To a Caribbean island, and a secret Bond villain lair, MOJO was lured by the promise of a resurgent Prince: musical magician, boss from hell, and now, smoking lead guitarist in the best all-girl rock band on the planet. In this extract from MOJO’s exclusive 2014 cover feature, a captive Will Hodgkinson meets Prince for the first time and discovers, amongst other things, an unlikely Cocteau Twins fan...
AT MIDNIGHT, A CAR ARRIVES TO take us back to the pavilion. The inner circle is there: expectant, cheerful, excited. Prince walks in. Everyone stands up. With a petite, hypnotically beautiful Latino woman by his side, Prince is dressed like a maharaja on a spiritual quest: white turban, white kaftan, white flared trousers, white boots. But what's really striking - more than his huge eyes and caramel skin, still unlined at 55, or taller than expected stature - is his feline stillness. He's standing motionless at the far end of the room, and then he's standing motionless next to you, and you're not quite sure how he got from one place to another. He makes eye contact and shakes hands.
“Heard you had a nice talk with the girls," he says in a quiet but commanding baritone, implying that a vetting process has been met with approval.
He announces that he's going to play us PLECTRUM ELECTRUM, his album with 3RDEYEGIRL, in its entirety, and that it will be the first time anyone outside of the band has heard it. First up is a blistering, Led Zeppelin-like instrumental called WOW. Adapted from The Unexpected, a song Prince wrote for the New Power Generation backing singer Liv Warfield, it must be the heaviest thing he has ever recorded.
“The girls said they'd kill me if I didn't give it to them," says Prince, flashing eyes inviting us to share his brand of sly humour. We all start laughing.
"That's not a joke," he says, smile gone. We all stop laughing. For a moment, I half expect the floor to open and drop us into a piranha-filled aquarium. And things don't improve with a question about his goals for the band and the album.
"Goals? You mean like mountains to climb? Seriously?"
He smiles again. In the ominous stillness, there is the faintest sound of piranhas snapping their jaws.
The next song Prince plays is an elegant ballad called WHITECAPS, which has a mysterious, transcendental quality reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash's Wooden Ships. Slightly haunted by the piranhas, I tell him it's beautiful and ask if he could reveal the song's inspiration.
"No, but thank you very much. I go backto that song more than any other on the record. It's like listening to a painting."
The rest of the album rattles by, stopping off at sweet, girl-group-style pop, pure bass-driven funk, heartfelt balladry and plenty of soulful, Hendrix-like guitar squealing. It's considered and cohesive, with a joyful spirit running through every song- that funky freak quality that made the world fall for Prince in the first place. But if it feels gloriously live it's because that's exactly how 3RDEYEGIRL came together.
"Usually at the end of New Power Generation rehearsals, no matter how long, Ida and I would stay after and just jam," says Prince, on his feet now, hands together. "Ida is one of the few musicians I have met who has the same stamina as I do. Play her at ping-pong if there’s doubt. I had been thinking about who would be the perfect match for her… Someone with chops but still funky and consistent. Enter Hannah Ford.”
His description of the Paisley Park entrance exam paints a picture of Prince as a benevolent despot, giving generously to those who match up to his work ethic and casting out those who don’t.
"For many days and test after test, I watched Hannah to see how she took direction,” he explains. "Because she has a good father she was brought up to respect authority. She listens first comprehends, and then executes. If she’s unsure of something, she doesn’t play it.”
Ford’s take on her initiations sounds slightly less forbidding, "The first thing he said to me was: Thanks for coming, Do vou like ping-pong?
To get into this world you’ve got to be good. We ain’t no punks.
PRINCE HAS HIGH STANDARDS. HIS ONE-TIME drummer ‘Bobby Z’ Rivkin recalls early auditions for the legendary Purple Rain-era group, The Revolution, in which a keyboardist was dismissed after looking at his watch, while a would-be guitarist blew it by mentioning drugs. It's no different for Nielsen, Ford and Grantis. "I am a giver by nature. I like people," claims Prince. “But I test people in many ways so that the time we share is quality time.”
What qualities do his current musicians posses that got them the gig?
“Stamina, musical and spiritual consisteny... And to be quite honest, they're easy to shop for. To get in this world" -and he waves an arm at the discreetly glamorous world of pavilions, golf buggies and shimmering, palm tree-fringed pools that we're in - "you've got to be good. We ain't no punks. These girls have got to put up with me 24/7, which is not an easy job. At the Academy of Paisley Park you learn everything in a week, or else. My old bass player, who shall remain nameless, didn't know as many songs as Ida. She had to learn 150 to get the gig and she did it. So I sacked my old bass player."
The classically-trained Grantis, quietest of the 3RDEYEGIRS, left Toronto to spend a year of 12-hour rehearsal sessions chez Prince. “At Paisley Park it's a parallel universe where time stops existing," she notes. "You lose yourself entirely in the music because Prince can play anything: jazz, funk, rock, whatever.”
“When I first saw a clip of Donna," says Prince, “what struck me was her hair. I figured that anyone who ain't afraid to walk into the supermarket with that haircut ain't gonna be afraid of me.”
Ever since 1979, when Gayle Chapman played keyboards in her lingerie for The Revolution, Prince has surrounded himself with female players. Some of them, like drummer Sheila E or Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, became stars in their own right, not always to their employer's unalloyed delight. Then there were the female protégées - Vanity 6 and Sheena Easton among many in the ‘80s; America's Janelle Monáe and England's Lianne La Havas in recent times- while the lyrics to PLECTRUM ELECTRUM's FIXURLIFEUP an anthem ofempowerment with a Sign '0' The Times-like lyrical undertow of apocalyptic morality, has it that “a girl with a guitar is 12 times better than another band of crazy boys". Prince confirms it wasn't just her fretboard skills that got Grantis the job.
"She can play better than anyone and she can look better while doing it," he says. "I’ve had enough of guys standing with their boots stuck to the stage. You go and see Donna and she’ll be lying over he amplifier, playing the best solo you've ever heard. The feminine energy on the planet is very strong now, after being suppressed for so long."
PRINCE'S WAY OF COMBINING PATRICIAN command with camp humour, 24-hour flamboyance and, prior to his spiritual awakening inthe mid-'90s and conversion (he calls it a "realisation") to the Jehovah's Witnesses in 2001, insatiable sexuality is consistent with an artist who has never been defined by the usual identity markers of race, gender or class. When Lenny Waronker signed him to Warners in 1977, Prince told his new label boss: "don't make me black". "He named an array [of influences] that was so deep in terms of scope of music that for an 18-year-old kid to say what he said was amazing," said Waronker. “That, as much as anything, made me think we shouldn't mess around with this guy."
You can’t understand the words of Cocteau Twins songs but their harmonies put you in a dreamlike state.
He can still surprise us, too. After playing a gentle ballad with hazy layers of overlapping sounds, Prince reveals that it was inspired by, of all people, the Cocteau Twins, “We recorded it in Bryan Ferry's studio in London, after a night of partying for which the Cocteau Twins was the soundtrack," he says. “You can't understand the words of Cocteau Twins songs but their harmonies put you in a dreamlike state."
Prince likes the Cocteau Twins? Add another to his broad but mostly constant pantheon of inspirations: Sly And The Family Stone, Joni Mitchell, Santana, Miles Davis and James Brown. Mention of Funkadelic meets with approval (“Funkadelic? Oh, you can stay"), but a Led Zeppelin comparison is met with a caveat.
“Jimmy Page is cool," he accepts, sitting on the back of a sofa and cracking a sideways smile, “but he couldn't keep a sequence without John Bonham behind him. He went from one to four without stopping at two and three." He nods at Donna Grantis. “I want her to be her own favourite guitar player. I want everyone at Paisley Park to be their own favourite guitarist, saxophonist, whatever. I don't want people to play like nobody else."
Completed after the release of Sign 'O' The Times, Paisley Park has allowed Prince to live in a bubble of music, work and ping-pong since 1987. Occupying the suburbs of the Minnesota town of Chanhassen 30 minutes to the south-west of Minneapolis, and built at cost of around $10 million, it has a 1,800-capacity sound stage, four studios and a secured room known to Prince fans as The Vault: the place where he stores his swathes of recordings, most of which may never be heard.
The recording engineer Chuck Zwicky recalls a Paisley Park session for 1988's Lovesexy that lasted for 40 hours without a break, while lda Nielsen confirms they once jammed on a 26-hour session. In 1998 Prince told Guitar magazine: "People call me a workaholic, but I've always considered that a compliment. John Coltrane played the saxophone 12 hours a day. That's not a maniac; that's a dedicated musician whose spirit drives his body to work so hard."
True, although Coltrane never reacted as Prince did while on tour in 1987, upon discovering there was no way of getting a baby grand piano up the stairs of London's Chelsea Harbour Hotel for him to practise on. He hired a crane and they brought it in through the window.
Paisley Park also allowed Prince to stay in Minneapolis. Eary collaborators like bassist André Cymone, whose mother Bernadette's leaky basement the teenage Prince lived in for a while, and Sue Ann Carwell, one of his first protégées, were part of a late-70s scene that, helped along by the multi-racial radio station KQRS, fused funk's groove with rock's power, paving the way for the synth-led 1999 to bring the Minneapolis Sound to a wider audience.
After Purple Rain became a multi-million seler Prince could have lived anywhere, but it's significant that he's maintained a base and never cut himself off from the city's music scene. The New Power Generation's drummer Michael Bland got the gig after Prince spotted him playing his regular slot at downtown club, Bunkers, and in 2010 a bowler-hatted Prince popped up in the wings of a concert by Ryan Olson's Minnesota indie-soul group Gayngs, holding a guitar but stopping short of jumping on stage and joining the band. Wet and frosty Minneapolis, a blue-collar city where there isn't much to do but get on with it, is where Prince has carved himself a state of independence.
"Can we lose this word: 'independent'?" asks Prince. "Musicians throughout history have taken care of one another. Major record labels, publishers and digital download corporations should be the ones called 'independent'. Try auditing one of them and you will fing out why. I don't know about yours but my bills come in weekly so I need my cheques to do the same. It’s cold in Minneapolis. Haven’t you heard?"