This is the second instalment of a two part interview with Thomas Dolby on the occasion of the publication of his memoir on October 11th. To pre-order via Amazon UK, click on the graphic of the cover.
I’m about forty minutes into my call with Thomas Dolby, and glancing nervously at my watch.
He’s softly spoken and articulate, lucid, only occasionally pausing to find precisely the right phrasing or word. Engaging too. He listens carefully to the questions and takes care to answer them properly. There is a proper beginning, middle and end to his responses.
It’s fascinating and I’m lapping it up. And that’s a problem, because I’ve only got a one hour slot booked and I want to talk about Prefab Sprout. We’ve already spoken at length about his formative years, about how he works, about his expeditions of exploration into the world where technology meets the sublime. And about his memoir. Which, with every word he speaks, I’m looking forward to more and more.
I could quite happily carry on like this for the whole hour. But this is a Prefab Sprout blog, and I have to move the conversation onto that subject. By the time I do we’re so short of time I have to beg for the indulgence of an extension, which thankfully is granted.
I’ve written previously about Thomas Dolby’s meeting with Prefab Sprout, and I sent him a link to that as part of the emails arranging the interview. When we talk about it he guesses I’d pieced things together from various interviews, and I suppose that’s at the base of it. But in my mind the story appears as a sort of imaginary biopic, and what I did when writing the piece was essentially just to describe that film. Because the story does have the stuff of a low budget but lovingly constructed British film about it.
In my mind, an early incarnation of Ewan McGregor – “Shallow Grave” era – takes the Dolby role. Gawky, bespectacled, a little louche, lounging slightly bored in the Roundtable studio and gradually losing patience with his co-reviewers. And so on. The train journey out of metropolitan civilisation. The inevitably incomprehensible Geordie taxi driver taking Dolby from the city centre into a remote but beautiful countryside. There’s an element of the Addams Family meets Rocky Horror in the nervous pause between him knocking on the door of the gothic McAloon residence and Martin appearing to answer it. Like Lurch. Jeremy Irons takes the role of Paddy of course, Colm Meaney as Martin, and the young Meryl Streep as Wendy. And a cameo from Sting as the n’er do well and aspiring but unsuccessful local pop singer Gordon Sumner, whose grandmother worked in the church next to the house, and who idolises Paddy.
So engrained is this imagery that I do have to remind myself mentally that I’m talking to someone who was actually there in reality, and that my own story is pretty much all made up. It’s a very strange realisation. So, pinching myself, I started by exploring what each side of the relationship brought with it.
Let’s talk about Prefab Sprout. There’s the old saying about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, which is that he brought her class, and she brought him sex appeal. So in your relationship with Prefab Sprout, who was Fred, and who was Ginger?
“[Laughs]Paddy tried to be the Fred Astaire of words… And comparisons of Wendy with Ginger Rogers are a little bit unfounded, despite the attempts of some video makers to turn her into a screen goddess…”
But going back to the underlying point behind the question, did you bring refinement or did you bring surface sparkle and pizzazz?
“Hmmm, well I don’t think they were refined when I met them at all. They came at it in a really interesting way, and this is maybe one of the things that is fascinating about them. It started with Paddy’s lyrics. He never intended them as poetry, he always meant them as lyrics, but everything grew out of that.
“And as you well know and as you’ve written, he lived in a little bedroom where the bed was built on a stack of piles of lyrics and they were often written on music manuscript paper. The lyrics would be there and then there would be little notes above, musical notes, E, Am, Cm7 written over the top. He would write them accompanied by a chord book that showed him the fingering to play those chords on the guitar and when he strummed the guitar he was reading and singing his lyrics and the guitar accompaniment was made to fit the phrasing of the lyrics so that some bars ended up having 5 or 3 beats in them and some phrases ended up having 7 or 9 bars in them.
“And he would just keep strumming until it felt appropriate to sing the next line. And when he was singing, depending on the shape his voice was in, if he felt that he was in the wrong octave he would suddenly jump an octave in the middle of a phrase. But it was all to serve the lyrics.
“Martin would sit opposite Paddy with a bass guitar and would look at the bottom string on Paddy’s guitar and would match that on the bass. But often the bottom string on the guitar isn’t actually the root note of the chord, so Martin would end up writing these very interesting and unusual bass lines that weren’t conventional bass lines because he wasn’t really playing the root note of the chord.
“You add a drummer into that, and if he’s a clever drummer he’ll say ‘Paddy that’s really interesting the way that phrase has got 7 bars in it and I thought if I just added this little paradiddle on my hi-hat in the 7th bar then that would lead quite nicely into the next phrase.’
“And Paddy would sort of say, ‘ah OK’, and if there was a chord change that was a little strange and Martin didn’t know what note to play he would just do a big slide to sort of cover it up.
“Then Paddy would say ‘well but I want some harmonica on it because I love Stevie Wonder’, or whatever it would be. So that the way that their stuff was put together was fantastic and off the wall and sounded unlike anything else that I’d ever heard.
“But it was meaty and it was not just simple relationship songs they had, because there’d be songs about a whiskey priest in Mexico or whatever, and it seemed to me that they just had this literary escapism to the songs.. It was like reading a book but trying to simultaneously piece together a musical puzzle and I just found it fascinating
“And also it’s not precious, which is really interesting. I mean it’s highly literary and yet within a single verse it would go from first person to third person or present tense to past tense and a lot of literary minded people wouldn’t allow that. He allowed himself to be very incorrect, he was unselfconscious about that and I loved that. And I also loved the fact that there are lyrics in there that you can’t make any sense of, they’re beyond cryptic, you know, it’s a bit like, I mean Bowie always did this, a lot of what Bowie wrote, it would make you scratch your head… there was a question mark about it and there was no deeper meaning to it really, he’d just do it and it worked well.
“But listening to the Sprouts in those days was quite a didactic thing. You couldn’t dance around to it, you could barely tap your foot to it. It was challenging listening and so I had the odd word in my ear from Muff Winwood or Keith Armstrong saying ‘Thomas if you can make this a bit more accessible we’d really appreciate it.’
“I fell in with that not because I wanted to make it more accessible and therefore sell more copies but because I just felt there was something a bit deterrent about their music for most people. It was just too challenging but if you could iron out some of the rough edges and make it a bit more symmetrical it would be easier… it would be an easier point of entry .. it would grow them a fanbase more rapidly if they could simplify it without losing the essence and the personality of what was there, that was the challenge.
“But that was a very appealing challenge to me for the reasons we’ve mentioned when discussing arranging. It was about economy and turning some of those 7s and 9s and 5s into more symmetrical figures. Which in turn meant Paddy slightly re-learning the way that he sang things and phrased things. And then with the bands arrangements, just saying ‘let’s keep it simple, where’s the focus?’ If there’s a harmonica in the intro, we need that harmonica to go away and leave a hole into which the lead vocal will fall.
The story about you hearing “Don’t Sing” on Roundtable is well known. But what happened next?
“Well the way you documented it is largely correct. I suppose you pieced that together from various interviews and things? I got a call from Keith Armstrong because he’d heard me saying nice things about them on Roundtable and he said they’d signed a deal with CBS and they were looking for a producer and would I be interested. And absolutely I was interested and he said ‘well you should meet with the band and it might be best if you went up and met with them in Cumbria.’
“So I took the train up and I went to the house and was very warmly welcomed by Paddy and Mart and their mum. It was a fascinating place, you know, a very remote house, formerly a rectory as you know and there were still a couple of icons on the stairs so it definitely had that feel to it. After a large meal I just went and sat with Paddy for a few hours in his bedroom and he would just pull out these stacks of songs from under his bed and he’d start strumming. He’d have to remind himself of them, some of them were relatively recent but I think some of them were already five years old at that point.
“I was running a tape recorder and on the train back I listened through to them. I’d recorded probably 40 songs like this and I just picked out my favourites. And that pretty much became Steve McQueen although the one addition to that was that when we were sound checking at Marcus Studios they played a little bit of Hallelujah which hadn’t been one of the ones I’d picked from Paddy’s demos, but when I heard the band playing that I really liked it so I said ‘oh let’s do this one as well.'”
So what was running through your head as you were listening to Paddy playing?
“Oh just the raw talent was astonishing. You know it was just… they were so evocative and had so many possibilities. It felt like a bit of a blank canvas to me because this was not a band that already had many years of history behind it with a preconception of their sound or what they sounded like, you know. They were open enough to my input that I could have an effect, but at the same time there was so much raw talent there that I didn’t need to impose myself on it, all I really needed to do was to be the editor, be the filter, and then add a little fairy dust of my own with the keyboards
“It was just a very nice balance, and a very good working dynamic because Paddy was so modest about it. He didn’t let me walk over him and he had his own opinions about things obviously but it was a true collaboration, we would arrive at decisions together and very constructively, we didn’t row about very much, but there was pushback and there were decisions to be made and it fell in very naturally.
“So yeah, that was the process. There was a lot of rehearsal time before we went in the studio while we were fine tuning the arrangements we were narrowing down. We were actually nailing down the length of intros and instrumental sections and things which had never been nailed down before. They had left them fairly loose when they played them up to that point but we had to nail them down and be very specific about the arrangement, to a drum fill or a guitar riff or a bass run or whatever it may be. It got very specific and so we practiced so we could be effective when we went in the studio. And by the time they went into the studio the arrangements were so good that once the mikes were set and the sounds were approximately set it basically mixed itself. And then what we added were the glossier layers adding lots of Wendy vocals and doubling those with Fairlight and my piano and things like that.”
What do you remember about the songs that didn’t make the cut? Like the legendary “Snowy Rents a Dog”?
“I don’t remember very much about rejected songs. I do remember that song from the demos but I don’t know why that was passed up really. I think probably as time went on and they became more commercially successful, I think the preconceptions took hold. That’s what happens in the music industry, it’s that there’s this mould that everybody wants you to start to fit into and if you do something that doesn’t fit the mould you start to get pushback. You have the prerogative to push back, to put your foot down and say this is absolutely the way I want it, and they will usually say ‘OK, we respect you, you’re the artist, have it your own way.’ But behind the scenes you lose co-operation and things start to get more difficult.
“I think that was happening to them as well and I think the climax to that really was when Paddy made his album with songs like ‘Ride Home to Jesus’ on it and so on, and the record company rejected it because it had too much God in it.”
You only produced four songs on the follow-up, ‘Langley Park to Memphis’, one of which includes my favourite Sprout song, ‘Venus of the Soup Kitchen’. What can you tell me about how that was arranged, and where the choral section came from?
“I don’t remember very much about that. They wanted me to produce that album and I was living in LA and I was doing other things so I said ‘look I can’t come to the UK and record a whole album with you.’ So they said ‘well what about if we came to you and we did some songs in LA and take it from there?’
“So they headed over and I can’t remember whose idea it was to add the choral thing, but I was able to find this choir in LA called the André Crouch singers. They’re pretty well known, they’ve won Grammies and things for gospel stuff. We met up at Stevie Wonder’s studio and it was fantastic. I think there were about 30 of them but there were only 4 or 5 of the principals, and they sat Paddy down at the piano and lined the piano and they just looked at each other and they figured out their harmonies and then they passed those harmonies onto the rest of the choir and all of this was done without writing anything down.
“They were very much in their element and they loved it. I remember André Crouch saying to Paddy ‘You’re a church boy?’ And Paddy answering ‘Well in a manner of speaking…’
“But yeah that was an interesting experience, and I think Stevie Wonder wandered in at some point and made himself known and that led to him playing harmonica for them later.”
Did you feel that as the relationship went on into subsequent albums that Paddy was bringing much more finished things to the party so there was less to do?
“Yeah, Paddy got very good at making demos himself at home and very often in later years – and certainly in the 90s when he was sending demos – I felt there was nothing for me to do here. He could have put things out like they were and they’d be just great. We could have spent a fortune and a lot of time in the studio and only add 5%.
“In fact by the time we got to Jordan, I was actually terrified of the responsibility of going to try to improve on the best songs from the demos. In particular ‘Wild Horses’ or ‘Jesse James Bolero’. I heard those and I thought ‘what can I possibly do to improve these?’
“But Paddy felt very strongly that unless it was recorded in a top professional studio and so on that it wasn’t good enough to put out, that was always the feelings that he had. Probably the biggest point of contention that I ever had with him was that in later years I said ‘Paddy just put this out, let Martin build web sites and social media and grow your fan base and you could put out 2-3 albums a year that you recorded at home for next to nothing and make a perfectly good living, you don’t need a big record company!’ And he’d reply ‘Oh no Thomas it’s got to be done right.’ He always believed that real records were made in real recording studios and that they’d come out and the poster would be in the window of WH Smiths and they’d be in the charts and the wall of Woolworth’s and they’d be on Top of the Pops, and that was what a real record was.”
And at about this time you drifted away from the music business?
“Yeah, well I mean I got very disenchanted with the music business at the end of the 80s. Part of this was probably my own fault because the managers and record labels would have liked me to have distilled the formula that had made me commercially successful and just churn out a few more hits.
“And if I’d said to them ‘Ah, I want to make organic, introspective, atmospheric music and write songs like ‘Screen Kiss’ and ‘Budapest by Blimp’ they probably would have said ‘all in good time, Thomas, all in good time, let’s first establish you as a stadium selling act with a string of platinum albums, then you can diversify into more interesting stuff.’
“But I wasn’t going to stick around and wait for that. I thought ‘well I don’t mind foregoing the commercial aspects of it if I can record ‘Screen Kiss’ today, so I lost their co-operation, and the repercussions of that were worse than I thought. I was sort of trapped in the contract and once you lose the co-operation of the label it’s very hard to get things done.
“You start to feel very frustrated as an artist. So as the music business in general was starting to go down the pipes, I mean the cracks were starting to appear and record sales were trailing off, there were the first signs of piracy via digital files and the music industry was just not a happy place.
“In 1992 I was living in Los Angeles but I’d been doing more and more trips to Silicon Valley to see software and hardware companies I’d been working with, like Apple and Digidesign and so on and I found it a fascinating world. It was just an enthralling and thrilling place to be.
“I saw immediately that sound was very undervalued in this world. The big tech companies, the Microsofts and the IBMs and the Intels preferred to not even have loudspeakers on their products because it would annoy the guy in the next cubicle. But they would take meetings with me because it was kind of hip to meet a MTV star and maybe hit up some backstage tickets for the next Rolling Stones concert, and so I was able to get into meetings with all of these tech companies.
“They would listen to my ideas and I would be telling them how there needed to be music on computers, not just professional musicians computers in recording studios, but the general public needed to have music on their computers. And that with the internet coming we could all be distributing music instantaneously with a file download instead of this whole retail manufacturing thing.
“But it fell on deaf ears for the most part. I mean the tech companies didn’t want to hear it, the music industry definitely didn’t want to hear it because if I was right then all of those pressing plants and fleets of trucks and things that they controlled would no longer be the only game in town, suddenly Intel or Microsoft could be distributing music, and EMI didn’t want to hear that. So nobody was really listening to me. But it was thrilling at the same time and surrounding myself with programmers and so on I was able to invent and build new stuff and it was much more stimulating to me than trying to struggle in this moribund record industry.”
Finally, have you listened to Crimson Red? It struck me that there was a little more acid, more aggression and swagger in that album, I suppose because Paddy was pissed off at being told he had to record it?
“[laughs]Oh yeah, I totally agree, I think that is vital. You know I think the word ‘Antiques’ in ‘Faron Young’ typifies what you’re talking about, and I missed that by the time he got to Andromeda Heights period, it was all a bit breathy and gentle and I was missing that anger. So yeah, I agree with you that ‘Crimson/Red’ has got a little bit of that back in, and I think that’s a crucial piece of the puzzle, that you have this gentle man and you just sense there’s this sort of something churning about underneath.
“Controlled but passionate, and in fact he doesn’t need to scream for you to be aware of that. I mean I think of a song like Ice Maiden and it has this lovely dreamy sort of feel to it, and yet there’s this sort of… well I guess he does a bit of screaming in that because he goes ‘Girl when I burn, hell, nothing’s the same’, etcetera, but that to me is a later example of that amazing balance between that sort of gentle sensuality and something a lot fiercer which is sort of unexpected from a such an unassuming man [laughs].”
And with that I decide to push my luck no further and I thank Thomas for his time. About eighty minutes into a one hour call. It will take me 24 hours to stop buzzing.
One of the comments I had on twitter when I posted the first part of the interview was to bemoan the fact that Dolby had stuck to the contracted memoir length. “I’d love to read the 300,000 word version”, the tweeter said, ruefully.
You and me both.