With their third LP, “FROM LANGLEY PARK TO MEMPHIS” Prefab Sprout are leaving the shadowy world of cult groups and finding favour with the public. A public with a taste for shadowy atmospheres, refined lyrics, and uniquely constructed compositions. Paddy McAloon is the writer and singer, a slightly built character who grew up in a Catholic part of Durham, near Newcastle. A great guy …
TEXT: Diego A. Manrique. PHOTOS: Paco Rubio.
MEA CULPA. I made two massive mistakes. The first: Prefab Sprout were being interviewed for television and were late, and I was jittery; so when Paddy McAloon was introduced to me, I quickly sat him down in the chair under the spotlight, shooing away his female companion. Grave error: she wasn’t as I believed the girlfriend of the singer-songwriter. It was Wendy Smith, singer with the band, who had herself also been talking on the TV show. And even though Prefab Sprout is mostly about Paddy’s songs, the snub (involuntary, I might add) created a tense atmosphere. And then later I mentioned that the group’s first single, “Lions in my own garden,” seemed to me to be related to Aztec Camera’s sound as well as some other Scottish groups. This was my second mistake: despite the geographical proximity, the people from Durham County are very different from the Scots. Paddy rather sternly corrected me.
-No no no. There are many reasons why that bothers me. One is that I’d been writing songs long before, we started playing in public, so our style was fully formed. I remember that in the beginning, we were playing in pubs in Durham County, in northern England, and a lot of people told us that there was a Scottish band, Aztec Camera, sounding like Prefab Sprout. I felt a little bit of disbelief and curiosity. When I heard them, I thought there was some resemblance; it’s the sort of situation where you meet a person who looks a little like you. Then, I felt resentment: Aztec Camera released their albums before us and there is some logic in thinking we were influenced by them. I like Roddy Frame, the guy in Aztec Camera, but … how old are you? Twenty-three, twenty-four? I’m thirty and I was definitely composing before Roddy had seen a guitar. You’re mistaken if you think “Lions in my own garden” fits into the “Scottish sound.” In fact, the starting point was the Beatles chords, guitar, harmonica, everything comes from “Love Me Do”. Those who think we were influenced by Aztec Camera are wrong by twenty years.
I stand corrected, but silently I think it would be unsurprising if Roddy Frame hadn’t included the Fab Four in the lessons his own musical background had taught him. But it’s not the time to discuss the theory of synchronicity. And Paddy McAloon swiftly swallows his irritation and returns to his affable self. He loves to communicate. We have something in common.
Asking about the name of the band was a good way to defuse the tension. You could translate the first part of the name as “preformed”, but as we’ll see, complicated exegesis isn’t needed. I ask if this name has any link with Steely Dan, the American titans who share some jazzy elements with Prefab Sprout, as well as a similar lyrical complexity.
-No, sorry. When Prefab Sprout formed, I knew nothing about Steely Dan; they existed as a group but I didn’t come across them until 1976. Steely Dan had taken their name from a dildo that appeared in a novel by William Burroughs. Our choice was less ingenious and convoluted. Prefab Sprout came from joining two words together and it means nothing in particular. I’m talking about 1971 or so: I was a young man who wrote songs and I was thinking of forming a group for the first time. All the groups had what seemed to me to be imposing, extremely unusual names. I liked the Beatles or Marc Bolan, but the older kids at school impressed us with the The Grateful Dead and so on. From my perspective, I thought that was the secret of being fashionable, a sort of baptism into the mysterious. Obviously, when I grew up I realized that that wasn’t true, but I preferred to keep Prefab Sprout. It sounds funny and reminds me how naive I was then. And I’ve kept it, even though many people in the recording industry have told us we’d have succeeded more easily with a more simple and understandable name.
I have the impression that Prefab Sprout started off wanting to appeal to a minority; but now you aspire to get a wider audience. Your songs are more polished, there’s a more opulent sound…
-It’s true. Now, I worry more about reaching people, whereas when I started what I wanted really was to create a certain effect. I have to confess too that I don’t like my early records: There are a few songs I’d keep, but the truth is I didn’t achieve the things I really wanted to capture. Intrinsically, the songs haven’t changed: the musical language is the same, but now we’re clearer and more direct in the arrangements, the composition and production. The differences are essentially the result of experience… and the availability of more money.
It’s a universal syndrome. Initially, the artist exhibits his unique identity but there comes a time when they recognize certain idiosyncrasies limit the audience. When did you realize that the unconventional nature of your songs could be a barrier to getting a broader recognition? (the subtext is the difficult question: Paddy, have you sold out?).
– It’s always a difficult to find a wider audience. But that wasn’t my motivation. You might think my compositions are simpler because I’m aiming to reach a wider audience. I’ll say something that may seem arrogant: I compose to satisfy myself and I wasn’t very satisfied with my previous work. I won’t disown everything we did in the beginning, there are very good songs, but now there are things I can do better and my compositions make more sense to me. It has no direct relationship with my desire to reach more people.
Paddy McAIoon enjoys verbal fencing. He takes his time to answer, stares at the ceiling, caressing his new haircut, drumming on his lips with the fingers of his right hand.
– I read somewhere that “From Langley Park to Memphis” was conceived to allow you to make an attempt to win over the US market?
-OK, OK. People have even attributed a political intent to it, suggesting Langley Park is the place the CIA has its headquarters… when in fact it’s a place I knew from my adolescence! If I’d wanted to infiltrate the market, I’d have thought up more appropriate ideas: for example, a rockier sound. And that’s not what it is: it’s very varied, there are guests as diverse as Pete Townsend, Stevie Wonder or the gospel group, the Andrae Crouch Singers. It’s not the usual fodder of AOR stations.
-It’s curious that, being so specifically British, you have on your disks so many references to American pop mythology. Titles with names like “Faron Young”, “Steve McQueen”. And constant geographical references …
-The United States is the cradle of universal popular culture. For me it’s a romantic reference, a distant mystery. I come from the provinces of one of the provinces of the American empire and that makes me appreciate their myths. I like to look at it this way: I don’t particularly know or care about the places Faron Young lived in, but his albums provoke a very specific emotional response in me. I was in Los Angeles working with Thomas Dolby, who produced half of the last album, and I was terrified. It was like living in the middle of one of those TV police shows.
– Okay, let’s talk about production. Dolby produced your previous LP, “Steve McQueen” with splendid results. This time you have more collaborators.
– I believe in variety now. You enrich yourself when you work with people who have different views to your own. Jon Kelly is a student of George Martin, the Beatles, He’s done all kinds of records: from Kate Bush to the Damned, passing by way of Art Garfunkel. He co-produced four songs. I did another track with Andy Richards, who’s a brilliant keyboard player, I don’t know if you know, he played on albums by Frankie Goes To Hollywood and his name even came up during the court case between Holly Johnson and the ZZT label. I need people who have great talent and who aren’t put off by what Prefab Sprout means musically. These people take me in a different direction… But I miss being in the woods on my own.
PADDY’S PATRON SAINTS
In the dark woods hides the perfidious witch. The boy in a hooded cape protects himself with examples taken from relics and books.
– Paddy let’s talk about your musical heroes.
– Well, we mentioned Lennon and McCartney. And Donald Fagen from Steely Dan. Bob Dylan, Neil Young. Also I admire the Beach Boys’ albums, the California sound. And I love the producer of the Temptations … uh … what was his name?
– Exactly. Oh, the sound of albums like “Papa was a rolling stone …
– And the sophisticated California school? For example, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman …
Yes, but I’m interested more in the guys in the sixties, like Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb. That struck me when I was in Los Angeles: they’re considered old men, names that are no longer relevant. It’s amazing how Americans eat their own history, their desire to live in the present is so strong. I’d be happy if I could write something like “Wichita Lineman” or “By the time l get to Phoenix”, those Glenn Campbell releases by Jimmy Webb. I still remember the effect they had on me when I heard them on the radio: without knowing anything about music they affected me, they had an impact on a sentimental level, I discovered geographical and emotional dimensions that were completely new to a twelve year old boy.
– You haven’t mentioned the composers of the standards, the old school, the people from Tin Pan Alley in New York. There are echoes of their art in your songs…
– Of course. They were masters of popular music. I see a parallel, without trying to compare myself with them: Stephen Foster, Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers, Hammerstein, Hart … to Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”. Guys who wrote songs for the general public without renouncing sophistication. Music, the pleasure of using words, ambiguity. I’m currently working on the soundtrack of a movie, “Zorro the fox,” and when I’m doing that I marvel at the talent that was in the old Broadway shows or the musical movies made in Hollywood.
– This underlines your Americanophila: you’ve haven’t named any British musicians.
– It’s true. I think, after The Police, who had their own sound, there has been nothing that stands out. What I hear on the radio doesn’t interest me much. I have some qualms about using the word “mechanical” in a derogatory manner, but the truth is that the records that use machines are commercially successful. I like synthesizers, drum machines, musical computers, but I think that people just are looking for a new sound. Maybe I’m old and those records are designed for a very young audience.
– I should warn you that you’re giving me a headline: “Paddy McAloon feels old.”…
– (Sly Laughter) Actually, I don’t mind there are groups that teenage girls like (more laughter). But I’m really bored with the hits I hear on the radio. I don’t know how it is with the Spanish charts, but the British Top 40 is terrible, there are no ideas in most big selling albums. On the way here, they played Curiosity Killed The Cat and .. well, I feel no curiosity to know what cats they’ve killed. I don’t want to offend, it just does nothing for me. I’m sure they’re good people and have the best intentions, but I get nothing from it. You know what? When I hear that music I feel like a Martian. (Laughter.) Really!
THE NAME OF THE GAME
The head of international promotion for CBS London visibly blushes. He’s just tried to sell me the idea of an “exclusive interview” with their latest act, the trio Bros, which fits like a glove that category of disposable music – empty, sticky, devoid of originality – that Paddy McAloon despises. It’s part of the job, kid.
– But you’re going after the same market. At the very least, you appear in television programs and magazines that feed the young audiences with the latest sensations.
‘I’m not going to voluntarily limit my audience. That is, if there are intelligent teenage girls who discover my music, I honestly feel satisfied, I think we have better songs and we have more interesting lyrics than Rick Astley. What I won’t do is to devote myself to competing with them – if we wanted to make pop music, we certainly wouldn’t be as successful as Rick Astley. But careful! Nothing is further from my mind than to imply we don’t play pop music; we do, but it’s a different kind.
– You don’t play live. Is that a tactic to avoid losing the mystique surrounding Prefab Sprout?
– Please, I don’t think in such a convoluted way. Look, Prefab Sprout are four people. When we play live, we can bring another guitarist and a keyboardist, but it’s expensive and we’re still not at the level of Michael Jackson, far from it. We lose money. And spontaneity. I want my records to have very elaborate arrangements but when you play live if you put too many musicians in, you lose the freshness. So I don’t think we can go out touring with violins and so on. And also, I have the perfect excuse: I don’t have the time, I have to compose new material so my publisher doesn’t get impatient. It took almost three years between “Steve McQueen”, the second album, and this one. He gets very nervous (mischievous look to the man from CBS).
– Without many records on the market, how do you keep the group together?
– We live modestly! Royalties from record sales don’t go far, it’s true, you’re always having to repay the advances. We retained the copyright, you get money if you own the publishing rights. “When Love Breaks Down” was reasonably successful and that brings in a regular trickle of money.
– To conclude… Is pop a respectable profession for an ambitious and creative person?
It’s one of the more worthwhile jobs. I don’t know, maybe there are doctors and other professionals who think they have the best possible job. I know it sounds corny, but I think music is a wonderful profession that continually brings you interesting things: when you finish a record, you’re faced with the challenge of making the next. (Silence.) Don’t believe the complainers in the music business: it’s a privileged job, because if you succeed really the rewards are tremendous. I know what I’m talking about. Before I did this professionally, I worked at a gas station the same as many others, almost the typical Bruce Springsteen story (giggles). I wasn’t happy, but it did allow me to compose songs in my spare time. So when I feel overwhelmed, I try not to forget that there are other ways of living that are far less exciting.
THREE BEAUTIFUL ALBUMS and numerous singles have cemented the reputation of Prefab Sprout, an unconventional group
A faithful guy. Paddy McAloon could work as a solo act, but keeps the name of Prefab Sprout for his work. Although the name dates from the early seventies, the current line-up was consolidated in 1984, “Swoon” (1984) was basically Paddy (vocals, guitar, keyboards), his brother Martin (bass) and singer Wendy Smith, all from Durham County. The album, quickly picked up by CBS, entered the higher reaches of the British Charts.
Soon afterwards, drummer Neil Conti joined. The band decided to replace their sparse sound with Thomas Dolby’s production for “Steve McQueen” (1985), although complaints from the actor’s heirs forced them to change the title in the United States. From the album they released “When Love Breaks Down” and the exquisite “Appetite”.
From Langley Park To Memphis” (1988) is his most painstaking work, with a multiplicity of producers and some “guest stars”. Despite the rise in the level of acceptance, Prefab Sprout is still a well-kept secret, with LPs that do not fully reveal themselves at the first listening and are full of nooks and crannies. The writer nearly drove himself mad trying to decipher the verse that opens the chorus of “The king of rock’n’rolI” and had to wait for the release of the album with lyric sheet to find: “hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque.” It made no sense, but it fits phonetically and is framed in a microcosm of America. Very witty, Paddy.
McAloon shares Springsteen and Jackson’s record label: CBS. And doesn’t feel uncomfortable
– I remember when I went to the offices of CBS to sign the contract; the company lawyers and I had a .. well, a divergence of opinions, I was there because of Bob Dylan; it was true: I liked being on the same label as Bob Dylan. There are things programmed into you: one of my first records was one of his, the single “Lay Lady Lay” and I was hypnotized by the letters CBS endlessly circling. Anyone, who wants to make songs of a certain level these days is influenced by Dylan or Lennon-McCartney, or both.
– There was some controversy about having “Cars and Girls” as the first single from the new LP. The song speaks directly to Springsteen and the cover was his image, made of matches with his head on fire. That scared some American executives. It’s actually a brotherly reprimand for Bruce: “Look at us, there are a lot more serious things than cars and girls”. I don’t know if you’ve heard but… I like some songs of Springsteen, but I think that ultimately he goes too far with his romanticism.
– We have a good arrangement with CBS. They bought out the Kitchenware contract, the independent label of Newcastle where we started; CBS funded it and I think Kitchenware dissolved the deal they made directly with us. We haven’t been perverted by belonging to a multi-national: our spirit remains the same; they leave us to our own devices. The only thing is, I now have a less naive idea of how things work. Now I know you can do a wonderful album and not get to number one. But that hasn’t blunted my enthusiasm. I’m still enthusiastic. Tell the whole of Spain!