It’s been a year since Prince left us.
News of the demise of His Purple Majesty was a shock felt around the globe. In a year already plagued by celebrity deaths, Prince’s passing blindsided everyone who’d ever grooved to “Delirious,” rocked to “Raspberry Beret,” or got their funk out with “Batdance.”
The prolific, multi-instrumental Grammy-winner critiqued pop culture and celebrated humanity with his songs, veering from oversexed nymphomaniac to rebellious rocker to half- jaded composer and back again with cool precision. He was the soulful Svengali who introduced the world to Sheila E., Apollonia, and Vanity (among others) and the genius behind The Revolution, New Power Generation, and 3rd Eye Girl. His melodies and lyrics blurred the lines separating male and female, his grooves eradicating boundaries between black and white.
Now Prince’s best-known (and most commercially successful) band is hitting the road to pay homage to their former employer and friend—and to pick up where they left off in the late ‘80s. This Spring, The Revolution (Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Dr. Fink, Mark “Brownmark” Brown, and Matt Fink) will be coming to a town near you…and they’re not gonna let the elevator bring you down.
Turns out the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As (or “The Glyph”) had plans for Revolution reunion all along. In fact, Prince asked Wendy, Lisa and the gang to hold off after the band played a couple one-off gigs around their Minneapolis home without him, and pleaded for his pals to wait for him until he was finished with 3rd Eye Girl.
They conceded but kept their chops sharp, never guessing the guru of Graffiti Bridge wouldn’t live to see sixty.
We spoke with Brownmark by phone recently to discuss his 1999-Parade days with Prince, his tenure in The Revolution, and the medicinal power of music in times of mourning. The fleet-fingered bassist assured us Cleveland’s in for a treat when the band blows into House of Blues on May 18, and that the performance will be as a party celebrating Prince as much as a heartfelt memorial to his purple reign.
AXS: When did you start playing bass?
MARK “BROWNMARK” BROWN: I was about seven years old. I actually started with a guitar, but it was difficult for me to play. Strings got broken off, and I ended up with four strings. I learned to play guitar that way. Then I put it down for a while. I picked it up again when I was fifteen. I was a sophomore in high school. I’ve been playing ever since. I went to Central, but Prince had already graduated. I was in my first or second year when I picked the bass back up.
AXS: When did you start moving in the same music circles as Prince?
MB: When I started playing the bar scene in the Twin Cities, he was his beginning stages of getting a record deal. About a year later he came out with that “Soft and Wet” album [1978’s For You]. He was about three years in front of me. He would come and watch me play, though, during the time of his Dirty Mind album. When he got back from Europe he’d come and watch me. I didn’t understand that, but later I figured out why!
AXS: My first exposure to Prince was 1999. I was just a kid, but I was taken by the sounds, the artwork. Here was this double-album where the jams went on as long as the musicians felt they needed to—six, seven minutes—without adhering to radio-friendly running times. How’d those jams develop?
MB: A lot of it was recorded in the rehearsal studio. He would have a multitrack by that stage in the game—the 1999 time. Before that, we’d just jam on stuff all the time. That stuff would pop up on Controversy. Back then we were jamming on stuff that would become 1999. Then he’d come out with an album, and I’d be like, “We played on that stuff a year ago!” But then he got really smart about it and started bringing a multitrack recording into the rehearsal studio, and he’d record us jamming for hours. He’d have the reels rolling.
AXS: He’d use those as the basis for new studio recordings?
MB: The funny thing is, he’d just keep it. He’d just kind of put vocals on it. He’d take it to his home studio, then come back and say, “Check this out.” You’d be like, “Wow!” Yeah, he was notorious for…he’d go back in the studio, and some of the stuff he’d totally redo it. From 1999 to Purple Rain you could hear the sound change tremendously. But by Purple Rain he wouldn’t redo anything. He’d just leave us on the tapes. Whereas with 1999 he’d take the jams home and redo them.
AXS: It’s widely known that Prince was a masterful multi-instrumentalist. Did he dictate to you what to play on bass, or did he just let you run with your parts?
MB: For most of the songs he gave me…if it was a very melodically-structured tune he’d play the bass. But for most of our groove-oriented stuff—like “Computer Blue” and “Let’s Go Crazy”—he’d give me full liberty to put down the bottom. One of the reasons he brought me into the band was because of my age. I was young and moldable. He was looking for a bass player to play like him, but to have that really funky old-school feel, like Larry Graham [Sly and The Family Stone]. That was his idol! By the time we got to Purple Rain I was well-seasoned and I knew what was he was looking for. So he gave me free reign on the bottom end there.
AXS: Did anything in the early days prepare you for the phenomenal success of Purple Rain?
MB: [Laughs] Nothing. My first concert with him was opening for The Rolling Stones [where Prince and The Revolution were booed offstage]. So the shock of everything was already absorbed. I was like, “What could be worse than this?” So from that point on the fame was…like, I just tuned it out and stayed real to the game. I looked at it like, “Who’s the real star here? This is Prince’s gig.” That kept me grounded. I stayed in my lane and did my job. I supported him to become what he needed to become, because that was what I was hired to do.
AXS: That’s a very mature mindset for someone who was barely twenty at the time.
MB: I got that from my mother! She’d be in my ear every night [laughs]! But thank you!
AXS: You stayed with The Revolution through Around the World in a Day (1985)?
MB: What a lot of people don’t realize is that I quit after the Parade (1986) album. We had a falling out because of “Kiss” and [Brown’s side project] Mazarati [for whom Prince originally wrote the 1986 hit]. We had a falling out. But we made up. I’d been under contract for the last album, Around the World in a Day. Then I was under contract when we toured. I wasn’t in The Revolution anymore. They didn’t know that; Prince wanted me to keep it quiet. So I hung in there for that last tour. We ended up at Yokahoma Stadium in Japan. That was my last show. From there I went to Motown.
AXS: It’s been almost a year since Prince passed away. In a year marked by the deaths of many great musicians, his was probably the most shocking. How did you and The Revolution deal with the loss? How’d you decide to reform the group?
MB: It hit us really badly. Me and Prince, we stayed in contact through the years. He was going to put this all back together and take it on the road. A Revolution Reunion. He just wanted to do it at the right time. Before he put together 3rd Eye Girl he flew me to Minneapolis to play with [drummer] John Blackwell in a new group that had some of that old feel to it. He brought me in on bass. But Prince was always experimenting. So he went the girl route—he’d always wanted to do a girl group thing. So 3rd Eye Girl was born. But we’d always talked about bringing The Revolution back. Because we’d done a couple gigs ourselves, and he didn’t want us to do those anymore. He said, “We’re gonna bring it back, but we need to do it when I’m ready, and I can’t have you out there wearing out the sound!” So we all understood that. We backed off and waited for him. So when he passed on, it was devastating. I cried for three days straight. We met in Minneapolis and were just numb. We didn’t know what to do. And then the fans’ reactions were just overwhelming. So at that moment it was very impulsive. We decided to do a video to tell the fans we were gonna go play. That’s where this came from. It was emotional for us.
AXS: Your first “reunion” gigs were those tribute shows at First Avenue in Minneapolis, yes?
MB: We did three shows. They weren’t really tributes. They were kind of like farewell shows and mourning shows for us. We did the shows so the fans could mourn with us. We spared no expense: We made that stage look exactly like Purple Rain, back when we were filming. That’s the experience we wanted to give back to friends and fans. They flew in from all over the world.
AXS: How will you determine what songs to play in concert?
MB: [Laughs] It’s difficult! We’ve chosen a set list based on popularity. We did a couple surveys online to see what people thought. We’re gonna stick with most of the hits, but we’ll pull out stuff that people haven’t heard before. It’ll evolve. We have such an extensive library to choose from, because we were involved with so much of the creation of the earlier stuff.
AXS: The big question is, who sings lead now? Do you take turns?
MB: What we realized at the First Avenue shows was that we needed a center guy. Prince isn’t here, and we can’t replace him. We don’t want to replace him. But someone has to be in the center to help lift the crowd’s energy. So we decided to bring in guest singers, some popular guests that will be traveling with us for certain dates. It’ll be a surprise for the audience. It gives us that balance, too, because I can concentrate on the bottom. Wendy can concentrate on what she does. But then there are songs that I’ll sing myself. Prince and I have similar voices now that I’m in my older age; I’ve developed a deeper tone than what I had years ago. So I can handle a lot of his music. Wendy and Lisa together have tons of stuff they always sang together, so we just let them take those. The guest singers will tackle the stuff that becomes difficult for me and her to do.
AXS: Then you can just play and have fun with it.