BrownMark: Purple Pain

November 29, 2017

Perhaps it makes sense that some prince fans decided to skip the Revolution’s recent tour. The band hasn’t had a hit since the 1980s, when 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984), Around the World in a Day (1985), and Parade (1986) ruled the airwaves. Although the catalog has aged well—the remastered Purple Rain deluxe reissue, in particular, is fantastic—the individual members have mostly gone their separate ways. Besides, no matter how badass the Revolution may be, there will always be something missing: Prince, who died in April 2016.

Ironically, it’s the absence of their leader that makes today’s Revolution concerts singular experiences. Guitarist Wendy Melvoin, Dr. Fink and Lisa Coleman on keys, drummer Bobby Z., and BrownMark on bass soulfully and expertly dig into Prince & the Revolution hits as only they can, while various singers (including, most consistently and impressively, Mint Condition’s Stokely Williams) deliver Prince’s parts, with varying degrees of success. Just as he was back in the day, musical director BrownMark is a thumpin’, dancin’, and singin’ bass machine, the band member most likely to connect to the audience. But the Revolution has wisely chosen to give the frontman spot to the only entity that could possibly fill Prince’s shoes: the audience.

At a sold-out, two-night Revolution stand at the Fillmore in San Francisco, every song was a emotional sing-along, and the room was united in an intense outpouring of love—and an acceptance of the twin truths that Prince would always be there and that he really was gone forever. It was an unusually poignant experience, perhaps akin to what Bob Marley fans felt seeing the Wailers just after his death in 1981. The strange thing is that this reunion almost didn’t happen.

How long has the Revolution been thinking about getting back on the road?

For about four years. Scheduling has been crazy. Prince did not want us to play; he kept saying it wasn’t time. He had some other things he wanted to do first. In the wake of his passing, we’re moving forward. We’re the closest thing the fans have to say their goodbyes.

The band had a unique relationship with Prince.

We weren’t afraid of him, and he liked that. The Revolution weren’t the greatest musicians Prince worked with, but no one else stood up to him as a group, as an entity, like we did. If we didn’t like a song, we’d tell him. That’s just how we were. He’d say, “Hey, let’s try this,” we’d jam on something for ten hours, and he’d be like, “This is hot!” We’d work on it together, collectively. What you hear on those albums is a combination of six personalities.

You joined Prince’s band in 1981. Was it an instant fit?

He molded me; he did a lot of changing. At rehearsals, he would drive me really hard. My fear that I wasn’t gonna make the cut drove me to a whole different level of playing. As time went on, he saw a huge change, and his confidence in me was secured.

How did Bobby Z influence your approach?

Prince would keep Bobby pretty steady, so I would always fill in all the gaps with percussive slapping, and it kind of developed into a style.

Your aggressive, funky bass style isn’t as popular as it once was.

People are so hung up on scales, running chromatic arpeggios, and whatever … today, you have more guitar players that play bass than bass players that play bass. Where I come from—Larry Graham, Louis Johnson—we pick that thing up and slap the hell out of it. I would break an E string; that’s how hard I play.

You’re always moving onstage.

A lot of my style comes from the ability to feel the music and dance onstage. I was a dancer, and I choreographed the Revolution from 1999 on. Another thing you don’t see bass players doing anymore is really owning the stage. Get up there and dance! Move that body. It’ll change the way you play.

You played an Alembic in the Revolution, right?

I started with the “zebra bass,” an early ’80s, passive Fender Jazz. After 1999, I went to the “flower bass,” a custom Alembic Spoiler. Prince liked that bright, clean sound, but I hated it. I don’t like people to understand what I’m playing. Prince insisted on it because for big arenas, the Alembics cut through, especially with my Crown PA rig and paisley Ampeg cabs loaded with 15s.

What are you playing these days?

It’s a passive Fender Jazz, and I run it through an Aguilar Tone Hammer preamp on the floor, going to a Gallien-Krueger 1001RB head. I usually have two RBH 4x10 cabs with an 18" sub for that rumble. It’s overkill for most stages [laughs]. The GK’s DIs are great, so the soundman takes it right out of the amp—no EQ, no compression. For that rumble, I play with heavy-gauge cobalt flats, which I change for every show. I use a heavy B string as my E, and my G string is a medium-light roundwound.

Is it true that you’re writing a book about your time with Prince?

It’s about my whole life, not just my time with Prince. It’s done, but I have no interest in putting it out right now; there are too many books out there. But I am a success story for all young musicians who want to make it. I was one of those guys who never thought I’d get to where I was. Hard work and dedication—you’d be surprised at where they’ll take you.

Any plans for new material from the Revolution?

Right now, it’s not important for us to put out new stuff. Our mission is a healing mission, a celebration of the life and music of Prince & the Revolution. Once this is done, maybe we’ll head into the studio.

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