Basically the only thing they’re missing is a good big worldwide hit, just to get everyone on their side, and success will be in the bag. Because, casually, without being glamorous or fashionable, without making concessions, and walking at their own pace, Prefab Sprout is are the process of pleasing an audience who previously hadn’t seen much in them
Smart enough to satisfy lovers of beautiful songs, intense enough not to disgust the rockers, performed and produced with a care that can only delight the owners of sophisticated hi-fi equipment, at the same time commercial yet stripped of enough gloss to satisfy the underground, their music is perfect for when you don’t know who’s coming to dinner. The head and heart of this Dire Straits with brains, Paddy McAloon also happens to be a charming character… Passionate and talkative, he retains the simplicity and approachability of the provincial, is proud of it and determined to remain so. Originally from the Newcastle area, the group returns there as soon as the obligations of the business (limited, as Prefab Sprout don’t tour) permit. It’s a group not likely to disappear in ego conflicts, given its “family structure”. Bass player Martin is none other than Paddy’s younger brother. Wendy (keyboards and voice) is his girlfriend. Neil Conti, the drummer, can consider himself lucky the McAloon clan doesn’t count other musicians in its ranks…
Paddy McAloon – I would have included our third brother, but he didn’t really care for music. His thing is cinema mostly. He’s trying to be an actor. Many people ask us if there are conflicts in the relationship between Martin and me as there often in groups where brothers work together, the syndrome of the brothers Davies of the Kinks, for example. I see very well how such things can occur: as we grow up, our personalities assert themselves and our desires and tastes differ. Luckily, we don’t have such problems. We also take care we don’t see too much of each other outside the periods when we have to work together. I really hate the phone. In general I’m not someone who likes to see a lot of people.
R & F – You still see Wendy outside Prefab Sprout?
McA – Ah ah, yes, of course, but that said, when we work, I don’t see her as my girlfriend. Lots of people believe I formed this group with my girlfriend while the opposite is true. I formed Prefab with my brother and a drummer friend who left the group shortly before “Swoon”. Wendy joined the group later and we started dating after that. It’s funny because we’re not like those groups where everything is discussed democratically. At the same time, it’s not Paddy accompanied by a backing band.
R & F – You don’t look like a tyrant.
McA – We have a way of working that works for us. Yes, I’m the leader, I write the songs, I give interviews to avoid confusion …
R & F – Your desire not to tour doesn’t frustrate the others in the group?
McA – No, I think Wendy and Martin have the same reluctance as me in that regard. As for Neil, he took the opportunity to play with a bunch of people. He worked with Bowie and Level 42, but also on records or on stage with lesser-known people. He’s someone who really loves playing his instrument. I much prefer writing songs or creating an album. We’ve played together a lot. When Prefab Sprout started, we spent hours rehearsing. “The Golden Calf” dates from this period, for example, but I don’t like the idea so much today of playing the same song over and over again without a break. The process of rehearsing is one of the reasons I don’t like performing.
R & F – When did you start writing songs?
McA – I was about fourteen or fifteen. I wanted to do it, I feel the need, but I had no idea where to start. It was a bit like trying to grab hold of an egg. It was smooth and oval. How do I introduce a chorus? I didn’t know how it worked.
R & F – How did you find your way?
McA – Just instinct. I don’t know … By experimenting a lot. I’m not one of those brilliant people who sees something and understand immediately how it’s done. I don’t know how to drive a car, I don’t know how to write a novel… I don’t know how I learned. I wrote loads of things and over time things started to fall into place. I think if I knew exactly how I do it, I’d always write the same song.
R & F – You have a few recipes all the same?
McA – Of course. For example, having a title before starting: You can write a bunch of songs from the same title. Everything depends on the angle you decide to take. From “Cars And Girls” for example, you can create something that will be the Beach Boys or Bon Jovi or Springsteen and Prefab Sprout. A few years ago I’d never have chosen titles like “Cars And Girls” or “King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. In themselves these are horrible clichés. It’d have seemed impossible for me to write a good song with a title like that. Today, I just think it’s interesting to do something to offset these clichés.
R & F – Do you remember the title of your first song?
McA – Yes … “Tramp”. It’s funny because the last song on the album “Venus Of The Soup Kitchen” deals with essentially the same theme.
R & F – And the worst?
McA – I believe that must be something like “Joshua And The Fried Bread”. It was my surrealist period. I was completely influenced by Marc Bolan, who specialised in this kind of title. When I was a kid I took it for granted. I was trying to find meaning on a simplistic level. Then at seventeen, eighteen the journalistic syndrome struck. You start to write things that mean something, when suddenly you understand that the “flowers cut down in the fields” are actually a metaphor for war. You say to yourself: wow, that’s something profound. It’s only later that you realize that this form of writing is just another cliché. Then I think comes the verbose phase: you write too much, you want to put too much in and it becomes indigestible. I think our first album, “Swoon”, suffered from some of that. We wanted to put too many things on it.
R & F – How do you compose? On a guitar?
McA – No, very rarely. I usually use a small synth. It allows me to consider how the arrangements will work, how the other instruments will nestle together and to get a global vision of the song.
R & F – Do you participate a lot in the production process?
McA – More and more, but again I’m not really a technician. Thomas Dolby, for example, who produced “Steve McQueen” and a good part of the last album is a true magician of arrangements. He knows exactly what the possibilities and the limits of a particular instrument are. I try to leave a part of it to accident. For the strings for example, I’d worked out the place where I imagined them to be, the general colouring, but I left it to an arranger who brought his own vision to it.
R & F – You have a writing style that is considered very literary.
McA – Some people say that. I don’t think that simply not talking about the current topics pop music tackles makes you a literary writer, but it’s true that it is a word that’s often applied to Prefab Sprout. I think I’ve simplified my style on the last album. Where previously I was introspective, I try now to take the point of view of characters who are not necessarily me. “Cars And Girls” is somewhat the dilemma we’re faced with when we’re in the habit of writing a bit about the mythic themes of rock and we realize that life is much more complicated than that. I also rediscovered the pleasure of playing with words for their sound. In “King Of Rock n ‘Roll”, for example,” Hot Dog, Jumping Frog, Albuquerque”, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a series of Americanisms. In a way it’s kind of what Bolan did, or of course people like Chuck Berry. Memphis Tennessee … All that.
R & F – What is King Of Rock n ‘Roll about?
McA – You could imagine that it would be a sort of Elvis Presley imitator. Someone who still chases the dreams of adolescence, someone trying to convince himself and to convince others that he’s still eighteen when he hasn’t been for a very long time. “Hot Dog Jumping Frog, Albuquerque”, the refrain is a happy contrast to the rest. You might imagine that this is the song he always dreamed of writing
R & F – This is a reflection on the fact that rock today has to deal with its history
McA – Exactly. The pop-music has thirty years of pastnow. And I think with age we have to expand our horizons. Even kids who start today know they need not sing “be bop lula has, she’s my baby …” They know that a little later they will inevitably be confronted with other ideas, other responsibilities. Rock today has a history, even if it wasn’t planned. “Hope I die before I get old” such ideas have had their day. Ultimately, it was a quite immature worldview.
R & F – Do you have an image of your audience?
McA – I force myself not to think about it. I think there is a certain purity in not paying attention. I didn’t want to write specifically for an audience of teenagers or for an adult audience. In the same way as I didn’t want to tour so I’d avoid making myself write songs that are easy to interpret on stage. That said I quite understand that the younger people in our audience perhaps don’t always understand what we’re talking about in our songs. But then … I didn’t either. I didn’t understand everything Bolan when I was fourteen. If they want to put “King Of Rock n ‘Roll” as a pop song next to Duran Duran in a store, it doesn’t bother me. I hate elitism. From the moment a song is released, it belongs to the public.