In the new album by his band Prefab Sprout, Paddy McAloon continues his exploration of rock mythology. Sasha Stojanovic.met him one month before the start of a highly anticipated tour.
Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout is considered by many to be the best of the crop of the new British writers, often being compared to such venerated names as Lennon and McCartney.
But where is the commercial success that usually comes with such critical fanfares? From a total of four albums (the fifth, “Protest Songs”, released last year being just an exercise in composition) there have been only three British hit singles: “When Love Breaks Down” (from “Steve McQueen”, 1985), “Cars and Girls”, and “The King of Rock’N’Roll” (from “Langley Park to Memphis”, in 1988). There are nineteen songs on the new album, “Jordan: The Comeback”, and it is divided into four sections: the first containing music aimed at the masses, the second, Elvis (yes, Presley) from which the album title comes: Elvis, as a gospel singer whose spirit has been bathed in the waters of the River Jordan, and his group, not surprisingly called the Jordanaires.
Within this section there are two songs about Jesse James (“Jesse James Symphony”, and “Jesse James Bolero”); the reason not simply being the rebellious nature of Rock’N’Roll, but also coming from the name of Elvis’ stillborn brother, who was baptised Jesse.
The third section talks of love, and the final section of good and evil, God and Lucifer, and the misery of the human condition.
Since their independently released debut single in 1982, “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)”, the group’s records have sold solidly and steadily.
They can be considered as a typical English band, dormant, but on the verge of explosive success. The other band members include Paddy’s brother, Martin, on bass, Wendy Smith on vocals, and Neil Conti on drums. Paddy and Wendy, a little like the Eurythmics, seemed certain to marry, but then suddenly became simply good friends and partners in the band, a band which after four years away from the stage is about to go on tour.
“I’m thrilled,” Paddy announced the beginning of this interview, “but I couldn’t say a thing until quite recently.”
– Why not? What’s different now?
– I don’t know, but I feel great now, because I received some good news on the new single, “Looking For Atlantis,” which is doing well in England. But even if there was nothing in the charts life is smiling on me because I’m very happy with the album.
– There’s always been a strong disparity between the critical acclaim you’ve received and sales of your records, is that something thing that pains you?
– Absolutely not. Indeed I’m pleased that the critics have always been on our side, that means I’ve done something good and that it was appreciated by someone. But fortunately we’ll never be seen as a group that produces individuals. On the other hand I think you’re exagerating when you compare me to John Lennon or McCartney. I’ve written some good songs but I’m definitely not a genius of their stature.
– Steely Dan’s fate seems to be slowly overtaking you: moderate success and continuously growing fame.
– I hope you’re right, something like that would be wonderful. It would be great if my music was appreciated in the future. All I care about is that every new album is better than the previous one, mostly to please myself.
I saw a lot of people overtake us in terms of success and then disappear before being able to make another album. So I’m really pleased to be able to have done five albums in the last six or seven years.
– The new album is again produced by Thomas Dolby, even though he’d on worked on only part of the previous record. Why?
– He wasn’t able to get involved in all the songs on that record and so he chose only those he felt were closest to his taste. For that reason we used a number of different producers, but this time Thomas was determined to work on the whole project. We had to go on to mix the record in Los Angeles because his new wife was angry with us, she told me her husband was spending more time with us than with her. We had twenty-three songs in total, one we discarded because it didn’t work, and two were abandoned because we didn’t have time to finish them.
– The total length of the album is over sixty minutes. You must have been thinking about a compact disk while you were assembling the pieces?
– That’s right. I wanted to make a record in four segments, and I needed all the space I could get to do so. Elvis is the central theme, as “The King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll” was not about him at all, as many people believed, but rather Andy Warhol’s concept of fifteen minutes of fame.
– You have always made music that has never bowed to fashion or to musical styles. Do you feel a bit of an outcast for this?
– No, but by the same token I don’t feel part of anything. Dolby and I have talked at length, on making records with a eye to the radio and then when you put it on the record deck at home you feel nothing. So we decided to make a record that isn’t aimed at anyone in particular, perhaps only to the individual listeners when they take it home. I like to not be part of a movement or a fashion, because this allows our records to sell over the long term, the voice isn’t diluted over time. I’m proud of this.
– And yet I read in an interview that you’d like to do a dance piece one day?
– Very true, I’d like be able to write one, but I was more talking with the journalist about whether I could really do it.
– Are you a big consumer of music?
– Not at all; I buy very few records, and when I do it’s because someone has highly recommended them to me. I usually listen to the big names, or classical music. I’ve a self-imposed thing that I try not to listen to too many things because I’m afraid of being influenced. It’s my conviction, and I try to keep myself as pure as possible.
– And this is the reason why you live in Newcastle, northern England (Geordieland)?
– I never found a good reason to move to London; I find it devoid of any inspiration or attraction for my character. I like to visit London as a tourist but I could never live there. Newcastle is a very familiar place, home. London is great for those who like to be alienated. It’s a city where it’s very easy to be alone.
– In November you will start a tour that you put off for many years because of the excessive pressure you were feeling
– The main reason for this tour is to make our music known more directly, especially in places where until now it’s seemed a little strange. It’s a tour to fill a vacuum, and I hope the album sales will justify it. After twenty dates in England, we will play in the major European capitals, and then we’ll go to America for the first time. We would love to go to Australia.
– Given that the record is now released, are you already writing new songs?
– Yes, and there will be three additional musicians on stage with us. I continue to work on my little pet project, “Zorro The Fox”, I started some years ago when I didn’t want to hear anything about going on tour. I wanted to give my fans something visual that wasn’t the usual sort of video. So I started working on “Zorro” focusing more on different personalities of the characters in a real story. It’s a kind of musical, and I’m not so certain it will work. But something is changing in the way I make music, since it took me very little time to write the songs on the new album, even though there are a lot of them. I don’t know if these changes are counterproductive in terms of quality.
– It’s true that you have to work hard at spontaneity?
– Spontaneity isn’t central, you just have to be honest with yourself. You have to look at a piece of work and be able to understand whether it’s good or not. And often you have to be very cruel, even with your own feelings.
– I think it’s a matter of maturity?
– Maybe you’re right. I must admit to being much more relaxed today towards my creativity than I was before. I’ve always worried too much, but now I let the songs come out as it happens, I don’t to extract them by force as I used to.
– And the new album?
– The title song imagines Elvis Presley living as a recluse in Las Vegas, having faked his death, waiting for a great song he can return with. Someone’s already suggested I should go and listen to the Dread Zeppelin album, “Un-Led-Ed”. [Dread Zeppelin were fronted by a 300 pound Elvis impersonator.]
– Could you shut yourself away at home waiting for the right song?
– Until a few years ago that could easily have happened, but many things have now changed in my way of thinking, especially about music