Prefab Sprout: Paddy McAloon interview
With his only solo album I Trawl The Megahertz now rebranded as a Prefab Sprout record, Paddy McAloon is ready for a rare opportunity to discuss his collective’s wondrous legacy.
There may be less Prefab Sprout music than anyone – including Paddy – would like, but no-one can argue with the quality of what’s there. Paddy tells Classic Pop about the difficulties of his obsessive writing and how hearing problems make him cherish his singing more than ever. By John Earls
Nobody comes closer than Paddy McAloon to being a pop wizard. It’s not just his softly magical albums like Steve McQueen, From Langley Park To Memphis and Crimson/Red.
He even looks like a picture-book wizard, too: horn-rimmed round-lensed glasses, flowing silver hair, and a matching beard he sometimes strokes when pondering the reasons why Prefab Sprout rarely toured or how he’s ended up writing a musical with Spike Lee.
If Paddy resembles Dumbledore, down to the mischief in his eyes as he resolutely refuses to take his status too seriously, then he greets Classic Pop in classical surroundings to match – a book-lined, spacious suite at the five-star Gore Hotel near South Kensington station in West London.
Its opulence baffles Paddy, who admits: “My wife says it doesn’t matter where I am because I live in my head, and she’s right. This hotel is nice, but it could just as easily be a Premier Inn.”
A Premier Inn just wouldn’t be right for someone so respected. Paddy rarely gives interviews, so why not celebrate when he does? One of the melancholic tasks for any true Prefab Sprout fan is keeping track of the dozens of albums Paddy McAloon has written, but hasn’t finished.
Having to explain his music to the media is one reason there isn’t more Prefab Sprout music. “If I make something, it kills it stone dead if I spend too long talking about it,” Paddy says.
“So I end up skipping the stage where I actually make the record. I write it and move on – which I know is absolutely mad, because I’m not making a living when I’m doing that.”
This is heartbreaking, not just because the world could always do with hearing more of Paddy McAloon’s music, but also Paddy McAloon is a dream interviewee, both an absolute gentleman and a wise philosopher about music.
Prefab Sprout: Paddy McAloon interview: Unfinished symphonies
Unfinished Prefab Sprout albums include Earth: The Story So Far and a concept album about Michael Jackson. Paddy writes three LPs a year, but doesn’t play them to anyone.
He admits it’s “an obsessional habit”, saying: “I should have made more records and written fewer. I shouldn’t keep so many hidden away in boxes. I’m not lazy, but it’s difficult for the songs I write to satisfy me in the ways they used to.
“You only have so many moves as a writer, no matter how good you are. The thrill is when I surprise myself and think, ‘That’s pretty good, how did I do that?’ You lose that ability as you get older.”
Even the great successes in Prefab Sprout’s canon like Steve McQueen remain something of a mystery to their creator. Their 1985 opus was the subject of a recent Classic Album feature in these pages, but Paddy insists: “You can go to bed thinking you’re quite some guy, because you’ve written all these songs people like.
“But if you talk about them, you start reverse-engineering how those songs were created: you talk about them as if everything was pre-ordained. The truth is, you came up with a few good songs and you were lucky.”
Paddy has long credited Prefab Sprout producer Thomas Dolby as playing a large part in Steve McQueen’s success, confirming now: “I have to give Tom the credit, because he chose the songs we should record. There were only 15 or 16 I played to him, not a huge amount. But in picking the ones he did, he helped shape the album. I wrote the songs, so it can look as if I always have the shape of an album in my head. And that’s not quite true.”
In fact, Paddy was never happier than before Prefab Sprout were even signed. They began with Paddy, his younger brother Martin, and Martin’s drummer friend Mick Salmon in their native County Durham in 1975, seven years before debut single Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone) was released.
“The romance all bands have when they can afford their first amp – that’s what it’s all about,” sighs Paddy happily. “That’s when you have the endless possibilities of the world. You make a lot of racket, rehearse endlessly and you’re not so super-tight that anyone else would be impressed, but you’ve got something, and it’s your own something.”
For Paddy, that romance had disappeared once revered debut album Swoon was released in 1984.
“Once you make a living from music, the atmosphere shifts. People around us said after Swoon: ‘That did OK for a record that didn’t cost much. Where’s your next one?’ And suddenly, you’re not bashing out songs in a rehearsal room, it’s me in a room trying to ensure the band’s got a good supply of material. It’s a strange lifestyle, where you’re almost totally dependent on what you create, but musically it’s not actually as intense as when you were amateurs, bashing away every night.”
It was that pressure that meant Prefab Sprout rarely toured. They recorded the albums From Langley Park To Memphis and Jordan: The Comeback in the US, as Thomas Dolby was based there, but the band never actually toured the States.
“I didn’t enjoy being in a band,” summarises Paddy, his Geordie speaking voice as soft and mellifluous as you’d hope from his music. “As a teenager, pop music answers some fantasy part of your mind. And the reality of it – being in the back of a van going to venues – was so far away from the fantasy that I just rejected it.
I retreated to my bedroom mentality, recreating the conditions I had when I was 15, when I could just write and write instead.”
He tried telling bosses at CBS Records that he didn’t want to do promo for Prefab Sprout albums, pointing out that Robert De Niro didn’t do interviews, so why should he? “The reply came back, ‘You’re not Robert De Niro, you’re some scratchy little group from Newcastle.’”
Paddy talks fondly of the artists he saw as his peers – Aztec Camera, The Waterboys, Scritti Politti – but smiles: “I was too shy to talk to people. Everyone would stay at the Columbia Hotel, and my brother Marty could talk to anyone. But when I saw Noddy Holder at the bar, I just thought, ‘That’s Noddy Holder!’ like any fan would and go shy.
I did meet David Bowie, though, in 2000. I said to him, ‘You really used to chop them out in the 80s’, and even as I said it I thought, ‘That’s a very strange analogy to use to The Thin White Duke.’ Bowie thankfully knew what I meant and said, ‘Yeah, I did, I could do two of those albums a year. But nobody would want them now.’”
Prefab Sprout: Paddy McAloon interview: Everybody hertz
One of Paddy’s albums that comes closest to the romantic spirit of Prefab Sprout’s early days is I Trawl The Megahertz. Released in 2003, it was the only long-player out under Paddy’s own name. But its reissue rebrands it as a Prefab Sprout release.
The original Sprout-free identity of I Trawl The Megahertz is because it’s so musically different.
Closer to Shostakovich than When Loves Breaks Down or The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, it has a beautiful, neo-classical tranquillity, with two spoken-word passages, based on calls to late-night talk radio phone-in shows which Paddy listened to while recovering from eye surgery for a detached retina. It opens with the evocative 22-minute title track.
“If I released records quicker, my career would be easier able to absorb sudden changes like Megahertz,” admits the 61-year-old. “People would go, ‘Oh, this one is different,’ like Bowie doing Aladdin Sane or Low. But at the time, I went through an agony of thinking, ‘The opening track is 22 minutes and the people who like Cars And Girls might well think, “What the hell is this all about?”’ Over time, those differences in your output just evaporate.”
Of the album’s adventurousness evoking the days before being signed, Paddy muses: “We always had it in us to be a very different band. Me, Marty and Mick liked stuff that wasn’t always song-based, as the 70s had a richness on offer on late-night Radio 1, where you’d hear Tangerine Dream and Captain Beefheart next to Roxy Music.
“If you’re three people jamming in a room, there’s a lot of improvisation and instrumentals. We had those other possibilities, which closed down once I started thinking of myself as a writer of melodies.”
The spoken-word passages were recited by Yvonne Connors, a commodities broker introduced to Paddy via a friend of his wife Vicki. “My wife is in teaching, she has a proper job,” he laughs.
“But her friend Lucy Cuthbertson knew people in theatrical circles and Lucy said, ‘I know someone.’ As soon as I heard this voice on my answerphone’ I thought, ‘There’s something there.’”
Prefab Sprout: Paddy McAloon interview: Battling on
I Trawl The Megahertz is effectively a soft-launch for a full Prefab Sprout reissue campaign, which Sony will begin later this year. Paddy talks excitedly of seeking out contemporary demos to accompany every album, despite Steve McQueen having been given an expanded reissue in 2007.
“I’ve got the Steve McQueen demos that I played Tom Dolby on my guitar,” he reveals. “He wrote the songs he wanted on the back of a cigarette packet. I’ve no idea what those demos are like, but if they’re rubbish people can go, ‘Thomas did a really good job there!’
“There’s a song called Snowy Rents A Dog that I hope will finally make it onto an album. We submitted it for Steve McQueen but Thomas didn’t pick it, so we submitted it for the next album and he still didn’t pick it. It became a running joke between me and Marty – ‘Do you think Snowy will finally make it?’ It’s obvious Thomas didn’t think it was very good.”
Sadly, while Paddy still struggles with bad eyesight, he calls it “small beer” compared to the condition which has significantly damaged his ability to create music.
Since 2006, Paddy has suffered from hearing disorder Meniere’s Disease. He’s had three major bouts, most recently in October 2017, which has left him with seemingly permanent tinnitus in his right ear. “Even as I’m talking to you, it’s constant,” he explains matter-of-factly.
Meniere’s Disease means Paddy is unable to play music with other people, as it’s too loud. Instead, he now composes songs on a tiny two-octave Yamaha keyboard, hitting boxes as noisily as his hearing can tolerate for percussion.
“I can work in batches of an hour-and-a-half,” says Paddy. “My bad ear dominates the good one, which means I can’t judge pitch easily. I keep hoping it’ll recede, but I’m just glad I’m no longer falling over and dizzy like when I had the last major bout. I cherish it now when I can sing.
I didn’t like my singing for such a long time. Maybe there’ll come a time with Meniere’s when I can’t sing at all, and I’ll think, ‘You idiot, you should have sung every day.’ For now, I’m happy in the corner of a room, singing into my cassette player.” He adds that his most recent unfinished LP, Jockey Of Discs, is “The Prefab Sprout dance album.”
Hearing problems, self-doubt, obsessive album delays – it may seem a worrying fate for Prefab Sprout’s leader. But there’s a delight about Paddy, too, the air of someone who can’t believe he got to live out his fantasies, no matter how frustrating some of them proved to be. He has three daughters, aged 15 to 20, and even they think he’s cool.
“They’ll never say it, but I think my daughters think that in some strange way I’m hip,” he laughs. “They’ll intimate to me that people think I’m some sort of deal.”
Being the non-embarrassing dad? That’s the perfect life for the King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll. Long may he reign.
Do The Sprout Thing
Immediately after Prefab Sprout’s last album Crimson/Red in 2013, Paddy McAloon began working on a new LP. “The songs are catchy,” he considers. “That’s a bland word, but they’re tuneful and brief.”
However, work was interrupted in 2015 when Spike Lee got in touch, wanting to use Prefab Sprout’s songs as the basis for a movie musical. Lee’s brother Cinqué is a Sprout fan, and has been writing the script.
Paddy met with the Do The Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman director, who admitted to the singer: “Full disclosure, I’d never heard of you before Cinqué played me your music.”
Paddy is reluctant to reveal much about the story – “It’s Spike’s project, not mine” – but says: “It’s a parable of a journey. Spike and Cinqué want to use an awful lot of my songs – there’s one on every page. I wanted to give them new stuff as options for their storyline. My stance was, ‘You can have my music, do what you want with it. But if you’d like a different option, like changing the gender of a song’s narrator or pushing the lyrics more in your story’s direction, I’ll help.’ I’ve given them an awful lot of options.”
The musical hasn’t been made yet, and Paddy explains: “Spike is one of those guys who always has a million plates spinning in the air, doing this and that. I don’t know what will happen to it, because it’s the film world. Who knows?”
Meanwhile, two existing Prefab Sprout songs – Mercy and Who Designed The Snowflake – have been used in Lee’s Netflix TV series adaptation of his film She’s Gotta Have It.