Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout
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Since debuting in 1982 with the dreamy single “Lions In My Own Garden,” English singer-songwriter Paddy McAloon and his band Prefab Sprout have distinguished themselves from their UK contemporaries by embracing the unfashionable: musical theater, romantic pop, vintage Americana, and the like. The band’s early albums, Swoon and Steve McQueen (also known as Two Wheels Good in the States), are considered classics of the mid-’80s post-punk/new-wave era, even though they don’t sound like they belong to any particular movement. Later albums Jordan: The Comeback and Andromeda Heights—the former a semi-concept album about the meaning of Elvis, the latter a group of songs about stars—show a level of sophistication and imagination that was rare in the ’90s, and is just as precious now. McAloon has been plagued by health troubles over the last decade, including failing vision and an inner-ear disorder that’s made it difficult for him to be around amplified sounds. Nevertheless, Prefab Sprout recently released Let’s Change The World With Music, an album originally intended to come out between Jordan and Andromeda. The A.V. Club sent McAloon a list of questions by e-mail, asking about his career, his influences, and his philosophies of songwriting. Here are his replies:
The A.V. Club: Like a lot of Prefab Sprout’s albums, Let’s Change The World With Music is organized around a few key themes: God and music. Do you find it helps you write if you have a larger plan in mind?
Paddy McAloon: Why do I seem to organize around themes? I like the idea of creating an arc to the listening experience. Asking the listener to surrender to a certain mood for 40 or 50 minutes. That’s part of it. But I’m fully aware that the mood of a record is a slippery thing, and that the listener may provide the organising principle. By this, I mean that we all attach our own moods and memories to songs and records, and the writer has only a limited control over this side of things. Even more so in the pick ’n’ mix download era.
I don’t want to labour the point, but I think listening to an album is a bit like going to the movies. You choose the world you want to be in for a while, and once you’re inside the cinema, the director has a lot to do with your experience. (Mind you, so does the person selling popcorn, along with that hyper-earnest macho voiceover artist who tries to persuade you that every formulaic action film is a work of genius… but I feel the analogy is slipping out of control, so I’d better back off.)
So yes, I like to write around themes. I like the way painters return to a subject, looking at the same subject in a different light. Sometimes a theme simply emerges. I’ll look back at a few songs, and notice my preoccupations, and decide I need to make a virtue out of my lack of imagination; that’s when I tie them together! Of course, I write a whole lot more than I release, so I do have some projects which are simply disparate collections of songs. But I fear I’m becoming a bore. Let’s move on.
AVC: The song “Music Is A Princess” on Let’s Change The World With Music is so romantic in its lyrics and performance that it risks being over the top. That’s been a common mode for you throughout your career: a kind of delirious romanticism. Is there a wink behind that, or are you just drawn to music that puts it all out there, heart-on-sleeve?
PM: This is a great question, one that I can only answer by asking: Am I allowed to have it both ways? Like most of us, I’m not without cynicism, but I try to keep my cranky misanthropy from poisoning my songs. Or at least I try and make something useful out of it. I’m currently deep into a project called “Zero Attention Span,” and it’s the antithesis of the delirious romanticism you detect. Lyrically, it has a different attitude altogether.
But you know what? I think it’s interesting to write with a somewhat idealistic tone of voice. It may not be visible, but often there’s irony in the distance between my opinions, or moods, and the tone of the songs. And I hate to say this, but… Irony is easy. This may be a personal quirk of mine, but I reckon irony has to be the second most overworked tool in the songwriter’s toolbox. Coming a close second behind… sincerity! This is the beauty of song to me… you’ll never know if the songwriter really means it. And while this leaves very many people feeling slightly queasy—most of them rock critics who worship authenticity—it only makes the listening, and the writing, more interesting for me. In a nutshell, I write what I would like to hear, not what I’m feeling. Maybe that’s the key here… I’m not what you might call a diary songwriter.
By the way, I like that “delirious romanticism” phrase of yours. I wish I could get closer to that feeling. There is a project I’ve been working on over the past few years, called “Digital Diva,” and it’s very much an exercise in delirious romanticism.
AVC: How about the overtly spiritual themes on Let’s Change The World With Music? Jordan: The Comeback also featured some religious imagery, though Jordan’s take on religion was somewhat cheekier. Was Let’s Change The World intended as a more sincere expression of faith, or were you just using religious imagery as a motif?
PM: At a certain point during the recording of Let’s Change The World With Music, I wrote three new songs: “Ride” and “Sweet Gospel Music” among them. It was then that I knew that the album would have—shall we say—a spiritual theme. I did consider, briefly, how this might be off-putting to the skeptical listener. But I came to the conclusion that even if you have an allergy to apples, you might still appreciate a painting of a bowl of fruit.
AVC: One thing that’s striking about Let’s Change The World With Music is that because of its origins, it sounds like a pop artifact that’s been lost in time. Was there any temptation on your part to “contemporize” it? (Aside from the Auto-Tune on “Meet The New Mozart,” that is.)
PM: I’m still using the same equipment that I used in ’91/’92… I worry that all subsequent recordings will sound like artifacts lost in time! No, I didn’t want it “contemporized” in any obvious way. But my friend and colleague Calum Malcolm, who “restored” the recording, did firm up the bottom end of things for me. The original recording was made to 16-track tape. There was a fair bit of “bouncing down,” and certain frequencies were muddied. Calum reinforced the bass drums in certain instances.
As for the vocal effect on “Meet The New Mozart,” I think Calum ran the voice through a Vocoder, which was the original voice-processing synth back in the ’70s. I have one in my studio, which we used on the title track of Andromeda Heights. Incidentally, I wanted the “rap” intro to “Let There Be Music” treated in the same way; unfortunately, I forgot to inform Calum of this when he mixed the record last year. ( You read it here first, if I’ve not sent you to sleep with an overabundance of technical info. )
By the way, I actually like Auto-Tune™ as a studio tool; it’s a remarkable piece of equipment. It is over-application that has turned it into a sonic cliché.
NM: When I listen to “Lions In My Own Garden” or the Swoon album, I can’t hear any clear antecedents to what you were doing, outside of maybe early Steely Dan, ’70s musical theater, and to some extent the Postcard Records stable. Where were you drawing inspiration back then? And did you consider yourself a fellow-traveler with the other pop and post-punk acts of the early ’80s?
PM: Although we only started releasing records in the ’80s, our tastes and style were formed much earlier. I started to write songs in ’71, aged 14. By ’72, the idea of having a band was in place. I started to play with my brother Martin, and our best friend Michael Salmon round about then. You’ll probably think I’m joking, but really, we were a ’70s band. Unfortunately, we spent so long playing for our own amusement, building up a pretty baroque repertoire, that we didn’t get round to properly capturing our early style on tape, which is a shame. It was very different from our eventual “career” recordings. Much more energetic, freeform and electric. We evolved into something quite different when we stopped being a three-piece, after “Lions In My Own Garden.” Something was gained, and a lot was lost.
Influences? We loved all kinds of stuff… very broad tastes. It wasn’t just pop or rock music that we liked. Naturally, we loved The Beatles, and followed David Bowie’s every move. You mention Steely Dan; wonderful. Melodic music and strong chord changes allied to intriguing lyrics. (Thinking about it now, it occurs to me that both Bowie and Steely Dan are linked by these features, as well as by a very strong conceptual overview.)
1977 was a key year for us. For a lot of British bands, it was year zero, the year of “God Save The Queen.” Sociologically, that was interesting. But we were on a private path even then, and new wave was just too fashionable for us. That autumn, we were rehearsing “Bonny,” which I wrote in May of that year, eight years before it saw the light of day on Steve McQueen. We rehearsed for years, with passion. I seem to remember us listening to Heroes and Aja back then.
What else did we like? Well, we’d always been intrigued by modern classical music. I wrote to Stockhausen when I was 17, and he sent me an autographed score which I still treasure. But we liked T. Rex too. We just don’t happen to sound too much like Stockhausen or Bolan. And we loved Igor Stravinsky. Here was classical music that didn’t sound quaint. The coda to “The Firebird Suite”? I thought that we might sound like that. Why? I don’t know. There was just an attitude, or a colour in the music that I wanted to get close to. I thought I heard the same thing in “Marquee Moon,” by Television. (Is Tom Verlaine a fan of Igor?)
Do you want more on this subject? I’m much happier talking about someone else’s music than my own. One of our earliest songs was actually called “Igor Stravinsky.” That’s how keen we were on him. We loved “The Rite Of Spring” and “Petrushka.” I realize that it sounds presumptuous and ludicrous, but the experience of hearing these records coloured my own writing enormously. You might not hear it, you may even think I’m teasing you. But straight from the heart, it was nourishing.
By the way, none of us were highly skilled musos. (I’m talking about our original lineup.) My brother Martin has always been quick to learn stuff, but I can only do things the way I’ve written them. I’m slow to relearn an arrangement. And at that time, I didn’t know anything about music theory. I couldn’t read a note, and even as late as the ’90s, I was never sure what an actual bar of music might be. But I loved to make up chord shapes on the guitar. When people detect a jazz influence, I know what they are getting at, but the simple truth is, I liked Stravinsky, and viewed the fretboard as a shape-making device. If you think like that, you will automatically come up with complex chords that are associated with jazz. Back then, I didn’t really know any jazz. I seem to remember a Charlie Parker album kicking around, but it would have been like nuclear physics to a maths novice. Too fast, too blurry. Igor was slow enough for us to hang on his coat-tails. These days? Yes, I’m a fan of Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Sun Ra, and Louis Armstrong.
So… in the beginning, we were an extremely eccentric mix of total formal ignorance and wide-eyed curiosity. But I should emphasize that this was when we started out, which is my favourite Prefab Sprout period. By the ’80s, I think pop music had lost some of its thrill for me. I look back and wonder if the act of making records changed something for me as a listener. Perhaps I felt like we were competing with Top 40 radio, or the charts. I probably just got old! It happens, you know. Sure, we loved Prince, and Michael Jackson made great-sounding records… (By the way, I’m taking it for granted that you realize I love old school poetic songwriters like Dylan, [Leonard] Cohen, Joni [Mitchell], and Neil Young. Plus a hundred more troubadours.) But by the ’80s, I was listening to the surfaces of records. I wanted us to have the gloss of pop music, along with less common lyrical attitude. I didn’t want us to be a scratchy alternative band. (I like the scratchy aesthetic, but I was after something else back then.) I’m sorry, I’m rambling. I’ll try and stick to the point.
AVC: Did you give much thought to the musical trends of the times when you recorded Steve McQueen, From Langley Park To Memphis, Jordan, et cetera?
PM: This may be a question for Thomas Dolby, who produced Steve McQueen and Jordan, and half of Langley Park. Personally, I remember wanting us to be “on the radio,” but I had no idea of how to do that. In the end, I followed a whimsical trail as a writer, and everyone was kind enough to go along with me.
AVC: What do you think would’ve become of Let’s Change The World With Music if it had been released in the mid-’90s?
PM: I think it would have appeared at a time when our star was due to wane. I wanted it to be a Quincy Jones-style affair, and I’m sure it would have been as out of step with the times back then as it is now. But I would have liked those songs to have been in circulation. I still regard them as personal favourites. However, I can now reap the “lost album” dividend and milk that ’01 recluse mystique. Like I said earlier, something is lost, and something is gained.
AVC: Can we expect more “lost” Prefab Sprout albums in the years to come?
PM: I hope so.
AVC: How prolific are you these days? Are your health problems stabilizing at all?
PM: My right ear is troublesome. I don’t want to bore you with the details, but thank you for asking. I now work almost exclusively with machines. I couldn’t stand to hear a real drum kit, or amplified guitar. But I’m trying to make something unusual and strong out of my new circumstances. I haven’t given up. I still write, and have a vast archive of material which I accumulated over the years when I should have been out there performing like a proper rock star!
AVC: You’ve written and recorded some of the most exquisitely crafted, literate, tuneful pop music of the past 30 years. Do you feel like you’ve gotten your due, or have the bad breaks you’ve endured been too much of a hindrance?
PM: Thank you for your lovely compliment, I am touched by it. Did we get our due? I look at it like this; there’s an ocean of wonderful music out there. So, kids, if you are unfamiliar with Stravinsky, or Maurice Ravel, go check them out first before buying a Prefab Sprout record. (Of course, keep us on your shopping list. Maybe tell a friend or two.)
Is this okay? I hope I’m in the ballpark. (The cross is in the ballpark. What do we think of Paul Simon, eh? Pretty good writer… phew… hellish articulate too. He knows all about songwriting.)
Best wishes, Paddy McAloon.