- 20 Mar 20
When the going gets tough... Prefab Sprout supremo Paddy McAloon turned the kind of adversity that would have felled a lesser man into the masterpiece, I Trawl The Megahertz. "I stubbornly try to find ways," he tells Pat Carty.
When I got the nod to interview beloved Prefab Sprout, Paddy McAloon – a man who will enjoy sainted status amongst music fans until the end of time thanks to work like Swoon and Steve McQueen - about 2003’s solo record I Trawl The Megahertz - set for re-release, this time under the band’s name - I put an urgent call out to anyone who might have a copy I could familiarise myself with, as streams were hard to come by. A friend who came through warned me that “it’s a long way from hot dog, jumpin’ frog!” That was putting it mildly. Megahertz is a mostly instrumental orchestral meditation on love and loss with a twenty-two minute title track that utilises dialogue from late night chat shows and radio broadcasts. It’s quite beautiful, which belies the trials McAloon had to suffer through to birth it. Medical necessity became the mother of invention.
“Round about 1998 I had the first of two or three bouts of eye surgery to fix detached retinas, which meant I had to spend a lot of time not leaning forward. I had these devices fitted to hold the back of the eye in place. It was enforced idleness,” is McAloon’s rather eye-popping memory, if you and he will excuse the pun. “I couldn’t read, I got bored, I would fall asleep listening to things – tapes, audiobooks, the radio - so I started to imagine music with voices floating over the top. Once I was well enough to sit forward, I hit this chord sequence on my computer which I thought could be an instrumental piece, but I had lost faith in my ability to make that work, so I put the two ideas together - the voices floating over music – and it struck me as a kind of exciting thing to do.”
The music came first, then?
“It was the lyrical side, if I can call it that because a lot of the voices were sort of ‘found’ and then assembled and edited. I must have been trying to write a song, because I’d been working on a bunch of things that were sort of similar in style musically – string sounds on a computer, it wasn’t guitar based – so it probably emerged from that. I think it was my sense of insecurity about being a “writer of music” that made me put words in because a twenty-two minute piece of music, unless you’re pretty gifted or classically trained, it’s a bit of a nonsense really. I was seeking some insurance that I could make something interesting, so I loaded it down with lyrical information, thinking it might be more compelling. I spent most of 1999 working on the music and taping these radio broadcasts, to create a poetic re-telling of this woman’s life.”
The piece, narrated by Yvonne Connors, is a deeply affecting love story, from initial enthusiasm to a search – a trawl - through the dying embers of attachment.
“It’s about loss, she’s talking about some kind of lost love or lost lover,” McAloon agrees. “That’s at the heart of it, but I didn’t set out to do that, which might sound strange as it is structured. I just waited until the phrases that would fit came to me, although there was some joining of the dots, there had to be. You just don’t hear that kind of poetic language on talk shows. But there was a tone some of the original things, “your daddy loves you, he just doesn’t want to live with us”, that gave the idea she’s talking about her youth but her life has had that consistent theme – that sort of loss. But you’re correct, it is an impassioned love story.”
The eyebrow goes up - hard to discern down a phone line, in fairness, even allowing for McAloon's ophthalmic maladies. Such a story can’t have been completely constructed from ‘found’ material harvested from the airwaves, surely?
“Yeah, that’s been my smokescreen for many years” McAloon concedes with a snort. “The ‘appearance of ether’ section came from different radio broadcasts which, though it sounds pretentious, reminded me of T.S. Eliot. I was chopping this stuff up so I stuck that in there. The ‘Your Daddy loves you’ section was a really a broadcast by a late night DJ.”
Maurice and Claude, Stevie and Miles
The record’s musical mood is said to stem from McAloon’s love of impressionist composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, and it is certainly possible to detect traces of pieces like ‘Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune’ or the use of repetition in ‘Boléro’ – yes, the Torvill and Dean one - but there are other influences at work too. McAloon has spoken of his affection around this time for Stevie Wonder’s experimental - and 'difficult' - combination of R&B and new age, Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants, and with its quasi-military drum tattoo, castanets and muted trumpet, ‘We Were Poor’ could be a nod to the Miles Davis of Sketches Of Spain.
“I do love that sound, but if I’m honest I don’t know how many Miles Davis records I owned at that point” is McAloon’s measured reply. “I must have had Sketches, and any time you put a mournful trumpet in, you’re in Miles territory. The Debussy/Ravel thing, I don’t know what to say about that, I am a fan but I don’t think I’ve ever made any claim for myself in that regard.”
The 'Sprout did include the ‘Jesse James Boléro’ on 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback.
“I don’t know how much I’d attach the word boléro to Ravel,” McAloon replies generously to my rather facetious lob. “When I think of Ravel, I think of other things, but it’s probably there in the air. Megahertz looks different to the normal guitar band set up, but the title track is still like a normal song, you’ve got a lot of repetition over this one phrase although it changes slightly in the middle. It’s built on those same principals because I don’t have any other principals I can cling to. It uses orchestral sounds because I was using a device that had string sounds. I was quite happy with the synthesised version but Callum Malcolm, my engineer, reckoned, quite rightly, that it would have life if we had real players.”
The machinery McAloon mentions must have been quite limited, given his medical condition.
“I wasn’t even in my home studio, I was in a bedroom with an Atari and two sound modules. I couldn’t hear what I was doing properly, really. I used old fashioned synths that were out of date even then. When you use that as the backdrop and then put real things on top, something else happens.”
One might assume that it would be a very different record if made today, technology having advanced to the point where an auteur like McAloon would be able to orchestrate it himself.
“Absolutely. I’ve never invested in the big leap to an Apple Mac and all the fancy string libraries, although I’ve thought about this on and off for years, but my hearing is so bad now that any such investment would be a waste of money.”
Did tinnitus strike you around the same time? “No, that came in 2006. It passed, but it left me with depleted hearing in the right ear for years, then it came back in October 2017. And then I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease.” This is an inner ear affliction which can result in severe vertigo or dizziness. “So my right ear, even as I speak to you now, is making a lot of noise, it never goes away. The brain filters it out slightly. I couldn’t go out for weeks last year without falling over in the streets. I’m a bit better now but the hearing is not good. I’m 61, that happens to you as you get older, that’s the way life is.”
Is it possible that Paddy McAloon kicked a black cat through a mirror at some point in his younger days?
“Yes,” he acknowledges with humour that would have deserted most of us, “it was like a biblical plague coming down on me.”
Working must be nigh on impossible?
“It’s not even much fun playing a guitar and singing, it feels strange, my right ear corrupts it. I stubbornly try to find ways around it but I sometimes feel like that knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. He’s lost his arms and legs but is still intent on having a fight.”
This re-release should restore the record to its rightful slot in the Sprout story.
“The initial intention was to call it a Prefab Sprout record, but I went ‘solo’ because I worried what people would think. I think it was done to humour me, between ourselves, there weren’t that many copies printed which is why we’re going for a proper release this time around. Sony are happy to do it so there’s no particular significance to the timing, it just happened that way.”
How does he see it now? Could it be – as many feel, including myself after listening to little else for a week - perhaps the best thing he’s ever done?
McAloon takes a reflective pause before replying. “I vary on that. I do like it though. It’s like a movie you might watch once in a while, you lose yourself in it for the duration and then you move onto something else, but you could say that of almost any album, really.”
It is those albums, and movies, that people really care about, the ones they return to.
“That’s exactly what I mean, you make something and it occupies a certain space. I’m glad I did it, I just oscillate on what I think about it. It’s a strange relationship you have with old records, I didn’t know that when I was younger, I didn’t know that you might forget how a record went. I feel the same way about Steve McQueen, there are songs that I’ve not heard in a long time. If you put it on now, I couldn’t tell you what the lyrics are to ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘When The Angels’, I’ve written so many things, they have replaced some of these older ones.”
Speaking of the many written things, there’s a rumoured-to-be-forthcoming Sprouts album due at some point, Femmes Mythologiques, containing pop songs about famous female historical figures, if reports are to be believed.
“I’m working really hard on that, I’m trying to finish a vocal now, which is a bit slow given the hearing condition. If it’s not ready for September, it’ll be ready for January.”
There is quite possibly a Paisley Park-style vault somewhere in deepest Durham where previously mentioned projects like Earth: The Story So Far and Zorro The Fox languish. Is there any chance we’ll ever hear those?
“I don’t know, I’m trying to figure out which thing to do next. It might be one of those named records, although it won’t be Earth, and Zorro was absorbed into other things. I had one or two ideas in mind but I think I need to finish the current one!”
IMDB also lists him as providing the music for a currently in development adaptation of Cinque (brother of Spike) Lee’s children’s book Chasing Invisible Starlight, but we should probably wait and see.
2017 saw the release - if you could call it that, a video of McAloon preforming the song was posted online by his manager- of the pro-immigration lullaby ‘America’. Its lyrics become more relevant with each passing day.
“Maybe, it’s past parody really. I didn’t really want to write that, I’m not big on political songs, they have their moment and then they wither and die pretty quickly. I wanted to call it ‘America, What Have You Done?’ but I never quite got around to being able to fit that in. There’s another section that makes it more like a proper song. I should probably record that just for curiosity’s sake.”
Would it be fair to say that McAloon prefers the discipline of writing to the chore of actual recording?
“Recording takes longer to do, that’s what it is” is his practical answer. “You write a song and you commit yourself to this lengthy process, especially if you don’t just want to preform them with an acoustic guitar. Megahertz needed to be orchestral, so you’re committed in terms of time and money.”
Could he not fling these songs out into the world, and let others record them?
“You could, but even then you’d have to demonstrate them. I often pause before pressing the record button, because I think “now you have to judge your singing” which is difficult because of my hearing. I’ve erected a number of road blocks to make everything just that little bit tougher than it should be - I don’t know why – maybe I did throw that cat through a mirror, underneath a ladder!”
This interview took place in January 2019 but was lost down the back of the filing cabinet, until now. - PC