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A Conversation with Thomas Dolby

Puremusic: Thank you for being such an important part of this new Deluxe Edition of Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen.

Thomas Dolby: Well, it's been delightful getting back into it after all these years.

PM: I mean, it's so amazing how high that beautiful little record climbed, critically around the world, as opposed to its relatively modest commercial success, for how truly great we know it was.

TD: I think so, yeah. I mean, I think often there's not that close a correlation between something that's truly valuable with its commercial stats. And this is a good example.

PM: Yes, absolutely. And the excellent liner notes by Paul Lester told me so much that I didn't really know, even as a fan. Most significantly, he recalled how important to the original recording you truly were.

TD: Well, I can't take that much credit for it. The band was already in full swing before I ever heard them. They'd released Swoon, which in its own way, had a lot of critical success. But in a way what they needed perhaps was somebody with a little bit more experience, not from the engineering side, but from the musical side to help them fine-tune their sound to make it a little bit more accessible, a slightly easier listen. Because Swoon is a brilliant album, but it's quite demanding.

PM: Right. It's more difficult.

TD: It's definitely more difficult. And I think the reason for that was that you have to start with Paddy, I think. He's a lyricist, first and foremost. When I met him he was in a tiny bedroom with a mattress stacked on top of piles of song lyrics that he'd written over the years.

PM: Unbelievable.

TD: And he'd pull them out one by one, and he'd squint at them and strum his way through them. And he would write notes for chords and melodies over the top of the lyrics. But primarily it was about the poems. What happened when the band started to arrange those was that there were lots of extra beats here and there, strange chord changes or rhythm changes, or odd lengths of phrases. The musicians tried to sort of accommodate those, but in fact what needed to happen was a few of the rough edges needed to be trimmed off.

But at the same time, I didn't want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I mean, what made them so unique is that they defied logic. So the task, really, at hand, for me, was how to elevate them to a more accessible level, commercially, without homogenizing the essence of the music.

PM: It's a curious alchemy that really needs to take place to take that germ of genius, that kernel of genius and make it something to which the world can say, "Ah, yes, I hear that, I see that."

TD: And there are different kinds of producers. There's your engineer producer, the Steve Lillywhite type, who can get a great sound for the band, but maybe is not so qualified to go right back to scratch with the arrangements themselves and adjust things at that level. And obviously, you start with a great song, but then when the arrangements and the structure of the songs are right, there's very little for a producer to do other than just judge what makes a good performance and say, "Take three was the one, let's go with it."

PM: And some producers, as you know, are much more attuned to the lyrics than others.

TD: Yeah, yeah, I think that's certainly true.

PM: And it sounds like you were on the same page with him lyrically, that essentially that's who he is, that's what it was, and your task was to round out the edges, and bring it to the world. It's really unusual that such a revered songwriter like Paddy McAloon would allegedly have called Steve McQueen "Thomas' album."

TD: Well, I think he's being too nice. It was a given that I was a performer in my own right, and quite opinionated. It would have been very easy for them to say, "Watch it, step back, don't try to impose yourself on our album." And they were very respectful of the slight edge I had over them in terms of experience and the range of artists I'd worked with at that point, and the sort of spectrum of musical styles and sounds that I had under my belt already. They were very humble, and said, "We're just a bunch of hicks from Tyneside, and what do we know?"

PM: Oh!

TD: "So we'll go with your better judgment."


TD: And that was very nice of them, to give me that free hand. But in reality, the respect was very mutual, and I tried to be very sensitive. Being an artist myself, I knew that Paddy wouldn't want to be diluted by what I added to the album. So I tried to be very sensitive to their wishes as well.

PM: On the other hand, it's written that you actually picked the songs. Is that so?

TD: Well, yeah.

PM: That's beautiful.

TD: I mean, as I say, Paddy pulled out a stack of lyrics and played me probably 40 or 50 songs. And from them I picked my favorites. And I often visited him up in Tyneside, and picked my favorites and asked if he would make me demos of them. So I think over the next couple of days with a cassette recorder he put those songs down and sent me a cassette. And that's what I had to work with, in terms of the planning that I did for the album.

PM: Unbelievable. Just guitar/vocal demos on cassette.

TD: Yeah. And in fact, when we made the decision to re-master the album, SONY asked him whether he would be prepared to dig any of those demos up and include them on the album. And he said no, which I think is a little sad. But in reality, the quality of them was very basic. He didn't particularly try to catch great performances of them--they were just really done there as a notepad for me.


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