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Prefab Sprout Founder Paddy McAloon on the Tragedy of Tinnitus and Mastering the ‘Fake Guitar’

Monday 30th, September 2019 / 14:20
By Glenn Alderson

Prefab Sprout circa 1985 | Photo by John Warwick

Paddy McAloon is tinkering in his Northern England studio trying to emulate the sounds of a guitar using an Atari Computer when he answers the phone.

The 62-year-old songwriter is often credited as one of pop-rock’s greatest songwriters for his masterful work with his band Prefab Sprout, but due to his worsening tinnitus, the sound of an actual guitar—or any amplified musical instrument—causes him immense discomfort.

“Listening is not quite the pleasure that it was. I only have so many hours in a day where I can work before my Tinnitus just exhausts me,” he says in a thick English accent. “I play the guitar but sometimes when I’m working on a song I use what I call a ‘fake guitar,’ where I program the Atari to sound like a guitar part. It’s tedious and boring and I’m probably old enough to know better, but sometimes I get carried away doing it.”

McAloon is optimistically working on the long-awaited Prefab Sprout record, Femme Mythologiques, and the band’s first new music since 2003’s experimental rollercoaster of a concept album, I Trawl the Megahertz. Originally released as a solo album, Megahertz was inspired by the shortwave radio shows he would listen to while at home recovering from a detached retina. Earlier this year, Sony Music reissued the album under the Prefab Sprout name as it was originally intended.

Prefab Sprout rose to fame in the late 70s and early 80s with their unique brand of new wave-inspired outsider pop music that often got lumped into the new wave movement, but stood tall above the rest thanks to production from Thomas Dolby on their breakout album, Steve McQueen. They experienced great success in the UK—and mildly in North America—with pop hits such as “Cars And Girls” and “The King Of Rock And Roll,” cementing the band as innovators in the evolving landscape of pop rock.

With a nod to prosperity and everything that once was, the band is celebrating reissues of their first three albums: their debut, Swoon, which introduced the world to McAloon’s idiosyncratic songwriting with subtle male-female harmonies courtesy of bandmate Wendy Smith; Jordan: The Comeback, an overly-conscious but pleasantly confident sophomore album; and their earnest third album, From Langley Park To Memphis.

But McAloon however is not interested in looking back, only forward. For him, creating ensures he doesn’t get left behind as a footnote in the music history books. In fact, he’s infamously known for his archive of unfinished material that he’s barricaded parts of his studio with.

“I’ve got a grand piano that I can’t get near because of the piles of songs I’ve written since the year 2000. It’s kind of hidden behind this wall of packed boxes full of music, which is a great tragedy, really.”

McAloon has been teasing his archive of unfinished material for decades but assures those recordings aren’t anywhere close to being released.

“It’s not a like a Prince or Frank Zappa situation where there are a bunch of finished records waiting to go. It’s more like I’ve written songs for an album and they’re on cassettes. I’ve got the paperwork, the chord charts, but very few are finished. I can’t just reach out to a shelf and play you an entire unreleased album, but I can find you the box.”

For now, fans can enjoy the band’s back catalogue while McAloon remains hard at work, committed to replicating that perfect guitar sound for his next offering using his Atari computer. The new song he’s speaking about is called “Mary Magdalene Blues.”

“It’s got a strummy mildly funky guitar part. I’m nearly finished it actually. This afternoon I may have it finished and then I will commit it to tape.”

Reissues of Swoon, Jordan: The Comeback and From Langley Park To Memphis are available now via Sony Music. 

 

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