Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Prince remembered: The Herald interview

As the music world mourns the death of Prince just two months after his first and only New Zealand shows, here's a rare face to face interview with the star from the Herald archives.

The Hard Rock Cafe, Tokyo. The wee small hours.

Outside, the nightclub and bar strip of Roppongi is awash with neon and nightlife.

Inside, the walls are awash with photos and souvenirs of rock's still-famous, once-famous, and bands that were only ever big in Japan.

It would seem that the late 80s Los Angeles glam metal scene stopped in for a drink on their way to oblivion.

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In a glass case behind the bar is the marching band suit Elvis apparently wore in Frankie and Johnny. You can see why it's not in Graceland. Above is a pawn shop's worth of guitars with brass plates claiming their former ownership - surely Tom Petty and George Benson never played instruments that ugly? Though Bon Jovi probably did.

But the best rock memorabilia is over in a quiet corner. It's the genuine article, too. Attempting to look incognito in the sort of big black wraparound sunglasses which usually come accessorised by a Labrador and a white cane, the small figure is hunched over a table.

But the disguise is never going to work. Maybe it's the loud monogrammed white jacket. Maybe it's the impish demeanour and fastidiously manicured facial hair. Or maybe it's the two body-guards, one a Tysonesque black guy, the other a shave-headed white guy whose suit is set off by a pair of combat boots and who spends much of his time menacingly adjusting his many finger rings.

Their imposing presence allows their charge to slurp a strawberry daiquiri and pick at a basket of chips in peace. Yes, that's the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, that
is.

Wow. Fancy seeing him here. Well no, actually. This is our third encounter of the Prince kind in Tokyo that day.

He's the reason a bunch of media types from around the Pacific Rim have descended on this insanely busy city. Its possibly the only megalopolis in the world where he doesn't feel as height-challenged as usual, that's if he actually went out and mingled with the locals.

But quarter of an hour in the tacky bar which might as well be in his hometown of Minneapolis is as much mingling as Prince is likely to do. So no-one gets to actually speak to Prince tonight.

Too bad. Been there, done that about 12 hours before.

But before we get him talking, let's remember where he earned all that enigma. Well, there's that business with changing his name to that unpronounceable symbol a few years back, denoting rock's strangest self-imposed identity crisis.

As plain old Prince, he became famous for mixing rock with funk, the outlandishly sexual with the secular, bad movies and great albums, thrilling live performances with a notorious seclusiveness, a workaholic musical genius with a curious business sense.

In recent years he's gone around with "slave" written on his face because he somehow considered a restrictive recording contract with Warner Brothers - signed in 1992 for $187 million over 10 albums - had made him just that.

As some might say, that's quite a cheek.

Prince in his "Slave" days of the mid 1990s. (Getty)
Prince in his "Slave" days of the mid 1990s. (Getty)

But now the 38 year-old is a married man, hitched to dancer Mayte Garcia last February, the couple's first child due any day.

His Tokyo jaunt was planned to get him home time for the birth. But having "slave" scrawled on his face is no longer part of his make-up regime. He's out of that contract and taking the biggest gamble of his near 20-year recording career. That's Emancipation, billed as "three hours of love, sex and liberty."

It's the album which, he says later, "I was born to make". It's a triple CD set. His last albums with Warner Brothers began to have an overpowering smell of contractual obligation about them. Effectively they've helped to squander that genius and his once-huge commercial clout.

So the question is now whether a triple set is too ambitious, too pricey (it will retail here for just under $60) and just plain too late for a comeback?

Though as his 1994 one-off hit single Most Beautiful Girl In The World proved, someone up there still likes him.

The triple album, is on Prince's own NPG (New Power Generation) Records, distributed and marketed by EMI.

Despite its size, the multinational doesn't have many major American artists on its books, possibly one reason they went running to Paisley Park after he picked up the phone. The no-figures-mentioned deal is called a "strategic alliance" by the company's Tern Santisi while introducing the first of two ear-thumping playback sessions of album tracks at EMI's Tokyo studios.

The company folks are toeing the line on the name-thing, always referring to him as "Artist" or "The Artist" in hushed, reverential tones.

*****

On the afternoon of the interview Prince's entire entourage is a frazzle of nervous energy, except for Messrs Tyson and Rings standing guard in the hotel corridor. I'm given a seat to wait in the hall under the nose of Mr Rings.

Soon, head down and flares flapping, Prince walks past into the room. Five minutes later he's out again and there's much panicked whispering among the entourage.

I'm ushered into the room where Ken, an Australian radio jock is, in his local parlance, spewing. Prince has pulled the plug after feeling his voice was getting too croaky -- yes, the artist formerly known as Prince is sounding like the amphibian usually known as frog.

So he's stopped Ken's interview and had his minders take away the tape. There's more control freakishness to-come.

As I wait, one of the record company women eyes my recording walkman and tells me that no tapes are allowed for print interviews, just pen and paper. Well, my reporter's shorthand used to be pretty good - about the same time Prince's albums still were, but it's still annoying.

I'd had an inkling this might happen and had come prepared. In the front pocket of my jeans is a back-up microcassette recorder. As the various minders bustle in and out taking my walkman away, it's a simple matter of turning it on and hoping like hell that it works and Prince's big boys don't ask me, is that a microcassette player in your pocket or are you just pleased to see us?"

Finally, he arrives looking short-tempered and short. A firm handshake. Oh no, another sweaty-palmed journalist, he's obviously thinking. The Artist is a study in facepaint himself - mascara, eyeliner, face powdered just this side of Geisha.

Oh, and pointy sparkly bits above his ears which give that space imp look. Or Mr Spock's mum. His black top has a furry collar, while his pants are the lime-greenest the human retina can possibly handle, as are his matching winkle-pickers.

He looks like a kitten which has been dipped in paint. Or the world's funkiest licorice all-sort. Seeing him up close is indeed surreal.

After all, probably he's probably the last man in rock - questions of his relevance to it in 1996 aside - with any mystique left.

When he speaks his voice, which really is quite croaky, is lower than its octave-consuming singing version might suggest.

He laughs at a joke about the irony of him finally agreeing to talk and his voice having other ideas. Then we start with something easy, his frame of mind with Emancipation on the way.

It's a predictable response. He's extremely excited about recording on his own label. It's the first time he's had control over his work from its inception to marketing and pricing. It's not a record contract and he likes it that way.

So where did it start to go wrong with the Warners deal?

"That's water under the bridge. I'm really grateful, contrary to what everybody believes. Had I not come through what I had gone through I would not be here today. There would be nothing to get excited about. They allowed me a lot of opportunities. They helped me to build a studio. The best thing they did was allow me to release Most Beautiful Girl In The World independently, so l got the taste of what freedom was like.

"There's a saying that the only people who know real freedom are prisoners and artists."

With those patchy albums of recent years, does he accept it's been a confusing time to be a fan?

"Yeah, it's been confusing for me, too. I want my friends and followers to understand that, having done everything that I did to get to here, I'm completely free now. I don't have to write like Prince used to, write with any restrictions about radio or singles or videos or that kind of stuff. Everything now is dictated by the music and the songs. So, I think now the tension is going - air comes out in the music.

"It's fun for me when I do a song alone. I record all the instruments. I do one track as a free person and that person is happy. Then do the bass track and that person is happy - not under a contract - and the next person and the next person. That's what it's like for me when I'm alone with the music. And-then I look up and I'm finished. It's an amazing process. "

"Even though it could sound sappy, I hope to see the day that all men can make things this way, whether it's a building, a car or a neighbourhood. How would our neighbourhoods be? What would we do in a perfect world where we are completely free?"

Quite. But frankly, some of us mere mortals might not understand how someone with a multi-million dollar record contract could ever call himself "slave."

"That's an institutionalised slavery and I wrote it on my face. All things are relative, right? You give a man a million dollars, he's a millionaire. But there is still higher to go, isn't there? You give someone like me all he's ever wanted, which is a recording studio, and that's it, right? There is nothing else for me to get, nothing else to buy.

"If you said to me. 'You can't do this and you can record one album every 18 months,' then you're taking something at that point. You are putting a box around me.

"I'm not comparing myself to any slave of any other period. I just used it as a term to have a box around me, to have restrictions around me. This record is Emancipation in the sense that if you listen to the older ones, and know what I've been going through, and you listen to this now, you will see what a free man sounds like."

Prince digresses into a short discussion about George Michael and his post-litigation album Older.

"Mine's a little different, a multitude of things going on in mine, but had I not gone through it I wouldn't know what to...what would I tell a kid who wanted to sign one?'

So what would he?

"We must own our masters or our masters own us," he replies with a practised quip - "masters" being a reference to an artist's master tapes.

Time to talk about the album.

Notably there are four cover versions. _ A smoochy take on the Stylistics' Betcha By Golly Wow which has single and radio play writ large upon it. There's Make U Love Me from Bonnie Raitt's songbook. And on the third album is the Delphonics' oldie, La la la Means I Love U and a guitar-fired -take on Joan Osborne's God-contemplating 95 hit One of Us.

Why so many?

"That's my plan to give back to writers who have greatly inspired me. l will always do cover versions. That happened because, without the bureaucracy to cut through, we can write the songs and put it out. Give the money to the writers. There is no six-month delay. Some advances I get from record stores I give to the writers. You, dig what I'm saying? Other people who aren't writers and creators, they are on a different programme, they set up the structures."

By the feel of some other tracks, Emancipation often sounds like the Prince of his period between Purple Rain and Sign '0' the Times.

There's a touch of sitar (an old trademark) on Can't Make U Love Me, while The Holy River is this album's own psychedelic rock epic with a tinge of Springsteen.

"The cool thing is it's the first time I've broken out some of the other instruments I used to use. I used to tease Stevie Wonder all the time 'Why don't you pull out the clavinet and the drum set you used back when you were wiping everybody out?' He's got tons of songs and he is trying to hear something he hasn't heard before, and so am I. To go back to that would be redundant.

"I thought, as a challenge to myself,' I am going to try to write some new music with some old instruments I haven't picked up for a while like an OB-X [synthesiser], my Hohner guitar."

Three albums though, isn't that just a bit much? "Once you go for the ride I think you'll see that it holds up. I think it's the most cohesive record I've made.

"I wanted Sign '0' The Times to be a triple record. I wasn't in the situation I was in today to have that hap-pen. I play a diverse range of styles, I always have, and it's really hard to do everything that you are feeling on one album - nine songs. I just do too much."

"On this album there wasn't anything else I wanted to add. Each part of the record is one hour ... that was the challenge and that was the blueprint.

"I thought a lot about the way the pyramids were built. They lined everything up with the stars so they could put a date as to when they built them. I wanted to have an album that was frightening in that sense - in the perfection, and I started with the blueprint before I wrote the songs."

But didn't slaves build the pyramids?

"Well, all things are relative," he says with his biggest grin of our 15 minutes together.

About then one of the company staff interrupts and informs us we've got one last question, which is about 99 questions too few. Best thing to do is go for an ego-baiting query to keep him talking.

Prince at the 2007 Superbowl's halftime show (Getty)
Prince at the 2007 Superbowl's halftime show (Getty)

Asking whether he thinks he's underrated as a guitarist (after all, there's some powerful stuff on the album) does the trick.

'Yeah. Someone told me that Eric Clapton said Purple Rain was one his favourite songs. I don't get as many accolades for guitar as I do for songwriting or performing or something like that. I wish I did...who knows?

Is that because your larger-than-life image gets in the way of being recognised as a musician?

"No I'm tiny..."

But can you see how people might perceive you as being strange?

"There 'again, Eric said that 'either people love him or some people hate him,' and I think it's better to be just that, you know? Misunderstood."

How is it going from a no-interview policy to doing this?

"I'm going to continue doing interviews for the record. I'm enjoying talking about it. I'm going to tour this one for years. No like [in the past] when I was told 'that record is dead'. It's a whole different programme."

You once said rock'n'roll was better when the likes of James Brown put out a record every six months, when it was hungry. What keeps you that way?

"Just waking up with another song and it's a curse and a blessing. You wake up with another song and you know someone is still up there dishing them out. Can you really turn your back on that? Don't you dare. I hope to be doing the same nonsense at 80"

At his current rate, by that age Prince should have released about 60 albums. But that's it. Another handshake, reclaim the decoy walkman which has been held by Mr Tyson wrapped in a serviette in the corridor outside.

Once in the lift it's a quick check that the pocket recorder worked. It has.

That evening the Prince hype machine goes into overdrive and heads up the road. In a theatre in the boho Harajuku area, he holds court for his overseas guests and a few hundred members of the Japanese music media.

Mayte Garcia and Prince on stage together in 1995 (Getty).
Mayte Garcia and Prince on stage together in 1995 (Getty).

With his finger on the play button he introduces more album tracks. The sultry piano ballad Let's have a Baby, he says after buying a crib for the intended arrival, even before Garcia was pregnant. New World is a furious blend of techno and funk. The closing and title track finishes with the spoken: "Free - don't think I ain't."

Then there's questions from the floor, complete with Japanese translator, though sometimes a translator for Prince-ese would be handy too.

Most who put their hands up are long on appreciation for his presence and short on surprises.

He's asked about why he's talking now: "My wife talked me into it. This record means a great deal to me. I thought it would be fun this time -,-- not important but helpful for people to criticise the record knowing what had gone into it. It's not as bad as I thought it would be."

About what we're supposed to call him; "Your friend. My friends don't call me anything because they are always with me. The Artist Formerly Known As Prince has become a running joke in America. I've been called everything in my life. I'll leave it up to you. I've chosen a name which has no pronunciation. If you want my respect, if you go by Prince, it becomes even more confusing."

Well that sure clears that up, doesn't it?

And about his stated intention not to release any-thing in the next three years: "I've been recording for years. It will be fun to learn how to be a human being and this is part of it."

There's applause, an attempt at a standing ovation which fails along Western=Eastern lines, and he's off out the back door.

A few hours later it's at the Hard Rock Cafe, where he sits in the corner alone causing those at the bar to crane their necks for a look. He looks tired. It's been a long day being The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and there will be more like this. Ten minutes later, before anyone's noticed, he's gone.

Footnote: This story was published on November 14, 1996. Emancipation was well received by fans and critics, though the label EMI America folded the following year with the outlay on the Prince project blamed by some as a contributing factor. Sadly, Prince and Mayte Garcia's baby son died a week after his birth due to Pfeiffer syndrome, a rare defect of the skull. The couple divorced in 1999.

- NZ Herald

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