INTERVIEW: PADDY MCALOON SEPTEMBER 2009
This was by quite some distance the most popular interview on my old website!
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 Later, when the technology got better, I got jaded by the fact that forever whatever you had seemed to be out of date.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 the structure 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. And lots 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.