“Our early style wasn’t acoustic, but the sound of poverty”
Sixth in the Best Group category, third in the songwriting division, fifth best album: these are the rankings Prefab Sprout gained in the NME reader popularity vote in 1985. Despite being highly acclaimed in the UK in recent times, in Japan their first album was released only late in 1984. As a fan, I was worried about their entry onto the Japanese stage. But when it came down to it it was a great success even under great scrutiny. And I’m happy to say that these are the sort of fans whose ears are not influenced by the media.
Not least because the actual performance, although promising, was rough and immature, the fans judgement was split. It seems that the band are fully aware they’re not a great band, great entertainers. Such an impression comes from the many honest, what you might call “unguarded”, remarks in this interview. However in Prefab, this straightforwardness is their greatest weapon. In other words it would be impossible for them to create their unique brand of soft music, very distinct from other bands, without this honesty and reflective nature which creates a reflex towards introspection.
• Your dad was a teacher at a seminary and you say that you attended a seminary yourself. The shadow of Christianity often flickers in your lyrics, but do you think it defines who you are?
“By the way, it was the same with my uncle, too (laughs)… Yeah, there’s a lot of Christian imagery but “Don’t Sing” is depicting the southern states that persecuted Christians, it’s me rewriting Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory” in the form of a song. Rather than religion, what comes to mind is recollections of my childhood. To answer the question, no, I don’t think it does, but I believe in God.
“It was a Catholic priest at the school who taught me the guitar at the beginning. He was still a trainee even though a priest, only 21 or so, we chased after him and pestered him all the time: “Hey! How do you play this?”
• I think you can see Freud’s ethical views at the same time as Christianity there.
“Really? (Laughs) I’ve never read Freud or Jung.”
• In your lyrics, conflicts often arise between analytical reason and intentionally suppressed desire.
“Oh, yes, I see, I can see that, as many of my songs are singing about things that move people, it’s almost a hidden motivation. When you get it, you say: “this isn’t it… Why did I want this in the first place?” And it’s still the case that you want more… Well, I don’t think I thought about that, but probably you’re right (laughs)”.
• By the way let’s talk about how important lyrics are in your music.
“It’s an interesting question, because for songs I’ve written myself if there is even one line I don’t like, I don’t want to sing it. But when listening to other people’s music, if there is some part of it that excites me, the music, the energy of performance, I’ll be fond of it whatever the lyrics are. I certainly like easy-to-understand lyrics, but I don’t know exactly what it was that inspired me in a particular song, even after analysing it word by word. It’s something beyond that.”
• Elvis Costello said “I missed some things I really wanted to express by running too much with technique, and it was a mistake. I also lost ambiguity and irony, and I lost clarity too.” Do you feel the danger of falling into the same trap?
“The danger is that I fall into myself – in the old days I was writing songs only for myself, just listing the words I wanted to hear in an order I want to hear them, but I noticed my favourite songwriters all expressed themselves clearly, so it’s true what Costello has said. His problem is of a different nature to mine, he is certainly possessed by wordplay, it’s a tendency with those who like puns, and it’s laziness as much as anything. You have to really understand English to appreciate it; if you don’t understand English, even if you can make it out, it won’t move your heart, it doesn’t give you anything, just a feeling of how smart you are. My lyrics are certainly a bit ambiguous and use a twisted form of expression, but I don’t use these techniques superficially. For example a normal phrase could be “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”, but if you say “I love you more when I don’t see you”, there’s nothing that makes it difficult to understand except you think “you can’t say something like that”. If you write too casually and use ambiguous expressions, there is a danger of losing fans, but there’s no danger of losing fans if they can understand. All the songs we plan to include in the next album are expressed as clearly as possible. However, since misunderstandings and confusion can happen in any case, it’s important to be confident yourself of what is ambiguous is if you use such expressions.
• By the way, it seems you don’t like being compared with Scotland’s Neo-Acoustic bands ….
“That’s right. I rate Roddy Frame highly as a songwriter, but there are more differences than similarities. There are a lot of people who have some points of similarity who happen to have been around at the same time as us, but I’ve been singing a long time. Around the time, a long time ago, when we were just playing live and before we’d recorded a single, a friend said to me “you guys have made a record!” When I told him we hadn’t hadn’t, “Well,” he told me, “it was just on the radio.” It was Aztec Camera’s “Just Like Gold”. It seems people truly believed it to be one of our songs from a couple of things, such as the chord progression, so there are superficial similarities even between British bands. But one thing you should never forget is that the sound of the first album reflects how poor the band was at that time. The sound of our first album isn’t acoustic, it’s the sound of poverty. We didn’t have a Fairlight or a DX7, we didn’t have a drum machine. I didn’t even know how to program them. I only knew about the guitar. Even when the synthesiser is used, the ratio of guitar is higher, just because of not knowing how to use the synth. I guess you can view it in that light.”
• What motivates you to write songs in the first place?
“Hmmmm… well thinking about myself… probably, I don’t like wasting my time, it’s crazy how fast time passes. That’s why I want to do something, and thinking like that, writing songs is the best work for me. It’s like building a house from the ground up. I can’t stop doing it, I can hear words and music inside me… Of course it’s a pretty selfish pleasure, isn’t it?”