Sprout on his own

Prefab Sprout's Paddy McAloon talks to Nick Coleman about his new album, epic songs of the heart and why he flies in the face of fashion
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The Independent Culture
For a pop star, Paddy McAloon looks like a school teacher who's been around the science block a few times. He wears a dowdy pullover under an earthy jacket. His hair sluices over the rims of large spectacles and falls to his collar in tented sheets. He has a habit of slooshing it off his face when thinking, which he does a lot and with much gasping.

About an hour into our conversation in a hotel in central Newcastle-upon- Tyne, he asks me if I actually like his new album, Andromeda Heights, his first baby-fresh release in seven years and the first he's made under the Prefab Sprout brand since the group of that name officially ceased to exist as a unit at some unnameable point in the past couple of years. "I was frightened to ask you," he says, slooshing away with both hands. "I'm always frightened to ask what people think, in case I hear that little knock of less-than-total enthusiasm..."

I explain that I do like Andromeda Heights very much, and that it seems to me unusual for a thoughtful pop record in that it is madly optimistic in tone and sterling in its effort to draw the principles of high romanticism up close to the less well-organised passions of everyday living. As pop records go, it's sentimental enough to be a film by Frank Capra (hot dog! There's even a song on it entitled "Life's a Miracle"). But, crucially, it's also intellectually disciplined enough to be one too. Yes, you can have happiness, swans, stars, the mysteries of love and so on, but you will come to recognise them only as the tokens of moral effort.

Does McAloon do optimistic, twinkly, compassionate romanticism as a matter of policy?

"Absolutely. It's a house style. You really wouldn't want to be as ordinary or as bleak in your writing as you sometimes feel."

As an institution, Prefab Sprout have never stood for anything much in particular, except perhaps for the idea that the least you can expect of something as weightless as pop is that it should, on occasion, balloon against the gravitational drag of fashion and culture. There's always been something floaty, even metaphysical about McAloon's music. This has plenty to do with his ethereal voice and arrangements, and his tunes, which are as loopy as feathers in a breeze. But it also has to do with the way Sprout songs sound as if they've been casually netted and pulled down from weird nimbuses of reflection and fantasy. Songwriting seems to be less the work in McAloon's life than the great prize of leisure. His love songs are ardent enough, but no more so than his songs about death and home and Old Testament folk and the objects of popular culture. McAloon writes above all, one suspects, to feel grace. Jarvis Cocker he is not.

Young Paddy spent seven years in a Catholic seminary between the ages of 11 and 18. He puts his liking for home down to this.

"I didn't have a great passion at 18 to get away from home, like most people seem to. After the seminary, all I wanted to do was get home. But my dad, a real Victorian Dad, made me go to Newcastle Polytechnic. I didn't give a shit. I just wanted to work in the garage all day: write songs and sit in the garage. But I went to the Poly, got my degree, came out and went and worked in the garage again. That was all I did. At which point my dad gave in. I knew what I wanted to do. I'd found it. And you're dead lucky if you can do that." He sits back and gasps at his good fortune. "Jesu."

McAloon is immensely likeable, and has been since the group first appeared out of left field in 1984 with the gently convoluted Swoon. He is keen as mustard, bright as a button and slippery as a bucket of worms when it comes to self-analysis. This is a fellow who has declared himself to be in direct songwriting competition with Paul McCartney; who recites with Leavisite certainty a shortlist of fundamental influences - Beatles, Bowie, Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jimmy "Wichita Lineman" Webb; and who, as recently as 1991, was to be found working on a basket of songs for presentation to Michael Jackson. (Sprout fans will be amused to note that the original chorus of "The Sound of Crying" ran as follows: "Only the boogie music/ Will never, ever let you down".) McAloon has never been snug in the pop world.

The group, he says on reflection, was a means to an end: "A convenience and a disguise; a way to get things through." And he has always hated playing live, even from the beginning when the group copped a plum support ticket on a tour with Elvis Costello.

McAloon would rather stay at home, in Consett, County Durham, and write songs "from the realm of the heart" and record them in his home studio. Doesn't he ever feel stifled?

"Er, well, it's a cussedness of mine that you can make the centre of the world where you happen to be," he says, lungeing forward, elbows on knees. "You can do that in music. All the records I've ever liked seem to have escaped their location. In the Sixties, I suppose it was novel for young people to shoot off round the world in search of something or other. But I've never got hooked on geographical shift as a means of inspiring myself. I got this from listening to records. Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan..."

Where do you go for pleasure then?

"Oh, I went to Scarborough for my holidays. And Minorca a couple of years ago. But I don't normally go anywhere at all, other than to drive up the coast to see my girlfriend, or into town. It's not that I'm hooked on the Geordie thing, on being here. I could almost be anywhere to do what I do. But I do like to have my family around me."

The realm of the heart is a capacious one in McAloon's view. Following 1990s epic, Jordan: the Comeback, and the abortive Jackson album, McAloon embarked on a project entitled, perhaps facetiously, perhaps not, Let's Change the World with Music, the centrepiece of which was to be a little thing called "Earth: the Story So Far".

This noble endeavour - the word "song" doesn't seem right somehow - was to be "a history of the human heart, from Creation to the moonlandings", sung in cumulative, mantra-like stanzas over 20 minutes, beginning with Eve in the Garden describing how she felt when first she set eyes on Adam. McAloon plugged away at it and got up to Dallas, 1963, and the thoughts of Jackie Kennedy, then got stuck.

"It was a huge jigsaw, an arranging problem. And I found that without a grasp of classical form I didn't have the talent for an expanded piece of music. I spent two years working on it. Bought a whole bunch of computers and got into photomontage. And decided to put it on the back-burner. Then Jimmy Nail [he of the Crocodile Shoes and the unexpectedly pretty singing voice] came along." For whom McAloon supplied a handful of bespoke tunes.

Andromeda Heights is not a fashionable-sounding record. It will not be heard at parties - "what we do simply isn't good fun to have on in the background; it doesn't work unless you really listen, as an active participant"; it adds only higher production values and greater verbal simplicity to the Sprouts' first great love treatise, Steve McQueen; and it will do nothing to alter the established course of pop culture as a repetitively linear teenage rampage into the future. But it does have some heart-stopping songs on it.

McAloon is content to operate this way and to look like a school teacher (although, in time for the Andromeda Heights promo drive, he does get his hair cut and swaps his pedagogical specs for flier's shades and a Cuban stogie - ever the ditzy fantasist). He is happy to be out of touch with the pop world, does not regret the "inevitable" disintegration of his group and is unashamed of the way rampant sentimentality is the engine of his working life. He's been listening to Sun Ra, Puccini and Ravel lately.

"I'm just not cutting edge, man," he says. "I'm nearly 40. At my age, you're looking for moments of recognition, gorgeousness and surprise. And that's quite tough to talk about because you sound like you're ready for a pipe, jazz and slippers. The big deal is to make grown-up records without passing the point where you've got no energy or passion left. But at the same time, you don't want to be chasing the game, U2-stylee, eternally struggling for relevance by latching on to the latest thing... You've got to create your own little world and just do it, and be damned with the rest of them. Gotta be your own man."

This is said not with bravado but with a sort of leisurely flourish, as if happiness were watching the rest of the world screech past your forecourt in a ball of dustn

Andy Gill reviews `Andromeda Heights' overleaf