Not that Paddy McAloon and Prefab Sprout need any introduction. They may have not single-handedly changed the face of modern pop music like The Beatles, but they deﬁnitely offered up something as brilliant and challenging over the years. To his credit, Paddy McAloon has, at least created two of pop’s ﬁnest albums with Two Wheels Good [aka Steve McQueen in the UK] and Jordan: The Comeback. Shortly after the release of Jordan… came the US fallout and Prefab Sprout slipped away into Brit-pop obscurity. McAloon would continue to create more brilliant pure pop creations. Some one-off singles were added to their career retrospective Life Of Surprises: The Best Of Prefab Sprout and in 1997 Paddy reappeared with the lush beauty of Andromeda Heights. Still, the US were shut out of the deal. With 2000 looking like the sweet reﬂective year it should be, a new UK best of (38 Carrot Collection[sic]) nicely encompassed and remastered – once more – the best of the band’s catalog. Finally, in 2001, Sony (through Legacy) opted to issue the collection here, simply as The Collection. It still is 38 Carrot, it you ask me. Maybe the US company felt funny because here, Prefab Sprout’s records never once thought of going gold.
As luck had it, Paddy McAloon was in the US late in 2000 recording a brand new full-length in upstate New York with none other than Tony Visconti in the production chair. Yours truly was wishing for a “face to face” opportunity but fate had it that Paddy was far too busy and (as this interviews unravels) had too much in his lap to consider talking to press during the work process.
So just as 2001 was nearing – and our presidential campaign had yet to sort itself out – we were hooked up via Alexander Graham Bell’s invention and a pleasant 20 or so minutes was spent catching up with Paddy McAloon and the world of Prefab Sprout.
Y3: How are you doin’ Paddy‘?
Paddy McAloon: I’m very well, sir. You alright?
Y3: Oh yeah.
Paddy: (Chuckles) Good… Hit me.
Y3: Well I made a good batch of coffee so I’m awake.
Paddy: Of course. whereabouts are you calling from’?
Y3: New Jersey.
Paddy: Alright. so it’s 10 o’clock in the morning there.
Y3: Yeah, that’s not bad. So how’ve ya been?
Paddy: OK. I’m not long back from the states.
Y3: I heard you were here.
Paddy: I’d been over there since September and came back last week. I was in Pomona in upstate New York. Not so far from New Jersey, actually. I was in New Jersey a couple of times getting things ﬁxed. But I’m glad to be back. I can tell you. (Laughs) You guys, you can’t even decide who your President should be. That indecision killed me.
Y3: It’s crazy. It’s crazy. Nobody knows what to do with it.
Paddy: But it looks like Bush has got it ﬁnally. It looks like it’s going his way.
Y3: I kinda was always feeling like it was gonna be inevitably that even though I didn’t want it.
Paddy: I can understand that.
Y3: So you spent like a couple of months recording stuff for a whole new record‘?
Paddy: Yeah. We were working with Tony Visconti. the Bowie producer, T.Rex producer.
Y3: I was going to see him play a couple of weeks ago but I had a crazy schedule. I was gonna ask him about it [the Prefab Sprout recording].
Paddy: Where was he playing‘?
Y3: He’s been playing with Richard Barone.
Paddy: Of course. I’ve met Richard Barone. I didn’t know anything about him, but he seemed like a very nice guy. I felt embarrassed because I didn’t know of The Bongos, but I was introduced to him.
Y3: You would like his material. He’s a real good songwriter. Tony’s been playing with him on sporadic gigs in NYC. I was very interested to see it.
Paddy: I didn’t know that. I thought that they just wrote together.
Y3: Well, since Richard doesn’t play out a whole lot, whenever he does a gig here and there. Tony usually plays with him. I wanted to catch them before this interview. I wanted to hear what his thoughts were. How did you like it?
Paddy: He’s very musical, Tony. He wears it lightly, if you know what I mean. It’s an accumulated experience. He doesn’t make it seem…too hard. I’m a little neurotic when it comes to the time we spend on things. I felt as if every minute that I was in America that I wasn’t working I felt as if I should be working and I don’t think I would’ve felt that weirdly if I’d been at home. You know what I mean?
Y3: Yeah, like you’re on a different clock.
Paddy: That’s right. You’re on a different clock, you’re kinda thinking, “Oh god, let’s hurry up and get this done and out,” which we had done largely. But I found it a bit, if I’m honest, a bit unsettling because I had taken all of my family out there: my mother, my wife, my daughters; and we were all out there. So instead of being able to enjoy a weekend off. I was thinking, “If I could get everything done now, I can get everyone home quicker.” So I don’t think I was ever too relaxed, but Tony was good. He’s got it.
Y3: Did you ﬁnish a whole albums worth of stuff?
Paddy: Yeah. it’s being mixed now and he’s MP3-ing.. .I think that’s the term…MP3-ing rough mixes of things so I can hear them here. It’s all very 21st century, I gotta tell ya.
Y3: And it’s ﬁnally gonna be the 21st century in January.
Paddy: Right. (Laughs) Are you one of those people?
Paddy: Are you a stickler?
Y3: l don’t know. Not that it’s a stickler’s thing. but what are they gonna call this next decade‘?
Paddy: The old naughties. I’ve seen that written, but that’s a bit twee really.
Y3: There’s a lot of questions to ask you ‘cause it’s been so long. I actually met you at the Jordan: The Comeback record release party in Manhattan.
Paddy: ls that right?
Y3: Yeah. We had this conversation about “Bear Park.”
Paddy: ls that right? Dear god, honestly this will probably come back to me, next week. Someone else said to me that we’d met at a Jordan listening party, but I can’t remember there being a Jordan listening party.
Y3: It was weird. It was at this little bar downtown in Manhattan. It was pretty small.
Paddy: You’re right. there was, that’s right. And we talked about “Bear Park.” Why?… because you knew the track or that you had actually been to England?
Y3: You were telling me about the place in England and what it was all about.
Paddy: I suspect I was amazed at the fact that you knew about the b-side. That’s quite an obscure item. New you triggered me off saying we were in a little bar in Manhattan. It does ring a bell. I was thinking it had to do with something in the ‘80s, but obviously not. It must’ve been 1990 if it was Jordan. Oh god. Well. nice to talk to you again. Sorry it’s not heavy in my recollection.
Y3: No, I wouldn’t even expect you to remember that. It is so few and far between that you get here. Did you guys ever play here?
Paddy: No. We were scheduled to play shortly after Jordan… was released. But I don’t know whether I believe this: sometimes you get told stories and things that happened in the politics of record companies… But we were supposed to go there and then the Gulf War happened and then there was some kind of nervousness about people ﬂying to and from America. Sony didn’t like artists doing it… I don’t know whether I believe it. We were supposed to play in New York and on the east coast as well… And maybe Los Angeles. We’d rehearsed and we’d played over in Europe then, so that it was logical that we might – having gone that far to have rehearsed – take it over there to you. But it never happened. We never played there. We have recorded there once or twice or mixed things. A lot of From Langley Park To Memphis was done in California.
Y3: I also caught wind of the British gigs you did when the 38 Carat Collection was released there in late 1999. I guess you did some touring as well.
Y3: Was that like the ﬁrst time in ages?
Paddy: Yeah, it had been 10 years. I thought it might be the last time I did it. You know, I don’t make those – I’m not so grand that I make those larger style claims so you get people begging you. “Oh no Paddy, just one more time!” I really did think, “No, look this is a dedicated way of life for those who are into it. You’ll probably never do it again.” I talked myself into doing it. I thought. “Go on one more time. ‘cause you’ll probably never do it.” And then (afterwards) I thought I never want to do this again. (Laughs) it was exactly the same as 1990. I hadn’t wised up one little bit. And it all came ﬂooding back; what I didn’t like about it. It was interesting to see an audience after all that time. But we had more songs to play. if you know what I mean. and that was exciting. The downside of it is, that business of having to be in the right mood at 8 O’clock every night.
Y3: As I get older I’m amazed there are people who can still do it.
Paddy: Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve ever played in a band.
Y3: Almost all of my friends are in bands in one form or another.
Paddy: There’s that thing. Maybe showtime comes around and more people get into it with the adrenaline. It all happens. It happens with me. but I ﬁnd it very hard to convert it into something positive. You know, if someone says something to me. or if I have the wrong thought or if something random enters into the picture it can really throw me in a weird way. That disturbed me. I thought I’d be so calm. I thought I’d be above it all, if you like, and enjoying it just for the hell of it – the niceness of the situation. People still love to hear your music and that’s wonderful and you’ve got a good back catalog to play from. I can only conclude that it’s not really for me.
Y3: I totally understand that.
Paddy: I feel ashamed ‘cause you see people like Sting and they’re happy to stand in the same place 20 nights in a row and do the set. It doesn’t work like that for me. I can respect that.
Y3: Has your success in England allowed you to pace yourself, have you been able to remain comfortable doing it once every 5 years or so? I was scratching my head at how you did it. Was there any pressure to come up with something.
Paddy: Well, you know we don’t do that well. We’re not ﬁnancially in a position to be so lackadaisical about making records. The truth is that the ‘90s were a strange time for me. As a writer it was my best time. I wrote songs that I really love. Not that many of them have been released. It was a productive ten years. I can’t look at it any other way. In terms of record releases, one thing or another that got in the way… I was diverted once or twice trying to do other things probably at a record company’s request where I had written things and they said, “Why not make more of that one idea?” l went with it. I was excited someone said to me, “Keep on writing and recording.“ Financially it wasn’t great. Around 1995 I really needed to take on some other work because I got bogged down on one project and got exhausted. I was lucky enough there was a guy over here making a television drama about a songwriter. His name is Jimmy Nail. He has a large audience. It was a TV show about a songwriter. it was ﬁctional and he had a script and it ran for about six or seven episodes. And he wanted some material that would be suitable for his character. I sat down and it opened the ﬂoodgates, really. Everything I wrote was useful to him and then he sold a lot of records on the back of it. It was very very successful – in the UK and a little bit in Europe – and that eased the pressure on having to make another record because I could at least pay the bills and pay the band’s wages. But we’re not in such a great position that we can afford to do this. My brother Martin has a day job. he teaches. And Wendy does other things now. She doesn’t sing on the new album. She’s had a baby and she’s got other things she works on. We get by, if you know what I mean.
Y3: I had just seen the Trash Can Sinatras come through here earlier this year (2000). I didn’t get to interview them but ‘I imagine they’re in the same kind of boat. But they’re still making records and, honestly, they’re the only band I would lump with you who have a certain level of creativity and vision. … And I’m glad you guys stick with it. Very few people are that “craft”-minded and with pop music it’s rare.
Paddy: A couple of things enter the picture which you simply don’t see – unless you’re really smart when you’re younger. (One is) how to speak honestly. I’m 43 now. I think that when you’re younger you think that people are liking you or that you have the ear of the music business because you’re good. And that has been knocked sideways (laughs) for me as I got older. I realize now. That I was young and record companies eat youth. And that’s a hard one to swallow because you’re thinking I’m still doing good work, but there’s a new generation coming in. I kinda think that I write in my own style. It isn’t the rhythm of the “streets” any more, maybe it never was. But you know, when I was 20 I was quite hip to what was going on. What I’m saying is that you head off on your own course and you ﬁnd a style that you like and it doesn’t become so important to you to be novel or to be of the minute. And there’s new people coming along doing that anyway. And I’ll be honest, I didn’t know that the Trash Can Sinatras were still working.
Y3: Not too many people did and they came out of the woodwork and honestly, they’re better than they’ve ever been. Back to what you were saying about when you were younger…when Two Wheels Good came out. I think you were hitting something at a point then that ﬁt in with The Smiths, Everything But The Girl and there was at youth thing about that.
Paddy: Yeah. You catch a wave, if you know what I mean and I think that’s what happened with that record. The truth of the matter is, apart from maybe three or four songs, most of it was written in the late ‘70s. You know, “Faron Young,” “Bonny” and “Johnny Johnny” they were all from 1977-78. it was not like I was responding to something in the air during the mid or early ‘80s. it does make you wonder, “What is it exactly that people are responding to?” Was I ahead of my time? I don’t really think so. If everything would’ve been in place in the ’70s we would’ve made a pretty similar record, although the technology wouldn’t have been there; the sampling and the Fairlight which Tom Dolby had. In essence. a lot of it was written back then. Not “When Love Breaks Down.” Not “Appetite.” They were 1983/1984. But you’re right, something just happens. something just clicks and you’re new to the game and you’re new faces and new voices and for a season you’re there. I think that happens with everyone who has any kind of…fame is the wrong word…
Paddy: Recognition. that’s the word. Any kind of recognition that has to happen. The prospect is to keep that up. Or even if you’re thinking you’re getting that yourself, to catch the ear of another audience. People who bought those records then move onto other things and have other expenses.
Y3: About the new stuff that you recorded: Is it a departure from Andromeda Heights? I love the record as a “whole,” I guess it was a little bit slick for me, but I still love the songs. I wasn’t sure what your thoughts were and where you were going…
Paddy: Right. I talked to a lot of people who don’t like that record. I’ve seen some terrible things about it and it pains me more than any other comment about any other record (because of all the songs). I absolutely love it and I still do. Slick is an interesting word because it was made in low budget circumstances…And I would say that the style of songwriting is generally…how can I put this…. The melody was to the fore, the melodic side of it. I was trying to make a record without a real drummer playing, so it doesn’t have many rough edges in the normal way of playing. A lot of it’s sequenced and it’s pretending to be real playing. and that’s what I wanted to do. A lot of people use sequencers and machines and make dance music, right?
Paddy: And I wanted to use those devices to make something much more languid and – let’s not be shy about it – old fashioned. if you like. Old fashioned style songs. But I love it. And l don’t know any other way to describe it. I actually love it. I meet one or two people who think some of my best songs are on it and then I’ll meet people – for whatever reason – (who) have not listened to it closely or they prefer it when it‘s… I don’t know…
Y3: For me, I will probably come back to it in a couple of years and like it more. And for me, the b-side “Dragons” is my favorite song from that period.
Paddy: “Dragons” was from an earlier period and it was written in a different style. It was more like, to be honest, a disco record. And when this guy Jimmy Nail was making his program about the songwriter that was one of the songs I submitted to him and I needed to do it in a way that he would understand. And I thought a dance song didn’t suit the character he was writing for. It needed to be guitar-based, more folky, more countriﬁed. I might be up to recording that again properly. I’m glad you like it. it’s simple.
Y3: But it has an emotion to it that cuts right through.
Paddy: I did that in my house the singing’s pretty rough and the guitar playing’s pretty rough.
Y3: Even as rough as the singing is it hits. Every time l hear it and the vocal comes on it’s like a John Lennon-take.
Paddy: I’d forgotten that was on a B-side.
Y3: So what is the concept of the new record? Is there a concept‘?
Paddy: Yeah. the new record is the material I wrote for this guy I was telling you about in the mid-’90s and although it did very well in the UK, I don’t think it was released in the states. A lot of the songs l really liked. I think you might enjoy it because it’s not as fussy as Andromeda Heights and it’s certainly more “live” in its atmosphere and a bit plainer. It’s closer to “Dragons” than “Andromeda Heights,” the title track. The theme is really. the mythic west, there’s a song called “Cowboy” another one called “Gunman.” I do a version of “The Streets Of Loredo.” Do you remember the old cowboy song‘? You will know it. but we radically re-work it, as you might expect. It is very different as a record to Andromeda Heights that’s for sure.
Y3: What was released from the TV show‘? Was it a British deal?
Paddy: Yeah, it was an album. The guy, his name is Jimmy Nail. He is an actor and he sings and the story – roughly – the plot idea was that he was an English guy working in an English factory in the North-east of England where I live. That’s why he asked me because he thought I would understand the tone of the way life is up here. He wants to be a songwriter and he’s a writer of vaguely country-ish way. So I kinda had a theme to go with for him. He recorded these things and sold about a million copies or thereabouts in the UK alone. He was at the top of the charts for weeks with it. I did quite well out of that. I had three or four songs on his ﬁrst album and then had another three on a follow-up to it.
Y3: Did you sing on any of them?
Paddy: No. I just wrote them for him in a style that was slightly different with the kind of attention to lyrics you might expect, but quite melodic. They could be played on an acoustic guitar. Do you know Jimmy Webb‘?
Paddy: Right. I mean I’m not putting myself in that category or class. but I suppose if I had a model of someone like a Jimmy Webb or even to a lesser degree, Springsteen style. where you could pick the guitar up and strum these and it would be pretty evident what the guy was singing about. The methods weren’t too fancy or obscure. And he did real well. And I always. at the back of my mind if I do write for someone else I think, “What am I gonna do if this guy doesn’t like them?”And so I planned all the time if it didn’t work out or if he didn’t care for them we would record them. So finally we’ve gotten around to doing it.
Y3: How big of a record is it? Is it 10 tracks…
Paddy: It’s 10 tracks. It’s not very long. I was slightly shocked actually when we got in there to do it. For some reason I thought it would be about 50 minutes, but it’s about as long as Andromeda Heights. Sorta normal-sized album or what would’ve been in the days of vinyl and cassette.
Y3: Speaking of Jimmy Webb… I was wondering if you’d seen him play recently in the last couple of years.
Paddy: I haven’t seen him recently. I saw him at the Bottom Line. I think in I993.
Y3: Wow, that might’ve been the gig I was at. That’s around the period I saw him.
Paddy: Did you know I played with him once?
Paddy: He came over to Ireland to do a television program… It was all songwriters out of their element playing without their band or whatever, playing with a full orchestra and I jokingly said, “I’ll do it. I’ll be on the third program with him.” And then they said. “Well would ya like to do a duet with him?“ So I did “The Highwayman” with him. It was absolutely tremendous. I was very very nervous. I don‘t think I sang it particularly well. He was in great form. But I’ve not seen him over the years. He wouldn’t know me. It was kind of a “ships in the night” thing, really.
Y3: That’s amazing. He just did a quick tour with Glen Campbell.
Paddy: Did he really‘? Did you see him?
Y3: No. I did see him on TV do “Wichita Lineman” and it was beautiful.
Paddy: Wow, what a…you know…
Y3: It was right around the same time they were supposed to do a live set on the radio on this speciality show (Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight). But Glen wasn’t in town yet. They did some cool gigs in NYC. though.
Paddy: That must’ve been tremendous. A lot of people here would’ve loved that.
Y3: Have you heard of this guy Jon Brion? He has a residency on Friday nights in Los Angeles at this club called. Largo.
Paddy: ls he a producer as well as an artist?
Paddy: I was reading about him in a couple of magazines.
Y3: He’s a huge Two Wheels Good fan. He’s also one of the best producers at the moment. He’s worked with Elliott Smith, Fiona Apple.
Paddy: That’s right. I know who you’re talking about. I’ve got a magazine with him on the cover right here right now, it’s EQ Magazine. It’s a technical magazine.
Y3: Well, if you’re ever out in LA you must check him out. A friend of mine was recently out there and was at one of his shows and blurted out, “Prefab Sprout” as an informal request, and Jon went into “Desire As.” I think he also does a Two Wheels Good medley once in a blue moon.
Paddy: (Laughs) I’m so encouraged.
Y3: That scene out there…if you ever get to LA you have to see it. It would probably inspire you. It’s such a genuine musical/songwriter atmosphere. it was great to talk to you.
Paddy: Great to speak to you again. When I put the phone down, I’ll think, “Well of course we spoke about “Bear Park”!