'You’re gonna dance your butts off': The Revolution's Brownmark on his audition for Prince and reuniting the band

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PHOTO BY BILLY BRIGGS
  • PHOTO BY BILLY BRIGGS

On April 25, 2016, New Orleans held a massive purple-hued second line memorial for Prince, who died a few days earlier at his Paisley Park home. His last performance in New Orleans, inside the Superdome at the 2014 Essence Festival, came nearly 30 years after his debut inside that same venue, during a 1985 run of his landmark Purple Rain tour.

Performing alongside him was the classic lineup of The Revolution — Wendy and Lisa, Dr. Fink, Bobby Z., and Brownmark. That lineup — which began to take shape with 1999 and contributed to a classic streak of Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day and Parade, as well as legendary live shows — reunited in the wake of Prince's death and returns to New Orleans Feb. 22. (The band plays The Joy Theater, which screened Purple Rain in 1984.)

Read more from Gambit's interview with Mark Brown, aka bassist and multi-instrumentalist Brownmark, on his audition for Prince, getting the band back together, and how bass players get Prince wrong.

Brownmark:
You know DJ Soul Sister? She’s cool people.

Gambit: Yeah! How did y’all meet?

I met her at Essence Festival. Natasha Diggs was DJing at the hotel. They had a big party, and I got to meet all these musicians. DJ Soul Sister approached me and we just hit it off. It was great meeting her. She’s definitely an influence down there.

Were you influenced at all by New Orleans artists, as a bassist? The Meters and George Porter Jr.?

Not me, necessarily. New Orleans was always a very musical town, but for me — I couldn’t wait to explore it — but we never got to explore it enough. I remember coming down there — it was some dome or something, some big concert down there with the Purple Rain tour. I’ve been to the French Quarter twice, maybe three times, with Prince. We’d fly in or the bus would come in, and the next day we were gone. I never really got to get into New Orleans, but I’d always heard about it. Now I have a lot of friends down there. Grace Gibson — I just love her. Awesome vocalist, awesome talent. I’m gonna try to get her on stage with Revolution when we’re down there.

What was unique about the people and the places that influenced that sound coming from Minneapolis?

I don’t want to use this as a plug, but I’m gonna plug my book. I have a book coming out, called My Life in the Purple Kingdom. It starts when I was 6, 7 years old. I’m telling this whole history. It’s about my life, starting when I was 7 years old and growing up when I was in Minneapolis, and I talk about how the music scene influenced me as an artist, and how we grew up with no black radio stations, except a sun powered radio station called KUXL and later KMOJ came long. But we never really had that solid R&B station where you could just turn it on and have the latest soul or R&B or funk music. I grew up on the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin. That’s what I grew up around. You combine that rock — Janis Joplin, the list goes on — with the little bit of funk we could get our hands on — James Brown, some of the more popular artists — there’s your influence. When you listen to Prince, you can really see it. You really see the early influences of funk and rock from the ‘60s and ‘70s in a lot of his early music, even up through Controversy. You can really see that influence.

You were playing in a band called Fantasy when Prince first saw you play. Do you remember that gig? What was that band like?

Fantasy, that was my high school band. We played around town. Prince came to see us several times, but I never knew he was coming to see me. I had no clue.

You didn’t realize you were auditioning for him.

I did not know I was auditioning every time I went on stage. I would see him. He’d always hide in the corner. I’d see him like, ‘Oh, Prince is here.’ I’d tell the band, ‘Prince is here. You see him over in the corner?’ He would just be hiding, but he would listen. I thought maybe he wanted to produce the entire band.

When he and Andre [Cymone, Prince's bassist through 1981] departed, he gave me a phone call at a community center. He even knew where we rehearsed. Nobody knew we rehearsed at that community center. How in the world did this guy know where we rehearsed? And no one calls us there, because we rehearsed after hours, when the community center was closed. We never had access to the front offices and the phones and all that, because we were just in the warehouse, working for free, because they gave us the back room. Someone knocks on the door after hours and says, "There’s a phone call for Mark Brown." I’m thinking, "Who in the devil… nobody knows we’re here." Sure enough, it was Prince, and he was like, "I want you to audition for my band tomorrow." I was like, "Tomorrow?" He said, "Yes. Are you interested?" I said, "Definitely." He said, "I want you to learn this album this album and this album." I was like, "Oh my god." That was For You, the "I Wanna Be Your Lover" album [Prince], and Dirty Mind. He wanted me to learn all three of those albums, by tomorrow. It was already about 1 o’clock in the morning.

What time was the audition?

The next day, he said, "I’ll have Bobby Z. pick you up at 7-Eleven." I worked at the 7-Eleven. He even knew that. How did he know where I worked? He did his research. "Bobby Z. will pick you up at 7-Eleven at 6 o’clock." Bobby came pulling up and picked me up and that was history right there.

Do you remember the audition, or the conversation that led to you being in the band?

It was interesting. I’m thinking the audition, the whole band is gonna be there and we’re gonna work out with them. Never happened. It was me, Bobby and Prince, that was it, in his basement, with some little amplifiers. We jammed on two or three songs — "Head" and some stuff like that. We jammed for maybe 15 minutes. Prince said, "That’s enough." I was like, "Dang it, that was too short. He don’t want me." [laughs] He said, "Bobby, I’ll take him home."

I got nervous then. … He said, "I’ll be back, just chill out." He was upstairs getting dressed. About 30 minutes later he comes downstairs and says, "You ready to go?" He’s talking to me in the car and says, "Look, I’m about to go on this journey, and I want you to be a part of it, if you want to, it’s yours. But let me know. I’ll give you three days." It was a Thursday. "Let me know by Monday morning." I said, "I can let you know right now." [laughs] He said, "No, let me know by Monday morning what your decision is, that way you can really think about it." That night I went to a club called the Foxtrot. [They] came up to me and said, "Congratulations." Everybody already knew. I already had the job. It was just a formality.

Once you started rehearsing with the band, did you gel?

I think that’s why he watched me so hard. He knew I would fit in. My style of bass playing is very close to Prince. Very similar. He knew he had to groom me, though. You’re talking the difference between bar bands and professionals. There’s a huge difference in the approach. When you’re a bar band, your mentality is different. You’re playing in front of the same type of people all the time. It’s just a paycheck. When you’re professional, it’s about imaging, it’s about what are you portraying, how are you expressing yourself through that instrument. That’s what separates you. Prince had to teach that to me because I didn’t yet have that concept. It was a hard time period for me. It only last a couple days. He beat me up pretty good. He was mean as hell. But I needed it. I did not buck the system. I was kind of happy, I was getting a crash course in rock star-ism.

Getting back together, without him, is there still a palpable sense of what bonded you back then?

When the band disbanded, I had already been gone a year. I quit the band in ’85. I stuck with them through the summer of ’86. We already have a very strong bond with each other. When I quit, the year prior, I was told to keep it quiet. "Don’t tell them that you had quit. You were in a contract now." I was in a contract to do the Parade tour. I didn’t say anything, but we were already so strong, so tight, like a family, that’s why he didn’t want me to tell them. Through the years, we’d always stayed in communication.

When he passed away, it was no different — we always had the bond. We just always stayed in touch, even done gigs together. When he passed, it jolted us. It was painful. It was like losing a brother. We reacted like a family. We huddled together. We didn’t worry about the outsiders of our camp. There was a lot of drama that went down with the different camps. We stayed to ourselves. We grieved in our own way.

It did draw us closer. We realized we had to do something. We didn’t know what. What we had decided was to start performing together, take this on the road as the unit we used to be, and give back to the people a moment in time that was pivotal in their lives and help them to grieve, help them to heal from this loss. I mean, what a great loss. Prince is one of the most phenomenal musicians in our time period. He’s Mozart. How do you grieve from that?

We were the living band, his only "real" band band. The only band Prince was in. The rest of the bands he formed. They were his groups. The Revolution was a band he was in. Even though he formed us, we became a separate entity. It was a force within itself, a creative force. That’s what made it work. Prince’s genius and our diverse backgrounds created this incredible music that we all knew was special. How do you give that back? You go out and play and let people relive those time periods in their lives.

You’re gonna laugh, you’re gonna cry, you’re gonna dance your butts off.

The sounds on these albums are so specific. How is that recreated live, and what’s the feeling you’re going for in putting on these shows?

We’re in festival mode now. The grief is over. Prince would never want us to go down in the gloom and doom. Anybody knows that when Prince gets on stage he wants you to have the time of your life. We were like, "OK, we grieved, we hurt, we got over it, many fans haven’t grieved fully, but it’s time to take this to a more festive type affair." That’s what we did. Now it’s a party. We get down. We bring the fire.

For a lot of people, I’d imagine it’s a more formal introduction to his music after hearing it maybe for the first time over the last couple years.

We sound exactly like we did back in the ‘80s. We have that same power, that same energy. We are original. We’re authentic. We’re not a karaoke tribute act. We play it exactly as we did in the albums. We didn’t get credit for a lot of work we did with him, but when you see it you’ll hear it.

You’re the musical director for the show.

Pretty much. All of us are music directors but I take the lead in organizing how it’s going to come across onstage.

How’s that working out?

It has its challenges. There’s four different entities who have done their own thing. You have five producers on stage. For one of us to think we can direct the other is just crazy. It’ll never happen. I use that title very loosely. We’re all directors. We all come from such different backgrounds that we add those elements to what we’re going to do. Sometimes we fight, sometimes it’s easy. We have a love for each other, so we just keep moving forward. We don’t get hung up on certain issues we disagree with.

Has all this inspired you to get together and record something?

Oh definitely. Some of us want to do it more quickly than others. I have a record coming out in a couple months, so for me, I’m more pushy when it comes to, "Let’s get something out."

It’s more of an expression of who I am. This will be my fifth album. I’ve been doing it throughout the years — some more successful than others. But I don’t do it for succes. I do it for the love of music and self expression.

I was hoping you were working on something. I had heard you were interested in doing some other projects down the line.

Movies.

And instructional videos, or films explaining what and how you’re playing? I personally would love to know.

That’s definitely in the plans. The weird thing is when you’re launching a brand — Brownmark Nation — you need websites, you need social media. It takes a long time to build that. I don’t want to be premature and start putting out videos on how to play Prince music until I have all the other elements finished. When Prince passed away, it really put a monkey wrench in what I was doing. I had to stop. Then The Revolution came along, and I lost a whole year, because I was concentrating on that. Now I’m finally getting back to it. It’s been two years now.

A lot of people want to know, How do you play “America”? There’s a lot of bass players who play “America” incorrectly. When they hear it solo, and how I actually play “America,” they’re going to be surprised. It’s completely different. “Let’s Work,” it’s very different than what you think it is. “Computer Blue” — very weird bassline. When I show them that, they’re gonna be blown away. It’s very different.

How did you learn to play? Did you pick up anything from what you heard on the radio? Some of those diverse influences growing up?

That’s exactly what it was. Especially a combination of Larry Graham, Mark Adams from Slave, or [Nathaniel Phillips] from Pleasure. There was a lot of dynamic groups I used to listen to the bass players. My style, I’m a mutt. [laughs] I have very different styles within me. My style is very unorthodox. When I start showing people how to play these things, a lot of bass players scratch their head.


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