Paddy McAloon on Prefab Sprout's Legacy & Breaking His Rule About Songs Called 'America'
Prefab Sprout has never played New York City. It's hard to believe an English pop group as acclaimed in the American media as this band -- a highly melodic, jazz-infused vessel for the songwriting prowess of the great Paddy McAloon -- never got to play The Ritz or the Roseland or any of the other famed concert halls of the Big Apple since forming in 1978 out of Witton Gilbert in County Durham England. But that never stopped this pioneer of sophisti-pop from writing about America, most famously on 1988's From Langley Park To Memphis and as recently as 2017 with a new song entitled "America" that casts a wary eye on our current state of affairs.
Now the famously reclusive McAloon has made himself available to the American press, where he is promoting the release of a newly remastered version of his sole solo album, 2003's I Trawl The Megahertz, which is now being billed as a Prefab LP. A largely instrumental affair save for the spoken words of the mysterious Yvonne Conners on the 22-minute opening title track and McAloon's own cool croon on the beautiful "Sleeping Rough," Megahertz is a showcase for Paddy the composer who -- despite enduring compound health afflictions including temporary vision impairment and Meniere's disease -- managed to create a symphonic dreamland on par with Roy Halee and Van Dyke Parks while steadfastly maintaining the sensibilities that made such Sprout classics as 1984's Swoon, 1985's Steve McQueen and 2013's underrated Crimson/Red.
McAloon was more than generous with his time speaking to Billboard, offering insight into the influence of shortwave radio on Megahertz, his thoughts on modern politics and the impact of his health on his ability to perform and create music. I Trawl The Megahertz is available now on Legacy Recordings.
What was it that inspired you to create I Trawl the Megahertz in 2003?
My feeling is that the music language that is used has always been part of my background, I was just not technically adept in the studio to make it happen. To me, it was not so much of a huge departure from the kinds of knots I like working out in chords and melodies. For the long track ("I Trawl The Megahertz"), to me it's like a song of loss. This woman who is reciting the text, she's lost someone. So in that sense it's like a pop song, if you follow me. But the main thing that made me do it was the access I had to this old-fashioned computer and decided to program all the parts into that. And it was when I played them to an engineer friend of mine he said to me, 'Look, in order to make this come alive you really should have real instruments playing this music.' So that's how we got into the full orchestral thing -- taking the stuff I had done at home a step higher.
What was it that prompted the shortwave radio aspect of the album? It's incredible to think of shortwave radio now in the context of podcasting and everything.
Part of me makes me think -- and this will sound far-fetched -- but in a modern way a bit like country music or blues music where you have somebody telling you what is wrong with their personal situation. That's what I thought after a while from hearing these laments from people; I would hear a phrase or I would hear a sentence and think, oh boy there it goes pouring over the airwaves. You could be listening to some kind of old-time country radio station but in a strange more avant-garde way. It's about the outpouring of people's problems. And I thought I could use this in something. But really, if I'm being honest with you, I had been trying to write just some instrumental music. I was thinking, OK I like this chord sequence; it works. But I don't think I had enough technique to make the music work by itself. So I looked to the support of lyrics, which I've always done in my songs.
Did you ever have any interest in reaching out to jazz musicians to record with you at any point in your career, similar to the way Green Gartside reached out to Miles Davis for the Scritti Politti song "Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry for Loverboy)"?
No, not really. I don't know a lot of jazz musicians. I'm obviously I'm a fan of Miles Davis, and I have just about every Sun Ra record ever made, which Is a difficult thing to do because he had so many of them (laughs). I have a lot of John Coltrane and Duke Ellington as well, so I know the background but I never really had a direct line to any people in the jazz world. I wish I did. I'm not terribly sociable as a musician these days, mainly because my hearing is not so great. I don't get out to gigs and things like that, I'm afraid.
How has your listening changed since developing your hearing condition?
I listen with things turned down a bit. The right ear doesn't help. I have good days and bad days. That's all I really have to say about that. Sometimes the right ear interferes with the listening of the left one. It's not quite what it was. It's a great shame really, but I'm happy that I still have hearing. But that's the problem with Meniere's disease, and there's no cure for it. You just have to live with it.
It seems like an unfortunate symptom of the craft, especially for those artists who play loud music.
It really is, you're dead right. People didn't realize the damage they were causing their hearing and are now living with the consequences of volume.
I remember 30 years ago when The Who first reunited and went on tour, Pete Townshend's tinnitus was a barrier for them. He largely played acoustic guitar during that time...
I do remember that. My brother lives near Pete Townshend, and occasionally he bumps into him. And they'll exchange words or Pete will have a message to send to me and I'll send a message back to him. I knew he had real trouble with tinnitus, but I had never actually spoken to him about it. But I did see him in that perspex cage onstage, that's the thing he used. Like a glass wall all around him that corrals the sound.
Do you find yourself listening to quieter music?
I don't listen as much as I used to. Sometimes I feel like there's not enough pleasure in it as there once was. When it comes to my own work, however, there's this element of 'I won't be beaten by this.' I sit with a very small keyboard and I play my little tunes to myself and often I think, dear God this is really quite sad (laughs). But as long as I can write a melody and get a chord sequence out of it, and the lyrical idea, I'm still in business. I still sing. I don't spend as long in the studio as I used to. Sometimes I'll only be in there for a couple of hours, but I make sure I work hard while I'm in there and piece things together or sing something. A tune might not be as good as I want it to be, so I'll have to work harder at the practical elements of the craft. But it can be done, so I'm still in the fight if you know what I mean.
"America" is such a great song, which one can surely surmise was a direct reaction to the 2016 presidential election over here.
Yeah, that was my equivalent to like in the old days, someone like John Lennon would go and do something in a hurry and get it pressed up like "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." So that was the way I did it. I thought I've got to move really quickly. I've since fully finished the song, it has a middle section to it and it turned out okay but I haven't released it or anything like that. It was of the moment, that was all.
Prefab Sprout was never a political band, really, it seems, despite that you came up in the thick of the Reagan-Thatcher era and have an album called Protest Songs.
I was very reluctant, even now, to write those kinds of songs. Because first of all, it's very easy to stand at a distance and point fingers at people. I'm not the biggest fan of that. And also, if I'm being honest, I think for every country it's a complicated and thorny issue -- the idea of immigration unchecked. I get that you can't just open your doors to absolutely everyone because you have social problems at home. I get all of that. It was just purely the concept that Mr. Trump is a particularly graceless kind of fellow to be in charge of this stuff. That's just what I saw from this distance. I struggled a lot to write the song, and I'll tell you why. It's because two of my favorite songs are called "America": one of them is the Paul Simon classic and the other is the Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein number from West Side Story. And I told myself, 'Whatever you do, do not write a song called 'America.'" So in the end, I broke my own rule, because I was feeling perplexed by Mr. Trump's original ban on travel to Muslim countries.
It must seem akin to P.T. Barnum running for office for someone so removed from the everyday of American life in 2019.
(Laughs) You're right. It's as if someone like Orson Welles choreographed this. It's literally like Citizen Kane coming to life in some respects. It hasn't been seen in America before, and I don't think it's been seen in Britain or the U.K.
What do you think of Brexit?
I think it was ill thought out. That's the real problem. And maybe the things happening in America and the things that are happening here are just more symptomatic of deeper divisions in society. People are looking to get some sort of perfect world but feel they have been denied. And I think that's certainly true of Britain, where lots of respectable people can make the case for not changing anything because it works for them and they feel like smaller is better; if you can control your own affairs, do that. But the way it's all turned out is in shambles.
Did Prefab ever tour the States?
We never played in America at all. We recorded on three different occasions in the '80s. Once was in Los Angeles, at Giorgio Moroder's studio with Thomas Dolby. And somewhere [else]. And then in 2000, I went to work with Tony Visconti in Upstate New York. Rockland County, to be exact. I was there for about 8 to 10 weeks, and it was great. But you could hardly say I was in the thriving center of a bustling New York. We had one day where Tony and I went down to the studio and he introduced me to David Bowie. I had never met him, so we went down there and that was a great memory for me. But Prefab Sprout never toured America. We didn't do that much touring at all, and that's the truth.
Lastly, Prefab Sprout stood out in the new wave crowd with your distinctive sound. Who did you consider to be among your peers in English pop during the' 80s? Would it have been groups like Scritti or The Blue Nile or even Japan?
I did particularly like Scritti Politti and I really liked The Blue Nile. Both of them came up with such great things. I was also a little envious of Green, because of the way he had that high-tech approach to his arranging, which I think was possibly [producer] David Gamson's influence as well. I don't know him well either, but I do like his approach to the sequencing of records. So I think Green got that right in terms of doing the blue-eyed soul thing but made it more high tech. And The Blue Nile, Paul Buchanan is such a good lyric writer, very understated. Every track they did sounded like a hymn to the beauty of a big city of lights with the cars reflecting off the puddles. Very beautiful music.