Prince Bassist BrownMark Discusses ‘Purple Rain’ And Friendship With The Icon
Just in time for the iconic album's anniverary and reissue, which features previously unreleased tracks.
The realization that a legend like Prince is no longer here on Earth continues to shake fans and music lovers to the core. However, his band The Revolution, who are most noted for their instrumental prowess on his iconic album Purple Rain, continues to make his light shine.
The group, composed of Guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardist-pianist Lisa Coleman, bassist BrownMark, drummer Bobby Z. and keyboardist “Doctor” Matt Fink, have been bringing the iconic tunes of Prince on the road during their U.S. memorial tour, which concludes Aug. 12 at Wolf Den at Mohegan Sun Resort in Uncasville, CT. As explained in a chat on Sirius XM Live in early-May, the tour is a cathartic way of remembering their fallen friend while providing support for their grieving fans.
BrownMark, who initially met The Purple One as a young boy while working in a pancake house, began playing music for him in 1981 during the Controversy album recordings. From then on, the duo had an amazing professional relationship and friendship that lasted until Prince’s 2016 passing, but will forever live on.
For the 33rd anniversary of the iconic album (June 25), BrownMark talked to VIBE about Prince’s incredible work ethic, the makings of the Purple Rain album and movie, and their ever-lasting friendship.
VIBE: What are some of your earliest memories working with Prince?
BrownMark: Well, I could go all the way back to the Pancake House! [Laughs] I was a cook, and I met him for the first time. But some of my earliest memories with him as far as being in the band… it wasn't all work, it was work and play. He was a very fun guy. You know, the basketball stories are true. We played a lot of basketball, a lot of ping pong, a lot of softball. He loved roller skating, he'd always take me roller skating around Lake Calhoun in Minnesota. He was a bike rider, so there was a real normal side that not a lot of people realize. They just look at him as this superstar. They don't realize he's human under all of that.
What was your initial reaction when you saw how he was as a worker, and how he was when he was coming up with all of his music?
I was a very similar character. When I finally met somebody who was kind of like me as far as work ethic and drive, it was like ‘oh my God, I finally met the person I need to follow!’ He was way ahead of the curve, because he had been doing it a lot longer. For me, it was about, 'what can I learn from this guy? I'm gonna absorb everything that I can out of his brain and from his talent.'
I was also in the studio when he met me trying to develop my writing skills. Here's a guy that was playing all the instruments like I was trying to do, here's a guy who's a one-man band; can sing, play, do it all. Me, I still had to work on singing, I didn't know how to sing back then, and a couple of other things. He was a real mentor for me, and I soaked it up like a sponge. I loved his work ethic. Even though it was tedious and long hours to make perfection, it really taught me how to build a fine machine, like an automobile, plane, whatever you're building. You have to have a foundation, an architectural plan. You have to structure it, and a lot goes into that. Finance, a business. There's so much more that goes into it than what you hear as an end result. He taught me all of that, he taught me about the business of music.
He was fortunate enough to where he didn't have to go through the trials and errors that I went through. I made a lot of mistakes, where he had really food people working behind him. That part he didn't teach me, I didn't understand how Steve Fargnoli [Prince’s former manager] and Bob Cavallo [former manager and Purple Rain film producer] and Joe Ruffalo [former manager] were such an influence on him. They were a great influence for him on the business side. That's a side of it that he didn't show us, and I wasn't able to learn that from him. I had to learn that from basically falling on my face a couple of times. His work ethic was incredible.
I believe it. I always see things about how he would make music. He would stay there for a couple of hours, just focused.
Couple days! [Laughs] I wonder if that guy slept. I'm serious. When I first met him, he put me in front of a mirror for eight hours. I'm serious, a mirror! I was like, 'okay, what am I supposed to do?' He said, 'look at yourself.' He put on music, and he wanted me to practice poses, how I walked, how I stood, how I looked at myself. I was like 'who does this?' That's how different he was.
Did he tell you all about the concept for Purple Rain initially, or he was more like, "here you go"?
Oh, no no no. Purple Rain evolved. I think by the time I came in, 1981, he had already had a life planned. I think Prince had his success already mapped out to reach his goal. So, when I came in on the Controversy Tour, the album was finished already. He was like, ‘here, learn this album.’ By 1999, it was four o'clock in the morning calls like, ‘Mark, I need you to come to the studio.’ He started involving us a lot more in the process. I think what he was doing was developing characters for a super band.
That's why he hand-picked each one of us. He had this plan, almost like a funkier, Fleetwood Mac version of Sly and the Family Stone, with Prince as the lead vocals. I think that was his plan and that's what he was building. By 1999, we were already writing Purple Rain material as a group.
Dez [Dickerson, former guitarist for The Revolution] had his own path that he wanted to take, and it enhanced even more when Wendy [Melvoin] came in, because Wendy and Lisa [Coleman] already have a unique style together. The way they hear chords is very...I don't even have a word for it, but I'd call it “the butterfly effect.” I mean, they just create these chords that put so much color on any some that your bring to 'em. Prince saw that immediately and started to use them more as writers in helping develop this sound.
Me, on the bottom end, he finally met a bass player who could deliver that kind of vibe he had always wanted. A kind of "ghost-bass playing" as QuestLove would put it, “ghost-notes." [Laughs] I play with a lot of ghost-notes, and what that means is that I'm not really playing a pattern, it's more of a feel. That's what Prince always wanted in a bass player, and that's what he found in me. I think he developed this groove, he hand picked us over the years, and when he finally had what he wanted, he would bring us to the studio, and this sound started to form.
That's why from Controversy to Purple Rain, you can hear how the sound kept evolving. It was no longer Prince as a solo artist, it was this group sound, and boom, it was a massive hit. So Purple Rain came from that, and the concept of the movie, he brought that up to us, like later-1999. It was near the end of the tour, and Wendy was traveling with us, he said ‘I wanna do a movie,’ and he started explaining the concept of the movie and everything, and we were all like, ‘dude, you're nuts, you're crazy. We can't act!’ Sort of that thing, and he was determined. He pulled it off. We met Al Magnoli [Purple Rain director], and we were like ‘he's really gonna do this…'
Did you anticipate that Purple Rain was going to be as big as it was, or you had an inkling that it was something special from the start?
I thought it was gonna flop! I was like, ‘there's no way in this world this movie is going to go anywhere,’ and I think most of us kind of felt the same way. When it hit us that there was something here was at the premiere. I mean, the premiere was phenomenal. Everybody in Hollywood had come out, and it was sort of like the new version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was this cult film right off the bat. It was gonna come out as this cult film that everyone was gonna follow. I started seeing it at that point, like, ‘wow, I wonder if this was a fluke or if he knew this was gonna happen.’ But you're dealing with a genius mind, he probably knew it was gonna happen before it did, that's probably why he was relentlessly reaching to accomplish it.
When it was finished, it was phenomenal to see the way people gravitated towards that movie. Halfway through the tour, he was bored with it already! He was moving on to the next thing! Like, dude… the album just came out! What are you doing? Why are we working on the next record and the next movie already? He was always a couple years ahead of himself.
What is your favorite song from that album to play?
I love playing "Computer Blue," I love the energy in it, I love the bassline, it's very unrecognizable, but you feel it. It's just there. I love the way the groove drives. Then, we go into the father song, in the middle, there's a little piece that he got from his dad. It covers so many different levels of our personality. You really hear The Revolution in that track, more than the others if you ask me. Some of the band members, they beg to differ, but to me, "Computer Blue" is a full blossom of The Revolution, and what we are, as Prince's band. What we're capable of.
What songs elicit a pretty strong reaction from the crowd every time you play it?
Wow. Wow. You know what? I would say it's 90 percent of the show. The crowd is absolutely baffling. The love and the energy we get from them when we hit the stage is phenomenal. They know every single word. They know parts we forgot, and they'll remind us. [Laughs] It was "When Doves Cry," and since Prince isn't there, we don't sing verbatim. We don't sing it like Prince would sing it, but the crowd fills in all the holes. All the ad-libs, the vocal parts. I just sit on stage and I just have to smile, because they're filling in all the blanks that Prince would do. So I think all of them are favorites. All of them elicit reactions.
And they all hit someone in a different way. Everyone reacts to songs differently, depending on the experience they have with it.
Yeah, and I think when we came up we touched a lot of lives, because we were in that crossover of life. The 80s were a very different time period. If you didn't grow up in the 80s, you didn't know, but the racial tension, the sexual revolution, the music revolution, everything was a revolution. Even for black artists to cross over into white genres…there was a punch through where we were starting to break the barriers of race, even in that industry. There were so many things going on in that industry, so Prince and The Revolution was such an integral part of people's childhoods, that a lot of fans come up to me and are like, ‘you saved my life,’ and I'm like ‘how do we save lives? I don't understand that!’ I'm starting to learn that so many people go through so many different things in life, and sometimes, music is the only memory that they have of how they got through that time period. That's what makes it so powerful. The success of this tour, that's where it's coming from. The memories that people want to relive, that they felt back then.
What does it feel like to go back on tour together?
It's a joy. We've always talked to each other. Through the decades, we've always kept in communication with each other and Prince. I've been out to Paisley probably eight times within the past ten years, where he would fly me out. We'd kick the breeze, jam, do whatever. We developed this strong, close-knit family where we have a deep love for one another. When we're together on the road, it's almost like a road trip. “Hey, family vacation, let's all get on the road together and play music." That's what it's like. We laugh, we have a great time with each other. Right now we're on a week break, we head back out in a couple of days for Madison [Wisconsin], but we've been on the phone every day. I was on with them until two o'clock this morning. It's funny how we're inseparable, it's amazing.
What was the energy level like at Paisley Park for the recent Prince Anniversary concert?
It was bittersweet. That was a roller coaster of emotions. Paisley's different. They made it out of a museum, so walking in there, the place where he died, the place where he lived…that was bittersweet, very bittersweet, an emotional roller coaster. When we hit the stage, we're professionals, we did our job, and that was to entertain.
At the same time, it's very emotional, so it affects our energy. Some songs will drop to this low point, so what we have done was arrange the set list. We know our emotional points, so we arranged the set list so when people get down, we immediately pick them back up. “Hey, Prince is gone, but guess what? He'd want us to celebrate this." That's what Prince was. He was an entertainer and he loved to entertain. He wasn't into the moping and feeling sorry for, he was the kind of guy that would say, if he could speak to us right now, ‘get out of the corner, stop whining, stop crying about what happened. Get out there and help these people heal.’ That's what he would tell us to do. He would say, ‘play, show them. Give them back that energy. Let them experience that.’ That's what he would tell us to do.
Has the healing process started to get a little bit easier, though?
Totally. Totally. The more we play, the more we heal. The more we watch other people heal from this, the effects are phenomenal. I get emails every single day with an outpouring of gratitude for what we're doing. That alone is a healing, because it helps to realize even in his death, he still lives through all of us. We carry his torch now. What Paisley's doing, what the family's doing…they gotta work that out. As Prince's musical family, The Revolution, we're carrying that torch. We know that we're carrying that torch and that we're helping people who loved him dearly heal from a tragic loss. That was tragic. Prince became everyone's brother and sister. So, when he left, it punched a hole in all of our hearts that was very effective, and it hurt to a degree that was unexplainable.
Us, to have the ability to relive who and what he was, what he represented, it helps a lot of people. I started throwing certain cities "after parties," and the reason I did that is because that's what Prince used to do. The effect has been awesome. People have been so grateful that I'm doing that, and so we're starting to learn more about the healing process and how we can help people in bigger ways. That's our goal, strictly our goal for being out here. Plus, it helps us as a family the more we heal. The more we play the music.
How are you going to remember Prince as a worker and as a person?
Prince is my genius brother. He is my genius brother that I'll never forget, and I'll see him again. I'm confident of that. I'll see him again and I love him dearly, and I love what he gave to me in life. He gave me a vision, he gave me work ethic. He gave me everything I needed to survive in this world without a father, because I grew up without a father. He was my big brother, and he made sure that I was taken care of in my journey, knowledge-wise.
Hearing all of that makes me so happy, because the media always tries to find the worst stories to make it this ugly thing. But to hear and to know that he was lovable and funny and he loved to laugh, those are the stories that they don't want to tell.
He was human! He was human. I mean, we all have bad stuff, but what benefit is it to talk about the bad stuff? In the years to come, some dirt is gonna start spewing out about him. I always like to remember the good in people, I never look for the bad. Prince had his bad, but look at the good. He's gone now, he paid his wage. What does The Bible say? "The wages of sin is death." He's paid his wage, so why talk about the negative? Talk about the positive, the good things.