Another coup for our friends at Sodajerker this month as they chat to reclusive Prefab Sprout main man Paddy McAloon
here are few songwriters for whom the phrase “quality not quantity” can be so relevant as for Paddy McAloon, erstwhile front man of 80s indie/pop darlings Prefab Sprout. By his own admission a man who writes songs “constantly”, the 56-year-old from County Durham has a discography spanning just ten albums in nearly 30 years!
The Prefab Sprout story begins in the early 70s, when a very young Paddy formed a bedroom band with his even younger brother. By the time of 1984’s debut long-player, Swoon, the band were darlings of the indie scene, signed to Newcastle’s very hip Kitchenware Records and feted alongside the likes of The Smiths, Lloyd Cole as purveyors of sensitive, intelligent pop. Later in the 80s they would have a brief flirtation with genuine pop stardom, the single The King Of Rock N’ Roll going Top 10 in the UK; somewhat ironically, given that the song is sung from the point of view of a former one-hit wonder, Prefab Sprout would never hit such giddy commercial heights again. But given the string of ever more erudite and experimental albums that followed, perhaps that was part of the plan all along…
After 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback failed to make much of an impact, Prefab Sprout vanished for a while, returning with Andromeda Heights in 1997. Paddy then lost his eyesight due to an inherited medical condition, though thankfully this was only temporary. During that time, he developed an obsession with radio, which is said to have been the inspiration for his largely instrumental 2003 solo opus I Trawl The Megahertz.
Most recently, Paddy has dusted down a selection of previously unrecorded songs from his archive and released them in the form of 2013 album Crimson/Red. Which is where the Sodajerker team pick up the story…
Crimson/Red is mainly made up of songs out of your archive material… what was the process of choosing which ones would go on the album?
“I get asked this a lot… people seem to struggle with the idea that a song might be more than a few months old! But yes, I write all the time so there is an archive of songs, usually grouped in projects because thinking about songs in umbrella terms helps me to write. But with this particular bunch, most of them were just randomly decent songs. I wanted songs that were good, obviously, but also that would be easy to play, because I was in a hurry to make the album, and also that would tell some sort of story. Because originally I thought I might not have much time to embellish them, so there would be a lot of emphasis on the lyrics. I deliberately didn’t pick any songs that were terribly complicated in terms of the music. Most of them loop around on pretty straightforward chord sequences.”
You play all the parts on the record, don’t you?
“I play them, or I programme them. With the guitar parts, it’s unbelievably tedious trying to programme a strummed guitar sound, but for some reason I’ve got into the habit of doing that. I used an old Atari sequencer and I’ll write in by hand every note of a chord, and then try and make it sound strummed. And I’ll think, why am I doing this? Why not just put it on tape? But I like to hear all the music coming at me at once out of the sequencer… and then I’ll replace the part.
“It gives me a sense of orchestration, because that’s what I like in music. I don’t just want to hear a voice and a few chords, in general I like to hear something else, something you can latch onto.”
We were struck by the title of the track Best Jewel Thief In The World. Did the title come first with that one?
“Yes it did. When I was going through my files last October, when I started making this record, I found a piece of paper with the solitary phrase “the worst jewel thief in the world” written on it. And I looked at it and laughed, and remembered that years ago I’d thought that would make a good title for a song. And so I started thinking about what that might mean, and then somehow, somewhere along the way it became the best jewel thief in the world instead.
“You’ve hit on an important point, which is an evocative title. If it doesn’t immediately spring out of the lyrics or the tune, it’s a great starting point and a focal point that you can always bring the song back to. I love that. If there was one thing that I wish I had more of, it’s great titles. If you hand me a piece of paper with what I think is a great title, I’m off!”
“Rhyme speeds up a line. You’re putting oil on the wheels”
We also love the line, “Carrying a bag/a bag marked swag”…
“Well you know, in a way I think Jewel Thief is really a song about songwriting in disguise, because it’s packed with rhyme. And I know some songwriters do a very good job of dispensing with rhyme and say it’s outdated and childish, but I remember reading something that the great lyric writer Alan J Learner [writer of the musicals My Fair Lady, Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon] said. He said rhyme speeds up a line. And I agree with him: you’re not just rhyming for the sake of it, you’re putting oil on the wheels, you’re helping the whole song accelerate. A clever rhyme or an intelligently placed rhyme will do that.
“But the important thing isn’t the rhymes, it’s the thoughts they illustrate. If it’s a good thought, or a moving thought, or a funny thought, you can rhyme ‘you’ and ‘blue’ forever… as long as the sentences you put together have some meaning.”
With the song Billy, there’s a captivating story going on in the lyrics. What can you tell us about that one?
“That song just happened, really. I started singing and out came ‘Where’d you find that trumpet, Billy?’. And I thought, gosh, what a strange opening line… what does that mean? So that song really is about finding out what that line’s about. As you might have gathered, I’m not someone who sits down with a big pile of things to get off his chest. I’m looking for things to say… and then in a strange way, the music helps me find things to say that I didn’t even know I was thinking about. And I love that, because it makes each day exciting. More so than if I knew exactly what I wanted to say.”
Given that titles are important to you, it’s interesting that you don’t always use the title as the hook for the chorus… Goodbye Lucille isn’t called Johnny Johnny, for instance…
“No, I don’t. That was pointed out to me by my first head of A&R, Muff Winwood at CBS Records, back in 1983 or 1984. In my youth, I thought it was a bit silly, I thought we were past all that and songs didn’t have to be so obvious. But I’ve got a lot more traditional as I’ve gotten older and I just think about if someone walks into a shop and they like the lyric of a song, but they don’t want it’s called because the title’s not in the song. Even our best-remembered record, The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, a lot of people think it’s called Hot Dog Jumping Frog! So these days I’ve moved more towards making sure the title’s always in there.”
“I write a lot of songs about music”
A couple of the songs on Crimson/Red also seem to refer to specific songwriters…
“Yes, Mysterious is about Jimmy Webb, and of course there’s The Songs Of Danny Galway. But I hope the songs don’t require you to be a fan of those particular songwriters… they’re more about the feeling I get from songs that have inspired me, and you can insert your own particular hero/heroine if you like!
“But I do write a lot of songs about music generally… maybe too many! I have boxes full of them at home – songs about Debussy and Puccini and ‘the muse’ and all sorts. I think maybe it’s my default setting when I haven’t actually got much to say.”
Another song that mentions a real person is Faron Young, of course…
“Yes… I should probably get out of that name-dropping habit! But sometimes I like the idea of painting a portrait of someone. And sometimes it just adds a bit of drama to a song: if you’re writing a song about fame, for instance, that’s a bit of a dry subject, but if you put Elvis in there, it gives people something to latch onto and you can sneak in some of your thoughts about fame under that banner.
“But I’ll tell you about Faron Young. I’d written the music but I didn’t have the lyric… and at the time, our drummer was a friend called Michael Salmon, and I said to him, ‘Give me a word’. Well, I think he was trying to challenge me, or set me an impossible task, because he looked at and went ‘antiques’. And I took the word away, and eventually ‘antiques’ was the first word of the song, and the whole rest of the song sprang from there.”
You mentioned Jimmy Webb… he featured on our podcast and he talked a lot about his approach to chords. Are you quite technical in the way you approach writing chord sequences?
“I certainly don’t have his theoretical grounding. I’ve never studied the science of it, I was a busker and just played what I saw other people do. I used to sit with a tape player… I remember sitting with a tape of Paul McCartney’s Another Day when I was maybe 13 or 14, trying to work out what chords he was playing. Today I’d be able to work out pretty quickly what was going on, but back then it was really laborious. I knew he started with a G, and I worked through it from there.
“I didn’t have any basic sense of how music worked at all!”
“So I don’t have the technical background, no. In fact most of my more adventurous songs from the early days, where there are bold chord changes or unusual leaps, that was because I didn’t have any basic sense of how music worked at all! The idea that, for instance, if you’re in the key of C, then for the middle eight you start on the fifth of that scale, which is a G… that would have been science fiction to me, I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. Even as recently as Andromeda Heights in the mid-90s, I was talking to a very keen fan and he said, ‘You even use a I-II-IV-V change’ and I didn’t know what he meant.”
We had Thomas Dolby on the show last year as well, who you worked with on Steve McQueen, and we talked about When Love Breaks Down. Was there a particular inspiration for that song?
“You know, I don’t even know how to say this, because you can spoil songs for people if you’re too practical. I think the inspiration for that was just that I’d found a pretty tune on the piano… it may even have been a simple attempt to write a hit. Let me clarify that: you can want to write a hit but still have it have a heartfelt, emotional quality to it. You’re thinking, how do other songwriters do it? So I think there was a bit of that: after Swoon, I wanted to do something that was more… not accessible, accessible’s a bad word, but a bit more direct. Something where I didn’t have to explain who Bobby Fisher was!”
You’re not afraid to experiment with longer song structures, are you? We were listening to I Trawl The Megahertz and the first track on there is 22 minutes long…
“Yes, it’s as long as an Atari sequencer will allow you to record without collapsing. That’s the truth! So that dictated the shape of it… and even then I had to go to extremes to fit other stuff alongside it. It was a bizarrely over-ambitious track, which grew out of one chord. I placed one chord on the stave and I loved it so much, I wanted to make this instrumental piece, and then of course as time progressed I realised that you have to have more interesting things going on.
“But yeah, I’m not afraid of that… I suppose I’ve retreated as I’ve grown older towards simpler things, simply because in the end most music, for its effectiveness, boils down to pretty simple things. You’re always going to have that power generated by, in the end, quite traditional chord changes with a few embellishments. And if we’re talking about songs, then very few songs are going to be longer than four or five minutes… you can do it, but in general that’s quite enough, and two or three is usually perfectly fine. I’ve tried to teach myself to pack more of a punch into a shorter format.”
With over 50 episodes under their belt, internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker. Established in 2012 by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 75-minute interview with Paddy McAloon – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.