Refined elegance, undeniable charm, superlatives are lacking to describe Prefab Sprout’s music. A little stroll from Langley Park to Memphis was all it needed to establish the Sprout empire, or so it would seem. Paddy McAloon retraces the story.
In the world of pop, with neither fuss nor publicity stunts, Prefab Sprout have indisputably joined the top rank. Their success owes everything to the songs. The Newcastle quartet has stacked hit up after hit with disconcerting ease and irresistible savoir-faire: “Johnny Johnny”, “When the Angels”, “Cars & Girls”, “Hey Manhattan”. The heart and soul of Prefab Sprout, Paddy McAloon – singer, guitarist and of course composer and songwriter – has become a sort of master sculptor of sound. There are no rough edges in the winning formula, Prefab Sprout’s orchestral machine operates with constant refinement and a mountain of passionate lyricism.
In short, it’s pop with a capital ‘P’, a product without rough edges, a music for everyone, which the FM programmers have been crazy for since the release of the faultless “From Langley Park to Memphis”. In 1984, “Swoon” sprang from the pop tradition, from which the Beatles were born. Its traditional rock roots shown of by rasping guitars, the first Prefab Sprout album attracted the attention of a few curious listeners, without however reaching a wider public.
We had to to wait for the release of “Steve McQueen”, twelve months later, for Paddy McAloon’s clan to finally be recognised, not as a B-list rock group, but rather as true outliers.
It took five more years for them to forge a musical and sonic personality, and to win little by little the favour of the wider public. With “From Langley Park to Memphis” the group has finally emerged into the spotlight. Assuredly Prefab Sprout have something a little special… the warm presence of that voice, no doubt, or maybe it’s simply just magic?
Where do you find inspiration as a songwriter?
For me, writing songs is as important as love (laughs). Songwriting isn’t just a gift from the Gods, it’s also something I find extremely enjoyable. I have a real compulsion to write, it’s vital to me. My inspiration veers between Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Two legendary monsters of Rock music, between them accounting for more than twenty years of rock n’ roll. It’s amazing, don’t you think? When I’m at home in Newcastle, I can’t let a day pass without doing anything, I’d go mad. Writing songs is what gives me real happiness.
Since your debut you’ve always kept yourself at a bit of a distance from the English rock scene. Are you by definition a… reclusive group?
It’s not exactly being reclusive, but it’s not far from that. I’m not interested by the whole circus, being part of the English rock scene or not is the last thing on my mind. I do try to keep myself at at a safe distance from the rock business in London. The most important thing for Prefab Sprout is to make good records, the rest is hot air.
You never feel the need to take to the stage?
Sometimes I feel like showing myself. I say to myself “Oh, I’d love to play this piece in front of people”. You know, in the past we did a lot of concerts, but it becomes very quickly a routine, a fixed show without surprises. What I like myself in music is mystery. I like to make the listener’s mind wander. The world of sound excites me enormously. Prefab Sprout make unusual records, and the people who make up the band are also out of the ordinary people (laughs). You might think that sounds pretentious, but it’s true. At the moment I don’t feel the need of showing myself with my group, but that doesn’t mean I hate my audience, quite the contrary I love them, and above all I respect them. I love to walk in deserted streets in Newcastle in the morning. It’s so calm and peaceful.
Now time has passed, what do you think of your first LP, “Swoon”?
I like the innocence of the production, but I’d love to make a new version. A “Swoon 89”! I think I’d say things in a simpler way. In England, people prefer “Steve McQueen”, but I have a lot of affection for our most recent album “From Langley Park to Memphis”. You know, I’m 31, and my way of writing and composing has evolved considerably, so “From Langley Park to Memphis” corresponds with how I am now. Between you and me, “Swoon” bothers me a little. What I wanted to say isn’t very clear. At the time I wanted to do something different. In ten years, who knows. Maybe I won’t like what I’m doing now.
You seem to have a special relationship with your label, Kitchenware Records. How do things work with the other groups, Martin Stephenson, the Kane Gang, Hurrah?
Everything goes wonderfully. As we’re just four groups, everyone gets lots of attention. Kitchenware is a little family, we’ve all known each other for ages. I like Martin (Stephenson) immensely, he’s a lovely guy, and his music is the mirror of his personality. With Dave Brewis (the Kane Gang), it’s something else entirely because we’re both fans, nay fanatics of Elvis Presley. Often David comes to play at my house and we do “Jailhouse Rock”, “Heartbreak Hotel” in tremelo voices (laughs), or “All Shook Up”. We both of us have a mutual respect, and we’re also very good friends.
There were three years between the release of “Steve McQueen”, your second album, and the appearance of the third, “From Langley Park to Memphis”. Nonetheless, between these you cooked up a good dozen songs which were supposed to be put onto “Protest Songs”, a record which was never released. What was the reason for that?
I’m perplexed about Protest Songs, I really don’t know what’s going to become of it. We were going to put out “Protest Songs” and “From Langley Park to Memphis” practically at the same time, we wanted to give our fans a surprise record, an unexpected record. Sadly CBS said “no”, on the pretext that releasing two records at once would be pure madness. So we didn’t insist. However today I’d like our label finally to release it… One can always dream. “Protest Songs” should have appeared spontaneously, that’s to say pressed one day and released the next, in essence that’s what should have happened. Now I’m beginning to get worried because everyone is talking about it. Frankly I think I’m going to have to talk to CBS about it again (sly smile).
For “From Langley Park to Memphis” you’ve joined up again with an old acquaintance, Thomas Dolby. Is he your favourite producer?
Along with Andy Richards, Thomas is really a perfect producer. He has an image as a mad scientist, but in real life he’s completely the opposite, he’s very patient and very reserved. Deep down I’m sure Thomas loves this image of the “Mad Professor” (laughs). We work with him for lots of good reasons. He has a unique approach to instrumentation, he has grace and feeling, he understands everything about machines, computers. Contrary to what you might think Thomas isn’t a remarkable keyboard player (Paddy looks attentively at the cover of “Keyboards”), he’s nothing like Chick Corea for example. Thomas is simply a remarkable and renowned musician (laughs)
The words of your songs are often tinged with humour and sarcasm. I’m thinking particularly about “Cars & Girls”. Has the subject (Bruce Springsteen) heard the song?
Yes, I think so, but I don’t know if he really appreciates my humour. A journalist from Rolling Stone recently said to him “Prefab Sprout are really great, what do you think of them?” Instead of replying, Bruce left the bar. Bizarre sense of humour, no? “Cars & Girls” is about the worship of rock stars, and all the phony mythology that goes along with them. But I should stress it’s not score settling between me and Springsteen, No, it’s nothing to do with that, I’ve never said that Bruce Springsteen was bad, or even that he’s good (laughs). “Cars & Girls” tries to demystify the legend and the myth of the boss. Worship, whether it’s musical or political has always exasperated me. Springsteen claims to represent the middle classes and talk for the worker, that makes me chuckle. I think there are a lot of people who forget Bruce Springsteen is really… (pregnant pause)
Can you explain a little more?
Yes of course. You see, I come from Newcastle, a region where there is really a lot of unemployment. Springsteen comes from New Jersey where there are also a lot of unemployed. The only difference is that Springsteen doesn’t live in a trailer, let alone a council flat. Springsteen lives in opulence and luxury. There you are, that’s it. It has to be said.
What place do keyboards have in your compositions?
I used to play a lot of guitar, now I’m more keyboards. On “Swoon” I was a guitarist and I remember that in the studio there was a magnificant piano, but I was frustrated because I didn’t know how to play it. Since then I’ve learned, and I compose more and more often on piano. All the songs on “From Langley Park to Memphis” were written on the piano.
What kit do you use?
I use a Yamaha DX7, an Ensoniq Mirage. An Atari 1040, that’s a computer. And lots of guitars.
Your songwriting talent shines stronger from each album to the next. Have you never thought of writing for other people?
Yes, I’d love to do that. But the music business is arranged around profit. Let me explain: previously publishers sold songs, now they take songs on as a function of fashions. I find that a bit sad. For the moment no-one has come to ask me to write them a song. But I’m happy to consider any proposition, while obviously maintaining Prefab Sprout’s equilibrium.