Prefab Sprout? Let’s face it, it’s a terrible name. I know it’s taken from a misheard Nancy Sinatra song, but it still sounds, well, dumb(?). And dumb is the one thing the Sprouts (Their word, not mine) could not be accused of. In the past, indeed, they’ve been chided by the music press for being just too damn clever—clever; a back-handed compliment given the cheap and tawdry world of pop.
Originally a three-piece band blasting out their songs a la pub rock style (if you can believe it), they’ve progressed to a stage two years ago where they were being heralded as the next big thing. Lauded by critics they released several excellent singles (‘Lions In My Own Garden’, ‘Don’t Sing’) and a shimmering debut L.P., ‘Swoon’ with its stunning jewel in the crown, ‘Cruel’. But success? Not quite.
Now in 1985 they return with a stable line-up Paddy McAloon (guitar/vocals),brother Martin (bass), Wendy Smith (vocals), Kevin Armstrong (guitar), Neal Conti (drums), Michael Graves (keyboards),and the L.P of the year, the wonderfully titled ‘Steve McQueen’. So with critical acclaim once more completing the circle, perhaps they’re due the success they deserve.
THE LEARNING YEARS
HAVE YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO BE IN A BAND AND HAS THAT BAND JUST BEEN PREFAB SPROUT?
Martin the bass player and myself are brothers, and we learned to play the guitar quite early; he was 7 and I was 11 or 12. Quite early on I grasped the fact that all my heroes played their own songs. I don’t know why I grasped that fact really, I was quite happy playing David Bowie / Marc Bolan songs and things like that, but I knew that these people wrote their own material; and therefore before I had a band I wrote songs.
YOU MENTION EARLY HEROES; WHO WERE THEY?
Marc Bolan, David Bowie, the Beatles songs I’d heard on the radio; just pop things. The good thing about that age is that you’re not worried about your taste.
THAT COMES LATER…
Exactly, all that worrying! So I was generally open to things. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, Simon and Garfunkel I remember when that was out. I blush to think of it now, but Paul Simon wrote some really great songs, and that was one of the first songs I learnt to play on the guitar. So a band was inevitable after playing for a few years.
SO THAT WAS THE BEGINNING OF PREFAB SPROUT?
Well, it’s gone through quite a few changes. Originally we were a three-piece; back in 1977, my brother, myself and a friend and at that time we knew what we wanted but we couldn’t afford the gear; the same old story with every band. You rehearse in terrible places, horrible venues, bad sound systems.
I ASSUME THAT WOULD CAUSE GREAT PROBLEMS AS I’VE ALWAYS CONSIDERED PREFAB SPROUT TO HAVE AN INTRICATE SOUND.
That’s right. In the early days some of the things, as nowadays, were quite sophisticated and intricate. And if you’ve got a bad sound system then it’s crap and in rehearsals especially. If you aren’t getting any encouragement when you hear yourself then you just don’t want to do it.
I went through a phase where I just thought, what the hell; this was after ‘Lions In My Own Garden’. I thought there’s no point in just demoralising yourself if you can’t do it as well as you want, which has been a problem ,to be honest, with a few of our early gigs. We would go and play places and I didn’t want to do them because I wasn’t prepared, but I felt obliged to do them because we had a record out…
When we started we did a lot of those songs like ‘Faron Young’. I’m talking about 1977 when we first started to play live, and we’d do them and they’d be really raucous and rough and I wouldn’t be very happy about it, and we played them to death in the pubs of Durham. I mean ‘Goodbye Lucille #1’ I wrote as it appears on ‘Steve McQueen’, but we used to play it like the Clash, “Oh Johnny!! Johnny Oh!!” and thump our way through it because we didn’t know how to be subtle with it.
HOW MUCH, THEN, IS PREFAB SPROUT A BAND,RATHER THAN OPPOSED TO BEING JUST PADDY McALOON?
It is a band. I never know how to describe it, as I write all the songs — so there’s no pretence that we all write them together but after that it’s really very open. I see my input as I’ve got the initial vision of the thing; I know roughly what I want, but if someone has a better idea and says do it like this, then there’s no ego problem there. We all want to make a good record. It also helps having my brother Martin as we don’t spend a lot of time talking about what we want as we’re pretty much on the same wavelength. Wendy’s deferential as she doesn’t really know a lot about pop music anyway; she’s never been that much interested in it. Last year we brought Neil into it; he’s an excellent musician.
YOU SAID THAT SOME OF YOUR SONGS ARE 7 OR8 YEARS OLD: DOES THAT PRESENT A PROBLEM WHEN YOU RECORD THEM? HOW DO YOU APPROACH THEM?
It should be a problem. when we came to record ‘Swoon’, I didn’t want to do any of the things we’d done to death. A few of them we did; ‘Don’t Sing’ was an old one, but we went very sophisticated, loads of arrangements, and I couldn’t Face ‘Bonny’ or ‘Faron Young’, or any of those; Martin positively hated them!
WAS THAT BECAUSE YOU’D BEING PLAYING THEM SO LONG?
Yes, and because we heard them in a rehearsal environment and we were pissed off with them. But when we played our songs to Thomas Dolby (who went on to produce ‘Steve McQueen), he didn’t know which was an old song or a new song. So I thought I’d let him choose the songs to put in. And the balance is brilliant; mainly new ones, but several old ones as well I also thought if I didn’t take the chance now with a man who doesn’t think they’re dated — who’s obviously never going to settle for a pub-rock arrangement of them — then I’m never going to do them. And the funny thing is a lot of them are true to the original spirit; ‘Faron Young’ is pretty much as we used to play it live, but on record it’s immeasurably more sophisticated, without losing the raw edge.
IT’S A LOT WIDER…
Yes, that’s it. There’s a depth to the production now, and I’m rather pleased that no-one has been able to say this is a dated song. You’re right; it could be a problem; what are you doing playing old songs? Do they mean the same? —whatever. But if I Felt anything was dated, or too immature for comfort, I wouldn’t do it. But I’m really pleased.
WHY DID YOU OPT FOR THOMAS DOLBY AS PRODUCER? HE’S HARDLY THE PEOPLES’ FIRST CHOICE.
Well, I’m sort of a perverse bastard! I liked the idea of having him. I’d heard him on the radio defending ‘Don’t Sing’, so I thought he was a good sort of bloke, as you do. Then I heard him pick 10 of his favourite records.
A CASE OF MUTUAL TASTE?
Yes. I’d heard him pick ‘Johnny and Mary’ by Robert Palmer, a Marvin Gaye song, one by the Band, a Beatles song, the Beach Boys… Similar tastes, and I thought, why not? Besides, he’s a keyboard player and I’m an amateur one myself, and I knew he was well up on keyboard technology which is important as I want to learn about music.
HOW DO YOU WRITE YOUR LYRICS; ARE THEY WRITTEN WITH A VIEW TO BE READ OR TO BE LISTENED TO?
Just because your lyrics might have some poetic effect I’m not daft enough to believe that what I write is poetry. Lyrics without the support of music lose something. What I do is a song, which is a combination of words and music; like a pyramid of the best of things.
It’s very difficult to describe the effect you wish to get with your lyrics. I don’t like to give the impression that listening to the Sprouts is like going to college. I don’t like that. I want to be fun, but at the same time I weigh my words carefully because you’ve got to live with them forever. I mean, if I could write something as wonderfully throwaway as “Be-bop-a-lula” a Little Richard lyric with conviction, then I’d do, it, but I’ve got a different kind of voice; I can’t do that.
I’m always frightened when people say it’s poetry or poetic language. Some of the lyrics I’ve got are more direct and a bit less intense and I’ve got songs that are just a laugh. I work on instinct, on feeling; a lot of people have failed to pick that up. Articles that have been done on us seem to think it’s kind of clever whether that’s a good or bad thing…— people never seem to realise that everything I do is instinct, even if I work at a lyric to try and get it right in the end it’s not my mind I’m appealing to, it’s the heart and the feeling it gives.
YOU WRITE FROM THE HEART, BUT YOUR LYRICS ARE OBVIOUSLY WELL THOUGHT OUT.
We divorce the heart and head, as a kind of convenience; whereas really most people work decisions out not with one thing over the other.
Life’s too complicated, and a song that doesn’t reflect that complexity isn’t really doing its job. A song should reflect the way things are, which is complicated. In the records I get to make, you cannot write “baby, I love you”, “disco baby”…; I can’t do it. If I had the conviction, then I would. But why try and be like everyone else?
DO YOU FEEL ANY KINSHIP WITH OTHER SONGWRITERS?
I like lots of songwriters, but I’m always wary of feeling some sort of kinship because it would be so presumptuous to think or speak of them. I like Blue Nile’s ‘Tinsel Town In The Rain’; that’s a great song. I like it probably sounds worlds apart — Prince. I love his cheek, his nerve. I love ‘Little Red Corvette’; it’s one of my all—time favourites. Also at home I like Roddy Frame. I hear things all the time; mainstream things.
DO YOU EVER FEEL RESENTFUL OF THE FACT THAT YOU’VE ACHIEVED A GREAT DEGREE OF CRITICAL ACCLAIM,BUT WITHOUT ANY REAL COMMERCIAL SUCCESS?
To be honest I think ‘Swoon’ was worth it. It was a good L.P.; there are faults and excesses that I admit to, but as a personal record, a kind of thing that wasn’t mainstream, it was great.
IS COMMERCIAL SUCCESS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
I’m in two minds about this. I’m personally dying to have a hit single. whereas normally the record company wants the hit single, and the band are artists, with us it’s the other way round; obviously CBS would love us to have a hit single, but they’re quite happy with us, as we’re a long—term prospect.
We make good L.P.s , L.P.s that sell well and establish a reputation. We all know of cases of bands who have top ten records but can’t pull a damn person in to see them. So while I’d love to have a hit single, and I’m slightly resentful of the fact that I thought ‘when Love Breaks Down‘ should have been a massive single, we’ve got so much respect that I’d hate to blow it on a cheap shot to get in the charts. There’s no point; we’ve got an audience who loves what we do, so why I change it? If we have hit singles it’ll be on our own terms.
SO WHY RE-RELEASE ‘WHEN LOVE BREAKS DOWN’?
Well it wasn’t my idea, it was CBS’s. It might even come out again in a month or two. It’s all very well being precious, saying our fans have heard them, or worrying about being a one-song band. CBS told us how many copies of ‘when Love Breaks Down’ sold, and it’s only 10,000 copies; which in the singles market means people don’t know it’s there.
I THINK ‘FARON YOUNG COULD BE A HIT; IT’S CERTAINLY GETTING QUITE EXTENSIVE AIRPLAY.
I hope so; it went in at 75 which is the highest we’ve got since ‘Don’t Sing’ which got to 58 or 59. ‘Faron Young’ I figured is such a change from ‘When Love Breaks Down’; it’s not the most obvious of singles. ‘Appetite’ is, to me at least, a more commercial sound. I mean, you could put anything out for me and I’d be happy artistically. I like the songs; that’s why I record them, but I try to think like a person who isn’t bothered by our reputation. ‘Faron Young’ sounds like it might be a whole lot of fun.