His backpack full of romantic fantasies, he carries his soft words into the unchanging meadow where the Beatles and the Beach boys dance. And if resisting the changing tides of fashion has left him with a few grey hairs, his sweet ballads show not the slightest wrinkle.
Seven years after the masterful Jordan: the Comeback, Paddy MacAloon, the lace weaver of Newcastle, is setting off on a new sentimental voyage.
(Paddy MacAloon) I didn’t know Andromeda was the name of a Greek princess. I thought it was just the name of a star, of the Andromeda spiral. The reason I chose the name “Andromeda Heights” for my new album was because in England the word “Heights” is often associated with an address, rather a cosy sort of place, the kind with a little square and small detached houses. As with all songs that have something of a cosmic aspiration, of an everlasting life, I thought the contrast between the cosmic and the familiar aspect of the “Heights” was a wonderful idea. It was amusing to suggest you could have an address in the stars.
Would you agree with the people who say of your music that it mixes modernity with the magical?
I’d agree with that definition. If you’re interested in melody, you always give the impresssion that you’re extending an old idea infinitely, even if you’re looking to do it in a new way. I’m not tired of melody, but a lot of today’s songs are built on old clichés. Millions and millions of them. That means that there are still new musical places to explore. So I’m proceeding from the front of things, even if I remain nostalgic for melodic music, of which I remain a fan. I’m like everyone of my generation who bought records without thinking that one day they’d make their own, and happily I’ve stayed like that. I’ve no pretences and I still ascribe the same significance to the music I grew up with. It’s still a source of inspiration for me today. The artists I discovered were marvellous then still impress me. I don’t like many modern groups except the Blue Nile.
Are you obsessed by music?
Yes, it’s the only means I have to express myself. It took me time to realise that and to learn to play an instrument. I don‘t think it’s the only thing I can do, but life is so short that if you manage to find a road, you launch yourself onto it. For me, it’s about working to try to find things that give me satisfaction. What I prefer doing, at least what is easiest for me, is to start a new song. Well, not easy, I mean enjoyable. It’s like taking a holiday compared to the work of arranging or rewriting little details. During the last seven years I accumulated a pile of songs. A few of them gave me the idea of the theme of Andromeda Heights. In general I allow my instincts to lead me. I don’t know if I’m right (laughs). Sometimes I finish a song very quickly, but most of what I write is 75% good and the rest is passable. It’s this part that takes me the most time… When I started it was strange when I succeeded at finishing something I really liked. When that happened I was beside myself with joy. Now I find it much harder to surprise myself. It’s difficult to reach a new state of mind, a new combination of words that is out of my ordinary. But it still happens (laughs)… I’m more experienced, I’m less anxious. In the past I used to say to myself “I’m fortunate, I’ve written a good song”. Now I know I can write others, I’m no longer worried about that.
What do you think of your own records?
I’ve a clearer opinion about other peoples’ music. I think that a song like “God only knows” by the Beach Boys is a classic song. It’s the perfect expression of a logical construction magnificently interpreted. Quite sincerely, Brian Wilson is wonderful. It’s magic. When I think of my own songs, I have difficulty knowing whether they’re really good. To tell the truth I never listen to them. Because if you think they’re good, you’ll get depressed at the idea of ever writing another. And if you think they’re rubbish it’s preferable to forget them if you want to write better ones. So in both cases it’s better to keep your distance from them. In general I tend to think mine are good to be honest (laughs).
You quote the Beach Boys and you pay tribute to the Beatles. Do you think that musically you’re like the song on the new album, “A Prisoner of the Past”?
No, I don’t think so, because above all I love melody. I know that’s not very fashionable at the moment. We’ve lost our taste for melody, we no longer know how to appreciate it. But for all that, a good melody, it’s like a gift. Fashion has shifted to a younger public which prefers rhythmic music. Personally I try to make a distinction between someone who can only write music following the old school rules, and someone who writes by choosing what is most important to him. Obviously I put myself into the second category. I‘m not a fanatic for the good old days. I wouldn’t want to record records like they did in the sixties, we know too much technically now to take a step backwards. Even if I dream of working with producers like Quincy Jones or George Martin
What happens in a Prefab Sprout recording session?
I wouldn’t pretend that Prefab Sprout is a group with three or four collaborators. It’s never been like that. I’ve always written all the songs. My brother Martin has always helped and encouraged me, just as Wendy has, to get the best out of myself. But despite that, Andromeda Heights isn’t a solo album with additional contributors from outside. The only comparison that comes to mind is that of a composer with an orchestra, the composer has a job to do and the orchestra helps him complete it. Martin is my brother, this way of working might be difficult for him at the moment. He must feel a bit in the shadow of his big brother, I get in his way and I tell him what to do too. But my songs must go where I believe they should go, both of them understand that very well. A group is a hindrance to your imagination. Socially it provides a very comfortable base, but a group would prevent me from doing exactly what I want to do. To be truthful I’d be desperate. You have to make so many compromises to keep people with such different sensibilities happy. But it works out very well and the main thing is to make a record which has good vibes.
Can the approach of Prefab Sprout be summarised by the sentence from the song “Andromeda Heights”: “Our plans are ambitious”?
If you think you should do things in a particular way, you should do them like that. That will be more important later. Even if it takes a lot of time. People maybe won’t be interested immediately in what you do, but if you think you’re on the right track you have to do it. If it’s a good idea it’ll eventually find a public. I just read a brilliant interview by Brian Eno where he said that when he took the idea of ambient music to the record company, in the seventies, they told him “music without words, a sort of ambient music without a group, how do you expect us to sell that?”. And more than twenty years later, this idea has given birth to an entire movement. It’s one of my favourite notions, if not my favourite, “if you want to do it, do it.”
In 1985 the album “Steve McQueen” made you famous. How do you live in a small town like Newcastle?
I’m not all that bothered about my fame. I don’t think about it every day. If I try to do a little publicity around this album, it’s to promote my group. If you want to do your job well enough so that people buy your album, you run the risk of becoming famous. But I only do it for the music because on a personal level it worries me to think that someone might recognize me in the street. I don’t think I‘m equipped to cope with that. I’m lucky because the people who recognize me don’t think of me as a pop start like Rod Stewart, but more like someone who writes songs. So it’s more comfortable because I haven’t got a driving licence and I can take the bus into Newcastle without having to grow a beard or wear a hat. It’ll be more difficult in the weeks to come because when you release a record people see you on television. As that hasn’t happened to me for a long time, I’m a little worried of what may happen to me. Usually I‘m quite relaxed about my occupation because people in Newcastle know exactly who I am and leave me absolutely in peace.
Newcastle isn’t famous for its bucolic environment, yet this album only talks of butterflies, of the sky and the sun?
I don’t know if there’s a direct link between my music and the city of Newcastle. The landscapes I describe in my songs aren’t precise locations. I don’t write a lot about Newcastle. For me it’s above all a city that protects me from being bothered by the record company, and allows me to avoid bumping into fans. If you hold yourself apart from the music business, you’re more able to observe and be yourself. It’s an ideal situation for someone who writes music.
Why did you use these words, butterflies, etc… sometimes very close to being cliches?
Yes, these are very simple images. Like the music possibly. It’s the whole difference between writing music and writing poetry. Poetry hangs on single words. Song lyrics don’t ring out on the paper, but if you sing them with the music behind them, it creates a certain atmosphere. At least I hope we manage that (laughs). There’s a romantic sentiment in this album. Even Electric Guitars is a love song to the original pop stars. It’s dedicated to the Beatles. But it’s not simply a romantic album in the sense where a “boy meets girl”. It’s also about what we think of our lives, of our hopes and our dreams. Love songs are the best suited to tell this kind of story. They can avoid appearing pompous or approaching too close to the truth.
Why did you decide to record a new album after seven years of silence?
I didn’t take the decision consciously. It’s a little bit of an accident that the album is coming out now. During these seven years I’ve been very busy on a lot of things, of which the most important was my project about the history of the world – Earth: the story so far. When I finished the conception of this album the record company asked me to rework it. And I lost a lot of time rearranging this music to the point where I was happy with it on a personal level. At the end I had 48 songs rather than 24, which made the record company even less happy. At that point, after all these weeks of work, I needed to do some work to earn a living. And an English actor, Jimmy Nail, gave me the opportunity of doing that, he gave me the possibility of leaving my own universe and his album Crocodile Shoes was such a success that I was able to build my own studio with the proceeds. After doing Jimmy Nail’s album I was contacted by his record company to ask me to write music for Cher. Which is what I did because it’s a great pleasure to hear these artists sing my songs. It’s a marvellous feeling. I loved playing the guitar behind Cher and there was a moment where I had goosebumps hearing the voice I’d known for years singing my words. But I don’t like duets, I don’t think my songs suit them at all. Past a certain point I know that even if the other person has a fantastic voice I’d probably be troubled by a series of notes and I’d end up saying “Oh I don’t think it’s necessary to do that (laughs)”. All that is so far from what I think I’m capable of doing. And then, when I took the decision to work again on Prefab Sprout music I left the History of the World behind me.