On the occasion of the North American release of Prefab Sprout’s latest album, ‘Let’s Change the World With Music’ (10/26/10, Tompkins Square label), mega-fan Torquil Campbell (Stars, Broken Social Scene) interviews Prefab’s Paddy McAloon.
Q: Can you recall when the idea of what your music might be first occurred to you ?
A: It crept up on me. It evolved slowly. Sometime in the ’70’s. I’d be about thirteen or fourteen when I wrote my first song. I’m sorry to say I can’t remember what it was called…so it can’t have been very memorable, can it? At first Prefab Sprout was the label I put on my songs, almost like a kid playing at having a band. I’d record some nonsense into a cassette player and give it an album title. My brother, Martin and a friend of ours called Michael Salmon would play along, bashing on our acoustic guitars and cardboard boxes, pots, pans. When Michael got his hands on a drum kit in ’75 or ’76, the idea of a “proper” band took shape. So that’s the short answer. But if you’re interested in my tastes, and how my writing evolved I suppose we’ll have to talk about the sixties.
Like most writers I’m a product of all the things I’ve heard and loved, and as I was ten in ’67, I like to think I grew up in a golden age of song. But although I grew up in the sixties I had to go to bed early! I mean I was too young to reflect on what was happening around me. The flow of music was intermittent, stuff heard on the radio largely, and although both my parents were musical, they bought very few records. So I didn’t go out and buy “She Loves You” or “Good Vibrations” or any one of Dylan’s masterpieces; but to be exposed to all of that beautiful music—well you would have to be a stone not to be perceptive. Mind you, I didn’t see myself as particularly musical. As a kid my first enthusiasm was football, or soccer, as you would call it.
So what did I like? Well, the Beatles were a constant stream of delight. Even though I didn’t own their records I can remember them popping up on the television, and hearing adult comments about their hair, and the excitement they generated…All the stuff captured on newsreels. What an atmosphere to grow up in. I remember being six years old and my mother was telling e I had the same initials as Paul McCartney. Ha ha ha, oh dear. Did this point the way for me? Honestly, I’ve sometimes wondered if it’s as simple as that. Or was I interested in the Beatles because I was musical? (How many people’s dreams did the Beatles inspire or divert? There’s a subject for Greil Marcus!)
I don’t think I am being especially nostalgic if I say that pretty much everything I heard back them came as a revelation. And being so young I wasn’t hampered by notions of trying to be hip or cool. Bacharach? The Rolling Stones? “Moon River?” “West Side Story?”—It was all older generation music to me. So the long-winded answer to your question is this: all the music you like gets into the blood stream and shapes the way you write. And every writer’s music pays tribute to the ghosts of other songs.
Q: Was there a particular piece of music that inspired you to write your first song?
A: I don’t think so. I fell in love with guitar ‘round about ’68 or ’69, when my mother got hold of a cheap Spanish guitar. I think the songwriting grew out of that initial infatuation. Learning a few chords, learning that the songs I like were built on chords and being show or figuring out those chord changes was a tremendously exciting thing for me. I should also add that my younger brother, Martin, was just as enthusiastic as I was. He was only seven when he started playing the guitar.
Some specific memories? Someone showing me the suspended chords that Pete Townshend uses in “Pinball Wizard,” and the beautiful generic chord progression of Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” Even as I’m typing this, I’ve just been bowled over by a memory I’ve almost forgotten. I remember learning the chords to a very simple folk song—maybe “Island in the Sun,” an old calypso-style tune, and I recall this overwhelming sensation of a new world opening up. It was as striking as that. There were other, more musically sophisticated songs that I longed to figure out, but that was the beginning for me. And then I was swept up in trying to follow what was unfolding in pop/rock music at the time. My interests blossomed: Bowie, Bolan, Neil Young, whatever was in the top forty, plus the Beach Boys, Steely Dan, Zappa, Beefheart, Hendrix, Sun Ra, then working backwards—Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Boulez, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, The Band. You name it—we were interested in it all: Chic, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Webb, Sondheim, Gershwin, Alban Berg–all this wonderful stuff. But I am getting ahead of myself.
It was a couple of years before I tried to write songs and I had absolutely not idea of how to go about it. None, whatsoever. I’d cut our circular pieces of paper in the shape of vinyl records and write titles and words on them as if I could invoke a song by pretending to make a record! I still don’t know how to write a song. It is, in the end, a magical process, oddly enough I am no nearer or further away from the answer than I was back in 1970. But I had such an intense desire to do it. That’s all I had back then, no strategies or a formula. For some unfathomable reason I wanted so badly to write a song.
What happened next? Well, eventually I wrote a few—no, a lot—of derivative pieces, but at some point in the seventies, I wrote a song, which sounded vaguely “professional” to me. That gave me confidence to think I might be able to come up with something good. And ever since then I’ve told myself that as I’ve written songs before, then with a bit of luck I can do it again. And that is the sum of my songwriting philosophy: you’ve been lucky before, it might happen again. And I’ve learned, or at least come to feel, that no lesson in musical theory will ever supplant the wisdom of that tiny observation.
Q: Do you have a favourite Prefab Sprout recording?
A: I don’t. I wish I had one of those, “Phew, we nailed it there!” moments. But I’m too angsty for that. But we worked with some great people, like Thomas Dolby and David Brewis, and Jon Kelly, Tony Visconti…I’d hate to leave anyone out. My good friend Calum Malcolm, of course.
Q: Elvis Presley and what he meant to you?
A: I was simply too young to have experienced Elvis as the revolutionary figure who inspired John Lennon and everyone else who heard him. I hate to say this, but when I was growing up, Elvis already seemed old fashioned. I can clearly remember older kids in the playground imitating Elvis but he seemed to be almost a figure of fun…the pelvis, the gyrating hip impressions, corny. I didn’t know it then but he was in his post-army, middle-of-the-road, movie-soundtrack, “It’s now or never” period. That stuff didn’t compete with what I heard from the Beatles.
It was only later that I got into him and began to enjoy his recordings, and not just the Sun sessions. I loved some of those seventies singles “In the Ghetto” and “I Just Can’t Help Believing” and his voice was arguably, after Sinatra’s, the sound of white America for quite awhile. So years after his initial impact, I came to understand how exciting and exotic he must have sounded when “Heartbreak Hotel” first floated over the airwaves. But the simple fact is I missed that particular revolution. Eventually I wrote songs about Elvis because he became a mythical figure, and because I was interested in fame as a songwriting topic back in the eighties.
Q: You’ve stayed in the north for your whole life. Is it an integral part of your music? What about the north informs what you do?
A: I don’t know why I’m still here. Possibly a combination of reasons. One of them would have to be family, roots, etc. But basically I live in my head, so the surrounding area doesn’t greatly matter so long as I can write. That having been said, the northeast of England was a well-kept secret and I’m not going to say anything that gives that secret away.
Q: This extraordinarily beautiful record had to wait to be released until now; Does it still reflect the way you feel about music, religion and your relationship with the two? Has your sense of what faith means grown different as you get older?
A: I don’t know what I think about religious faith. It’s too big a topic for this kind of interview. I would bore you to death. Maybe I’m exhausted because I’ve thought about it too much, being the kind of guy who finds it hard to just surrender or something But it’s a great subject for songwriting because it involves passion ad doubt, fear or mortality and everything human. It also comes with a language and vocabulary that we all tap into, whether we know it or not. It has poetic resonance. As for this album, I know I’ve said elsewhere that I don’t have a favourite Prefab Sprout record but I’m probably least embarrassed by this one.
Q: Your records have always seemed to beg to be put on stage…I understand you have written a musical of sorts with the wonderful Jonathan Coe. Will this ever see more productions? Are musicals something that interests you? If so, why?
A: I’m afraid I don’t know Jonathan Coe, but yes, I’m interested in musicals. There was a time when I would like to have written one. But I don’t think I have the skill or patience to dramatize different points of view. Still, there’s something irresistible about the notion of combining images and music, isn’t there?
Why was I interested in them? Partly because of a fear of that rock ‘n roll/ singer-songwriter thing of writing about yourself, the whole narcissistic “look at what I’m going through” point of view. I thought that if I acquired some dramatic songwriting skills I might avoid that particular pitfall. And let’s face it; if you’re interested in melody, you’d do well to pay attention to the Broadway guys. Who has written as many lovely melodies as, say, Richard Rodgers?
Q: What are your three favourite songs by other people?
A: “Wichita Lineman” by Jimmy Webb, “God Only Knows” by Brian Wilson/Tony Asher, and “Stardust,” by Hoagy Carmichael/Mitchell Parish.
Q: Politics and polemic are two things you’ve tended to stay away from in your writing? Can you talk a bit about why?
A: Tony Scaduto’s biography of Bob Dylan is directly responsible for me handling politics and polemic with care. It was here that I first read about Dylan’s unease with what he calls “finger pointing; songs.” He saw himself becoming Mister Topical songwriter and didn’t like the idea. Then there is the problem of one-dimensionality: you know, forever finding some institution, or worse, some person other than yourself, at fault with or responsible for all your troubles. If you write from that mindset then the song becomes a rant. Then there’s the problem of topicality. Can your little song cheat the fate that awaits all headlines? Who wants to be tied to yesterday’s news?
And if it doesn’t sound too fanciful, I believe that songs work best when they are spells, when the writer and singer cast a spell cast an enchantment over people. I don’t mea this in some fey, “Wow—man!” way. I’m talking about leaving room for a song to work on a listener’s imagination. But if you insist on telling people exactly what’s wrong with the world and your opinions on that subject, you either have to be immensely gifted and capable of sweetening the pill (see Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ ON”) or armed with righteous anger (see “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday). Even John Lennon struggled with the problem of the topical song but usually his instinct for crafting a dynamic record saved him.
Q: The dream in your head that creates this world of music – has it changed since you were a young man? How has having children changed your writing?
A: I think the biggest change has to be that sense of I’m no longer new to myself. I’ve written a lot of songs and I’m over familiar with my leanings. By way of example, the first time you use the word “stars” in a song it is a fresh and new experience—even if a billion other songwriters have been there before you. But when you’ve used it a few times, the novelty disappears (other writers start to notice too!). I supposed what I’m saying is that as your grow older you have a much stronger sense of your limitations and, inevitably, it becomes hard to surprise yourself.
Q: Do you write on the guitar, the piano or both? To what extent does the gear change what you are writing?
A: I use both. Or should I say I abuse both. And if I want a real change I write directly onto the score page of a computer. This is pretty much how I wrote, “I Trawl the Megahertz.” If I’m looking for an unusual melodic line, these days I’d go to a keyboard. The keyboard is also better for a richer harmonic palette (ten fingers instead of six strings). But if I wasn’t to remember how I used to do it when I was younger and patient, I’ll pick up a guitar.
Q: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask the question all sprout obsessives want answered: when we will we see more records from your vaults? And are you working on new music now?
A: Yes, I’m in the middle of a new project (I’m reluctant to give you details because I’m vaguely depressed at all the unreleased albums I’ve mentioned in interviews over the years. I want to see the mountain shrinking, not getting bigger). Unfortunately I’m slower than I was because I have hearing problems. My right ear is damaged, However, I’m chipping away at some new music. When I’m done I’ll have a look in the vaults and see if anything catches my eye, Thank you for asking.
Q: Your writing has gotten more and more direct as time has passed. Is becoming a master of your art ultimately about what you choose NOT to put in?
A: You are right; my songs are in general more direct. I think I went through a long phase of wanting to write plainly. When I first started to write I worried about using a straight C-major chord because it had been used before. Seriously. This was mad thinking but it meant that I came up with unusually shaped chords on my guitar and that had a knock-on effect on the songwriting. But somewhere along the way I saw the madness in many ways and I really wanted to see if I was capable of a more direct style. But nothing stays the same. Would you believe that lately I’ve become nostalgic about some of my earlier “indirect” songs?
I think you are right in highlighting the fact that sometimes it’s what you leave out that makes a song interesting. (And, incidentally, that’s another reason for being wary of polemic. Polemic isn’t interested in ambiguity. Polemic wants the facts with no room for shadows).
Q: My first band was called Paris Smith…a testament to my obsession…and the band I’m in now is called Stars because I heard it was your favourite word? Is that true? And if it is, why is it your favourite word?
A: Lovely name for a band is Paris Smith… Stars? Oh this rings a distant bell. I recall saying something about stars being my favourite word a long time ago. Clearly stars are the key image in most of the songs on “Andromeda Heights.” Why? Well, for some stupid reason I like grouping songs together under a vague conceptual framework. Also, stars are the original and best image of timelessness, aren’t they? Our little lives flying by beneath their impassive gaze, and all that Shakespearean business. In addition, when I write songs I sometimes—often—start without any idea of what the song will be about. I like to be open to subconscious forces. So I start making sounds, and one day I noticed that the most frequent word/sound I’d utter was the word “stars.” It has a lovely phonetic countour, hasn’t it? It mimics a small explosion, if you drag out the middle vowel. Maybe that’s what I was talking about. Mind you, the word “God” appears in many of my songs nut I’m trying to clamp down on some of these repetitions. Enough already, as Prince might say.
I think I’m done there…sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you. But you asked some serious questions, so I took ‘em seriously.
By the way, I’m very touched that our records have meant so much to you. I am humbled that another writer should find something inspiring in what I or the band have done. Do.
A few years ago I met Jimmy Webb. I didn’t want to bore him by telling him how deeply “Wichita Lineman” is ingrained in my memories of childhood and how much I loved his songs; I was shy and overawed in equal measure. We were rehearsing a wonderful song of his called “The Highwayman,” for a television program. All of a sudden he stopped playing the piano, as if he’s suddenly remembered something important. He turned to me and said, very deliberately, “God bless you for learning my song.” I was astonished because it was a pure thrill for me. But now I see that it’s right that a songwriter should be grateful if someone is paying close attention to their work. So I say to you, God bless you for listening to my songs. And good luck with Stars.