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PREFAB SPROUT (PADDY MCALOON) INTERVIEW [2013]

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 2½ 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.

HOW DID YOU MAKE THE SELECTION TO END UP WITH THE TEN TRACKS?

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.

So there was the theme of the short verse. Similarly '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 songwriters. 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) Yeah! Well, I wrote the song in 1997, so I was only 40 then. But I thought one day there will come that point where everyone, whoever 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'll 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 YOU'RE BEYOND IT ALREADY. AND THEN SUDDENLY TWENTY YEARS LATER ON YOU REALISE THAT 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.

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 songwriter 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.

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.

RECORDING IT ALL BY YOURSELF, DO YOU DO LAYER BY LAYER EVERY DAY?

Yes. Heavily overdubbed. Most time spent on sequencing things, layers of keyboard. 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...

OCTOBER 2013

Interview courtesy of Hanspeter Kuenzler. This is an edited version of the original interview which can be found in its entirety at WWW.HANSPETERKUENZLER.COM.

© Hanspeter Kuenzler

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