Early in September, four years almost to the day after our last encounter,* I was back in Durham to speak to Paddy McAloon about a new Prefab Sprout album. At long last! No record company person had turned up at the hotel, so I was aimlessly wandering through the corridors, thinking that sooner or later we'd bump into each other. And so it turned out. Here he was, striding towards me, ready to shake hands. "Hans, I have your book!" he said. Somehow he had remembered that the last time we had talked about a novel he was reading, "The Bear Comes Home" byRafi Zabor. And here it was, a present for me.
Have ever read your Wikipedia entry? What’s the biggest mistakes about you in there?
I don't do the internet. No, I haven't. If been in someone's house where they've shown me things. But no, I wouldn't be able to tell you what the biggest mistakes about me are in there. I know it's there. My kids use the internet. But I don't. You'd have to believe some of it. If you saw a nice comment you'd have to think: that's true, that's what I was trying to do. If someone made an awful comment about you I'd have to say, well, your vanity has got the better of you here, I'd have to read that as well.
The first genuinely new Prefab Sprout album in 12 years. Why the timing?
The timing was panic. I signed a contract a few years ago with Icebreaker who funded "Let's Change the World With Music". So I owed them a record. And I forgot about the deadline. Forgot! I was working on another album for them and I knew I wouldn't have the time to finish that. So I changed – on October 12th last year, I stopped doing what I was doing and grabbed ten songs I thought would be reasonably straight-forward to record, that I knew were strong, and it worked out better than I thought. Sometimes I over-arranged them, and they were too long. So when Callum Malcolm was mixing them for me, we had to clip things down to size a bit. I was worried I didn't have enough material for an album, ten songs. “Jewel Thief” went on a bit, and "Old Magician" went on for about 6 minutes. Now it's just 2 ½ minutes long. It was panic. I owed someone a record. And I had to do it quickly. I'd never do that again. I try and keep on top of things.
It meant you managed to jump over the shadow of your perfectionism!
That's an elegant phrase. And it's true. I went with liveliness rather than sonic excellence. I try to make it sound good, but what can you do when you only hear properly on one ear? I just plugged things in the back of the mixing desk and thought: it looks OK on the meters, it sounds OK-ish, and when I handed it all over to Callum I let him worry about whether things were in phase or whether things were over-cooked or under-cooked. That's his side of things. You're right. There wasn't too much time to deliberate. What was interesting to me in the situation was this, though – when you keep material in a box for ten years or five years, and when you get it out again you really will see it with new eyes. You'll see it like an editor, or a divorced personality. That worked for me really well on a few of the songs where I thought that verse isn't good, or I've got a better line here, or that's OK but we need another section. A lot of the songs were written to work with one man and his guitar. Even "Jewel Thief" was written as a kind of Dylan-esque story. But I didn't feel I could record an album like that properly. I don't have the editing facilities in my studio to piece together such a very raw recording. So I started to overdub instruments and before I knew it I was making a proper, big-sounding record.
The last time you were telling me of an acoustic album you were working on called Blue Unicorn, I believe...
I was working on that, yeah. This thing has nothing to do with Blue Unicorn. In fact, I was thinking of Blue Unicorn today. I don't quite know why I put it aside. Of course, when I was talking to you about it, that was one of the songs I was writing, so it was very much on my mind. I still have plans for it, together with another bunch of songs. I have them all on the go at the same time. I thought about doing Blue Unicorn but I don't know why I didn't. It might have been that I had it on of my list in the boxes and couldn't find it.
So in those 100s and 100s of songs you legendarily have stacked away at home...
So I hear!
…how did you make the selection to end up with the ten?
There was no over-riding theme. It's not one of my thematic records with a big subject. But there was a kind of theme, a musical theme. The idea of all the songs being relatively straight-forward in terms of construction – verse, verse, verse, verse. “Mysterious” is four verses describing the poetry of Bob Dylan. Describing the act of writing songs. The job of the song writer, the poet. The person I had in mind wasn't a fictional character, my imaginary character was Bob Dylan. He's come out of nowhere, canny, clever, he ducks around what people expect from him – and then he falls of his motorbike. That was my little framework. I thought that was as far as I could take it otherwise I'm Clinton Heylin, if I go on to 1000 pages.
So there was the theme of the short verse. Similarly The Jewel Thief, same thing over and over again, even
“Danny Galway”, that’s basically 3 or 4 verses. That helped me in my selection. I looked at the box and thought: which ones are quite straight-forward? Not orchestral suites, nothing with 7 different sections, or with a long introduction and then a change of pace? Something that was consistent with a man and his guitar. That was my starting point. And then I looked to shuffle them around to see if they would sit because sometimes you can get these things on paper and they look good, but when you put them all together they don't add up. I think I was just lucky that it worked, in the end.
It’s clearly not a thematic record in terms of lyrics, but it is a very ruminative record. Every track is a meditation on a subject. Anything would hang together on that level, because it's you doing the thinking.
Yeah. It's considered. And it has your point of view. Mortality is always there. That's always somewhere. “The Old Magician”, disillusion – they're all good themes for ageing song writers. You're right. There's the theme of the writer's personality.
The Old Magician. I'm baffled – in your PR blurb it says this song could be about you. That's very unkind to yourself!
(laughs uproariously): Yeah! Well, I wrote the song in1997, so I was only 40 then. But I thought one day there will come that point where everyone, who ever we are, you aren't quite doing it so well as you' re used to be doing it. You aren't on top of the game any more. I think it was Martin Amis I first saw talking about that when he said that he observed in other writers he loved the "slow arc of the decline". And I thought I'll get in there early with this. I do it while I'm still functioning.
That's such a dangerous thought. It's rooted in the idea that youth is best, which is a post-sixties thing, and it paralyses you because you think your beyond it already. And then suddenly twenty years later on you realise that's when you thought that you were actually at the top of your game!
I completely agree. The photograph in middle age you thought made you look old, and actually you looked OK, and years later you think I'd like to be back there in terms of the way things are. But I thought it's an interesting thought to anticipate how it might go for you. And I thought the comic image of the magician was not a bad thing to do.
The truth of the matter is, I remember sitting down to write it. I don't know if I had a title. I was trying to write something, you probably won't even believe me, I was trying to write something like an old T.Rex record, like “Ride a White Swan”. Which I love so much, it's one of the key records from when I was a kid. I love that so much I often sit down and try and re-write “Ride a White Swan”. Clearly, I'm not gonna write about a white swan, but I sit there plucking my guitar and I'm thinking, that's got to be easy. A little throw-away song that Marc Bolan did. Not so easy – not so easy to pull off! I can't really do that. And then out of that – the “Old Magician”. Now that I think about it, Marc Bolan did have a song called “The Wizard”. A very old T.Rex song. Maybe I got it from there. Maybe that was the impulse. The finished song as you're hearing it is a long way away from that idea! And that's the beauty of music.
I thought a spiritual brother of this song is that Roy Harper song, "When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease".
I have heard that, but a long time ago. I imagine it is just the same. I shall have to dig it out. I actually have another song which isn't there, I didn't do it on this record, called “Evening Town”. I think it might be a better version of the same idea. I was gonna put it on this record, but then I thought you can't have two songs on same theme on the same album.
Can you think of other songs on this theme – we could put together a compilation album.
An album of oldie oldies! No, but there must be others. Leonard Cohen must have a couple. He touches on this in everything he does. That anticipation of melancholy even if he´s not melancholy. He´ll be anticipating the slow decline. The death of a ladies man.
Have you read Sylvie Simmons‘s book about Leonard Cohen?
No, I have not read it. I’m keeping that as a treat. I like Sylvie. It´s years since I spoke to her. I like her. She’s very considered.
In the past, with I Trawl the Megahertz“ for instance, your health had a strong influence on what you did artistically. Are your recent troubles with your eyes in any way affecting what you’re doing now?
My eyes thing is – constantly I have a magnifying glass. I could change glasses to read. But walking down the streets to look at the date on some food I get the magnifying glass out. So in the studio, you can imagine, it´s also a bit tedious. I´m looking like a detective. But I´m OK. You know, I can see much better at a distance because they took the cataracts away and I have good vision compared to many people who don´t even know they have eye trouble. It just doesn´t quite translate to an easy experience. So that does affect the way I do things. But I have a studio that is sort of set up, things are plugged in in the same way, and I´m very lucky in that when I´ve finished recording something, when I hand it over to Callum, he will look at it and bolster a drum sound with something else, "this sound is much closer to what you need and want", and I trust him to do that, to replace things. The rest of it, I get away with it.
I´m OK. The hearing, it comes and goes. But I´ve got used to my problems. And I have ways of working around it. When you´re well you don´t think about it. So now I duck and dive with situations. I try to imagine a situation where we make records like we used to. Say, I had the money to do that. But I sometimes think I don´t think I would have the patience for it now. I don´t think I could sit and listen to all this stuff going on. This way I´m in my little bubble with my machines and I make a different kind of record. Not as polished maybe as in the past, but it´s got spirit. And sonically its good enough. That´s OK. But I´m not a freak. It doesn´t have to be Steely Dan. I like Steely Dan, but that´s a very particular way of working and it costs them a fortune.
You are such a prolific writer, and yet you are – were – also such a perfectionist. Everything takes you so long to finish off, whilst on the side this huge mountain of ideas and sketches accumulates. That must be such a baffling and irritating paradox for you.
I think my basic problem is that I don´t really love recording that much. It´s a necessary step. I´ve always been reluctant to say that to people, because if a guy doesn´t like to play live, and then you say you don´t like the process of making records - did you maybe pick the wrong job? I have asked myself that! But I think it´s just the thrill of the writing I sort of crave. And as you say, the mountain of songs gets higher and higher and then you think you´ve got to do something about this, especially if you hear something someone else is working on, or you have a line in a song, and you think, someone else will get that line, some other writer will come along and use it, if they haven´t already done it. They´ll come close to that idea and write that song, so you should get them out. But what can you do – everyday life overtakes your desire to make records. I´m determined to make more. I´m working on the new one now. I´don´t wanna be phoned up again with someone saying I have a deadline – although I´m not under contract at the moment, I´m completely free – but I´m gonna try to have something ready before I talk to someone and say: look – here’s the finished article. It’s psychologically it´s less stressful.
Frankly, from where I’m sitting it sounds like you should land yourself with a few more deadlines!
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. People have said that to me. Yeah. As if I´d get more done by that! But I didn´t like the process. It didn´t cheer me up. I became terrible, ratty, blood pressure up, unhappy. Going to bed knowing – not feeling rested, knowing that I´d have to get up at dawn for another 8 weeks. That´s what I didn´t like. I didn´t like the thought that I couldn´t just wander off and do my own thing. It was really a welcome to the real world where people get up and go to work. So it had its uses.
The constant writing of songs is also just a method of contemplation for you, isn’t it, so that with each song you don´t really know where you´re going and it´s just one step in an on-going act of contemplation – some of the steps are maybe more interesting than others for you.
That´s the whole story. For me it is simply a wonderful way to spend your life. To have something you´re working on, that started something new, to be walking round with a fragment of a melody but you´re moving the words around in your head, you might have the title, but you´re looking for the next bit. It´s just wonderful.
What´s the best situation for you to facilitate ideas popping into your mind?
I´ve tried to find ways where I don´t rely on inspiration. One of them is very simply – you´ll probably laugh at this – I´ll say to myself: „what would John Barry do?“ I know he´s no longer with us, but I used to think that John Barry as a soundtrack writer didn´t have any time to consider what to do, he worked too hard, and he made so many films, he´d simply have to sit down on a Monday morning and make himself do something. And I thought the image of a song writer is you´re waiting for inspiration – and of course in a sense, yes, you are. But what can you do?
I tell you what I do – I take the guitar and tell myself: don´t wait for a good tune to come along because you might or might not get it. The best way to do this is simply to construct something. That note there, try another note, try two notes, try three notes. I sometimes think about Paul Simon - one good thing he said: “Don´t strangle the baby before you get very far”. Don´t criticise yourself too early. Even if it´s bad maybe you can do something with a fragment. So I try to find ways around it, and then , as you know, while you sat there doing the boring bits, the leg work, you may just get lucky and get a chord, or a title – titles are always great, and you don´t even know what they mean – that´s the most wonderful thing of all. I used to spend days walking around Durham and Newcastle, trying to make myself think of titles.
What do you do in the evening when you´ve finished at the coal face of your imagination?
I used to work in the evenings, once upon a time, until 8 or 9. Now I don´t. For some reason – I think it´s getting old. I just don´t feel quite relaxed doing that. So I read or put something on that I’ve taped, a documentary or a film. At the moment I tend to read quite a bit. The eyes are OK. I can do that. I just finished reading a book about Helen of Troy by a woman called Bethany Hughes which I really enjoyed. I wrote a song – two songs about Helen of Troy over the years and then I realised I don´t know anything about her at all. So I read this book, which was great. I might yet write another song about her. And I finished reading a book by Charles Simic, called "Dimestore Alchemy" which I re-read – a book about a guy called (Joseph) Cornell, who used to make these boxes. You know him? If you can find it, get it! The poet is responding to Cornell´s found objects in little paragraphs where he meditates on what is going on. It’s one of those dream books, you can open it anywhere, and it´s very compressed.
You´re not a pub-goer? Sitting in the pub and reading books?
No I don´t – I like to have a drink, but I like to have it with a meal in the evening. My wife works and my three daughters will come in with her after school, and I´m usually the one who´s made the tea. It might be a different menu for each person. I don´t know how we got into that situation. Nothing very hi-tech. One´s a vegetarian who´ll only eat chips. Haha. And then I´ll think, OK, I´ll have some pasta and open a bottle of wine or beer. I love the idea of sitting in a pub, and I bring the books with me. I have a Miles Davis book which I´ve read before, Quincy Troop´s book about Miles, his memoir, and I have visions of me sitting in a pub and reading it. But to be honest, I get restless. I can´t relax. I´ll be there for five minutes and I´d have my drink and go.
The reason I’m bringing up the pub is because at least two of the songs on this album to me are are full of pub-lore. You see all those faces in your regular pub, they´re pretty much the same all the time, but one day one of them will suddenly tell you his life story. This happened to me the other day with a man who was drunk to the point of total honesty and he was talking about his past as a diamond thief. “Why was the only talent I was given the talent of stealing things?” he cried.
See, and I had to make mine up! I would have loved that. Absolutely. I invented the jewel thief – it’s a bit like a Cary Grant/Grace Kelly thing, “To Catch a Thief”, like one of those films. My song sounds a bit like the plot of one of those films. But the reason I came to write that song, I had read something about Dylan working with Jacques Levy who co-wrote a song called “Black Diamond Bay” on “Desire” and a few other songs. Dylan had a co-writer as a lyricist – an interesting idea, Dylan having a co-writer for his lyrics! It’s an interesting song, rich in narrative, lots of incident, lots of characters, too many, probably. It’s massive, 16 verses. But I like the idea of a narrative, and the idea of what happens next. Although I didn´t really hold with that on “Jewel Thief”, I think story songs are interesting. A very old thing. Folk music. The song that tells a story.
But you then send in that metaphysical curve ball with Buddhism and Catholicism.
Yeah! It needed a spiritual element after the cinematic thing on the roof top. The song´s about rhyming as well, bag and swag, you know the way the lines compress, adjacent, complacent, the whole thing, and it needed a bit of philosophy.
What to me is the heart of that song is the idea that you´re brilliant at something that you can never ever tell anyone that you´re brilliant at because it´s forbidden and it would fuck you up.
Yeah I can see that. Sometimes, though, having written it, and thinking about it, I sometimes wonder – is it a song about song writing? Is it about putting yourself in that position where you know you can do something extraordinary if you really try. And so you build yourself up and you´re arrogant with it. At the same time the next day you haven´t written anything and you´re feeling at the opposite end of the spectrum. You´re feeling like the man in the pub, the man who´s kind of not so cocky, not so confident. I thought – is this really about what someone like myself does, the thing you tell yourself as a writer when the page is blank? Come on, you've done this before, you´re good at this – it´s a bit of that. Of course, on a personal level, I´m not really the kind of person who looks at anyone and thinks "what do any of those assholes know". I don´t like the thought. But I do wonder if the song writer in me sometimes thinks: you gotta show them, show people, how this is done.
Show them what the American charts have been missing.
Yes! Yes! That´s good. The American charts have missed it!
The other pub song to my mind – my patch in London is Kilburn with all those Irish pubs – there aren’t so many left, though – which used to be full of characters like Mick the Post, or Roofer Liam, or “Danny Galway”. You never know their surnames, the names are all about distinguishing Sligo Danny from Galway Danny. I love that song, the way you build this bridge from this man, Jimmy Webb, who writes this wonderful, melancholy, homesick, lonely, warm embrace of a song, to the pubs in Kilburn. This connection really chimes with me.
This is great! Because – as it happened I did meet Jimmy Webb in a hotel, in a bar, but really it broadens out from that to try and conjure up that atmosphere of the song that moves everybody. That´s the reason Jimmy Webb´s name is not in it. I thought some people will like him, to others he will smell of a different time, a different era. But everybody will think of some song they like, some song writer, and think, ah, that´s how they do it. It´s rich with that for me. But your pub-lore thing, I get that completely. I come from that sort of background myself. Maybe it’s “Danny” because of the Danny Boy connection as well, the choice of name. And Galway because of Galway Bay which is another traditional song.
Change of topic completely - who are Icebreaker Records?
They were the people who invested in the record – a venture capitalist outfit who were looking for businesses. Keith from Kitchenware got money from them to release this record. I think the original idea was to put out the record through a conventional record company. But I think Icebreaker decided to form their own label because they weren't terribly impressed by the way other record labels operated. I think they thought “how hard can this be?” They financed the record, they own it for ten years – basically they said: “We'll put this out and give you complete attention.” They already financed the last album.
How could it happen that “Crimson/Red” was leaked a couple of months ago on the internet?
I think it was a mistake made by someone at Icebraker. They were a bit naive to think you could put something on a website and it wouldn't be downloadable. People tell you that you can lock these things so they can only be listened to. Other people tell me that's a nonsense, once something’s on the web, people will find a way to download it. And I think someone maybe didn't put the lock on the software.
The other side of this is that people were clearly eager to find your new stuff.
That is quite true. The kind of people who find your new album when it's not yet been released, or announced, even, are the fanatics. People who really want to know about you and therefore will buy you in all the different formats. So it's a fan-based thing, People who really are interested in tracking you down. So, yes, it's a bit like getting a radio play in the old days, taped a John Peel session or what have you.
Does the title “Crimson/Red” hark back to an idea you talked about in the past, that you used to dress in red to cheer yourself up?
I stopped doing that. I did go through a phase of wearing red. Which was indeed putting me in a certain mood. But then I noticed that people would look at me in the street more, so I stopped doing that – red shoes, red trousers, red shirt. I thought it was too visible a thing, too obviously flamboyant, eccentric. The dressing up thing was when I wasn't leaving the house much, and when I started to leave the house again I realised it wasn't much good. The “Crimson/Red” line is in "Adolescence". I struggled to find a title for the album. I didn't want to call the album after any of the songs. I wanted it to be something hidden in the record.
I’m still intrigued about the colour idea. That the way you dressed had this kind of impact on your mood. How did the beard figure in this?
Like with yourself, a bit of laziness. And getting older. None of you starts to look any better, so you just start to hide behind it!
It's great to hide your double chins.
Something like that. Yeah. I like that.
Why haven't we had a book from you yet?
Because I can't write a straight sentence - without worrying about the grammar. That's the truth. I need a ghost. I had a sentence the other day, and I used it with my brother, and I couldn't decide which way round does the adjective come, this way round or that? It wasn't like a grammatical problem. More a matter of taste. That's why there's no book. I don't think my grasp of the basics is good enough. Good writing, when you read it, is usually - to the eye - smooth. If the writer knows what he’s doing. It's usually quite smooth, unless you're James Joyce and you're deliberately Finnegan's Wake. I think I'd have to work too hard.
These lyrics could easily sit in a book.
Thank you very much. Lyrics are different. It’s the compression. It’s closer to the poetic form. Where strange images clash, that's OK. I think having struggled for years to get the lyrics thing to work, I have enough respect for prose to think – phew, that might be something you should put a lot of time in before you do it, and I haven't. I see it for what it is. I know how good good prose can be, and I don't think I've put the time in.
That’s the sort of feeling I often have when folk singers or pop singers, fantastic singers in their field, decide, right, we're gonna do a jazz record. But they haven't lived “jazz”, so it becomes a studied thing and you can hear it.
Absolutely, and something that with a little bit of experience and distance under your belt you'll think you shouldn't really have done. And as you get older you're more aware of your limitations. As a twenty year old you probably think you can have a go at anything if someone suggested it. Not at this age.
“Adolescence" - you think you can do anything, and the next day you feel destroyed.
Get the motorbike and the next day smash it. Yeah.
Recording it all by yourself, do you do layer by layer every day?
Yes. Heavily overdubbed. Most time spent on sequencing things, layers of keyboad. In the end what warms it up is voices and guitars. I spent not a lot of time on guitars and let Callum work it out. I gave him a lot of work to do. He was only originally supposed to mix in the beginning but he had to do a lot of editing into shape on this record. He said to me: “you've written it and produced it and recorded it”. But I thought that didn't tell the whole story. The relationship isn't quite so simple. So he's credited as a producer with me. To me that's only fair. When he got it, yes it's me playing and singing, but I wasn't always singing and playing in the right places. I like to let the music go past me, and I sang “Jewel Thief” and I wasn't happy with the way I was singing it so I just kept on singing into the microphone, with no music, singing lines, thinking that maybe Callum can use it, and of course when he got it he got 24 tracks of vocals that went on for 8 minutes and he pieced together the bits he liked. A lot of work.
Of course, I've never really given up on the idea that one day we might make another band record. One day. Maybe. Should never really close it all down. With Wendy and Mart, certainly. Haven't talked with the others, simply because time flies by. Yeah, I see Wendy occasionally, she's got a job. Martin I see often, we speak a lot. He's ok about this. But this isn't the way it's supposed to be. Using the name just for myself. There are reasons for it, as you can probably imagine. I'm trying to work out different circumstances, really.
Last time you explained to me the reason you still used the Atari was to do with your eye sight, finding it difficult to focus on instruction books, etc. So you stick with what you know. Still the same? Still the Atari?
Still do. But the keyboards are probably used in some unusual way. Doing things like taking a sound meant for a soft sound and moving it up, outside its comfort zone, the octave. Some of the things – I'll tell you, the sound on Adolescence, that really high thing that comes in, that is actually a sample of a bass guitar. Yeah! Way out of its range. Sometimes I torture the instruments to make them not sound so common. So of course the dilemma before every record is – do I invest in a new system? Spend 3, 4, 5 months trying to learn it and then abandoning it? My studio is full of abandoned systems. Which appals me. It doesn't feel right. To have bought something you've never used and it's cost you thousands of pounds. I've lots of stuff that I bought and never got to work. Or I just got too frustrated to continue trying. I’ve got a five-thousand pound Mac which I got frustrated with. I’ve got a 15 thousand pound recording system that I never used once. Embarrassing. And now of course it's worthless. Some kid who's got a 1000 quid equipment could get more sophisticated results.
Almost by default, then, you've arrived at a sound that's completely your own. It's not totally 80s, it's not modern, it's somewhere in between, so it hasn't got these Gang of Four or Gary Numan connotations or anything like that.
Yeah, and because of the things I like I have notions of what's appropriate. Also, I have phases where I don't like certain sounds. I have a very nice piano, it sounds beautiful, but I'm right off pianos. Don't know why. I just can't imagine putting one on any of the songs. It used to be the same with guitars.
There's a very nice piano intro on "The Dreamers".
Yeah. But that's the only bit on the record, I think.
But you're getting to channel Stevie Wonder on this record, on harmonica.
Yeah! I like that. I like to think: what would Stevie do? I think “Jewel Thief” needed that. And in the old days I would have asked him or someone else to do it. Now, it's just get on with it.
Are you still in touch with Stevie?
Nonono. That was just someone else taking pity on us. I don't know him in that way. I couldn't just phone him up.
Is there anyone left in your phone book from those days, like Paul McCartney?
No. There is no one I can think of. I just let it all fall away. I was quite happy to do that. I sometimes think about writing to someone and ask: how are you? But the years have passed.
Who do you see as song writing peers of your generation?
I’m always interested in the Blue Nile. Specifically I liked “Hats”, the album, and the song “Tinsel Town”. And I enjoyed Scritti Politti, Green - he's an interesting man, I never met him. A journalist asked him about arranging keyboards and he said: “I like the clockwork universe”. I'm a bit like that. I can go for a feel record where people play. But I quite like the Atari and Midi chords driving lots of sounds. A bit 80s of me. But a lot dance music is based around that, sequencing. And I think I incorporate that into a different style of music. As for other song writers – it’s usually one or two songs rather than a raving follower. Of course, there’s Sondheim. A different generation, classic song writers. I don't think I could learn from them. The sound world and the sensibility was completely different, but the lyrics would usually be smart. I do admire that kind of thing. And I like Walter Becker, still. He’s still a tremendous lyric writer.
Have you discovered anything lately?
I got more into Lee Scratch Perry. I always liked things like Junior Murvin. By the way, the last time we spoke you asked me about New Wave music and I think I said I wasn't touched by it. But afterwards I thought that wasn't quite right. I was trying to think afterwards of people that had got to me. As soon as I got away from you I thought of people I should have told you about – PIL! I like that, Wobble’s bass playing. Groove-based stuff. Not really like my song writing, but I liked it. Jamaican stuff, I can get into that.
“List of Impossible Things” - “Francis Hoboken”, that’s obviously Frank Sinatra. One of your "does God exist – if he doesn't how come we are?"-kind of songs.
Yeah, that's right. And I'm just gonna invent him anyway. Which is a sentiment I came across in a biography of Stephane Mallarmé where he talked about his poetry being not like a religion, but he'd act as if there was a deity. And they would worship him and try to bring it into existence. I saw that and I thought, I've often had a similar thought – act, as if we could make these things happen. Who knows, maybe we can make certain things happen we thought were impossible. I don't know. Maybe I'm going into Lee Scratch Perry territory.
“Devil Came A Calling” – is that you ruminating on your experiences with record companies?
That's me ruminating on how far do any of us wander from the path of righteousness. How far do any of us suddenly turn round at one stage and go: are you sure you did the right thing? Point the finger at yourself first.
With what contract did I become an arsehole?
Did you ever have feelings of guilt like that? About semi-signing your soul away?
Not specifically about signing a contract. More the notion that you've maybe chosen the wrong thing to do – would you have been happier doing something else? Clearly, it would have to be music. Or, the music would stay a hobby. There was a time when the music had to fit around the day job and I worked in a garage, that was when I was about 19, 20, my Dad had a petrol station, and the music stayed great because it was a real refuge from my day job. But I couldn't make any money that way. It must be torture to be a film maker and never be able to make a film. So I've been lucky. But I sometimes wonder if I should have done something else. I sometimes allow myself to fantasize with that.
Paddy McAloon interview onNewstalk 106-108 FM Ireland with Tom Dunne
* And here's that very same interview:
Six years have elapsed since the last album from Paddy McAloon, "I Trawl The Megahertz", and fully eight years since the last he released under the band name Prefab Sprout, "The Gunman and Other Stories". "Let's Change The World With Music" isn't, however, completely new. It is, in fact, an album delivered to Sony Records in 1992, and rejected because the company didn't like McAloon's use of Godly metaphors in his lyrics. On a grey day early in September Hanspeter Kuenzler travelled to Durham to ask Paddy McAloon about the timing of this new old album.
So what is it with you and all those 80s proto-ProTools dinosaur synthesizer sounds?
Ah! It's several things. One of them is - never being that interested in having the latest of anything. That just doesn't interest me. It's music, and these are sounds. Perhaps I should be more careful about it. To other ears it might sound like 80s music. I should probably be worried. But the orchestra sounds like an orchestra whoever the composer is. So I'm not that interested in equipment - other than if I have it at home I can make records. So when I had money, when I was selling records, I bought a few things. Later, when the technology got better, I got jaded by the fact that forever whatever you had seemed to be out of date. So you have a computer, you mastered it, and then something else comes along. You find a piece of software you can use, you do it well, and then someone will tell you the computer you've got will break down, it's old now, you'll need to go over to a Mac. Let me tell you - I still use an Atari computer from 1987. I didn't like where the software went after that. Even on the Mac. I don't care how sophisticated it got - I knew how to use the old software in my limited way. And, finally, my eyes are not great. So I resent the learning curve with new equipment. I don't have Garage Band. I don't have a Mac. That?s what it is with me and old technology. I can't be bothered. Nor do I have the money to spend in the way I used to have. I don't have a massive guaranteed advance from a record company. I work very slowly by myself. BUT - I have a message on my studio wall that says: "Imagine that you crash landed on a desert island, but you've survived, you've walked away, and there's a small town there, with a recording studio, the recording studio is very old-fashioned. How thrilled would you be, having survived your plane crash and how thrilled you'd be for the most basic recording equipment?" That's me. That's me in my home studio full of this old gear that's out of date that other people can laugh at.
There's a thought that came to me whilst listening to your "new" old album. How incredibly apt the timing of its release! Here is an album about the spirit of music and about the almost religious potency that music has, released at a time when music has become completely devalued because it booms out of every bloody shoe shop.
I was in a shop yesterday. A department store. I thought I was in Studio 54. I know it sounds like an old man's complaint, but you know the feeling where you walk somewhere and you can't actually remember what you've gone to buy just because you're so distracted by the noise around you? What's that? And what's happening there? I don't understand it. But that's probably just getting old. I remember reading some book called "Debussy Remembered". There was this anecdote in it. He may have been played some recorded music, it was just at the beginning of recorded sound, he died in 1918. And they talked to him about music being taken outside the concert hall. He thought on a spiritual level that that would cheapen music so incredibly that it would be valueless.
I like the democratic aspect of recorded music. But - it is everywhere, and it is devalued. They're giving CDs away for free with everything. It's hard to fight your corner when you talk to people who think that the music should be free. The other day the taxi driver told me how happy he was with his file sharing, and I pointed out to him, you know, people don't get paid for that. And he said, the record companies over the years have over-charged so there's no sympathy for the record company. I said: but you won't like it if I get out when you stop your car and I decide to run off. You won't like that. There's no real difference. If you're brought up in that world where people do get paid for what they do - it puzzles me that so many people think it's OK. It's kind of morality just by weight of numbers. If enough people use file sharing, suddenly everyone thinks music's just there in the air and should be free. I don't quite understand how it got there.
Not only is the selection of music we get to hear in everyday life woefully reduced, but that small range of music we hear is shoved down our throats everywhere. In London the tube stations have classical music to drive away the muggers. So if you've never had the experience as a 16 year old to discover music with a passion, the danger is that you encounter music as something that gets on your nerves, and that, really, gaming and bungee jumping are much more exciting.
Some people I think would not recognise what I do as music. I think some people wouldn't recognise it as music because - it sounds like an obscure point - but the sound of the urban experience is a music that is very very tightly defined. The bass drum is way to the fore. The hi-hat is doing something ridiculous at the front of it. For some people, if music doesn't do that it probably doesn't sound like music to them. My stuff would sound to them like a quaint thing from a thousand years ago. I'm quite willing to accept that. I don't know what to do about it. But I agree with you. If it becomes part of the atmosphere, it stops being a refuge. It might become the thing you run away from. Silence might be the thing you want.
What directed the timing of "Let's Change The World With Music" after all these years?
Pure and simple - Keith Armstrong at Kitchenware said he'd put some money in it if I put it out. I had never even thought about it for years. It was right off my radar. I didn't even think of it as an asset. I'd gone through my disillusion when it didn't come out and moved on to "Andromeda Heights" and Jimmy Nail songs and other LPs that haven't come out, and "I Trawl the Megahertz", and bla bla bla - forgetting about it. It's a long time ago.
But Keith hadn't forgotten?
Keith hadn't forgotten. Probably what Keith was doing was - thinking I'd given up. Which is basically what I had a few years ago. I just had a kind of crisis, before my hearing thing. I just had a strange feeling one day that everything passes away. And as I didn't like to listen to my old records at all, I was always trying to write new ones to work on them, I thought maybe I'd got something wrong with my life. I thought: "Why are you working so hard every day on something that when it's finished you don't want to go and talk about it, you don't want to go and play it, and you can't bear to have it put on in my presence?" And I should have told myself: "well, lot's of people will feel like that, it's a natural thing, you making something doesn't actually mean you'll want to listen to it." But it puzzled me. And I just thought maybe it was time to not do it. But I had to major flaws in my plan, two errors. One was: that I can't stop writing songs, that's what I like to do. And the other one is that I have a family to feed. And I thought by stopping doing it I would just find something else to do. I'd still do music on the side, as a hobby. I thought I could do that, but I couldn't. I'm not qualified for anything else. I couldn't see to start. I can't drive - a bit late to be starting something new now.
And I think Keith, when I told him I was feeling like this, said "OK". And I was like that for nearly 5 years. And then my hearing went funny. So, there were five years of doing nothing, publicly. "Steve McQueen", the acoustic thing, I dragged myself through those recordings. And then I had my hearing problems and thought that's it. So Keith came to me last year and I think he was just trying to lure me back to work. And he was right. I listened to the album - and I stopped listening to it as something I had to make properly with a band in a big room. If you'd talked to me in 1992 I would have thought: no, this is just a sketch. Now, I'm secretly proud of the atmosphere on it, that's the truth.
What did you have to do to it to freshen it up?
The first thing they did, they had to bake the cake. 1992 - that, to me didn't seem to be that old. But Malcolm, my engineer, said, "They bake them." They transfer it then on a digital format so they can work on it. So I sent it away. It sounded ludicrous to me, someone makes a living doing that! They baked it. And when Callum got a hold of it it was on ProTools. So it means you can get all your analogue information you can get in there, tighten things up, take out the noises between the vocal tracks when I'm breathing over it. But the main thing he did, the basic thing - he knows how to mix a record. I know nothing about that stuff. My rough version of it - it's all the same music there, but I can't balance music, never could. He has a proper studio for doing that. So he balanced things, compressed them, made them sound professional and tidied them up generally.
The temptation of being in a studio alone must be that you become so perfectionist you throttle the life out of your music.
Unfortunately I'm at the other end of the spectrum. My normal performances are so ramshackle that I'm just trying to drag them into the vaguely pleasurable zone for the listener. Perfection I'm not sure about. But I hear perfection on other peoples' records. I hear the perfection that kills it.
Usually corporate perfection.
Absolutely. It is. Corporate perfection. And the fact that you know that they used all the machines to get the vocals inhumanly in tune. You can even hear where the breaths have been taken out and where one line runs inhumanly into the next line. I don't care for that.
What I also find intriguing about your album - and obviously I've read the Mojo piece where you talk about "Smile". For me - I'm a great Beach Boys fan, but when Smile actually came out a few years ago, it failed to touch me. It no longer had the resonance that the myth had had, or that the old bootleg tapes still had. I've never listened to the CD since. Your "missing" record, on the other hand, has a topicality which does not date it in the early 90s, despite the computers.
First of all, Brian Wilson's good things are better than most peoples' great things. Brian Wilson - Good Vibrations, God Only Knows, you're talking about the best you can get. So my comparison between what he does and what I do is purely in terms of you see a situation unfolding around yourself and you don't realise that you're playing out some myth that you should have known could happen along. I should have known that while I'm thinking about the music someone else is thinking about another aspect when things go astray. But the Brian Wilson thing, you're quite right, the resonance of some of these things were very 60s. And the beautiful balance of their voices relied on a family thing. Carl and Brian, mostly, there's a sweetness there. Well, Brian is left now with the most fantastic band, I don't know them personally, I think they do a fantastic job. But it's true, something is lost in the history of it. Probably because the myth was so beautiful. But I don't even like to be vaguely unkind about Brian Wilson.
The thing with my album is - I'm the older man, and on my album that's the younger man. So I hear it and I think, "ach!". My little myth over the years has been that the voice couldn't have deteriorated. Well, that's kind of like a woman looking into the mirror and thinking I look like I did when I was twenty. You don't. And you don't sound like that. So for me I can hear the album and go: "OK, I hear my optimism." The thing is - I may have downplayed my hearing problems in that Mojo interview a bit. I had talked about them with other people and I think I was getting bored with the subject. The big thing with hearing is this: I DID do everything on my own until the day I stopped hearing properly. Even though I can hear now, I can't hear properly. So I look at those recordings nostalgically. From about 1992 all I can hear in that voice is: "you don't know what you got coming to you, man! You don't know what's going to happen to you!" That was the first thing that I was feeling when I put the DAT with the old recording of "Let's Change The World With Music" on. I thought: "You really sound like you're on top of things."
What is the state of your hearing and your eyes now?
The eyes, I don't even worry about that so much now. And even at the time it didn't bother me in the way the ears do. You might say it's because I'm a musician. The eyes - the retinas were detached and I would have gone blind, but they fixed that in both eyes. But in some deep level it simply didn't bother me in the way the hearing has. Have you ever had hearing troubles?
Occasionally I have a slight hint of tinnitus. Nothing much.
Nothing that loud that you can't sleep? Nothing that dominant?
No, absolutely not.
You know, you read things about hearing. There are books - I think David Lodge has a novel about losing his hearing. I don't know how old he is. But I always thought it was something almost benign. Someone in the corner who can't quite catch something, and you think: in today's world that might be a nice thing! Apart from the fact that it wasn't like that at all. It was deeply scary. It was like Keith Emerson holding down two fingers on the keyboard in my head during the night. There was no escape. And I'd get up and say to my wife, can you hear that?
(chuckling) Sorry, but that really was a very funny description of the noise of tinnitus!
It IS! And that was the sound! It was this awful sound (makes noise).
Held down with a knife.
Pffft! That's right! It's true! It's funny now. But that's exactly what it was then. I was thinking: This is not even a good synth sound. It's a horrible tone. I asked my wife: can you hear that? I knew she couldn't. But I had to ask the question. "It's so loud you must be able to hear it, I'm generating it from my head, it must be out there for the world!" And this went on for a long time. I couldn't sleep. There was no refuge from things in your head. Nowhere to hide. That lasted about 6 or 7 months, on and off. It wasn't always super loud, it was a cycle of symptoms.
So you got Rick Wakeman occasionally?
Ha! I got the full Prog. Rock complement. I got pressure in the ear. High-pitched stuff. A cycle. Sleep deprivation is the thing, it's the worst.
How did you get out of it?
It started to die down and now I'm left with a feeling of pressure and I can't hear the bass on anything on the right ear.
So putting this album out must almost be like coming up for air?
Yes it is. You know, in the normal run of events, if I was making records regularly, I might not have been too thrilled about an old recording. Because basically I still write things. I don't see myself as an old chap talking about an old record. I see myself as living in the present. I write music, I write songs all the time, even if no one's heard them. I'm not nostalgic at all. So normally I'd be saying, it's just an old thing we did. But possibly because of the hearing thing I appreciate it more. I appreciate the chance to have a reminder of when I was in better shape.
So you're still writing five songs a day?
I have a good number of unreleased things. When I say unreleased - a lot of them are unrecorded. They're just written. Just not in any form other than a cassette, with me singing and a chord chart, and computer arrangements sometimes, but I don't have hours and hours of recorded like a Frank Zappa library of stuff ready to go. I wish I had, man, do I wish I had! I wish I had spent less time gazing at the skies and smoking cigars in the garden! I should have spent more hours doing this.
Out of the problems with your eyes came...
"I Trawl the Megahertz", yeah. Did you like that?
I really like that album. I'm generally interested in contemporary classical stuff, and that seemed to be an experiment that really worked.
Thank you, thank you. I spent a long time working on that just as a computer piece, using the same old rubbishy synth sounds. Do you know why it is as long as it is? This is a terrible thing to tell you! 22 minutes of music is the length you'll get on an Atari! That's a bad reason for it. But in the end when I figured out thestructure of it it was just gonna fall within what an Atari could do. It should probably have been shorter, I know that, that opening track. On the other hand I thought it's a little bit like going to see a film. You wouldn't want to do it all the time, you wouldn't want to see the same film all the time, but while you're there you'll give it your attention and you won't think in the middle of it you'll go and do something else. You'll watch the film and then you put it away. That was my idea with Megahertz. So I knew at the outset that it might have a limited appeal to people, because nowadays you can't give them more than a couple of minutes in one song.
Zero attention span - another of your pet subjects, I believe.
Yeah, "Zero Attention Span". That's one of my projects. I think that's what I got it from. After Megahertz I was thinking: "you're wasting your time on this long business. Just chop it down to size."
Have you since then explored that sort of contemporary style more?
Nono. Part of me thought I should leave it as it was. I thought don't do something again in a similar area, I thought don't go near it. I had other ideas. One of them was - which you may have read about - "Digital Diva", basically operatic areas without any real connection to rock music. I wanted the singer to be generated by some kind of software. You can get voices on software now for computers. Most are used for backing vocals. You get one or two backing vocalists who allow their voices to be sampled and stored for computers. And I thought one day they'll probably do an opera singer, someone with dramatic capability. That's what "Digital Diva" was about. It vaguely leans on that Megahertz string-based more lush and string-based stuff. The songs are all written. But nothing is recorded. I felt it was a minority interest thing. When I say that - most of my things are minority interest things. But there's more chance of me with a collection of songs selling some records. And also, it was the music I wrote as I was just coming out of my ear problems. So I wrote it very softly using those textures, it was the best I could do at that time in terms of using machines and hearing. But the music is - although I say it myself - good, and unusual and the harmonies are quite rich, very melodic. But I haven't got the software. What I'm looking for is the tension between moving words, and a voice that isn't quite real.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment - may I digress for one second? I laughed when I saw the Mojo piece. It made me see how quickly a mood can change and how quickly the things I was talking about 3 months ago are history. They're in a box now. I'll give you the latest update. Digital Diva, yeah, I've got that there somewhere. Now I've written a thing called "Blue Unicorn". They're songs, me and my guitar. And the impulse to make them the way they are is to make something as cheerful and as uplifting as a Louis Armstrong record. Like "Stardust". Something that kind of hasn't too much introspection in it, is more out there. So I put away the lush keyboard I used for Diva and picked up my old acoustic guitar and just started playing that rhythm, a kind of Jazz thing, and I started to write. I got this one song called "Blue Unicorn" which I still can't quite figure out really what it's about. It might be an old artist trying to chat up a waitress in a bar and talk her into being his model. I have this one line - I'll give it to you, might as well tell you, full disclosure - I had this one line, with no music, and it was this: "You and your bohemian friends". Nothing else. No context. Just "you and your bohemian friends": And I thought this would be a good song title, I don't know what it's about. And I started playing with chords. And at a certain point in the song I saw where "you and your bohemian friends" could lie so I wrote it down. And I worked backwards from there, and I got this story about an artist. I think it's about an artist - on some autobiographical level it's about yourself getting older, looking at the way things are going, saying: life is short let's grab the moment - one of those kind of songs. That's what I think it's about. That's what I'm working on. Since then I've written a few things in that mould that seem to fit musically and lyrically together. I'm very pleased with it. I don't know yet what to do with it.
Something that's always baffled me about the way you construct songs and arrange songs - you seem to be so grounded in the area you live in, and yet you don't actually seem to work with the influences of the Folk music that's around you.
No. But I've started to get interested in all sorts of things I wasn't interested in, and that's one of them. I think it didn't register because I grew up with Pop music. T. Rex. I've worked outwards and backwards from T. Rex. From T. Rex to Stravinsky and to Schönberg. My mother once said to me: "God, when I heard you play that record over and over again, I used to worry about you." "Ride A White Swan", over and over again. And I think: yeah. If one of my girls would be doing it I'd be going: "Do you have to play that song again and again?" But it's a doorway. As long as you keep going back. Where did he get that from? It's the Blues thing. The Beatles, Rock'n'Roll. What was that about? What's Jazz? What's chromatic music? Why did Wagner seem to be the end of something? Why did Schönberg think he was taking it somewhere else? Why is Alban Berg's music pretty in ways that Schönberg's music isn't? And why is Webern's music strict? The whole world is there. Folk music didn't seem interesting enough to me when I was younger. I know this is a stupid thing to say, because of course the lyrics clearly are very unusual. You only have to read an interview with Bob Dylan to see how big a deal Folk music was. He always talks about how mysterious it all is. And I've started to see this now. But I know next to nothing about it. I have no Martin Carthy records.
What have you started with?
I started with a Burl Ives song book which I bought in a shop in Whitley Bay a couple of weeks ago. It's got all these things, "Froggy Went a Courting" etc. I've started to look at the most simple of folk music as translated in a pop form. Burl Ives really was a sort of pop entertainer.
You've written Country-style songs, and the Country tradition really is rooted in a similar tradition as what Burl Ives was doing.
I suppose it is. But whenever I've written something that's vaguely Country it's not really been very, erm, authentic. "The Gunman and Other Stories", the "Cowboy Dreams" music, was written for Jimmy Nail who wanted to make a program about someone from the Northeast who wants to be a country singer. To start with it's an inauthentic thing I'm writing. I have a friend who lives in Nashville, and I played him "Cowboy Dreams" and he just laughed. But I meant it! I meant it sincerely! Even now, when there's a guitar about and someone says "what have you written what can you play?", I won't play what a critic might think is one of my better songs, I'll play "Cowboy Dreams" because, hey, it's easy to play and they'll have heard it on the radio and it demonstrates that you're a song writer. So to me it was a sincere thing, but it came from a strange place because it was necessary for a TV program.
But it is no different - "America" has always marked a mythical place in your song writing. All those songs you've ever written about America are from a similar place. Like the Cowboy record, they were form a point of view of a boy or a man in or near Newcastle imagining these things. In that sense surely it's completely authentic?
Yes it is! Usually when I talk to journalists, particularly from Europe, particularly from France, they'll say to me: what's all this American stuff all about? At first I'd think: "What do you mean? I'm so clearly English in what I do!" And of course it was staring me in the face, it was there in the references in the songs. But I didn't see it like that. I saw it as Pop Culture. Which is what you're saying, it's mythical territory. And for me the myth crept in through programs and films and Pop music. Pop music - not so much that it's so clearly based on American things, because Pop musics come from everywhere, Africa, Europe, everywhere. But in its manifestation in terms of records I would have bought, a lot of them would have been American. And if they were British, they were trying to be American. The Beatles were trying to be Americans, the Rolling Stones certainly were, Eric Clapton was, and every singer songwriter you've ever heard of came through it. So I suppose I'm tainted at the source. I guess I've been formed like that from watching the TV. It's taken me a long time to be conscious of how I lean on the American thing. I just told you about Louis Armstrong. I think it's because musically I really respond to that sound, the Jazz harmony. Folk, in contrast, struck me as musically very plain. When I started to play the guitar I judged everything by how interesting it was in terms of the chords. It's taken me a while to undo the sophistication and see that some of this plain stuff is actually deeply interesting on other levels.
Surely this is the pivotal phrase on "Let's Change The World With Music": "I've no time for religion/but maybe doubt's a modern disease". Would you agree?
The whole thing spins on that, yes.
On one hand you don't believe in this God business, on the other one needs something to believe in to keep going. And maybe music's the thing.
It's that - and it's also being aware that the "God" word in songs could alienate as many people as it attracts. I myself when I see what I detect to be a happy-clappy record - I like Gospel music but that sort of stuff doesn't really do it for me. Here I am, brought up a Roman Catholic, as a writer you've got to distance yourself even from things you might be prone to believe in, otherwise it might just seem that you're selling certainty: "this is worked for me, so I'm going to foist it on you." I don't find that very attractive. So I'm very cautious even talking about it. I like the fact that the song are ambiguous or they will say something like "Ride" which basically says: "some people do it because they think the bible stories are all true, and there are people who have no interest in at all in that because maybe in the end it doesn't matter because you're doing what you think is the right thing to do." So I feel it's like an inclusive message - I hate to use the word "message" with songs, it's horrible, horrible, horrible! It's right up there with "empowerment" as my least favourite word. But it's a kind of opening for the listener. I like songs that have an opening for the listener. On a personal level - I like phrases like Graham Greene's phrase when he was asked about being a Catholic in his later years. He was asked: "come on, what happened to you, going back to religion?" And he said: "I began to doubt doubt." For me, a similar thing goes on when I read Richard Dawkins, when I read the "God Delusion" or whatever. I can agree with almost everything in them. But something in me - well, I'm a reasonable guy, and I'm cynical, and I'm rational. But I have no reason to believe that my reason is telling me everything. I think the songs sometimes come from that place. I don't know why I have written some of this stuff. It's just there.
Music as a force that can transform you?
It's a poetic idea, isn't it? It is. If there were a God, would music be that voice? We lean on it, get consolation from it. We can go to it for some sort of solace. All of that interests me. A lot of the songs I write are purely about music. I can't decide whether it's a compelling subject or just the laziness of the lyric writer who seems to need many many lyrics and can't come up with fresh subjects. Sometimes I think it's as simple as that. You've got the urge to write something, but you can't keep pace with the desire to write. When people ask me where do your ideas come from, I think: I don't know if I ever really sit down with an idea to write something. I think I sit down with an urge to write something and then find it. And I've never ever sat down wanting to write a "clever" lyric. I like the word play in Sondheim's songs, for instance, and I like the rhymes, but I don't really think it's the heart of anything. I think the really beautiful part comes in when you state something quite simply that gets to people and they think that what you sing is true or right. The rest of it is a kind of mist - a clever trick. It might be nice once in a while, but you can ruin things with it being overly clever.
What kind of background did you come from? What did your parents do?
Dad ran a garage. He was good at maths, was maths teacher, but he let teaching go and ran a petrol station. He died a long time ago. I never found out if he took over the petrol station because he liked to be his own boss, or maybe he thought there was more money in it. The garage was built from an aircraft hanger from the first World War made of wood. There was no room in this village for an airstrip, but that hadn't deterred them to build one. Ha! Mother was a housewife. Her family was poor, really, and the boys would get the education. They could both play the piano, they had picked it up by ear. There were a few records in the house, not many. Things like "King of the Instruments" or the odd Liberace record. I could tell they liked good pop music, but it was just not their generation to buy it. When I was 20 I asked my Dad what he thought was the best song ever written, and he didn't hesitate to say it was "Stardust" by Hoagy Carmichael. I was intrigued by that. He said he'd seen Hoagy Carmichael, he'd gone to America in the 50s. I was always intrigued by that song. It's not the easiest song to sing. It sounds like what it was, a Jazz improvisation, that's how it started its life.
Did Punk never get to you? Did you never reject your parents? sort of values wholesale, just because you had to?
I understood how Punk cleared away a lot of dead wood. Like a lot of English bands who wanted to be the English version of the Eagles. Or even the Eagles. I could see how that needed putting in its place. I was young enough to relish that. But there was no way that most records made in 1977 to my mind had any lasting value. I just couldn't see it. I think Johnny Lydon was very good. Although I think I enjoyed him more in Public Image Limited, musically. I always liked his odd take on things, but he was never part of the crowd, just the crowd went along with him. A lot of people were outraged that he was doing the butter adverts, they felt betrayed. But he was never one of you, did you never grasp that? He was an excentric chap! Also, in 1977 I got a copy of "Aja" by Steely Dan, and no one in the world was gonna tell me that that was anything other than witty sublime music making. Despite the fact that I liked David Bowie and all the other things around at that period - I could hear that that was great.
In many old stories I read about Prefab Sprout you got really riled by people comparing you to Orange Juice and the Postcard crowd.
Yeah, absolutely. We were. The point was - we didn't want to be seen as part of a movement - who does? And if someone heard a Orange Juice record or an Aztec Camera record before they heard one of ours it might lead to the thought that we were Johnny come Latelys, and we hadn't been. We were Johnny come Earlys. I founded Prefab Sprout in the same year as Steely Dan were formed! 1971. That's when we started doing Prefab Sprout, it was just we didn't make any records. I was 14.
One thing that all these bands, including Prefab Sprout, had in common, though, was a broad rebellion against the machoness that was present even in Punk.
Absolutely! One of the big things I felt when I was that age, I really thought that there was a certain kind of sexism in music that would be banished. I thought it would vanish! That shows you how naïve I was. Those sort of images will always be there for those who like them. But you're absolutely spot on. We all had that. Andlots of English things at the time looked down on that kind of macho thing. Scritti Politti, too, did that. But you look at the rock magazines now, the macho thing is there even today, sometimes in a disguised form. There's still the obsession with people who lose their sanity to drugs or get blitzed like Rambo, that myth is still so strong, especially among journalists. A lot of journalists love that Dionysian thing. It's interesting you saying that, because it's an aspect of what we did that we never tried to foster any kind of sexiness. It wasn't in the name of the band for starters. That wasn't remotely sexy. I wish we did now. We might have sold a few more records.
Finally, how's your Michael Jackson album coming along? Years ago you often talked about a concept album you were in the process of composing about the King of Pop.
I haven't looked at it for so long. I don't know what I'll do with it. His name was never going to be mentioned in the songs. It was loosely based on his life, the hero was called "Jacques St. Michel" or something like that.
What fascinated you so much about him?
It was completely to do with 80s Pop. I thought it was the sound of it all. And I thought if I had a little opening to do my own thing I'd like to make glossy sounding records with shiny pop surfaces, and in my dreams my lyrics would have the interest of a Leonard Cohen record. Normally, records that sound like Michael Jackson records, they were talking about boogieing until dawn. Fair enough, it was the 80s equivalent of a Duke Ellington record where the lyric would be about having a good time. Songs like that have their place. I like that, and I appreciate that probably much more now than I did then. But then I also like words. And I like looking for something other people don't do. I was looking for something that would be mine. As opposed to be a would-be song writer, another guy with an acoustic guitar - great, just what we need! That's what it was about. And I was interested in the myth of someone like Michael Jackson. That was much more a young person's interest. I see much more how it is for everybody now. There is no mythic refuge from the world, as it is.