“Basically I want to be left alone”
Paddy McAloon was well on the way to becoming a hermit, but then this brilliant songwriter surprised the pop world with a new album of his band Prefab Sprout. In this interview he talks about music as a vital force, his 400 unreleased songs and an interview quote from the eighties, which he has since bitterly regretted.
Paddy McAloon has become something of a legendary figure in popular music in the last ten to twenty years. In the eighties he had a series of successful albums with his band Prefab Sprout; Steve McQueen in 1985 is widely regarded as a classic. But in the nineties, his career took a mysterious turn. First he frittered years away in his home studio in the north of England working on the demos for the follow-up album to Jordan: The Comeback, then was hit with health problems including a corneal detachment and tinnitus. In the new millenium he confined himself to experiments with instrumental chamber music and publishing new versions of old songs. At the same time McAloon reported in interviews how many completed written but not yet recorded albums he has hoarded in boxes for over thirty years, and periodically there were rumours of fantastic new projects: a musical about Michael Jackson, the history of the Earth in a single forty minute song, a political opera with electronic voices, a pop-reggae album.
And just when you thought you were sure he had turned away entirely from album releases a new Prefab Sprout album appeared on the internet, which then disappeared after just a short time and now on October 4, is officially released. The ten songs on Crimson / Red (Icebreaker Records / Embassy Of Music) are among the most direct and immediate Paddy McAloon has recorded and released, the voice of the 56-year-old sounds youthful and fresh. The English press and his colleagues have lauded him for this home made album, Torquil Campbell from the band “Stars” tweeted that Crimson/Red was a wake-up call for all songwriters to put their work in question and raise their game up another notch. In the interview, even if Paddy McAloon affirms that music is indeed a vital force, he would maybe would have preferred being left in peace.
It’s quite a surprise that after ten or twelve years suddenly an album of brand new material from Prefab Sprout turns up…
Yes, I was surprised myself. I honestly had forgotten that I had a deadline for a new album. I was just about to work on something different when I got a call from my manager, who reminded me. I was pretty annoyed with myself. And I knew I had to do something quickly. So I pulled ten finished songs out my boxes of material and revised and recorded from October to December last year.
How did you come to choose the ten songs on Crimson / Red?
Well, the primary reason for chosing those ten was that because I was in a hurry, they needed to be songs that I could probably play on a guitar very quickly. None of them have a million chord changes or different sections. It’s not like “Swoon”, it’s not as angular as that. If you sat across from me, I could play you most of these songs in some sort of version where they would stand up with just the voice and the guitar. One of the other reference points I had was that the music should be relatively straightforward so that each song would be based on a reasonably simple musical idea that was repeated, the so-called “Strophic form”. This form has fascinated me for a while. And a few years ago, I was really, really into strophic form. But these things change by the month. At the moment I follow back a much more baroque style. My attitude to music is a bit seasonal. Sometimes I want to listen to Alban Berg, and then another month I want to listen to Bob Dylan. It’s a different feel each time.
Was this pressure of time the reason why you have recorded the album all by yourself?
To some extent. But it also has to do with my hearing. Some years ago I had a virus that caused tinnitus and hearing loss in my right ear. Since then, I can hear bass notes very poorly in that ear, and I can not work with other people in the room or make loud noises on bass guitar and drums. I had to find a way to work insanely quietly. That’s why I use the machine and synthesizer modules, where someone else has programmed the bass and drum sounds. And when you work with these artificial instruments, it creates its own momentum, its own life. Not like a band, you can not compare in terms of the quality and the expressive possibilities, but as in the dance music you can try to make an album that is honest, so to speak within its own parameters. Prefab Sprout no longer exists as a living band, there isn’t enough income to pay for other musicians. My brother Martin, with whom I’ve played since my childhood is very understanding. I’m not entirely happy about the situation, but I think the older you get, the more you need to be able to work in some form, even if not the way you imagined it when you started. And I like the fact I can’t hide, I’m responsible for every decision on the album itself.
The songs on Crimson / Red cover musicians and artists, there are songs about Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Webb and Bob Dylan.
Yes, I always come back to this topic. I really have a whole bunch of songs that describe what it is to write songs. That seems almost boring now, because who wants to have only one topic? But anyway, I try to explore it in some depth.
To what extent is music, so to speak, the driving force of your life?
Hmm I’m trying to avoid the word “therapeutic”, and I try to avoid the word “drug”. Let’s just say music is something that gives the rest of my life shape and meaning. If I write a piece or think about a chord progression, then that means that I can pursue the other tasks in my life while I am filled with a melody, and that makes me optimistic. Sometimes I can’t sleep because this tune plays in my head and I try in my subconscious, to find the lyrics. This is probably not healthy in terms of getting a night’s sleep, but to answer your question briefly music is a salvation rather than a curse.
Is there a lot of music in your home? Or not, because of your tinnitus?
It is, as long as it’s not too loud. My daughters love music, but it is difficult for me, because I want them to be able to make music and enjoy it, and not feel the need to be good at it, or that I’m watching them. That’s why we don’t talk much about music. And I try not to dislike what they’re listening to. When they’ll play something and I’ll think it’s terrible, I try to remind myself that my parents weren’t big fans of T.Rex or Captain Beefheart.
Do your kids play instruments?
One of daughters plays guitar, sings a bit. My youngest daughter plays trumpet. Very well, but she doesn’t like it. Therefore, they never practise, which is perfect for me.
This instrument also plays indeed the central role in the song “Billy” from the new album, where a “found” trumpet becomes a symbol of the power of music
Yes, this is the most recent song on the album. Sometimes there are pieces that fall into place one way, without you having a great deal to do. In “Billy” that was the case, the basic idea came to me without me needing to arrange it or change it around. I like songs like that, they’re always special because they are like a gift, a gift from the muse.
After your hit album From Langley Park To Memphis in 1988 said that you mean the success meant nothing; that you could at any time return to work at a gas station, just to live from the “thrill of the songwriting.”
Really? I said that back then? It’s exactly how I see it today. It may sound horrible, but for me it all comes down to this: I don’t attach great importance to an audience. This isn’t meant to be cold or indifferent, but for me the thought of an audience is irrelevant until I’m happy myself with what I’ve done. The audience may follow you if you have been careful not to want to please them. I work hard to forget that music is my profession. When I look at music as a job, it doesn’t work for me. So I will try all my life to build on this feeling from when I spent my time at the gas station, had no money, but the thrill was obvious. The secret of song writing is that: forget it’s a job, forget that someone wants you to write this or that kind of music. For about fifteen years, I’ve been moving back in that direction, and I almost feel like I have again the peace of mind of that time.
In the eighties, you said you were “the best songwriter on the planet”. That’s what I was thinking when I heard the single from the new album, “The Best Jewel Thief In The World”, which is about a jewel thief who can do his work well only thanks to a very excessive self-consciousness.
( Laughs) Yeah, that’s the only quote that I really regret. At that time I was asked by a journalist again and again about the band name, and I thought, man, we just did such a good album, Steve McQueen, this is the time where we can talk about songs, and you ask about the name. That went through my mind, and what came out was this stupid sentence. Of course, you’re ashamed immediately, because there are people named Burt Bacharach and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, and then you have already Joni Mitchell who you did not mention and forget Prince and all the others in the world who write brilliant songs. But that’s exactly the attitude that you need to make great pop music. Absolutely. You shouldn’t say it out loud. But you’re right, and it is in the song “The Best Jewel Thief In The World”, about the arrogance that you need, even if it is inappropriate. You have to be convinced that what you are doing is very good and very important. And then be ashamed about your ego afterwards.
Is the Bob Dylan figure in your song ” Mysterious” a role model for you, in his unwillingness to can be defined by the expectations of others?
The song serves a dual purpose, so to speak. Actually I wanted a kind of short biography of Dylan and his writing, of his arrival in New York up to the moment when he fell off his motorcycle. But then a song about the mystery of songwriting was a part of it: It is a mysterious activity that no one really understands. I’ve just been using the word gift: the poetic experience of music or words comes as such a blessing, and I think every songwriter has the uneasy feeling that this blessing could leave you again someday. The other side of the song is a reflection on Dylan in connection with the life he must have to lead. Because of the degree of expectation. He himself once said that he couldn’t enter a room without changing the atmosphere in it. Like a curse: the Midas effect, where everything you touched changed into gold or some other element. In our culture obsessed by celebrity there is another blessing to be recognized by virtually no one just as I am, even if I’ve written a few songs that people know.
It’s been almost exactly thirty years since the first single of Prefab Sprout appeared, “Lions In My Own Garden”. Some of your colleagues from that time go on tour with Eighties revivals of old hits, others have completely disappeared from the scene. How do you assess your career? Are you proud of what you have achieved in spite of all the frustrations ?
No, I take no joy from the past. Thinking about it disturbs me rather. I don’t have the generosity of spirit to think like that. In hindsight, I wish I had given more to my colleagues in the band, Wendy Smith, my brother Martin and Neil Conti. I wish I had now and then asked them what they wanted. I never did that. I never listen to our old music, I’m always a little embarrassed to be asked about old songs. But for me, the actual recorded output of Prefab Sprout is small compared to all the material that I have at home. I have to remember that for someone else my work is eighty or ninety songs while it is three or four hundred or more for me. And I’m always much prouder of the thing I’m working on than the old stuff.
Okay, a question about an old song : the spoken title track of your album I Trawl the Megahertz of ten years ago is like a long prose poem, a kind of short story with background music. Have you ever thought about writing a book ?
Yes, I’ve tried to write a biography. Not my own, but from a fictional band, a bit like ABBA or Boney M. A band that sold millions of records and was insanely successful, but no one takes very seriously.
The opposite of Prefab Sprout.
This strange kind of fame got me interested, yes, as a story. But I soon realized that I was going to spend forever trying to write a sentence that I felt was in the correct order. I was absolutely terrible at it! I was really bad.
Might you again produce a surprise like Crimson / Red ? Do you have a contract for more albums ?
No, I don’t think I owe anyone any more albums. I’m out of all my contracts, and I like that: Basically, I want to be left alone. But yes you have to make a living, this is the big problem.