CHANHASSEN, Minn. — Prince is rolling his eyes.
“The hardest thing with musicians,” he explains to a visitor to his Paisley Park recording studio, “is getting them not to play.”
The quintuple-threat singer-songwriter-producer-performer-multi-instrumentalist is running a nine-piece band through a vigorous rehearsal in preparation for a Monday-Wednesday residency at Chicago’s United Center, and right now the arrangements are getting too busy for his liking. He’s like a drill sergeant in a brown, button-up, Asian-style long coat with a hypnotist’s lulling voice.
“John, what’s the thing you’re doing?” he asks John Blackwell, as if he were asking his drummer to pass a bag of potato chips. “Your time changed again and it got boomy and ugly.” To a guitarist he calmly advises, “You should throw that pedal away ... it’s just taking up too much space frequency-wise.” To his bassist: “I wouldn’t thumb this, either. Mute it. Mute it.”
No big deal. The musicians comply and recalibrate. A little accent on the cymbal here, an up-stroke on the guitar strings there, and everything moves a little closer to the sound Prince imagines.
The singer wants to hear different combinations of instruments — guitars with drums, then with keyboards and bass; voices a cappella, then with tambourines and drums — and he is constantly tweaking, adjusting voicings (“give that last chord more value”), humming individual parts and then seeing how they gel. Much of this band has been with him for several years as he’s traveled the world during his extended “Welcome 2” tour, usually playing long runs in major cities where he can vary the set lists nightly, explore every contour of his songbook and cover artists and songs both legendary (Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music”) and surprising (Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover”). He wants more musical options ready for Chicago, and that’s why he’s pushing so hard at this rehearsal.
“Only a few days left,” he says, almost to himself. Right now, he is aiming for absence, trying to carve space into the music where it can become something sexy and sinuous. At one point, to illustrate a point he invokes the Chuck Berry movie “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He describes a scene where Berry goes ballistic, accusing someone of changing his amplifier.
“Chuck Berry went ‘St. Louis’ on my boy,” Prince says, throwing an air punch and laughing. The band cracks up. “Movie night!” one of his backing singers cackles.
Throwing a little mirth in the businesslike atmosphere seems to unlock something in everyone, and the parts that Prince has so carefully orchestrated start to pop and fire. “Which way is up?” the backing singers chant. “I got a new lease on life.”
Now Prince is dancing with a huge, dimpled grin beneath his tight Afro.
“When the horns get on top of this,” he exults, “Lord have mercy!”
As if on cue, 11 horn players drift into the room and take their place on the riser, the brass adding even more heft and swing to the stew of instruments. Pleased, Prince gives the entire 20-member ensemble a two-hour dinner break before everyone reconvenes later in the night.
He walks out into a hallway and into one of the offices in his cavernous, 70,000-square-foot property in the rolling hills southwest of Minneapolis.
“Remember the scene in (the movie) ‘Amadeus,’ where he’s dying, and he’s hearing the music in his head?” Prince asks. “It becomes impossible to explain. He doesn’t have the vocabulary. Now, I’m short — literally and also when I speak — and it’s easy to get all, ‘Can’t you hear this? Can’t you hear what I’m hearing?’ And so I use humor when I feel my blood pressure going up.”
He also leans on his Bible lessons. A devout Jehovah’s Witness for two decades, Prince says his Bible teacher was none other than soul-music great Larry Graham, the bassist in Sly and the Family Stone.
“He told me, ‘Keep studying. There are things they don’t explain at Bible school, so it’s up to you to keep learning.’”
So too for music.
“I nearly had a nervous breakdown on ‘The Purple Rain’ tour (in 1984) because it was the same every night,” he says. “It’s work to play the same songs the same way for 70 shows. To me, it’s not work to learn lots of different songs so that the experience is fresh to us each night.”
Prince had made albums entirely on his own, playing all the instruments, singing all the vocals, writing and arranging all the songs. But now he savors the relationship he has with musicians such as Blackwell and keyboardist Cassandra O’Neal.
“My favorite instrument?” he says. “It’s the band.”
Though his musicians are highly skilled, he says technical ability is not the primary attribute he looks for when auditioning potential band members.
“They need heart, the willingness to try something different,” he says. “When something’s funky, everyone gravitates toward it. I love to see the joy when they can feel it happening.”
Like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton before him, Prince is taking the notion of what live performance can be to another level by combining composition and improvisation, precision and spontaneity. When he last performed in Chicago in 2004, he had built his band up through theater tours until it was ready to perform at a high level on a huge scale. His arena tour that year was a major commercial and critical success, pulling in more than $87 million in revenue and reviving Prince’s career.
Now the music industry is in such a chaotic state of transition that he doesn’t see much point in releasing the music he records “all the time” at Paisley Park. Once upon a time, new Prince albums flowed like water, particularly once he dropped out of the major-label system in the mid-‘90s. In both 2003 and ‘04, he released three albums each year through various channels. But he hasn’t released any new albums since 2010.
The artist who pioneered using the Internet as a way to communicate with his fans and distribute music in the ‘90s, declared the Internet “over” in 2010. His experiences with selling music through his Web sites were poorly managed and alienated many fans, so now he has no website. He says digital services such as iTunes and Spotify don’t impress him.
“Remember Betamax?” Prince says with a grin, referring to the outmoded video cassette format. “That’s the system we’ve got now in the music business. We’re in a singles market again. It’s crazy for me to walk into that with a new album. Young people have decided they like to listen to music in a certain way, through ear buds, and that’s fine with me as long as it doesn’t bother them that they’re not hearing 90 percent of the music that way. But I don’t have to record to eat or to get out of debt or to pay my taxes. I looked forward to the day I could do this. Freedom is an interesting thing. You have to work really hard to get free.”
At one point, he turns to ask, “So what do you think the future of all this is going to be?” There are no sure answers. Nobody knows. And that’s both a daunting and thrilling prospect. What excites him most, he says, is helping new artists. The 21-year-old drummer Hanna Ford is on his list of future band members. He’s already jammed with rising jazz star Esperanza Spalding. He flips on video of a solo performance by the young British folk-soul singer Lianne La Havas. “She is Joni Mitchell to me, the way she tells a story, the way she puts those interesting guitar chords underneath it.”
The next minute he’s taking a call from his protege, Andy Allo, who will perform with him in Chicago. He moves to another room upstairs where he has two large computer screens set up, and he toggles between a video-in-progress of Allo and a video of a recent “Welcome 2” tour date in Australia. Then he dials up a YouTube video of the ‘70s singer Betty Davis, a gritty track called “If I’m in Luck, I Might Get Picked Up.”
“I don’t want anyone to fail, so if you can make money off music even though you can’t sing or dance, that’s genius,” he says with a laugh. “More power to you. But I play Betty Davis for Andy Allo and say, ‘This is what we aim for.’”
Prince has said repeatedly that he’s not a great businessman, and he’s taken his share of wrong turns in trying to fashion himself into a one-man music industry. But he is great at building bands, making music and inspiring people to dance. Though he’s 54, he looks and moves like a much younger man. In part, he says, that’s because the stress that dominated his life for much of the ‘80s and ‘90s is gone.
A new single, “RNR Affair,” provides a small window into his life. It’s a horn-spackled, guitar-chugging ode to “two people in love, with nothin’ but the road ahead.” A relaxed, sing-speak vocal rides the groove, then ascends to falsetto.
“It’s a driving song,” Prince says. “The world is so jagged, I like smooth waves. It’s the way I live now. When Larry (Graham) first came around here (in the ‘90s) we had a lot of crazy people in here. Now, no one argues, no one swears, no one smokes, no one talks harsh. We all enjoy each other. You don’t know what that’s like till you start living like that, because for a long time I didn’t. It was affecting me up here (points to his head), which in turn affected me here (points to throat). I changed the way I operate. A lot of my contemporaries didn’t. That’s the reason I’m still here, and a lot of them aren’t.”
It troubled him when people started to write him off in the ‘90s, when the hits dried up and he began playing smaller venues, partially by design.
“I had a former band member tell the media, ‘He’ll never play arenas again,’” Prince says. “Now why would someone want to go and say a thing like that?”
The singer gets defiant.
“That’s like telling Michael Jordan he can’t play anymore. Like telling Ali he’s washed up.”
Despite the bravado, he circles back to the topic later in the conversation. He’d like to suggest that the criticism bounces off him, that he’s tougher than that. But he doesn’t forget. The hurt lingers. He describes letters that Mavis Staples wrote him in the ‘80s when they began working together on a couple of her solo albums: “They were so full of encouragement. You don’t get much of that in this business.”
And his eyes glisten when he recalls a few words spoken to him at the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall just a few hundred yards down the road from Paisley Park, where he regularly attends Bible study.
“I had missed a bunch of meetings because I was on tour, and you know how people like to gossip and talk behind your back? Well, there was none of that,” he says. “When I came back, there was one older person there who came up to me. He didn’t lay a guilt trip on me. He just spoke with love and compassion, and I’ll never forget what he said. ‘We just miss you.’”
Rehearsal is about to resume, and he relishes the work ahead even though he’s tired.
“You know what I look at when I’m stage? I look for the smile on people’s faces. That’s what I want, where I put all my energy.”
He leans back in his chair.
“I remember those Park West shows (in Chicago) that I played when I was just starting out. I’ll dream about the Park West sometime. I can see it so clearly in my dreams, that wide open look from the stage, the people right up on you. Those were life-changing shows.”
And then, his heels click down the hallway toward the rehearsal hall. The band is still settling in, but the music has already started inside Prince’s head.