The Gentle King of Pop
Monday 7 October 2013
In a rare interview Alex Mayor and Thomas Venker met the old magician himself, Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout, to talk about his return to recording, the art of song writing and what he’s been doing on his desert island. "Crimson/Red" is his first album of new recordings in over a decade, after some fateful difficulties with his hearing and sight, and is a dizzying testament to the undimmed powers of this other king of pop.
When I was a child I was always dreaming about the stars, what would be out there if we could get there ... stars figure so often in your songs, I wondered if this was in your childhood too?
I know what you mean, it’s in a lot of the songs, there are two things I think of when you asked me that. One is that the way that I write is often phonetic, vowel sounds that are pretty. Sometimes the very first line of the song is like a dummy lyric and I get started with "oh, the stars ..." and then I think you’ve got to drop that stars crap, ‘cos you’re always doing that. That’s my next thought, but it might get you somewhere.
Also at a certain point, as a teenage memory, I was interested in reading about music – say Pink Floyd or maybe Stockhausen who would describe his music as like "constellations of stars" or that the notes would be grouped liked a formation of stars. And that visual image stayed with me, I’ve always liked it. And then of course you have the indifference of the stars to our fate which as you know is a thought every writer has had. They’ve looked down on us, from ancient Greece to Shakespeare, I tried to get away from it now but obviously my music’s full of it.
And of course the stars lead to religion, to love, your other two important topics.
Oh yes and of course for me if you’re looking for images for songs, I’m always looking for one line that I can build around, taking my conversational style to some grand point. And often if you have a reference to the universe you maybe then want to contrast it with something domestic or everyday because that’s been a style of poetry for a long time, the modernist experiment where you bring it all down to a tiny detail like the soul of your shoe or it might be a cigarette or ash tray, and then you’ve got the whole world in a microcosm. The big questions, the usual stuff really – you know, the Sting-like things!
The new album Crimson/Red is the first time you’ve recorded new songs, without the band. How does that feel?
Well, I give the impression that the band is totally finished and it’s not quite like that. Events have led me here. I get the "what’s happened to everyone else?", but I would never rule anything out, I still consult my brother on things and feel bad that he’s not on the actual record. But when it comes down to it – when you’re in a room full of machines and you can’t really handle the sound of a whole band anymore, I tend to just get on with things, knock something together and make it work within its own electronic terms.
Your new method seems much more like how the whole music industry is heading now anyway, with so little money for recording budgets. Haven’t you sort of caught up now with the business’ own practices?
Yes. Those days are gone, where you had a guaranteed worldwide release and a nice big publishing deal to pay everyone’s wages for a few years and then another budget for recording. So people are making different sorts of records with computers and I’m living a bit in that world. If we could play live we could maybe earn enough to record the old way but I’m not able to do that, and to be honest I was relieved when my bandmates Martin and Wendy got proper jobs, not out of any glee at being on my own of course. But at least now I don’t have to say to journalists: "Well that wasn’t my idea, I actually wanted to do this ..." If it’s bad the worst I’ll now say: "Well, I wish for argument sake’s I could have had a saxophone on the record but I’m not the instrumentalist for that." So maybe some of the finer musical points I’ve given up on, but I think I act more like someone on a desert island who’s discovered a studio. I’m like Robinson Crusoe who’s found a fully functioning 16 track studio there. So I make a virtue of that, like Lee Scratch Perry – making music on an eight track studio or four track but creating great songs just the same. That’s how I approach it really.
So maybe this DIY method will give Prefab Sprout a new future?
The way I see it you just make a different kind of record. This one is more like seeing if you can fake a band, but not just sound like a computer record. My dissatisfaction with it comes from the sounds sometimes, these old boxes with sounds in, they always play the same, not like getting some trumpet player in and playing something. And I have these other arrangements of the songs at home and I think: "How long can I go on living with these sounds?!" But then I guess every musician playing live has sometimes looked round the stage and thought: "How long have we been playing like this, him on guitar, him on bass, he’s still playing drums ..." So on my desert island, these are my limitations, this is my palette of colours, and as we know limitation gives you form.
When I used to work with Thomas Dolby, who’s a great sculptor of sounds, he would spend forever on detail, and I’ll do that to a certain point but impatience or in this case there was a deadline I’d missed by ... two or three years. So I had to finish the album under a lot of stress, a bit angry with myself.
So maybe there’ll be future Prefab Sprout albums made this way?
My problem is I’m impatient, and although I have a laptop I don’t know how to use it. I can’t send an e-mail, a text, I don’t know any of these things.
This sounds like a beautiful life!
Well, I don’t even know how to burn a CD, but I do know how to plug everything into my mixing desk and then I hand it all to my engineer to make it sound correct and balanced. I rely on a whoever put the sounds in the boxes that they had better hearing than I now have. I record loads of tracks and then throw the jigsaw over to him – "you build the picture." Which is a terrible thing to do. So I work this way, and I ask myself: Well, new technology is there, but in the six week period it would take me try to learn some I don’t know how to save something, well, I could write half a new album in that time.
I tried a new system about 15 years ago and reading these manuals and then there was this »scissors icon« which I just hated. I prefer to work with numbers and details. I don’t like intuitive things, it’s just the way I am.
Talking of learning curve: How did you feel about the new album leaking onto the internet, which must be a new experience for you?
Well, I don’t »do« the internet, so people told me about it, and Wendy did try but you can’t really close these things down. Some journalist asked me a naughty question about this and said to me: "Are you William Brilliant?" who must be the person on some internet chat room who leaked the record, to which all I can say is: "I’d like to meet this William Brilliant!"
Although on the positive side, Spiegel Online reviewed the album enthusiastically, and that was the first time they’ve reviewed an album that hasn’t yet been released and that may never have been released.
I think the record label gave out CDRs at an investor meeting, so really smart, they managed to pay for the album then give it away!
Ah! This must be the new capitalism!
They don’t really like to talk about it, it’s a mistake I guess.
The album cover seems to be a coded reference to the line "See what the blind man paints? Abstract expressionist saints" in the song "List Of Impossible Things". Is this an important line for you?
It’s just one of those lines full of possibilities, particularly if the artists themselves can’t even see if their work is beautiful. And I wasn’t directly referring to my own eye problems but really the mystery of how we come to make things in this world. You may make it with the hope it’ll out live you or that you’ll have something interesting to say.
And when I start to write I don’t have anything to say, that’s my start point, so I’m always amazed when something comes up that’s worth hearing. I’m not the kind of writer, say like Billy Bragg, who might be struck by the injustice of something and want to write about it. But for me it’s so mysterious, in an interview you can sound like you have a great theory about why you’ve written a song because you’ve been asked ten times, so you think: "God I better get my act together!" but you have to remember it’s really about what you were doing that day or how you found an image that’s startling and true. That song "List Of Impossible Things" took me a long time to write (not that that makes it better), but because I was looking for those special images that each line would have some startling quality to it, these things add up to what it’s like to be human. Like "engage in a new noble cause" or something that is hopeful, and so it took me about eight years to do it. And it’s not a terribly complicated song, and it was almost there, but almost is no good, you’ve got to nail it, it’s got to be right.
Is this also related to how you sing in "Billy" that "I’ve got no gift for music" and "tell me all your secrets"?
Ah, well, the "Billy" song came to me very quickly but that meant I didn’t finish writing it because I knew any time I went back to it, I could do it. I did think maybe I should change the first line "where do you find that trumpet, Billy?" because what the hell does that mean, maybe I should change the instrument, but it just came to me one day, and I thought well what is a trumpet doing out in the snow? And also I thought: Well you’ve got two things here, one is Billy who’s in possession not just of a trumpet but who’s clearly a guy with an attitude, and then you’ve the guy who’s asking the question who’s desperate to be like Billy and that’s an interesting thing so I thought, so in a sense I’m both characters, I’m the guy who knows enough to be cool and partly I want to know the secrets.
So maybe it’s a bit about songwriting, lots of the songs end up being about songwriting. And of course it’s funny to say: »I got no gift for music«, because actually there are some days when you feel you haven’t, well, you’ve written this and written that and people seem to like them, but it doesn’t guarantee the next time you sit down whatever you write’s going to be useful and that’s a big thing with me. I think »you’ve done it before and you can do it again« which was my starting point after I first wrote a decent song.
You’ve always seemed a bit in the mould of a George Gershwin or an Irving Berlin where song writing is the main activity even if you don’t know where the songs will end up living yet.
It’s a bit of both, that, the other one is waiting for inspiration which isn’t great because you write fewer songs. I didn’t learn any music theory so it used to be a long and torturous process but I will sometimes look back on songs from »Swoon« and think, they’re so strange, where they came to you over a long time, the images, the chords, coming through a fog of complete ignorance.
But I was burning to do something, to do something good, and later you learn, a bit like Berlin and Gershwin, you try to become more business-like about it. Sometimes even if I’m not inspired but want to sit down and write a song, I’ll think "imagine you’re writing for a film" and that I have a deadline, no luxury of time, you’ve just got to get something down and start moving notes about until you get something that sounds good to hear, and then let musical logic build it up from there.
But are you able to believe it?
Well, you’re still looking for a bit of the other. Some songwriters just wait until the time is right, but then the time might never be right unless you’re actively trying to do it. And you hear of writers who get a whole, complete melody in their head but I don’t get that, I get urges, longings to write a song. It’s why titles are really important, just to know there’s something there, so I look for those. There was a time I used to walk around with a notebook capturing random images, about the light or scenery – I’ll take anything as a starting point.
We read somewhere that you claim to be from the San Andreas School of Song Writing.
I don’t remember saying that!
We thought maybe a reference to earthquakes beneath your feet? Eruptions, constant nerves?
I have literally no idea what that means! Maybe someone misheard me, which is even better. Like that Jimmy Webb song, someone once asked me about it and what was in fact "ichita Lineman« became »Richard The Lionheart" on a cassette.
And the name"Prefab Sprout" was also a misheard line right?
Ha – no I made that up actually. I quite like it when lyrics are misheard, sometimes they’re better. But "I come from the San Andreas School of Song Writing" – I certainly would have elaborated on that – I’m not the sort of guy who would have just left you with that thought. Where did you find that?
We’ll have to dig it out! I think in the same interview you said at the time that you don’t like messages in lyrics. Isn’t that a little coquettish from a writer who takes on the stars, religion and love, and though those aren’t »messages«, you do go for big themes?
I suppose when I said that I was more thinking about propaganda – a song as a kind of propaganda. And there are some songs like that which are quite beautiful but they don’t really fall close to where I’m from. I was pretty fortunate, I didn’t need to write a song like "Strange Fruit" or "What’s Goin’ On?" – where you think, this is really heavy duty. I’m not good at that anyway. I was really struck by the first biography of Bob Dylan because there’s a point in there where Dylan says he’d stopped writing "finger pointing songs". This is your fault here, your fault there. Him having become the social conscience of America, and he’d hated becoming that – I understood that it must be that people look at you like you’re a politician. A very self-righteous person. And I’ve tried to be much more elusive than that, as it’s a bit one dimensional. Some songs are beautiful comments on the world but I’ve never been too comfortable with that.
A song is a collection of images, it’s a much more open ended process, not that you have to be obscure or make it difficult to work out what you’re talking about. But other times I’ll think the beauty of songwriting is that you’re not spelling things out, it’s something for you to luxuriate in, and think about. Like poetry, a great image that does something to you.
And "Adolesence" on the new record, which has amazing lyrics, is this a personal song about your own teenage years or is it written for your own children?
It’s a bit of both really. There are striking images in there, "adolescence what’s it like, it’s a psychedelic motorbike", you’ve got "pre-sat nav", you’ve got the "Romeo and Juliet" thing. And I like that, not every song can you do that, often you have to stick with something more obvious from the start. Lyric writing for me is often finding the right tone of voice, and really if you think about adolescence, you can almost say anything, anything as long it’s uncomfortable, you’re sweating, you’re unhappy, but thrilled, so you could have versions of it and this was my version of it. Rather than describing my own adolescence, although there are one or two images from my own, but they’re not the obvious ones.
My memory of adolescence was having my very first cigarette, which I long since gave up, at about 14, 15 at a showing of Franco Zeffirelli’s "Romeo and Julie"« because you could still smoke in the cinema back then. So I had this combination of being a teenager, smoking and watching a film about adolescence so in the song I had the rhyme of »cigarette« with "Juliet". They’re all in the room.
I started to write that song about nine years ago, and when I dug it out last year to look at it I saw a few things that weren’t quite right, and I got the last verse with the astronaut image of the heat shield, I hope you survive blast off and that the heat’s shield’s strong enough and the fireworks that are crimson/red which is sort of what it’s like when you’re a teenager and you’re all over the place.
But my children ... they’re not terribly interested. They know what I do but you’re their dad, it’s probably of more interest to their teachers than to them, who are of an age to wonder what I’m up to. So the children come home and say: "They asked what you’re up to! And why don’t we know what you’re up to?" – but I thought it’s great that they don’t know what I’m up to, so the last verse is a sort of message to them, for when they’re old enough and it might not be long before they tune in, but you just don’t know.
Is there still an adolescent wonder in you? There still seems to be this wide-eyed boy in the songs.
Ah, well, when I mentioned that I thought about giving it all up years ago, I was trying to get back to being 16, 17 when nobody knew what you did. Where there was no money involved, when it was a passion, I was trying to get back to that stage of innocence which you describe. So for me, everytime I sit down, even though clearly some days you can’t conjure up that feeling, clearly I’d like to so you see the world freshly, and things were startling bright. But you have to put the filters on as you get older, otherwise everything would rush in and be too much.
You don’t want to risk the mid life crisis where you suddenly buy the Harley Davidson motorbike, right?
You’re right, you really end up trying save up for the psychedelic motorbike and then you’re like "Ahhh ...." and you’re falling into another kind of pattern, the sad man watching the boat leave without him.
Do your kids play you pop stuff they like?
They will play things. I heard that thing, I know a big hit: "I crashed a car into a bridge, and I love it."
"I Love It", the single of the Swedish electro pop duo Icona Pop.
And I thought crashing a car and loving it – that’s good! That’s kind of striking image, a good image. Or sometimes they play me something and they don’t know it’s a cover version and the original is ancient. They’ll play it and I’ll immediately start singing along and they say: "How can you possibly know this song?" And I go: "Well, let me tell you, way back in the day ..."
So if I say to one of my daughters there’s this song "When Love Breaks Down" they won’t be very interested, but if I ask them "Do you know a band called Snow Patrol?" they’ll be like yeah!". And I mention they’ve done a version of "When Love Breaks Down" then suddenly they’re "oh, my God!«" It’s suddenly alright.
But then that’s the way that should be. I remember when I was 14 and years later my mum said to me: "I thought you’d never get over T-Rex." She thought I was lost to listening to "Ride A White Swan", caught up over and over with Marc Bolan and T-Rex. So I look at my children and I try not to comment.
Mind you one of my daughters said to me: "It’s good that you played us lots of different things because someone at school asked if anyone had ever heard of ..." And it wasn’t Sun-Ra but something obscure like that, like Miles Davis, and we will always play all sorts of things at home, Donna Summer ... Stockhausen – it’ll be there, and so the children either like it or they don’t but at least they don’t think all music is just tap, tap, tap, tap (four on the floor).
Where did your sense of music come from? Your parents?
My parents were both musical but I think they came from a time where they didn’t spend much money on themselves, they didn’t buy singles, very, very rarely. My mother understood that she would have liked the Beatles, but we didn’t buy them, I think I got "Sergeant Pepper five years after it came out.
But everybody lies about that, right? About being there on release day to get their copy?!
They do! Or they claim their first record was a hip record, and I think mine was "All Right Now" by Free but it would have been "Ride A White Swan" if that had been out first. It’s not that I feel I discovered music all for myself, the key thing for me was, without knowing I was musical, I was musical. No-one told me, I wasn’t in the class for singing at school. I was in a room of people reading about football. But one of the first things was I ever did was strum a guitar and other lads would be singing, and I didn’t have a clue, I wanted to sing but didn’t know how to do it. And it was just a process that went, well, if you want to write songs you’re going to have to demonstrate how they go ...
But I guess from about 1970 and onwards the world opened up for me because I was around people with guitars and you could see how they did things, and the radio was just full of great music, melodic music and I was completely lost to it. The Beatles were breaking up but it was all there, "Instant Karma!", Simon & Garfunkel, T-Rex, Sly Stone, The Four Tops, Jimi Hendrix – I didn’t understand what Jimi Hendrix was, I thought it was the most strange thing ever but kind of inspiring.
And do you ever realize that your own name made it into that list of artists?
Ah, not the "addressing of one’s own myth question!" You’re supposed to make a joke about this one, that’s the gracious thing to do otherwise you look too self-obsessed.
I’m amazed by it – but then I know how records work. If you listen to a record for years and years you’ll wonder about the person that made it but I don’t feel it, or think about it on a day-to-day basis because it doesn’t help me to write another one. If you went up to Bob Dylan and said "Lay Lady Lay" is a really good record he’d probably be thinking: "Yes it is, I wish I could do that again! Where’s the guy with that voice who could do that?"
You never had a huge hit, but you sold constantly over the years, and some people think the greatest artistic career comes from being "warm, not hot", making your work without being forced to re-create one thing over and over.
I found out only recently that we sold millions of records, not 100s of millions but not just 100s of thousands either – millions are still millions. And you might ask well how could I not know that and it’s because they cost a lot to record and Sony probably have some clever way of accounting which you can never really crack unless you have high powered lawyers, but it was a number of millions of records (not greater than ten) and it made me think: Well, all of those people who are enthusiastic about you, they tell someone else, and the internet has brought that on massively. I mean, we never played America, we did quite well with "Steve McQueen", but the cult thing, it spreads. You can’t really call yourself a cult band if you’ve sold millions of records, but neither can you call yourself a smash-hit sensation because we didn’t have number ones – you’re in this weird zone where it’s popular but it’s just not "Abba-popular", you know?
So you don’t feel betrayed when you sang "I had a dream that we were rockstars ...?"
Oh no! You’re referring to the song "Electric Guitars?" Someone once approached me about that song, very straight-faced and thought I was writing about being in Prefab Sprout. And I said: "No it’s a portrait of the Beatles." And then I thought well, I know that fact and I guess someone else doesn’t.
My brother Martin always said, if you can manage to have a group where the name of the band is the thing that is known, then you’ll have a better day-to-day life, so for a time Pink Floyd – no-one knew what they looked like. And similarly for Prefab Sprout someone might know my name now perhaps. But we thought for a long time the thing was to hide, just let the beauty of the music be known. Someone might say: "Oh, the king of rock and roll", the man in the street might know that, but they won’t know my name unless they’re older or a journalist or from radio.
You’ve always lived in the north of England, and yet the songs are often full of references to the Wild West, Los Angeles, Manhattan. How does that inspiration come to you?
That’s a very European question. I get it a lot but it really never occurs to me. In those references, to "Jesse James" or "Hey Manhattan", I think I was just talking about some imaginative world outside of myself. I can’t deny the references are there. Why am I still in Durham? Because I live in my own head. It doesn’t matter to me where I am. I’m here because I was born here and I love it. But in the end, for me songwriting is an imaginative thing, an imaginative world.
So if the devil did come a-calling, you wouldn’t sign-in and go off with him?
Well, maybe I did! That’s the pivotal line "I’m sure that I declined ...", but I’m not certain. You may never quite know.
Also in "The Devil Came A-Calling" there’s a line about women going down on their knees – which seemed quite an unusual line for you?
You’ve got to be true to the story. Always be true to the tone of voice that relates to the subject. And you get a subject like the song "Mysterious" about Bob Dylan, and so the images are drawn from his life, where he comes from in the Midwest, in my head I’ve got the images, I’ve got "protest you were miscast" in there, which puts in the protest part of Dylan. And in "The Devil Came A-Calling" the devil has to be seductive so the character in the song has to be seduced, has to find everything that he wants, that he thinks, is self-indulgent. Then the key line is »I thought that I declined« but you’re not sure.
Why did I put my own name in it? Well I could have been thinking about someone else, but that’s kind of a cowardly thing to do. So you put your own name in it and you get out the mirror and think: "Where do I stand in the Faustian bargain?" Yes it is a bit unusual for me, but you know then there’s "assholes" in "The Best Jewel Thief In The World" and »"bad muthafuckin’ Miles" on "Let’s Change The World With Music" too ...
Do you sometimes think about how people experience your songs?
I actually don’t think about, and it’s a strange thing, but I don’t think about it too much. But someone told me he heard an album of mine, "I Trawl The Megahertz", on a beach in Mauritius and he had the waves of the music combining with the waves of sound. I thought: Okay, you’ve made that real for me. But as a person who lives in his imagination I’m startlingly short of the imaginative capacity to think what it’s like for other people to listen to my music. If I was talking to another songwriter I would ask that question: »Have you any idea how many lives this song has permeated and how people have associations to it?« So I consider it as abstract thing but I’m no good at thinking about an audience for what I do. And I sometimes think I’ve cultivated that a little bit too.
Like a defence?
Yeah ... just in case you start thinking: »Now what would the audience like?« So I don’t mean to sound ungracious when I say I don’t think about it, but I just can’t quite visualise all the circumstances, but clearly if you like a record, good or bad, you’ll have associations with it.
Thank you so much.
Thanks for the interest in what I do.
Paddy on BBC Radio Newcastle:
MOJO Album of the Week
The welcome return of Durham’s song-craftsman supreme.
“YOU SURELY ARE A TRULY gifted kid / But you’re only as good as / The last great thing you did.” So sang Durham’s Paddy McAloon on Moving The River: track 1, Side 2 of Prefab Sprout’s reputation-defining 1984 album, Steve McQueen. At the peak of his powers, this unique songwriter was already entertaining fantasies of decline: “And where’ve you been since then? / Did the schedule get you down?” Well, maybe it did. That and other things.
Decline is back to dog McAloon on Crimson Red, but with the singer now 56, exiled from a business that once sought to harness his impulsive gifts, and suffering from sight and hearing impairments, it’s harder to laugh off. In The Old Magician, McAloon’s protagonist is a washed-up conjurer – “the tired act that no-one loves” who concludes that “death is a lousy disappearing act”. Elsewhere, in the ravishing Adolescence, McAloon hymns youth with the passion of one who’s seen its last remnant fall away: “Adolescence what’s it for? For keeping each nerve ending raw.”
The blaring tinnitus McAloon has suffered since 2006 appears not, however, to have dulled his ear for a tune. Crimson Red is his first album of newnew music since 2003’s I Trawl The Megahertz, his first of conventional songs, as Prefab Sprout, since ’01’s The Gunman And Other Stories, and it is frequently miraculous. These are ingenious, affecting songs on a DIY recording budget, McAloon’s familiar alt-Broadway chord changes lent a sheen of classic Prefabs gloss by the mixing legerdemain of Blue Nile-affiliated engineer Calum Malcolm.
The subjects, too, are rich and strange. The Best Jewel Thief In The World is a creation only McAloon could summon, a professional cracksman at the top of his game, scorning the little folk (“what do any of those assholes know?”). There’s the “urbane” Mephistopheles of Devil Came A Calling who offers Paddy – OK, “Patrick” – “a mansion on Fellatio Drive” before returning, after 50 years of gravy, to claim his due. Bob Dylan and Jimmy Webb, or representations thereof, pop by, as if lending moral support to the songwriter at bay.
Music itself is now McAloon’s hot topic, a holdover from Let’s Change The World With Music, the house-informed album McAloon made in 1993 but only relinquished for release in 2009. And though music about music can smack tediously of self-justification, the payoff here is Billy, a delirious fable wherein music’s intercessionary magic is embodied by a discarded trumpet, stumbled across in the snow.
In the ’80s, McAloon might have scorned such a sentimental metaphor, but he’s not that smart aleck any more, not with life’s solaces now at such a premium. The gifted kid’s still gifted. He just grew up, is all.