In the ’80s Prefab Sprout were one of Britain’s brightest lights, producing two albums of great indie-pop (1985‘s Swoon and Steve McQueen) before fame came with the hit singles “The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” and “Cars and Girls”, both from 1988’s From Langley Park to Memphis. The band remained together throughout the ’90s but would never reach those heights of fame again, and would only release one record in the noughties. The release of Let’s Change the World with Music then is a huge event, especially for the band’s loyal, and slightly cult, following. Meeting up with Paddy McAldoon, he sat down to talk to PopMatters about his “old new” album, creating music while dealing with his hearing disorder, and what lead him from being a de facto songwriter to becoming a composer of a “film for the ears” …
First off, I was hoping you could give us a little background behind your latest album, Let’s Change the World with Music…
These songs were written between 1990 and January 1993 — with the exception of “Meet the New Mozart” which I’ve been kicking around since … 1982. It was recorded between September ’92 and April ’93, so it is essentially an old new album. In fact it is a home recording, lovingly if inexpertly crafted by myself for the benefit of the band and the record label. In other words, it’s a demo tape, brought into the 21st century by my friend and engineering guru Calum Malcolm.
One of the things I really like about this album is the soulfulness of the tracks and the universal themes that run through them. In particular, lines such as “Music is a princess, I’m just a boy in rags” and “I love music, she’s my heroine.”
Thank you. I like to think that it’s a soulful collection too, if that doesn’t sound too vain. At some point in the writing I realized that the two dominant themes were going to be music, and my personal feelings towards music and the muse who inspires it; it may even be a sort of gospel record for people who don’t go along with the idea of faith. This might sound a bit tricky, but that’s the trouble when songwriters start explaining!
When you came to releasing this album how much did you emphasize with the person you were when you wrote these songs?
It’s an interesting point you make … 17 years after recording it, how much do I empathize with the person I was then? Well, I hadn’t listened to it in years and years and years, but when I finally got round to listening to it, I remembered how unjaded I was back then (no hearing problems, no eye operations … those halcyon pre-medical days!). The old me sounds on top of his game. It’s still a demo, but it’s my favorite collection of my own songs.
Going back to the point above, do you have any regrets that the album never got released when it had originally been conceived?
You know, sometimes something has to be lost before we get to feel the pleasure in finding it. Do you follow me? Sure, I wish it had been released back then, with my fellow sprouts playing and singing on it. But here we are …
After “When Loves Breaks Down” on Steve McQueen and “The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” on From Langley Park to Memphis it seemed as if you were perfecting how to write a great pop single. I’ve often had this theory that this was the challenge you set yourself, and once you achieved it (with “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll”) you no longer had any interest in pursuing this, which would then explain the denser, both lyrically and thematically, album Jordan: The Comeback. Is there any truth behind this or have I read a little too much into things?
I love this question. You know, there was a time when I wanted to see if I could write something unambiguously personal, and maybe even conventional. Perhaps that song was “When Love Breaks Down.” Later, when we finished recording the Steve McQueen album, I desperately wanted to do something throw-away and funny. I wrote “Cars and Girls” and “The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” in that spirit. I am at the mercy of these whims. Action and reaction. No consolidation, no settling down to pursue a sensible course. No global strategy. No “cracking” America … so you may be awfully close to the truth here …
What has caused your recorded output to slow so much since 1997’s Andromeda Heights?
The schedule got me down. Couldn’t stand promoting what I’d written. Life intervened … eye trouble, wonderful children, hearing trouble … decided to write to the exclusion of all other activities. Mad.
You’ve mentioned your hearing trouble a couple of times, which is the tinnitus you’ve suffered for a number of years now. How have you coped and has the situation improved? Have you still been able to write new music?
Bad times. Right ear has reduced bass frequencies. It can’t differentiate between a low C and a low C sharp. This makes playing with people untenable. So I program machines, and strum a bit of guitar. Grateful I can still function, but prone to self pity (“get over it kid”).
Have you ever thought about doing a Roger Miller (from the band Mission of Burma) who also has tinnitus and now tours wearing industrial soundproof headphones as well as a protective glass sheet protecting him from the rest of the band? The other way of asking this question is – are the days of touring now definitely behind you?
I wish it were possible to play live, not that I’ve ever been crazy about touring. But absence makes, etc., etc. As for protective headphones, I simply don’t believe it’s possible to insulate yourself from volume unless you avoid places where drum kits are being amplified.
So after all of this, are you still writing new music?
I’m still working! I still have visions. I may be slower, but … I’m a good shot.
Let’s Change the World is just one of the recordings you have made in the past which weren’t released at the time. What are some of the other albums that are still vanquishing in the shadows? Are any of these likely to be released in the near future?
Well, there are quite a number. I write about two or three albums worth of material a year. I am currently working on Zero Attention Span and another project which must remain nameless for the time being; sorry to be mysterious, it’s just that I get melancholy when I name albums in interviews, that no-one has ever heard and may never hear … I start to feel like I’m saying things which may be taken down and used in evidence against me. You follow?
Am I right in saying that this is the first set of new Prefab Sprout material to be released since Andromeda Heights in 1997?
There was an album entitled The Gunman and Other Stories which my brother Martin and I made under the name Prefab Sprout, which Tony Visconti produced. It was a strange stylistic exercise. Do you know what Young Americans was to Bowie’s oeuvre? Well, The Gunman plays a similar role in our career … minus the vast commercial success and iconic enhancement capability. Still, you can’t have everything (or even anything, sometimes).
There was a period of time when you wrote songs for other artists such as Jimmy Nail and Cher, as well as the theme tune to Where the Heart Is. On the new album there is the song “Let’s Change the World”, which would have been a duet with Barbara Streisand. What made you concentrate on writing songs for other people to sing rather than yourself?
I’m deluded … oh, for a time it seemed like a good idea. And yes, it’s nice to be asked, isn’t it? Actually it was going OK too, but … for no great reason I simply lost interest. Simple as that. One day I woke up and wondered if my strength might actually lie in my strangeness. Right or wrong, good or bad, I have a strong musical point of view. I’m no wallflower. So I decided to make things like I Trawl the Megahertz [released as Paddy McAloon in 2003] which I hope is still out there somewhere, and which may interest you. It is an unusual record, closer to a film for the ears than a songwriter/band project.
This new album is being released in the US, a place where the band failed to make a huge impact in the past. When Steve McQueen was re-released a few years ago it got some great reviews, especially from America. How has the interest been since then? Do you have hopes of finally “cracking” the US?
I am a bit of a disgrace in this department. I should show an interest in out demographic, but what can I tell you? On the one hand I feel a genuine almost childlike gratitude if someone, like yourself, shows the smallest degree of interest in Prefab Sprout. On the other hand the very idea of trying to imagine what an entire continent makes – or, unfortunately, in our case – doesn’t make of us, leaves me slack jawed, like an extra in that Burt Reynolds film Deliverance. I simply don’t know what to say. So I’ll say nothing, other than thank you for bothering to be interested in a slacker like myself.