“Life of Surprises” is a “best of” anthology (plus unreleased material) covering ten years of the highlights of Paddy McAloon and comrades. We discussed the current status and evolution of the band with the Newcastle based musician.
Paddy McAloon is a strange guy: elusive, introverted, one of the kind of people whose art you feel sits apart from the world, something that retains its purity thanks to constant spiritual nourishment which in turn guarantees a varied, changing form of expression. In the course of ten years activity resulting in a handful of albums, he has directed Prefab Sprout from one stepping stone to another in a search for a lost age that even now has no fixed location. Even in the beginnings, and already exalted for stylistic ingenuity, he was taking his first steps into a form of lyrical experimentation that was to reach a crescendo with “From Langley Park to Memphis”, and then beyond even that into the Dante-esque visions of “Jordan: the Comeback”.
The Newcastle musician is currently preparing his new album, but in the meantime his label has decided to publish a selection of the whole Prefab Sprout career, along with a couple of new songs, in the anthology compilation “The Best of Prefab Sprout: A Life of Surprises”. We spoke to him.
– I don’t understand if the release of a compilation album at this precise time in your career is due to a need for a creative break or a commercial reaction to the warm welcome “Jordan” received?
I don’t usually think about the commercial success of my records, but rather my artistic path and therefore the records’ artistic value in relation to what we had recorded before or afterwards. “Jordan” is a complex record, made at a delicate moment in my emotional journey. In that album I was attempting to search for a different means of expression, in the light of the fruitful collaboration I’d experienced working with Thomas Dolby in the States.
– What is the point of this record then?
It bears concrete witness to the fact we’ve been around for ten years. With this set of snapshots we think we’ve been able to freeze-frame much of the decade. It’s a kind of master key to understand our creative evolution from the start up to almost the present day.
– And you’ve included two new songs in “A Life of Surprises”?
We didn’t want the release of this album to be an end in itself. So I felt that by inserting two songs into the track list I could complete and enrich the job. The choice wasn’t particularly difficult since the pieces in question were some of the so-called “songs in the drawers”, out-takes I’d wanted to use for a long time. This was the perfect opportunity.
– “Jordan: the Comeback” was your most intricate work, one that spans the largest number of musical styles while maintaining a unity and a definite musical identity.
That record was born of my need to mix more types of sound, so the listener is flooded with a continuous and multiform flow of different styles all chained together with each other. It’s mixes mainstream genres with my own personality as a composer. All of this contributed to the completion of a record that was as colourful as possible, but at the same time animated by a dramatic tension. That’s why I worked hard on the structure to create a definite effect.
– Just now you talked about your attempt to look for a different path for “Jordan..” following your work in America with Dolby. What did you mean exactly?
I can tell you that when we were working on “From Langley Park To Memphis” in Los Angeles, Thomas told me that the record should have been called “Death And Elvis”, considering the recurring themes it has. Perhaps because it’s dominated by a religious impulse… Not in the sense of “I believe in God”, but from the point of view of a search, an analysis of the themes of internalisation and faith.
And what does Elvis have to do with it?
He comes in becaues of the feel of some of those pieces, with the idea that they can trigger feelings of familiarity in people, you know, the kind of feeling you would never want to change which builds up over the years just like a feeling of eternity. A nostalgic positivity tied to the figure of Elvis and his songs.
– I get the impression that you have an extremely serious relationship with your lyrics…?
Do you mean I take myself too seriously? You see, I believe deeply in what I write but I make no claims to believing it’s true. Take for example “Paris Smith”: in that song I speak to a hypothetical child telling her not to repeat my mistakes. It’s not a life lesson, but a reflection I turn onto myself, an attempt to exorcise my fears for the future. I’m not sure she didn’t tall into the same mistakes, and my obsessions haven’t completely vanished.
– In the same way, it doesn’t seem to me you’re interested in the current tastes of people who buy music…?
I think it’s important not to expose yourself to the folly of the masses. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror in the morning if I were to live, if I were to feed my desire for expression, by taking into account the prevailing taste. I can’t see myself going out every Friday afternoon to buy the latest mixes. Saying that, I don’t mean I’m isolated… I keep myself informed about what the music scene is offering. I’m aware of the uneasiness and distrust towards artists who say they never listen to other peoples’ music, even via the music press. But I don’t read it to read up about myself, I don’t have that sort of yearning… And I tend never to ask myself questions like, “will the teenagers like this piece?”. I don’t think I could put up with that.
– I have the impression that even after ten years, you haven’t settled down to a particular method of working. Is that not risky?
It’s risky if instead of worrying about your level of creativity you’re thinking only about the increasing level of unemployment amongst musicians who haven’t made it. I’m opposed to clichés, though I think you can create one and then follow it with dignity. Think of Phil Collins, he creates that kind of sound, and he does it with style. That’s because he feels good in the clothes he’s decided to wear. On the other hand I belong to the category of artists who love to change their clothes every week. It helps me feel relevant and alive.
– How do you deal with the song-writing aspect of your character? Does it create pressure on you?
It’s a bit responsibility, as well as a big pressure, to be called a singer-songwriter. The press expects the same miracle from you every time, which places a huge burden on your shoulders, since the category also includes people such as Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. As you can imagine it’s not easy. I also hate the arrogance of many who are part of the same category, the sorts of characters who take on airs and say their work is the mirror of their lives, their diaries… Absurd and ridiculous.
– Is it not the case that your search for ever different forms of expression is driven by a latent desire to be selective about your audience?
I don’t think my public is the same one who bought “Swoon”, or the girls who followed us only because of “Steve McQueen”, who complimented me after seeing me in some TV broadcast for top forty groups. Actually I don’t think I’m a snob, more than anything else I believe it’s the wish of every artist to have a following not solely linked to the external aspects of your productivity. Unfortunately these days it’s not easy to have an attentive audience.