Just over a year ago, the music world lost one of its titans. Prince, the enigmatic guitar phenom from Minneapolis, had passed away. Active since the ‘70s and a superstar virtually overnight, his departure was felt everywhere, including here in the D.C. area (purple ribbons can still be found on Prince Street signs in Old Town Alexandria).
While the entire world mourned the death of Prince, those who worked with him felt the loss acutely, perhaps none more so than former backing band The Revolution, who had planned to reunite with Prince in the future. Rather than retreating into grief, members of The Revolution decided to celebrate Prince’s life in the most fitting way possible–through his music.
The Revolution began their reunion tour at Prince’s Paisley Park compound last week, and now continue on to D.C. (the Fillmore Spring) on Thursday. We got the chance to speak with the group’s bassist, Mark “BrownMark” Brown, in advance of the show about the group’s history, success and life after Prince.
D.C. Music Download: How long have you been playing bass?
Mark Brown: Wow, what a question. It’s a two-part [answer]–I started playing bass when I was six or seven, but I quit because I lost interest in it. It was too hard to learn without the proper equipment–I was young, and I had cheap equipment, which made it difficult. But then I picked it back up when I was about 14; been playing ever since.
Before working with The Revolution, were you involved with any other bands or projects?
I was in a local [Minneapolis] band called Phantasy–we were pretty popular, and we played with The Time [a band eventually built out by Prince, at that point called Flyte Tyme]…we would always do battle of the bands with them.
How did you first get together with The Revolution, and with Prince?
Well, when I played with the band Phantasy, Prince just found me. He used to always come and watch me play–this was after he and André [Cymone] parted ways, so he would always just watch me play. I knew he was looking for bass players, but I never thought I would have a shot, so it was pretty surprising when I got that phone call one late evening at a community center.
How was playing with Prince; how was he as a bandleader?
He was very cool, but also very strict; he taught us a really awesome work ethic. He was just a unique individual in everything he [did]. It’s almost as if he lived and breathed music…every waking moment of his day was music, and was the art. So when you have that kind of work ethic–where nothing else matters in life–music came before even eating, I think [laughing]. That was his morning cup of coffee, to play the guitar.
When you start out like that, you develop a work ethic, and I guess he had a goal or a vision, and was relentless in following it up. That passes on, because we started to pick up on the same work ethic that he had over the years (but not to the degree that he had it). But [he was] a very good bandleader, a perfectionist.
He was also known for being pretty prolific in instruments beyond guitar–did that ever bleed into the band?
That’s an interesting question, because before he had a band, he was his own band. His first couple albums, he went into the studio and played everything himself–he didn’t really need a band to go into the studio. But as he started to grow, he started to realize that personalities make music. So when you make music [with only] yourself, you’re limited to what you can do. But when you start to branch out and touch into other personalities, and other people’s talents and what they bring to music–now, you’re starting to develop something. And that’s what he saw in us; he handpicked us individually because he was building something.
I think he saw the vision of The Revolution far back in the late ‘70s. I think he kind of wanted to create this funky, Fleetwood Mac-type of a situation, and as he handpicked us, he pretty much gave us a lot of liberty in helping him create. Like with the bass, he’d tell me the key and say “Just hit something,” and we’d just come in…and for the next four hours it would just be an endless jam session, and that’s how he’d create these amazing musical tracks. Then the next day he’d come in and have lyrics and everything on them. I’d say from 1999 to the Parade album, we were a huge influence on his sound and his direction.
On a different note–The Revolution is known for having many different members, and some of the departures were reportedly not on great terms. After you left the group, did you ever think a reunion of this level (either with or without Prince) was possible?
I want to start by making a correction: Many people think The Revolution started back in the ‘70s, when he kind of had a band he was touring with on the Dirty Mind Tour–that’s not the case. The Revolution didn’t technically form until 1983. Right when Dez [Dickerson] left, Prince brought in Wendy [Melvoin], and that’s when The Revolution actually formed–right before Dez left. It was something Dez didn’t want to do–he wanted to move on–so when Wendy joined it was officially The Revolution. So there were only five of us, and there’s only ever been five of us.
What he would do, close to the end [of The Revolution], was bring on different players to bring a different sound…he was growing musically. By the Parade album he had horns, extra guitar players…it almost just turned into a big jam session on the stage with so many people.
So I was the first to go; I actually left the year before we did the Parade tour. He had begged me not to say anything to anybody for morale’s sake, so we did a contract, and I stayed with him that last year [for the tour]. Our last show was in Japan, but I was already finished [at that point]. It wasn’t because we were fighting or anything…it was just because as he was growing, so was I.
I produced a group called Mazarati [and had a few others]…I was on my way to do other things, so that was my time to depart and explore my own destiny. As far as the rest of the group–I don’t know too much of what happened after I left, but it was shortly after that that they dispersed.
But we always talked about a reunion, even before he put together 3RDEYEGIRL. He flew me out to Minneapolis because I was going to be in a band with [Prince’s drummer] John Blackwell–he wanted to bring back that sound that we had in the ‘80s, and he had talked about doing a reunion tour back then. And I know that he had talked to Bobby [Z., drummer for The Revolution] and Matt [Doctor Fink, keyboard] as well about reuniting the group, and then unfortunately, the tragic event happened and it never came to be.
How has being back together with the rest of The Revolution helped you deal with his passing? Has it been difficult to play music that’s so linked to him, or has it been more cathartic and kind of a celebration?
It’s bittersweet; it’s been a roller coaster ride. We [actually] had been playing together again since 2003, gigs and shows here and there, so The Revolution had already been back together. [Prince] kind of asked us to hold off, because he wanted to do that reunion, and if we’re out here playing then it defeats that purpose–so that’s the reason we stopped playing (contrary to a lot of rumors that he didn’t want us to do it.) He just wanted us to hold off and wait for him, because he had his own plans, so we respectfully did that.
But us playing together, it’s therapy…When he passed away, we were destroyed. It was like we lost a family member, a brother. It hit us really hard–this was our mentor, our big brother…this was the guy who gave me my shot in life doing the only thing I ever wanted to do, which was music. I feel that had he never come along, I still would’ve made it to some level of success, but I would’ve never been able to experience the kind of work ethic, the kind of sound, the kind of production that he helped me to develop.
So playing this music together with the group is such therapy for me, it’s healing–it helps me to get past the grieving process, and get more to a celebration of his life, and legacy and music. And I think I can speak for all of us when I say that–now it’s more “Hey, let’s celebrate,” not crawl into a corner, bury the music and just cry. That doesn’t work and it doesn’t benefit anybody. What Prince would want us to do is play, because that’s what he did. We’re entertainers; that’s what we do. I know that’s what he would want us to do.
What can our readers expect from your show on Thursday? I read a couple reviews of other shows from the tour that said you’ll have some special guests–do you know who it’ll be for D.C., and are you allowed to say?
[laughing] We keep that hush, but I can tell your readers this: They will be in for an absolute high-powered, energetic experience…Prince used to call us a freight train, [and] that’s exactly how we’re bringing it back. We’re going to give people the experience we had when he was with us. The same energy, the same power, the same funkiness…it’s all there; we haven’t changed a bit–we’ve actually gotten better. Tell them to brush up on their lyrics, [because] we’re going to ask them to sing along and it’s just going to be one huge party, the way Prince would want us to do it.
What’s next for The Revolution after this tour ends? Is there any chance for more recording/new music, or is this it–will you go your separate ways after the tour?
No, no…you know, healing is healing. There’s a big world out there, and we want to reach everybody. We’re not selfish people–we’re givers, we love deep, we love the fans, we always have. They gave us our lives, so we want to give back, and that’s why we’re doing this.
I left what I was doing in production for this. I put it all on the back burner [because] this is more important. We’re going to travel the world and bring this to everyone who needs it, so if you want us in your town, start talking to your radio stations and your local promoters and let them know, because that’s what we’re here to do–we want to get out on the road and spread that love and that cheer, and help people mourn.
The Revolution will play the Fillmore Silver Spring on April 27. Show 8 p.m./Tickets $35