, let kids discover things for the first time, and not be sour.
“They [contemporary bands] don’t bother me. It’s only when people think I should be bothered by, I dunno Rave On or Step On or whatever it’s called — that’s when I feel like saying, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not bothered, God bless them all, but please don’t tell me to feel threatened by them.’ its music for people having a good time, and good luck to them.
“Actually, when we started, we were a raucous three-piece rock band. We didn’t have keyboards or loads of studio facilities and technology, and a lot of what we do now is a reaction of those early days. I might wake up one day soon and decide to make a record that works purely on the level of eccentric noise for three minutes, that doesn’t sound like anything else, just samples — you never know. Similarly Happy Mondays may decide to write a tune that doesn’t just consist of a two-word catch-phrase sung over and over…”
If a lot of the thump-bang-wallop dance acts that fill today’s charts can be accused of oversimplification, Prefab Sprout are equally lambasted for fussiness, for being precious, and making records that are just too complicated to enjoy on a simple level. Detractors hear Paddy’s gentle tenor, co-vocalist, Wendy Smith, and her ‘ethereal’ harmonies, and Prefab’s often gorgeously meandering melodies, and dismiss it as fey and ineffectual.
“When people accuse us of being precious and intellectual, that’s when I wish they knew what we’re really like. I just think, God, you’ll never find a more…l dunno, somehow I imagine we’re like New Order, for some reason. I don’t know them, but I see them and I think, ‘They’re probably like us.’ We’re so unlike ‘precious’, ‘fey’, ‘intellectual’, whatever. I can picture the type of band people think they mean when they say those things, but it’s not us.” But Prefab’s music is often described as “sexless”.
“God that just drives me mad,” says McAloon. “I think we’ve made sexy records. If you’re looking for grease or sweat, then you ain’t gonna get it. But, I can assure you,” he smiles, relishing the next bit, “girls like Prefab Sprout! I can just tell you they do! I’ve seen their faces from the stage, and I know that they get everything out of us.
“It really gets my back up having to justify this when I know that the girls know it. It sounds so patronising . . .Wild Horses [from Jordan], I Remember That [from Langley], Appetite [from McQueen] — those are sexy songs. But a sexy record doesn’t just have to be about sex. Personally, I find it much sexier to talk around the subject. When I was younger, I thought it was an easy trick to play to be sexy. You might think it’s perverse, but I didn’t want to be sexy, I didn’t want to make music that addressed sex head on —that was what other people did.”
Paddy eschews the traditional rock influences — The Stones, The Velvets, Punk — and instead echoes of Hollywood musicals and non-rock and roll songwriters from Burt Bacharach to Rod Temperton (who wrote tracks for Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and late 70s Brit-funk pioneers, Heatwave) can be heard in Prefab’s music. Similarly, McAIoon avoids the directly sexual bump’n’grind of everything from raw funk to today’s house: in the world of Prefab Sprout, sex isn’t rammed in your face, it’s implied.
“It’s like with Frank Sinatra,” Paddy says. “He spent his entire career singing songs that never mentioned, but were all about, sex ‘Songs For Shagging Lovers’!”
A high-ranking official from Prefab’s record company, CBS, recently told Paddy that his group had as broad-based an appeal as any on the label. As McAloon will testify, the Sprouts’ fan club receives letters from chart-buff 12year-old girls who were still mewling in their mothers’ arms when Paddy first formed the band with younger brother, Martin, Wendy Smith and drummer, Neil Conti back in 1982, as well as bored suburban housewives and obsessive, po-faced students who analyse every chord change and lyrical insight.
“We appeal to everyone, I’m not kidding you. I got a letter today from a 15-year-old girl who’s just done her GCSEs, and she wanted to do an interview with me for her English assignment, so she sent me a questionnaire to fill in. This is someone who was about four when I wrote the songs for Swoon and Steve McQueen [Paddy composed hundreds of astonishingly mature and complex songs, that would turn up later on Prefab LPs, while still in his teens, just after leaving the Catholic seminary he’d been educated at since he was 11]…
“The younger kids just like us for our music. They say, ‘Oh, we never thought of you as being complicated.’ But then there was also this guy who wrote his university thesis on ‘Prefab Sprout And The Songwriting Of Paddy McAloon, With Particular Attention To Swoon and Steve McQueen’!”
There are clearly infinite ways of enjoying Prefabs music. But is there a certain response to Paddy’s songs he would prefer?
“Absolutely not, no way, no — I love it all. There’s nothing worse than being told how to listen to a record. I love it when girls come up to me in the street and start rubbing my head and going, ‘Oooh, you’ve got a great haircut! You’re not as tall as we thought you’d be but your hair’s really mint!’ [Geordie colloquialism for ‘fab’] Or when some little kid sings ‘Hot dog, jumping frog’, [the refrain from Prefab’s 1988 hit, The King Of Rock And Roll], that’s great as well, that’s the whole point of what I do…”
The gap between the artist and the music they make is never so wide as when you talk to Paddy. With most singers or groups, you can see how they came up with those tunes — basically, you can spot the join. A three hour conversation with McAloon offers little insight into his creative process.
“I don’t like to talk too much about myself or my life, cos it always seems so puny and insignificant, and what I say in interviews is supposed to be significant. It’s embarrassing.”
Bob Dylan, Bowie, Prince, they know this. Which is why they rarely speak to the press or appear in public — it reduces their impact, rubs away some of their mystique. Interviews, and even concerts, are essentially reductive.
“That’s right. That’s why, for me, when it comes to my heroes, whether it’s Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney or Michael Jackson, it’s all there in the records. For some people their sense of identification with the artist is not complete until they’ve seen them in the flesh, while for me, to see the performer in person makes them evaporate.
“It’s like, you’re asking me loads of questions, and I’m doing you the courtesy of answering them — I’d never be stroppy or not informative — but there’s a definite case to be made for not telling anybody anything at all. That way, you preserve something.”
Paddy does tell me, however, that he likes wasting time by wandering round Newcastle (“It gives me some drive to write when I get home”), that he and Wendy are no longer involved in a relationship; and that he is presently “courting” (his term) a young lady who, he is keen to stress, bears absolutely no similarity whatsoever to a certain tall, blonde American actress for whom the furiously romantic, 33-year-old McAloon has devotedly carried a torch for several years.
“Do you really want to know what my idea of the perfect woman is?” he asks. “Meryl Streep. Really. And it’s not just the way she looks, but the way she talks and the things she does it drives me wild! She’s beautiful, the planes of her face, oooh …l absolutely adore her. I’ve had this fixation for years, you know. I once did an interview with a German magazine, and the woman asked me at the end if I had a message for the German people. So I said, ‘If anyone out there has Meryl Streep’s phone number, could they please get in touch!’ The interviewer was a bit disappointed, I think she was expecting me to talk about world peace or something…
If Paddy met Meryl Streep, he reckons he’d melt. “I’d be jelly, I wouldn’t know what to say.” Does he have any other ambitions?
“I want to make records for people who no longer like music,” he says. “That’s my ambition: to make a record that people would buy even if they’d never bought one in their lives. “I walk around dissatisfied with what I do, because that’s the way I go on to writing the next song. D’you know, I’m always sad when it comes to making a record, cos you come smack up against your limitations, bang up against your voice, or whatever. When you’re writing, that’s when you’re at your freest. I picture my songs as nuclear-powered Walt Disney film themes — but they never come out like that.
“When I make a record, I never set out with a plan of what it’ll achieve, I just get a feeling that I could do something — it’s as vague as that. It’s all to do with possibility: could I possibly make a record that will really move someone…lf you think, ‘Oh, a song’s a song’, and you set out, in a passionless way, to make passionless music, then nothing’s gonna happen. But if you can believe a song can do anything Paddy smiles, picks up the bill to pay for the meal, and heads towards the restaurant door. Before he disappears into the hot, sticky city night, he answers the final question. “Yeah, I can improve on this album.”