A Slacker Like Myself: An Interview with Prefab Sprout

Paddy McAloon, the mercurial front-man for Prefab Sprout is British Pop's greatest secret. PopMatters catches up with Paddy to find out what the new album is all about, and why he decided to step out of the limelight ...

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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