(C) 2001 and 2015 Jason Cohen, reproduced with permission.
The news was right up there with Brian Wilson playing “Pet Sounds” live, Steely Dan making a new record and Mario Lemieux lacing up the skates. For no apparent reason, Paddy McAloon, the elegant wordsmith and musical fabulist behind Prefab Sprout, hit the road last spring.
What’s more, he actually *looked* like Brian Wilson. During the tour, two fans who’d flown from Chicago to Scotland babbled happily about the Sprouts as they checked into their Glasgow hotel. Sure, they noticed the soft-eyed, Howard Hughesish figure with the massive beard and unending hair waiting patiently behind them. How could they not? He was bloody odd-looking!
“I was standing there with the road manager and you could see he was about to go, ‘Look! This is Paddy!,'” McAloon recalls. “But I told him not to say anything.”
He was saving his introduction for the Royal Opera House. As McAloon told the tale onstage, the chastened couple could actually look him in the eye. “The fact that they were in the front row was just brilliant,” he says. “Perfect.”
Ostensibly, Prefab Sprout was promoting last year’s two-CD retrospective “The 38 Carat Collection,” which has finally been issued in the U.S. (as “The Collection”) by Sony Legacy. It compiles all the band’s A-sides on one CD, and a sampling of favorite album tracks (including material from two records that were never released domestically) on the other. Touring it was a total whim.
“I kind of dared myself to do it,” McAloon, who hadn’t been near a concert hall since 1990, says. The Sprouts were never much for playing live, and that particular road swing, for the double-length masterpiece “Jordan: the Comeback,” did not pass through as many cities as it was meant to. Quite simply, McAloon’s a studio guy. If the stage fright doesn’t get him, he’s overwhelmed by the task of recreating the band’s elaborate sound.
To solve that problem in the year 2000, McAloon gave up trying. For one thing, vocalist Wendy Smith, whose wispy, siren-song backing vocals are as essential to Prefab Sprout as various female foils have been to Leonard Cohen, was pregnant at the time. With that element unavailable, it was easier for McAloon to shed his fantasies of sumptuous horn sections and massive orchestras, or synthesized facsimiles thereof. The Sprouts went out as a four-piece, with McAloon on vocals and guitar, his brother Martin on bass, longtime member Neil Conti behind the drums and keyboardist Jess Bailey as utility ringer.
Were they a well-oiled machine? Not exactly, but fans were thrilled to hear so many favorite songs. The semi-acoustic material, and the moments with McAloon alone at a piano, were breathtaking. The crowd also delighted at the novelty of connecting in person with the frontman, who proved to be an amiable host despite obvious jitters.
McAloon was just as surprised to be onstage as the public was to find him there. He enjoyed the support, and looks back fondly on odd highlights like the embarassed Americans, or the sodden bloke who kept shouting for “Cars and Girls” long after the band had played it. But having taken the dare, he’s in no hurry to repeat the feat.
“I got through it, but I don’t know that it’s for me,” he says. “I’m just too nervous a performer, and too moody. It’s a bit sad, but the best bit of the day was shutting the door of the hotel room for the night.”
Oh, and by the way…” I don’t look like that anymore,” McAloon says. “I’m short back and sides, and I’m clean shaven. A bit greyer, but I look as I did.”
He is speaking via phone from Woodstock, NY, where Prefab Sprout has spent the last months of 2000 working on a record. It’s another unprecedented development. McAloon has recorded in England for years, first with producer Thomas Dolby, then on his own. The last disc, “Andromeda Heights,” was made at McAloon’s home studio of the same name. That 1998, import-only release was the first full-length Prefab Sprout album since “Jordan…,” so just the fact that there could be another three years later is a major change of pace.
Tony Visconti is the reason for the Stateside visit. Rather than bring the legendary David Bowie/T.Rex producer over to an expensive facility in London, which is a few hours from his home in Newcastle anyway, McAloon shipped his wife, two young kids and dear old to Mum to Woodstock. That also makes it easier to use session aces like guitarist Carlos Alomar, Spyro Gyra drummer Richie Morales and bluegrasser Eric (“Dueling Banjos”) Weissberg. Martin McAloon is also on the album.
“I’m restless,” Paddy says. “I wanted to hear some other players on my music. I’ve never done that before. In general, Tony has done more rock records than we’d ever get close to, but he liked the material so much that I believed in him. He has such good judgement, and I really need that. Otherwise you disappear up your own backside — ‘Could this be better? Should we do this? Should we redo everything? Should I start again?”
He is not speaking hypothetically. When it comes to efficiency, McAloon could give Boston or My Bloody Valentine a run for the money. But it’s not that he’s holed up in the studio, micromanaging every overdub ’til he’s drooling in the corner. He doesn’t cut a lot of songs and consign them to the outtakes bin, either. And it’s definitely not writer’s block.
“It’s frustrating to have people think you don’t care, or you have no ideas, or you’ve got problems writing new stuff,” he says. “That’s not my problem at all. I have an overabundance of ideas. I find it hard to get the records made.”
For example, after “Jordan,” a 20-track set rife with conceptual song cycles about God and Elvis, Sony wanted the next record to be more streamlined. While the Sprouts are primarily a cult band in the States, they’ve had major pop success at home. A&R man Muff Winwood suggested McAloon use one particular song, “Earth: the Story So Far,” as a model.
“It was the wrong thing to say to me, because originally it had been a 20 minute song which I chopped down to four,” McAloon says. He proceeded to write “smaller” songs, but ended up with 30 of them, a suite he called “Let’s Change the World With Music.”
He thought it was the best thing he’d ever done, but knew Sony wouldn’t care. It would take a year, and a huge amount of money, just to demo it. Prefab Sprout’s demos would probably be considered releasable, or even overly produced, by many artist’s standards. But that’s McAloon’s process. He fantasizes about stripping down, and even speaks of trying Sun Ra-inspired improv. But in the end, he can’t escape his glossy modernism.
“Most of the songs I write I would like to hear done with a bit of polish,” he concedes. “I take a more intense and literate approach to the lyrics, and combine them with Quincy Jones production values. That’s just how I hear music, I suppose. It’s a corny thing to say, but I’m the least rock and roll person you’d ever meet.”
Exhausted by “Let’s Change the World With Music,” McAloon cleaned his palate by writing songs for hire, including “Cowboy Dreams,” for Brit crooner (and star of the rock’n’roll comedy “Still Crazy”) Jimmy Nail and “Gunman” for Cher. Then he threw himself into “Andromeda Heights” — the more concise collection of tunes he was supposed to do all along.
He wound up enjoying the exercise. “I’ve gotten more into simplicity as I’ve gotten older,” McAloon says. “When I did [his debut album] “Swoon,” I really did think there were chords and notes that other people hadn’t used before. I knew what I was doing was counter to the spirit of most pop music, but I wasn’t aware of quite how eccentric it was, or how unusual it was to have songs that didn’t have the title in them. I thought I was too hip for that. That strikes me now as youthful folly. It doesn’t have to have the most original chord sequence anymore, as long as the sentiment is right.”
“So that’s the ’90s for me,” he continues. “I was working like crazy, and now I’ve got this backlog of material.”
He is free to do what he will at this point. “The Collection” was a dealbreaker. The last straw with Sony came when McAloon created an abstract piece, sort of an instrumental-with-spoken-monologue inspired by radio fragments. It’s called “I Trawl the Megaherz,” and it’s possible Linn, the Scottish audio company best known (at least in music business terms) for the Blue Nile, might release it. In the meantime, EMI UK will put out the next Sprouts release, but there’s no long-term contract. There may never be one again.
“You need a champion,” McAloon says. “You need someone at a record company to think, look, this is worth perservering even though they don’t do this and they don’t do that. I don’t have a career in the conventional sense, because I couldn’t do things to the standard that I like. I couldn’t record an album every year and tour with it and then demo a new one.”
McAloon’s unique aesthetic is both a blessing and a curse. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter, a classicist with inspirations ranging from Tin Pan Alley to Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim to Lennon/McCartney. But, despite what he says, he also has rock’n’roll weirdness in him. Sometimes he creeps into adult contemporary schlock, but other times, he makes Donald Fagen seem simplistic and laconic. McAloon is too graceful and soft to earn the underground credibility of, say, Serge Gainsbourg or Jimmy Webb, but he’s too provocative — and frankly, far too brilliant — to operate in the realm of Celine Dion.
Or Andrew Lloyd Webber. It still feels like there’s a place for McAloon in the theatrical arena. But he has actually scaled back his narrative ambitions, at least for now. Leaving Sony gave him a sense of possibility that he wants to take advantage of while the time is ripe.
“You feel slightly differently at 43 than you feel at 30 or 32,” he says. “You don’t see the time unfolding in front of you. I feel that while my voice lasts, it’s probably more important I do the personal records, things that rely on my singing. Work that might rely on other people’s voices can come later.”
Besides – trying to mount a West End musical is a logistical headache he simply doesn’t need. “Raising money for theatrical things, that’s even worse than trying to get a record made,” McAloon agrees. “It’s marginally less fraught than trying to make a film, which must be a nightmare. You spend your whole life chasing money and then some producer wants you to change the ending for a multiplex audience.
“That’s how I console myself actually,” he says. “If I’m having a bad day I think, ‘just thank god you’re not a film director.'”