Pro­lific sprout

Paddy McAloon re­veals what he’s been up to all th­ese years

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - DONALD CLARKE - WORDS BY TONY CLAY­TON-LEA

In the way that heavy-duty tides, un­usu­ally high sea lev­els and strong winds can bring about the reap­pear­ance of once-hid­den tracts of beach, Paddy McAloon has been seen again. Ad­mit­tedly the Pre­fab Sprout song­writer and singer isn’t easy to ig­nore – he has for some time now dressed like Gan­dalf on his way to work in the House of Lords: long, grey beard and hair tops a fig­ure in a smart suit, a hand grasp­ing a cane more for sta­bil­ity than dis­play. There are rea­sons, how­ever, why Durham-based McAloon makes ir­reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances, and they are noth­ing to do with the weather.

“I have Ménière’s dis­ease, and I’ve had prob­lems for over 12 years, but in Oc­to­ber 2017 it all de­scended on me again. In Jan­uary last year, I got up one day and I couldn’t keep my bal­ance. I fell over, I felt in­cred­i­bly sick, had to lie still on the floor, and to make it worse it was in the mid­dle of a record shop in New­cas­tle. I couldn’t move.”

A dis­or­der of the in­ner ear char­ac­terised by ver­tigo, tin­ni­tus and hear­ing loss, Ménière’s dis­ease – which has no known cure – has caused McAloon to re­treat from pub­lic life. By this point, he says, he has prag­mat­i­cally cho­sen to ac­cept that un­less mat­ters rad­i­cally change (which he feels they won’t), he will never per­form a gig in front of an au­di­ence again.

“To play live, where you have vol­ume in­volved, and am­pli­fi­ca­tion of vol­ume, is court­ing disas­ter, so that’s re­ally gone. I can’t say that I miss the gigs, but I don’t like the op­tion be­ing taken away from me.”

There is a sliver of res­ig­na­tion in his voice, and also re­gret, when he says that the best he can hope for is “singing into a lit­tle video cam­era at home, but even then the sound of an acous­tic gui­tar is of­fen­sive to my ears. I can pick out chords and melodies on a small key­board, so I can tech­ni­cally write, but it’s not what it was.”

To make mat­ters worse, McAloon (who cheer­fully refers to him­self as “Mr Health Disas­ter”) also has de­tached reti­nas. Oddly, the end re­sult of the early on­set of fail­ing eye­sight is the rea­son we’re talk­ing: the reis­sue of his only solo al­bum, I Trawl the Me­ga­hertz, which was first re­leased in 2003. Some­thing of an anom­aly in the Pre­fab Sprout cat­a­logue, in that it is vir­tu­ally all in­stru­men­tal, it un­folds with ex­tended or­ches­trated sec­tions not too far re­moved from Ravel or De­bussy. The al­bum, now reis­sued un­der the Pre­fab Sprout ti­tle, was in­spired by McAloon’s “en­forced idle­ness” of ly­ing on his back and lis­ten­ing to peo­ple talk­ing.

“I couldn’t read be­cause of the med­i­ca­tion, which en­tailed putting drops in my eyes,” he re­veals, “and so I found refuge in au­dio­books. Through those I thought it would be good to cre­ate a piece of mu­sic that was al­most in the back­ground, mu­sic that would drift in and out, with some spo­ken word.”

He con­tends it was not out of ego but con­cern for fans that I Trawl the Me­ga­hertz was ini­tially is­sued as a solo al­bum. “I didn’t want any crit­i­cism of it to be directed at the other mem­bers of the band by some peo­ple moan­ing about there be­ing no hit songs, or that I sing on just one track – all of the nor­mal com­plaints a fan might make about some­one whose work you like, yet they’re do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

In the in­ter­ven­ing years, McAloon re­con­sid­ered var­i­ous pros and cons and now places the al­bum along­side the likes of Jor­dan: The Come­back, Steve McQueen and, he teases, “lots

How many? Is that what you’re ask­ing? You can work it out by do­ing the maths – if you write three al­bums a year, ap­prox­i­mately, and you’ve been do­ing that for 30 years, then that’s where we are

of un­re­leased ma­te­rial that isn’t like what we were when we first started. In other words, I stared down my own ob­jec­tions. Yes, hav­ing I

Trawl the Me­ga­hertz re­leased as Pre­fab Sprout sounds crass from a brand­ing or mar­ket­ing point of view, but ul­ti­mately I wanted to re­in­state an al­bum that to all but the avid fans had vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared.”

The men­tion by McAloon of un­re­leased ma­te­rial is piv­otal to his stature as not only one of con­tem­po­rary mu­sic’s most el­e­gant pop song­writ­ers but also his al­most fabled sta­tus as the writer of many hun­dreds of as yet unis­sued songs and al­bums. Is his workrate ex­ag­ger­ated?

“I tend to down­play it in in­ter­views be­cause it just adds fuel to the fire,” he replies. “The per­cep­tion is that I’m just sit­ting on them and why aren’t I do­ing any­thing with them? Some­times I put my­self in the po­si­tion of a fan, and won­der if I’m hav­ing a laugh by say­ing I’ve got so much un­re­leased ma­te­rial!”

We have a duty to ask – does he? “How many? Is that what you’re ask­ing? You can work it out by do­ing the maths – if you write three al­bums a year, ap­prox­i­mately, and you’ve been do­ing that for 30 years, then that’s where we are. Most of it is in metal or plas­tic boxes with la­bels on them, and they are usu­ally ti­tled by the year or the project. If a song­writer or mu­si­cian doesn’t play gigs, then they have an aw­ful lot of time to fill in.”

Next al­bum

On the boil is a batch of new songs for a forth­com­ing Spike Lee movie (Chas­ing In­vis­i­ble

Starlight, based on the chil­dren’s story writ­ten by Lee’s younger brother, Cinque), Pan­dora 63 (“about the Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion”), and “a new project, a bunch of songs, that I plan to send to Trevor Horn.” The more (or less) im­me­di­ate fu­ture sees the re­lease this Septem­ber of a new Pre­fab Sprout al­bum, Femmes Mythologiq­ues.

It is, as­serts McAloon, “a col­lec­tion of rea­son­ably short pop songs about women: Eve, He­len of Troy, Cleopa­tra, Queen of Sheba. I’m not sell­ing it very well, am I? What the hell – it’s very tune­ful, and the cho­ruses are big. The whole idea of it is the dis­tance be­tween what we hear about peo­ple and how far re­moved they were from what we say about them. It’s a home record­ing, not a big, pol­ished mil­lion-pound stu­dio pro­duc­tion, but it’s got heart.”

McAloon’s re­straint is par for the course and is per­haps tem­pered by the great lev­eller that is a long-term ill­ness. Never one to ex­ag­ger­ate mat­ters, his fo­cus and am­bi­tion (which seem end­less) are bal­anced by the scope of his work (ditto). It helped, per­haps, that he didn’t play the pop mu­sic game very well.

He bursts out laugh­ing. “I should have cho­sen a more sen­su­ous name, for starters, but I wasn’t a strate­gist, a ca­reerist – none of us was. Mostly the songs just try to be in­tel­li­gent, funny, avoid cliches.” He has been say­ing this more of­ten, he ad­mits, “but on a Pre­fab Sprout record you won’t find any­thing that puts down a woman.” Even back in the day, he sug­gests, that seemed ter­ri­bly old-fash­ioned if not wholly un­nec­es­sary.

“Did I ide­alise love? Yes, but that’s com­mon enough in pop mu­sic. Did we have shiny, glossy pop songs? Yes, but that’s the aes­thetic I like, a per­sonal taste that has noth­ing to do with the times. Per­son­ally speak­ing I think we got by pretty well.”

I Trawl the Me­ga­hertz is out next Fri­day,

through Sony Legacy. Femmes My tho logi que sis sched­uled for re­lease in Septem­ber

Paddy McAloon: “Did I ide­alise love? Yes, but that’s com­mon enough in pop mu­sic.” Right: McAloon with fel­low Pre­fab Sprout band­mates Wendy Smith, Neil Conti and Mar­tin McAloon in 1987.

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