From the most northerly part of England, namely Newcastle, close to the Scottish border, a place where the sun is rarely seen, where the population is more human and friendly (compared with the South and London etc, or so they say), where the pace of life is slower, where the accents start to thicken and become harder to understand, where people yearn to escape from a humdrum existence, a life of unemployment and boredom, a dull conformity more than a life – there comes a brand new quartet hoping to reassert a certain quality and importance that has been lost from pop music.
Prefab Sprout, which I learned only today has existed since 1977, has a purity of sound referencing 1940s and 1950s jazz and the early music of the 1960s. Influences range from The Beatles, Burt Bacharach, to Orange Juice, then up to date with the Smiths (and, between ourselves, Michael Jackson).
Kitchenware (meaning “dish” !!) is their label; it originated and is active in Newcastle, and an important beacon for the North. Who said everything happens in London?
Prefab Sprout have simple instrumentation, the essentials: semi-acoustic guitar, bass, percussion, a touch of keyboards here and there, and the two beautiful voices of Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith complementing each other (Wendy occasionally adds a gentle wash with her saxophone). The other two members of the group are Martin McAloon (younger brother of Paddy) and Daniel James.
I saw them in concert, however unfortunately the sound, from a technical perspective, was not the best. But the band themselves are among the best; a group that knows how to play, that knows how to write, that has genuine quality. They appear on this tiny stage like escapees from a 1950s film. Paddy, at the forefront, sings and caresses his beloved semi-acoustic guitar, with a look and attitude inviting nostalgia. As if we were sitting at a table watching him with a cigarette smouldering between his fingers, listening to his music through the smokey haze. With dreamy eyes. Or maybe with eyes closed.
Wendy looks innocent and young, blonde, a delicate little face. Shy, with a voice almost angelic, ethereal, that vibrates and rises.
Maybe there is a new wave of these groups – nostalgic, a rebirth of a certain quality and technical professionalism that has become a little lost in space or in the occult and the world of the afterlife; because Prefab Sprout could well line up with bands such as the Smiths, Orange Juice etc. that are enjoying a huge success and are starting to gain popularity from other post punk and positive punk (and whatever other awful labels might exist)… Maybe the scene is on the point of changing? Who knows…
Meeting Prefab Sprout on a Sunday morning before they continue their tour in England, I gave them a copy of Rockerilla and they are surprised and happy to see that they are at the top of the Italian singles playlist in Italy.
“We had no idea we were known in Italy, the record company never tells us these things!”
They translate the titles of their songs in Italian to hear the cadence, the correspondence and the sound of our language. They try to repeat after me, and have fun joining the words and unravelling the language, trying to churn out a good Italian pronunciation. No chance! (A mixture of northern English accent, almost as incomprehensible as Scottish, mixed with Italian! No Prefab Sprout, better if you remain faithful to your country…). And the interview begins.
Paddy speaks to me in a low, hoarse voice, cool and scaly. He has lost his voice and has to make an effort to be heard in the hubbub of the hotel lobby. But he’s keen to talk, he wants to talk about the group, of itself, the current musical situation, and its positive hopes for the future.
Tell me the story of the band…
“We started in ’77 in Newcastle as a three piece, Wendy honoured us with her presence more recently. Martin and I have always played together and always aspired to have a band. We played in pubs, schools, bars. We didn’t have jobs, we lived on Social Security and the music was really our only interest. They noticed after 1981, but that’s okay. We liked to play “small”. We had an audience who knew us and supported us. Many people dislike the North, Newcastle, they speak of it as a depressing place, grey, boring, but I really like it, it’s less threatening than London, the big cities. There’s a more human scale to life. In big cities you lose yourself, you tend to slip into conformity so as to be accepted, where here you can be yourself, it’s quieter.
“Our first contact with the music business came with the Kitchenware, who also was founded in ’77, and we produced our first singles: “Lions In My Own Garden” and “The Devil Has All the Best Tunes.”
Has your style changed since the beginning of your group?
“No, the style is still the same, the instrumentation and the attitude haven’t changed. Maybe back then we were more raw, less refined. We had more fast songs. Now I feel I can be more refined without decreasing the impact, the potential. At the beginning I felt it was essential to be direct and clear, now I think you can say much more without aggression, without having to slap the public in the face with your message.”
In 1977 maybe the birth of punk had reinforced this directness even further?
“No, punk didn’t affect or influence us in any way. I didn’t like punk, I never sympathized with the movement. Undoubtedly it opened many doors and ended the stagnation coming from some of the residual 1970s super-groups who had become boring, pompous and above criticism. But I didn’t appreciate the fact that anyone was now able to go on stage and spew accusations and complaints. Professionalism, quality and ability to write music was lost. All they had to do was find stereotypes, targets to shoot at, and success was guaranteed! Destroy without proposing an alternative. And it’s easy. No, my heroes come from before 1977”.
Who are your heroes then?
“You know, I’m 26 and the Beatles are a reference point … then Burt Bacharach, Steven Sondheim. Do you know him? He writes “musicals” (West Side Story). I like musicals. They stand apart, distant from the pop business. They don’t have to worry about it. And all the various performers are professionals. And I believe their lyrics go beyond the standard rock and roll and pop songs. But I also listen to the Smiths, Michael Jackson, a bit of everything”.
You have a contract with CBS, do you do things “big” now, huh?
“You know, I don’t want to affect a false morality and say it doesn’t suit me. I think if you can get your work distributed and reach more people you have to do that. I can’t say I’m sorry… Many groups want to create an image of modesty and rejection of success, but I think all that is hypocritical. Since I live in this world, I live in this capitalist system, and as the mass media is the only way to make yourself heard, then you have to exploit it as best you can. It’s easy to create targets, to attack a system to get immediate reactions. But it’s a paradox, because the reactions are institutionalised, you are a slave to a prefabricated rebellion. I prefer arguing in a different way, it’s less easy, but more human…”
Tell me about your voices, yours and Wendy’s?
“I don’t like my voice. It may seem strange, but I don’t like it. I want to work on it more, but when you’re on tour, you never have time to study, to think, to fix things. And I hate hearing my voice on tape, record, I have a phobia of the machines … Wendy has a wonderful voice, she’s taking singing lessons. But sometimes we’re afraid we’ll damage her voice ”
(The other night Wendy fainted at the concert, she’s a delicate creature…).
Elvis Costello launched the band, protected and supported you, they say. It is true? (It is well known that Paddy wears the same style of glasses ..)
“Elvis did discover us, in a way. He liked “Lions … ” very much, and he told the radio stations. You know when Elvis says something… That gave us publicity in America. We played with him (as support band) three times. And this was a very positive experience. Can you imagine playing in front of a “Costello” audience, when you’re used to pubs ..? It’s easier, you don’t recognize your friends in the audience! The technical team is excellent too.”
What’s Elvis like?
“He’s lovely, we owe him a lot. We met his wife, son, sister… He’s a very sensitive man, with his feet on the ground, and we never asked him to explain the meaning of life. Too many people treat him as a holy man, a guru, especially in America, where unfortunately people are in desperate need of holy men.”
And you share Elvis’ interest in nuclear disarmament?
“Yes, but we try not to use the “nuclear” issue as a subject creatively The whole subject has become a commercial thing, and you shouldn’t talk about it superficially just to sell your records. He knows that very well. Our politics is on a much more personal level, I write from the heart (as does Morrissey…). The British press would love it if I used the standard themes, it would be easier to judge and encapsulate… But I’m only a human being…”
So, as a human being, how do you work?
“I write the music and the words. Sometimes it takes me two months to write one song. Sometimes the lyrics come out just like that, without any logic, guttural sounds, voice… And then I find some sort of logic to the lyrics. It’s an enjoyable, backwards, process.
“The title “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)” is a phrase made using the letters of the city Limoges (in France) where my girlfriend was studying. And the song is about her at Limoges, about being apart from each other, about feeling the lack of physical presence of someone who would ideally be close to you. Usually I put songs forward or show ideas to the other group members, and we collaborate and improvise intuitively and spontaneously around them. There’s no need to enforce or explain. But at the same time we don’t try to create a democracy within the group. The contributions are spontaneous. It flows naturally, smoothly.”
These winding fluid streams of music… In my own imagination I see waves of colour flowing from one person to another, giving each group a colour, a shade… But excuse me, excuse my visions that sometimes get in the way…
“Swoon”, your LP which will be released in a few days?
“It’s an LP that collects songs from our beginnings. A period of 7 years. I’m happy with it, it brings together many periods, so many emotions, so many moments, while maintaining a basic unity. There are so many things I could improve, when I listen to it now, because one of my methods is to never be completely satisfied, I always try to point into the future, proceeding, looking ahead. And when you listen to the recordings in the cage a record makes for them they already seem to belong to the past, but overall I’m satisfied. ”
Plans for the future?
“Maybe I’ll work on the musical score for a film, but this is still very uncertain. I’d like to work on a film. It’s a much wider perspective than when you do your own thing as an end in itself. Working with other artists, other artists; you have to consider many more elements. It is no longer just “your music”, it becomes a collaboration.
“Then, we’ll have to play in Europe, perhaps in New York in May. But most of all I’d like to have a bit of time to sit and think. Sit down and re-evaluate, sit and mend.
“The tours are soul destroying, a full-time commitment. However, it’s important to communicate directly with the public.
“I have great hopes for the future, a lot of energy and desire to work… ”
And so Paddy concludes, making me thing that perhaps a period of negativism, introspection and depression is coming to an end in the British music scene. Perhaps it’s finally coming back down to earth, with almost desperate references to the past. I don’t know what to think.
I can’t really take a view, nor can I understand if it’s conservatism that provides a sense or security or creates a need for positivism, simplicity….
I do not know, I do not know. Anyway I like Prefab Sprout. And that’s that.