Author Matt Thorne has recently completed a compelling book about Prince which was issued by Faber & Faber late last year. Seven years in the making, the book is a detailed examination of Prince’s music, both released and unreleased and includes interviews with some of the inner sanctum of the classic era, including ex-Revolution members Wendy and Lisa and Tour Manager Alan Leeds. The book is highly recommended, particularly if you have knowledge or deep interest in Prince’s output over the last three decades. We spoke to Matt about his book, and our conversation ranged from why Prince hasn’t released any expanded editions of his albums to how he sees Prince marketing his music in the future. You can read the interview below:
SDE: How would you describe the book, because it’s not necessarily a biography is it?
Matt Thorne: It was the work I wanted to write about, although not to the exclusion of biography. One of the things that I thought about Prince before I started the book – that I discovered to be true in the writing – was that this is a man who lives through his work. There were periods in the book, like in the ‘90s when he was working on Emancipation, when he was literally going into the studio every day for four years, and that was an important part of his life, so it seemed to me that it’s quite a complicated subject to write about, and I’ve never really been satisfied with the other books about him because none of them seemed to combine all the things I wanted to read about.
SDE: You could have done a straight ‘Revolution In The Head’ [Renowned Ian MacDonald publication about The Beatles] with this book, where you just talk about the songs, but you seem to have struck a good balance between his work and his life.
MT: “Revolution In The Head” is an incredible book, but with mine the interviews were as important. I’m not a musicologist, so for me it was important to get as much as I possibly could from the people who’d been on those records.
SDE: Prince is well known for being a very controlling and private individual – how hard was it to get access to the people you talked to, such as Alan Leeds and Wendy and Lisa?
MT: Very hard, that’s partly why the book took seven years to write. Having said that, one of the extraordinary things about Prince is that everyone he’s worked with over the years tend to be enormously diligent, polite and interesting people. So once I’d made clear what the nature of the project was, there was more willingness to talk.
SDE: Having completed the book, what have you learnt about Prince that you didn’t know before?
MT: One of the questions I set out to answer when I started this book, was why did he go off the boil at certain periods. You’ll know yourself through your love of music and the work with your blog that there are periods in people’s careers where they are absolutely incredible, and then suddenly they’re not. And then they might become incredible again at a later period. So the question for me is why? Why does someone’s talent desert them at certain periods. Prince more than anyone else – you could maybe make a similar case for Neil Young or Bob Dylan, but probably more so with Prince. Sign ‘O’ The Times is generally regarded as one of his greatest records, although a lot of people don’t feel quite the same way about Lovesexy, but I do. For me those two albums were the high point, and then afterwards everything seemed to disappear for a while. Looking at it closely, I’d realise that the two, or three, or four songs on the subsequent albums, that I liked, were from much earlier. They’d been recorded in the midst of another series of tracks that I really liked. So it was that jigsaw-puzzle nature of his career, I guess – being able to properly sort out the chronology. But the other thing is probably how much other people added to some of those records. It doesn’t detract from the nature of his genius to acknowledge that other people were involved quite prominently at different times
SDE: One of the things that comes through very strongly with the book, is Prince’s obsession with side projects, working with other artists and having a group of people around him who he’s helping, and who are also helping him. And what’s interesting is that started from the very beginning, not just when he’d ‘made it’ and become rich and powerful. Where did that come from?
MT: It’s absolutely fascinating, and that’s why I devoted such a large section of the book to it. The fact that, as you say, it started from really early on with Sue Ann Carwell and The Rebels – right from the very beginning there was this desire to get as much material out as possible, which I think is one part of it, an answer to his prolific-ness, but there is also the ‘star maker’ impulse which is something a bit more curious, and it’s interesting that this would stay to him to this day. He’s currently out on the road with Andy Allo – it’s just being going on and on and on from day one until now. I’m intrigued and impressed by that, because it’s met a lot of resistance. It’s been a long time since a protégé album has been really celebrated. In some cases such as the Tamar album, they don’t even get officially released, yet a couple of years later he’s doing one with Bria Valente…
SDE: He never seems to be worried about confusing his audience, does he?
MT: No. Absolutely. I don’t know how much he cares about the public perception of these records. Talking to Alan Leeds about some of the protégé records that were happening at Paisley Park at that time, it’s clear he cared passionately about making them a success, like the Carmen Electra record, where a lot of people around him saw that as a throwaway record, but he spent an enormous amount of money, time and creative energy trying to make that a successful album. But then there are other cases, more recently, where it doesn’t seem to be about competition, he doesn’t seem to want to make these protégés stars in the same way – he’s not as interested anymore. It’s more a case of enjoying the process of recording the music.
SDE: A common theme throughout Prince’s career, which you cover in great detail in the book, is all these unreleased songs that end up in ‘the vault’. What I’m sure many of our readers would like to know is why Prince isn’t releasing expanded ‘deluxe’ versions of existing albums and/or releasing this material in box sets. What is stopping that from happening? Is it to do with his relationship with Warner Music, or his perception about what is important?
MT: I tried to get to the bottom of that with the book. The one question I had about that for Alan Leeds was to do with who owns the music that ends up in the vault – it was being recorded while he was working for Warner Bros. I’m sure he feels as if he owns everything in the vault…
SDE: He is in physical possession of his masters, isn’t he, even if Warners consider themselves the owners?
MT: Yes, exactly. But the situation drifts into speculation in some ways around the fact that he now owns some of the early albums. The fact that he’s been waiting for the ruling where the rights to the music reverts to the artist, and I know it’s been written that he’s got the rights to the first three or four albums back now, so maybe he’s waiting until he’s got some of the big ones as well, before he does some elaborate box sets, but my feeling – and I’d be delighted to be wrong – is it that we are not going to get these huge box sets that his music deserves [anytime soon]. Personally, I think that we won’t really understand the full scale of Prince’s talents until there’s a proper Sign ‘O’ The Times box set taking in all the material he was doing at that time, and the equivalent one he was doing with the Revolution, that at one time might have been called Roadhouse Garden. A three-CD set of Revolution material would just be extraordinary.
SDE: The irony is that some artists can struggle to fill bonus discs on deluxe editions, often including scrappy demos etc., but Prince is probably one of the best artists on the planet to properly make use of the expanded format…
MT: Absolutely, and I think he should take as a model someone like Miles Davis. Four or five CD sets to cover certain eras. As you say with some artists they have alternate takes and things that people have lying around – Prince wouldn’t even need to get to alternates – even with just the properly finished [unreleased] songs, there would be enough to do enormous sets. There are very few artists – I mentioned Dylan and Neil Young – who have unreleased songs of incredible quality that are often as good, or better, than the released material. The alternative is that he’s starting to play some of these old songs and put them out as ‘fiddled with’ versions such as Extraloveable, or In A Large Room With No Light. He really does have a ‘painting over old canvases’ approach to his work, but I worry about that. I guess the old versions do circulate, but it would be great to have official versions of them.
SDE: Do you know anything about his relationship with Warners. They brought out that 2CD Ultimate Prince compilation, which had a load of twelve inch remixes on the second disc. One wonders whether Prince had to approve that or whether Warners could just go ahead and release it…
MT: He said he met with Warners either last year, or the year before. Recently his trusted form of disclosure is through this blog called Drfunkenberry.com, and one of the things he wanted people to know was that he’d had a meeting with Warner Bros. He was maybe talking about reissues, or he was trying to put together a deal for a subsequent record (this was around about the time of the 20Ten album). But nothing transpired from that afterwards, so whether that’s a case of something being put in motion for a future anniversary edition… it’s just pure speculation. I don’t really have anything solid on that, and I don’t think anyone does other than Prince and the Warner Bros. personnel that were in the meeting.
SDE: There is a school of thought that Prince was better, when he had the likes of Warner Bros. acting as an editor. Forcing him to limit Sign ‘O’ The Times to a double album for example. When he was free of that restriction, he started making triple albums every five minutes and lost his way a bit. Do you subscribe to this way of thinking?
MT: I think it depends on what kind of listener you are. There’s a difference between the way he was writing when he was with Warners, and he has talked about that himself in interviews. When he was recording for them he’d write a few songs, assemble them, and then towards the end he’s start thinking about the hits, how he’d need a hit on each album. But then when it came to an album like Emancipation, he threw all that out the window and spent days and days recording every song that came into his head. A few fell by the wayside, but the majority of them got released. So it completely depends as a listener whether you want ten or eleven fantastic tracks that have been distilled from years worth of work, or whether you want to hear everything he recorded during that period…
SDE: But the former is what most people want, isn’t it?
MT: Yes, I completely understand that, but for me (laughs), that’s not what I want…
SDE: But there’s no doubt that he lost a lot of mainstream public interest in his work, when that happened.
MT: Absolutely… I suppose I’m rather of the ‘more is more’, mindset. I wouldn’t say that with everybody, obviously, but the reason why I’m happy to sit through his more mediocre stuff is that there’s always something interesting in the sound, or in the relationships between the songs, and it becomes more intriguing the more that’s available. I suppose what I would say is that the best situation is when he’s still focussing and editing the records down, but then he’s putting extra tracks on his website. So you have the ability to have the album, like for example Musicology (which is not one of my particular favourites, it’s a fairly conventional album – but it was popular and people liked it), but at the same time he’s putting out more intriguing songs on his website, so you’ve got both impulses at once. I suppose that’s one of the things that makes Prince unique and interesting – he’s perfectly capable of being one of the most popular artists of all time and recording albums that millions, that people want to buy, and he’s equally capable of recording bizarre, strange music that only appeals to tens of thousands, but I like both sides of that.
SDE: In recent years, Prince has come back to putting out 10 track-type albums. As you say, Musicology, and 3121 in particular, which I really liked and considered close to a ‘classic’ Prince album. I remember thinking that hopefully this is the start of a new era, but it all got dissipated a little bit with the way he started delivering his music, with the next album (Planet Earth) being given away free with the Daily Mail (in the UK)…
MT: Yes, in the book I make a case for two of the later albums, one is The Rainbow Children, which is him really deciding to do something different, much more jazz-based, and 3121 which I really liked, but thought that was very much an album where he’s trying to compete with the charts again. Him listening to everything and saying, right I’m really going to make an effort here, to do a very commercial, but at the same time, interesting, album. And that really revived his live show at the time. Almost all of those songs on that album when into his live performance, and they were often the best songs, which isn’t normally the case with some of the later albums. But then you’ve got after that Planet Earth, which as you say was the Mail-on-Sunday, LotusFlow3r and MPLSound which were barely released in this country and sold in Target superstores in America, which I thought at the time were going to be fantastic but turned out to be disappointing, and 20Ten, which I don’t hate as much as some people, but I wouldn’t make any claim for its greatness!
SDE: There is something about the free newspaper covermount CDs that discourages you from making an effort to get into them. When you walk into a shop and pay money for a release, with decent packaging – you invest a little bit more into it, don’t you?
MT: I completely agree, but also I’d add to that it’s the marketing machinery around some of those albums that makes you care about the music. For me with 3121, it was the last time I had something close to a conventional experience with a Prince album, in that I bought the album, quite liked it, started hearing the songs live, seeing the videos, having a bit of the sense of it having a cultural impact, and that keeps you going back to listen to it. Take something like Graffitti Bridge, which was a big disappointment for me at the time. I kept going back and playing it because it became part of the culture and stayed in your mind, whereas an album like 20Ten, it just disappears. It’s given away free with a newspaper, you get it and you might play it for a while, but there’s nothing to send you back to it. There’s no remixes, videos, he’s not playing the songs live – he did a few, but it wasn’t like he made a whole show of it.
SDE: Do you think the concept of ‘the album’ means as much to Prince as going on the road? He could sit at home and put his feet up, if he wished, but playing live is clearly still very important to him?
MT: I do think he’s perfectly capable of having a comeback album, that could happen any day and I wouldn’t be at all surprised. But, looking at the situation as it is, it does seem to be that live performance is the most important thing to him. If you look at something like 20Ten, the artwork is terrible, and it’s a [cheap] cardboard sleeve.
SDE: How do you see the future then, with Prince? He’s in a tricky position in some ways, because his relationship with Warner Bros. doesn’t appear to be that great, the record industry in general is in a difficult way, he’s turned his back on the internet, and the idea of delivering music free via newspapers didn’t really work and doesn’t ever appear to be an option any more, anyway. So how do you see him putting out his new music in the next decade?
MT: I don’t really know, although I‘m happy to speculate! One of the things that’s important to separate out with Prince is that when he did all those [newspaper] deals he was getting a lot of money. He had gone the independent route before on a record like The Rainbow Children, with small distribution, but the thing about the newspaper deals is that he was getting his music out to a lot of people. He is a shrewd businessman, and I think he’ll be looking for something that makes sense for him. It seems at the moment, from interviews I’ve read recently that he thinks the albums market is over and it’s a singles market. Ultimately he’s probably not thinking of you and I, people who want elaborate box sets, he’s thinking about the kids. He’s said in interviews that he’s upset about the quality of MP3s, but that he realises that he has to release his music in that format. The next thing he’s releasing is a physical release called Rock & Roll Love Affair with a Swiss label called Purple Music. So maybe he’s testing the waters for another physical release, maybe an album will follow.
SDE: Not only does Prince not reissue his old studio material, but he has only ever released a few live sets. Given the amount of touring he does, why do you think that is?
MT: He used to feel that by releasing live material he would set a song in stone, in terms of the live version of it. There is a sense that he likes fluidity in his life, he likes constantly to be able to reinvent himself and do different things to the songs. But I would love to see a live series. It’s claimed that he’s recorded everything, but he probably listens to it and hears the flaws. The people who do that really well, someone like The Grateful Dead, normally bring in someone from outside or someone who’s not in the band to listen to the material and decide to release it or not. Prince would probably never do that, because he’s so private, but that’s what he needs, someone to work through all the concert tapes.
SDE: Prince’s views on the internet seem contradictory in many ways. He’s hot on getting material removed from YouTube that breaches his copyright, but he doesn’t seem to want to offer fans the same material officially – for instance by releasing a career-spanning video anthology on DVD.
MT: I think he just thinks of it really long term. Bowie has some similarities, because he’s constantly suggesting stuff is going to come out, but it rarely does, or if it does, it’s not what everybody hoped for. But then he would use the archive stuff to negotiate the next deal. It’s interesting looking at these guys, because you have the ones who think this is the last chance for us to make any money out of this, so we have to go all out and do the really expensive box set and put out everything that everybody wants, and then you get the ones who say let’s just sit this out, and Prince is one of those.
Matt Thorne was talking to Paul Sinclair for SuperDeluxeEdition. His book ‘Prince’ published by Faber and Faber can be purchased using the links below.