Aidin Vaziri | Prince played with many backing bands during his lifetime, but were any as beloved as the Revolution? The five-piece group that accompanied the singer during his imperial phase, from the recording of 1984’s “Purple Rain” soundtrack through the 1986 tour in support of “Parade,” re-formed after Prince’s death in April 2016 for three sold-out shows at the famed Minneapolis venue, First Avenue. The band’s classic lineup — guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardist Lisa Coleman, bassist Brown Mark, drummer Bobby Z and keyboardist Matt Fink — is now touring in support of the Deluxe Edition reissues of “Purple Rain.” We spoke with Melvoin from her Los Angeles studio.
Q: You guys look like you’re having fun with these reunion shows. Was the original run as much fun, even though you had a very strict boss?
A: It’s no different between the band members. We were always very connected. We continually look at each other on stage going, “My God, did 30 years just go by? It doesn’t feel like it.” I think that’s one of the gifts from all this awful time that has slammed everybody over the head. The band is more connected to each other than ever. Yeah, he was a… We were… I liken Prince and the way our band worked in that situation sort of like working for the greatest black hat chef in the world. You know, like a Michelen Star 1000. That guy has to put together the best team. He has to get the best pastry chef. He has to get the best sous chef. He’s got to get the best line cook. You know, there’s a lot of people that go into that kind of system. The Revolution just happened to be, in my humble opinion, a perfectly oiled machine and we were picked. The combination was a perfect combination. It gave Prince the freedom to really… In a lot of ways, I say his career was really gentrified at that point. Gentrification was in full swing when that band was playing live. He got to keep his soul and R&B audience and he got to turn white, middle America on to what he did. It didn’t hurt that the band was as varied and singular as it was.
Q: For a lot of fans like myself, those were the glory years that we kept hoping Prince would go back to, and there was a lot of frustration as it got further away from that. Did you feel that?
A: We tried to get this going a few different times. The bittersweet part of this is when he went to compiling this whole release record, there was talk of us going out. So this was planned sort of loosely. We were finally open to the idea of really revamping and going out as a band again. Unfortunately, cut to… Anyway, is there a frustration? There’s a frustration that it didn’t happen. I let go a very long time ago of my frustrations about some of the choices he was making. Because I couldn’t begrudge. I couldn’t even presume to say, “You were your best then.” That’s just not fair. He never felt that way. He never felt that way. Every move he made was just his own exploration into what else he could be, or what else he could do. So he never thought in terms of, “Oh, I’m going to back and do a Purple Rain tour.” I don’t think it was in him to open himself to any kind of vulnerability or critique that maybe what his output may have been since then, not as good. I think distancing himself from it as well quieted it down and he was allowed to just explore what he wanted to explored. And you know what? I’m not frustrated with that. That’s just true expression. That’s what he wanted. He’s a comet. Prince is a f—ing comet. Everyone of us – his fans, everyone who worked with him — were just hanging onto the tail of it. Right? There’s no way that guy was going to land. There’s no way. But, if there’s anything to sort of reconcile about his death is that his fans are now forced to land. That’s what happens with death. We’re the survivors and death is about the survivors, not the dead. Now we’re doing this crazy exploration into sort of trying to gently label a spirit we all had during that time and seeing if we could offer that to the audience and in so, ask them to take the songs back. Because if we don’t — the five members of that particular period of time, don’t — I don’t know how reconciled the true, deep Prince fans will… I mean, everybody is going to find their way to deal with grief and eventually everyone will reconcile this at some point in time of their lives. Sooner or later, it doesn’t matter. It’s everybody’s process. But I think because the five of us are still alive and we gravitated to each other to do this. We were the first person we called when he died. We were quiet this entire year and didn’t want to get ourselves involved in anything until finally we went, “Why don’t we just slowly put our feet in the water and see if we can do a handful of clubs and see what happens?” It’s pretty inspiring to be at these shows where people are weeping but at the same time there’s this weird sense of relief. It’s not like a roomful of people who are cutters. You’re not cutting yourself to feel because everything is so awful the only way I’m going to feel something is… That’s what they say cutting is like. It’s not that. It’s not that experience at all. It’s like – and I don’t like to use the word “church,” I don’t like that label – it’s just a community of like-minded people that are trying to measure their own potential and greatness by their love of his music and that time. And trying to own it and take it back so they can, I don’t know, find reason. More will be revealed. This ends in July and we really can’t afford to do this tour. It’s not cost effective for any of us. But this is more just a gift for everybody. We’ll see. We’ll see. We’re certainly not making any money. That’s for sure. It’s just about going out there and playing.
Q: The first set of dates you played in Minneapolis when this was all fresh, you didn’t enjoy it. What made you decide to carry on?
A: Well, by day three, at First Avenue when we did those shows last September a year ago you could feel a sense of relief. On that last show. There was a different feeling about that one, compared to day one and day two. Those were almost impossible to do. Truly. I mean, they were an out of body experience. It was absolutely cognitive dissonance, really. But day three had some really nice borders. We all walked offstage and looked at each other and said, “Well, that’s something that can happen again. If we can get that feeling that we just got here on this last day, then maybe we can take that to places where people didn’t come.” We took it to ground zero. We took it to First Avenue. So the people who were there day one through three were truly the deepest of the hardcore fans. That was sort of temple in itself. We wanted to see if there were people out there that wanted a taste of that so that they could have a little bit. So we did 20 cities in the states. Tiny little clubs. I mean, bizarrely promoted. Like, some of these places we played we would pull up and we’re like, “Is our name even on a marquee?” It’s that low rent. But they end up being – because of the beauty of social media, there’s a zillion walk-ups. People end up piling into these places. And there’s deep Prince fans there. But there’s people who just loved that era of music and knew about Prince. And then there’s the older people who are bringing their kids. I mean, it’s a fucking incredible range of people in these rooms. For me, it was a testament to the type of music we were making together that reached that kind. It wasn’t rarefied. I mean, in the later years Prince was very rarefied. His stuff was very jazz. It was very smooth. It was really like super crafted and clean sounding. I mean, he had some good pop songs. But for the most part watching him play was like Cirque du Soleil, for Christ’s sake. It was impeccably performed. It was impeccably impeccable, right? But that period we were in was scrappy. That appealed more to a general audience I think, who just are now coming to the show and going, “Oh my God, that’s the greatest show I’ve seen in years!” We’re not doing much. It’s the energy. If you come in San Francisco it’s the energy of the band. It’s not really what we’re doing at all. We’re certainly not wearing old “Purple Rain” outfits, you know what I mean? We’re 30 years older. But the energy is there. I’ll tell you what. If that energy wasn’t there, we would not be out. If one of us was dead, we would not be out. It’s just right now. It’s what we got right now. We’re just going to see if people want to come and feel that moment and leave a little imprint and be on our way, like a little quiet storm.
Q: How does it work without the guy at the center of it all?
A: It doesn’t work without the guy at the center. That’s the whole point. It doesn’t. He’s not there. He’ll never be there. No one will ever replace him. And we’re not going to try. So it doesn’t work, right? The only thing we can offer them is the authenticity we bring there. We make them sing: “You sing! It’s your songs!”
Q: How many albums did you make with Prince that are still in the vaults?
A: Well, we did other… As Prince and the Revolution, there’s probably four albums in the vault from that era. But we worked on other peoples’ stuff, especially Lisa and I worked on a lot of the other offshoots of the band and other people he was working with. I think there’s probably four in there. I hope that it’s done well and they get to be heard.
Q: Have you and Lisa managed to work together so well after all this time? Having that creative and personal relationship almost never works. What’s the secret?
A: You know, Lisa and I and our families have known each other since I was an infant. We grew up and went to the same schools. Our siblings were close. As it was the scandal, when I was a teenager, Lisa and I fell in love with each other. When I was 16. We got together when I was 17. And I joined the band at18. We were living the life as a couple and doing this amazing thing together with this amazing band, with this amazing artist. We knew each other before and we knew after the band was disbanded we were going to continue what we were going to do. We always wanted to be composers. We knew that we weren’t going to try and compete in the pop world. It’s just, whatever. We’re musicians. We wanted to be composers. We were lucky enough that literally we’ve been doing it now for 26 years now. The amount of work we’ve done just by composing alone is shattering the amount of actual musical material that we’ve composed together. And then we’ve done our own albums and we’ve worked with a bazillion other people. And we’re not lovers any more. We stopped being a couple 16 years ago. And literally we knew we wanted to hang onto the best parts of what we were to each other and get rid of the part that didn’t work — and that was being a couple. It was super high minded. Super fucking high minded. We had moments where we thought, “Oh my God, how are we doing this?” And we did it! And cut to… she’s married, she has a kid. I have a kid. We just do it. It just works. Ultimately what it is, I still like what she does. I still like the music she does. And I think she says the same about me. And that’s why it’s lasted so long.