"It doesn't sound professional, it just sounds like Prince." Steven Wilson
When you throw Steven Wilson's name in a conversation, the person you're talking to probably has in mind a long-haired music nerd that crushed Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth) at a prog rock quiz . That's indeed one facet of the English multi-tasker, but Wilson is also a pop connoisseur. And when we asked him if he would be willing to do a record selection for us, he instantly answered : Prince ! So here we are, with Steven Wilson, reviewing the best (and worst) of his lengthy and diverse career.
Metalorgie : Alright, you're here to do a selection of Prince records. Are you familiar with all his discography ?
Steven Wilson : To be honest, I'm very familiar with everything until the nineties, probably.
His classic period !
SW : Yeah, and then my knowledge gets a bit more patchy.
Which album would you recommend to discover Prince, with the « being a rock/metal fan » criteria maybe : Purple Rain (1984)
SW : Then it's an easy choice. Purple Rain is definitely the album where he crossed over to a rock audience. What's interesting with Prince is the fact that he obviously grew up listening to a lot of funk, soul and black music. But growing up in Minneapolis, he was also exposed to rock music, stuff like Santana and Hendrix. And you can hear all of that, best of all in Purple Rain. Obviously, it's got so many classic songs on it that people will probably know anyway. But it's the album where the rock aesthetic and the funk aesthetic are the most perfectly balanced. And also the pop sensibility too, the pop songs. It's not my favourite, but even for me, it was the doorway through which I walked. And also the film, I mean, it's kind of a guilty pleasure because it's quite cheesy but I love it. His performances in the film are just sublime. I mean, you talk about pop stars... This is a real pop star, this is not a pretend pop star. He so effortlessly exudes charisma, can dance, knows how to dress, how to perform, knows how to engage the audience. You see all that in the performance sequences of the movie. He's also an incredible guitar player, which you hear on that record.
Joke aside, do you think you could picture yourself playing in a movie based on one of your albums ?
SW : Well, I don't think I could do a movie where I place myself so centrally within it. Firstly, if you're going to do a movie like that, you need to have a massive ego. And you know what, that's not necessarily a negative thing. Part of what makes pop stars what they are is they have massive egos. Mick Jagger, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Morrissey or Michael Jackson. One thing they all have in common is a enormous ego. They all truly believe that they are geniuses but that it's perfectly natural for them to be standing in a room with 20 000 people all looking only at them. They actually believe that's normal. I could never ever believe that as normal. I cannot divorce myself from reality enough to believe and be comfortable with that. When you see me in the Home Invasion film for example : I'm enjoying being the center of attention but I'm never for one minute not aware of the absurdity of it as well. Because I'm not a pop star, I'm just a guy that makes music and loves it. But when you see Prince, it's a real pop star, with the ego, the narcissism, with the belief in his own charisma. But there's a real magic to that and that's why those people are icons at the end of the day. It's like the movie star thing, where you've almost transcended being a part of the human species. You've become a demigod. And that's actually what I miss about pop stars these days. They don't really have those people. A few of them still exist like Kanye West, Beyoncé... But in the rock world, we don't really have that anymore. Rock musicians have become much like one of us now. I miss that magical thing like... Ozzy Osbourne used to be a rock god and now... He's just a bit of a fool you know, that falls off his chair and can't operate his TV remote control.
I think he acted that part.
SW : Well, whatever !
What is your favourite Prince album : Parade (1986), Dirty Mind (1980)
SW : It's really hard to choose, I have three albums in mind. I think I'm gonna go with Parade, and then Dirty Mind just behind.
SW : Dirty Mind was kind of his breakthrough album, it's one of the funkiest records I've ever heard in my life, it's also one of the sexiest and quite controversial. There's a song on there about incest called "Sister", one called "Head" which is about this woman on her way to get married and she ends up giving him a blow job. It's so crass ! But you know what, it's so sexy and so vital as well. And the thing about the album : he plays everything on it and it sounds like a demo. There's something about it that is very raw and immediate. It's thirty minutes long and so funky !
SW : Which leads us to my favourite album Parade. Mainly because of the production, as I primarily think of myself as someone who would be interested in the sonic aspect of a record. Parade has an extraordinary sound, very dry, very upfront. "Kiss" is a great example because, famously and a bit like "When Doves Cry", is a massive pop anthem without any bass in it ! And I can't think of any other record like that, a dance record without bass !
How's that possible ?
SW : It's possible because he did it. Let's just say it's almost unheard of. And there's clearly something about the way he is musical that is far removed from the prescribed way you're supposed to make records. When I heard "Kiss" for the first time I was like, "what the fuck" ! The production's just off the map and I love that about him. That sense of boldness in the way he uses the musical vocabulary. And to me, actually, the problem with his later career is his music started sounding a bit more generic. So I lost interest in it slightly because of that. Through a lot of the 80's, he was using electronic drums, programming everything himself and he had a very peculiar taste in drum sound and how he programmed. Later on in the 90's he got a real band and he started sounding a little bit more generic. Still some amazing records, "Sexy Motherfucker" (Love Symbol), "Get Off" (Diamonds and Pearls), but they sounded a little bit more like everyone else's records. And there was a time in the 80's when Prince records sounded like no one else. "If I was your Girlfriend" on Sign o' the Times, which would have been my third choice, for example. The way he's recording his voice at various speeds, so it sounds like a girl singing. There's certain things about his approach to production that was completely eye opening to me, and a lot of people.
Which album would you consider as his most underrated : Around The World in a Day (1985)
SW : The follow up to Purple Rain, which is also an amazing record and considered as a bit of a commercial failure at the time. Purple Rain had made ten million and Around The World in a Day did three million. I'm sure we'd all love to have a commercial failure like this but relatively speaking, it was considered a commercial failure. Another thing about his 80's career trajectory that I love is every record is like a reinvention. Purple Rain is like the stadium arena funk rock, Around The World in a Day is like a psychedelic dance record, even the cover is very psychedelic. Songs like "Raspberry Beret", "Paisley Park" are this kind of idea of reclaiming the late sixties psychedelia in a kinda funk/pop context. And then Parade is this very stripped down electronic funk record, just like Dirty Mind is this kinda low-fi funk record. Also, anybody will tell you that if you want to be a commercial force, the worst thing you could do is change, as you confuse your fan base. Bowie had that as well. People tend to forget that Low and Heroes were considered flops when they were released. Because they came off the back of albums like Young Americans and Diamond Dogs coming after Ziggy Stardust. They were considered failures because they didn't match the commercial heights of Ziggy or Young Americans. But at the same time, 30,40 years later, we now see them as artistic pinnacles. And I think it's the same with Prince. If you change, everybody is confused : your fans and your record label. But those are the artists that stood the test of time. Neil Young : you never know if he's gonna do a country album or a grunge album or a folk album or an electronic one ! I love that in all those artists. In my own way, I wanted to be that kind of musician, that confronts the expectations of their audience. But it's the hardest thing to pull off. It's almost as if you have to have a 10 million selling record so you can afford to have one that only sells two million. Every time you make a new album, you're risking everything. He's the epitome of that, yeah.
Any live albums ? It's weird, because all Prince's live albums are quite recent. (One Nite Alone, 2002)
SW : Well, half of Purple Rain is live but it's processed and considered as a studio album. I have heard one or two of the live albums but I have a slight problem with them. He did have a tendency to go a bit cabaret. Now, I say this advisedly because he's clearly one of the greatest, if not the greatest live performer ever. But, hearing some of the live records back, there's a little bit of cheese and I don't appreciate that so much. For example, on the One Nite Alone live LP, he does a version of "Nothing Compares to You" which is an amazing song. And what's so beautiful about the original version and also the cover that Sinead O'Connor did is the understatement, the feeling that this is a song by someone who is completely alone. And the version he does on there is a bit cabaret, do you know what I mean ? It's very interesting to me : do you not understand what makes your own song work so well for people ?
I think they don't know... And you don't know as well !
SW : You're probably right ! I don't know too. He also did a version of "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker", possibly my favourite Prince song of all, which is on Sign o' The Times. And again, there's this really bizarre production, just him, this primitive drum machine, it's very stripped down. He played that one on David Letterman or Oprah Winfrey and turned it into this sort of jazz fusion. And I'm like "this is so wrong!", it just doesn't work ! So, even if he is an incredible performer on stage, I'm not a fan of his live albums, if that doesn't sound like a contradiction.
An album to deepen your knowledge of Prince : Sign o' The Times (1987)
SW : So this album is what the English describe as "sprawling". It means it covers many different approaches, it lets itself spread out over all these different genres. It's brilliant from beginning to end but it's a tough one I think, because you can't relax and say "oh it's that kind of record" as the next track will completely confound your expectations again. You have a gospel song, a hip hop song, a psychedelic pop anthem, the title track is very politically aware and stripped down. And it's constantly changing and quite long, 80 minutes. So it's a hard one, but it's considered as Prince's connoisseurs' choice. It's his masterpiece in that respect.
A good recent Prince album : HITnRUN Phase Two (2015)
SW : I think the last album that came out in his lifetime is really good. Would I say it matches up his great 80's work ? No. But on anyone else's term, it's still a brilliant inventive pop record. I've heard most of the records from the last ten years of his career cause I got back into Prince. I enjoyed them all but I couldn't honestly say I felt any of them could top his eighties discography, except maybe HITnRun Phase Two, it's approaching that yeah.
One album that sucks : Emancipation (1996)
SW : Well, there's his Jehovah's Witness period. At that time, he became very religious, starting with Emancipation, which again is a triple CD. It's about three hours of music and honestly, I'm not a fan. I really tried. I mean, since he became religious, a lot of the "sexyness" of the music, the slight erotic undercurrent was gone.
SW : Yeah exactly : shit ! And also, I think he became quite conscious that he wanted to appeal more to a black audience. So a lot of the rock influences disappeared as well, which is his choice and I have absolutely no problem with that. But to me personally, I missed that rock sensibility. So what I call the Jehovah's Witness years starts from Emancipation until you get to Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, where he's collaborating with various Rn'B artists and it doesn't appeal to me at all. But the biggest disappointment I ever had with Prince was Emancipation, because it was a three CD set and I thought : « Wow, he's gonna stretch out and do all sorts of things ! ». I think there's like 36 songs on it and I sat there waiting for one song that would appeal to me. I remember being crushed with disappointment. But you know what, I should go back and listen to it again, and I might like it ! [smile]
A Prince song that means something special to you : The Ballad of Dorothy Parker (1987)
SW : I think I already mentioned it but it's « The Ballad of Dorothy Parker » on Sign o' The Times. It's such a beautiful song. And it's a story song as well, it tells a story in a very conversational way. And I heard a story about that song. He was having his big complex Paisley Park built at the time and the studios were still under construction. He had this idea for this song and went into the studio to record it. The engineer said the studio wasn't finished, so all this stuff wasn't working and that meant he couldn't record. And he used the fact that the mixing desk wasn't working properly and was having this strange effect on the sound, that was coming out wrong. He made that part of the fabric of the music. So if you listen to that particular track, everything sounds very dark. The drum machine sounds like it's under a carpet. But it gives the song this really interesting sonic signature, which I love. And I also love the idea of an artist that is so inspired that he can't wait to record something. And it's got that peculiar low-fi sound. That's what I love about his 80's stuff, there's always this low-fi thing going on, almost like a DIY vibe. It doesn't sound professional, it just sounds like Prince.
It's really interesting that you like this low-fi production, since you also built a name of yourself as a studio professional, a perfectionist of studio sound.
SW : I know, that's a contradiction right there. One of the other kinds of music that I grew up loving was industrial music. When I was a kid, I was into Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Cabaret Voltaire...
SW : Yeah ! Actually, I was listening to Swans this morning, Holy Money, which is incredibly low-fi. It's a very eighties production. I love that kind of music and it's actually there in my own work, if you choose to see it, you will find it there ! There's the beginning of Hand. Cannot. Erase. for example : the piano part of the intro is deliberately made to sound like it was being played on a cassette player that's chewing the tape. And some people complained, they said their CD was faulty ! And I love that, the idea that some people came back to the store and said it's faulty, because you made something sound distressed, low-fi and a bit wobbly. It doesn't come out that much in my music but the influence is there. On Insurgentes, my first solo album, I used a lot of pianoise which comes from listening to Japanese noise music like Merzbow, Masonna and stuff like that. So even though I like my records to sound very good and cinematic, they also have elements of the aesthetics of noise and low-fi music.