MAXIMO PARK’S PAUL SMITH TALKS TO ONE OF THE NORTH EAST’S MOST TREASURED MUSICIANS PADDY MCALOON, ABOUT THE ART OF SONGWRITING AND PREFAB SPROUT’S NEW RECORD
Paddy McAloon is one of the great British pop eccentrics. I use the word eccentric in its true sense – someone who does their creative work outside the mainstream; someone whose ideas are formed on the fringe of what is deemed acceptable. As such, his music will remain divisive, celebrated by hardcore fans and dismissed by the naysayers. Personally, I think he’s created some of the most sophisticated pop to gatecrash the charts and I’d rank him alongside such disparate luminaries as Green Gartside, Robert Wyatt and Scott Walker, although his particular work is centred more around the sugar rush of a melodic hook or the satisfaction of a smart play on words. Both of these facets are in evidence on the latest Prefab Sprout release Crimson/ Red, and I travelled by train to Durham, home territory for McAloon, to discuss the new album with him.
I asked him what the impetus was behind the release, since there are often irregular gaps between Sprout releases. Any delays are never about ‘polishing’ the songs for McAloon, more about what he thinks his audience requires next. Crimson/ Red came about because he needed to release songs quickly: “Lots of my stuff sits around until it comes to someone’s attention. It’s not always a conscious thing. The timing of it is often a mystery to me except in this case I owed someone a record.” McAloon talked frankly about how much he cares about this new record (“You’re making something and you want people to get it in their bloodstream”), but that he is as practical as the next person and that he’s always looking “for the next job”. Too often, artists unnecessarily mystify the creative process (which is already puzzling enough) and it was refreshing listening to someone talk with a combination of openness and warmth about his music.
Crimson/ Red features many of Prefab Sprout’s signature sounds, but McAloon recorded this sonically-rich record alone, programming many of the instruments where he felt his playing wasn’t suitable: “It has that ‘band’ element to it even though it might not be a band… I’m not my ﬁrst choice to play on Prefab Sprout music!” McAloon wanted to “sit down and just do it”, admitting to a great deal of pleasure when the end result sounded like Prefab Sprout. I was astonished to discover much of the guitar, an instrument prominent on this album, was painstakingly edited together, strum by strum, so that McAloon could concentrate on the overall arrangement without a guitar on his knee. “If you’re using fake instruments you deﬁnitely need something human. It’ll take your mind off what is programmed if the singer sounds engaged”. He’s right. The total commitment of his ever-youthful croon is a major factor in the success of the new album. That golden voice simply hasn’t aged: “I don’t know why that is. I’ve abused myself in a thousand ways!”
He says that songs such as the addictive Billy are closer to ﬁrst ever Sprout single Lions In My Own Garden than anything released since and it’s true that there’s a naive simplicity to much of this new batch of songs. McAloon tells me a lot of these songs were written “in a ‘get to the point’ frame of mind and I’m not always in a ‘get to the point’ frame of mind.” He now looks back with fondness on the band’s early days and their brilliant 1984 debut, Swoon, “it reminds me of a time, the best part for a band… carrying the ampliﬁer up the stairs and you’ve got it all to fight for. I look back and think, ‘That’s when we functioned like a band and after that it becomes slightly more tricky…’ Swoon just evolved in a rehearsal room without any pressure.”
Since Crimson/Red is a one-man show, I wondered if McAloon had thought about making another album under his own name, akin to the more avant-classical approach on 2003’s I Trawl The Megahertz, a record which answered his own question of ‘How do you make something that doesn’t have you there?’ McAloon admits: “I would like to ﬁnd something that wasn’t so song-based. Part of the big thing for me is surprising yourself.” He has some ideas about where to go next in that respect but doesn’t want to mention them for fear of adding to the burgeoning legend of his numerous unreleased songs. McAloon thankfully goes on to contradict that statement by mentioning a song-cycle called Ten Silver Trumpets, which includes the aforementioned Billy, and he alludes to several other Goodbye Lucille songs, the only released of these being Goodbye Lucille #1 from Steve McQueen. I once spoke to Keith Armstrong, McAloon’s manager and Kitchenware Records boss, regarding shelves of unheard music featuring wonderfully improbable topics (Zorro The Fox remains in the vaults). McAloon calls these boxes of potential projects his “private passions”.
“You may have a vision of what it is you do, but people who’ve bought your records also have a say, to some degree. I do have projects where I think this isn’t going to be me doing this, but, as is usual in most people’s lives, we ﬂit from panic to panic or what’s necessary this month or this year. Even the selection of songs on Crimson/ Red, it wasn’t the album that I was working on. I was working on something completely different and I found that I wouldn’t be ﬁnished on time. It was easier to start from scratch on a new batch of songs.”
Although our conversation often touched upon the practicalities of songwriting, like how he has to restart his broken Amiga computer each morning before starting work, McAloon acknowledges that, “no-one knows what the inspiration for a line is or whether you’re entirely serious or whether you’re smiling a bit to yourself. ‘that’s the beauty of a song lyric”. Despite now being of an age where he could easily inhabit a song like Crimson/ Red’s The Old Magician, unlike that song’s disillusioned illusionist, McAloon is still capable of producing doves.