We are happy to present you an interview conducted with Michael Koppelman, who worked since Graffiti Bridge to the 0(+> album as main engineer for Prince. He has previously released two very interesting and insightful podcasts on his experience working for Prince. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions from us, we hope you will enjoy reading it…
How did you start working for Prince? Were you looking for that, or did it happen only by chance?
Well, I was a Purple Rain convert to Prince. I didn’t like him before that movie and did after. At one point I wrote in one of my little writing books that someday I would work for Prince, just me and him, in the studio. (That came true!) But I really wasn’t that focused on working with Prince once my recording career got underway. I was working at Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and I had a friend who lived in Minneapolis. I went to visit him and decided to see if I could take a tour of Paisley Park. I met with the studio manager and he showed me around and he made it clear that they were looking for assistant engineers (which is what I was at the time).
I came back for one other interview and got the job. I was very excited about that, not because of Prince, per se, but because of Paisley Park, which was/is a very, very nice recording studio. So I guess I would say I worked with Prince by chance. I was very excited about working with Prince, though, once at Paisley Park.
You were working at Paisley Park during the recording of Graffiti Bridge, Diamonds and Pearls and O(+> albums. Could you comment on your experience in the making of the three albums? In your opinion, how do they compare in terms of quality, creativity?
As I talked about on my podcast, I sort of “won” the job of Prince’s engineer during Graffiti Bridge. At one point Prince looked at me and said (quite disdainfully) “none of you guys here can mix”. I said “You’ve never let me mix anything.” I mixed “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got” that night! It was great fun working on the movie (although it is super bad and I was somewhat of a disruptive influence on the sound stage). Prince also let me write some music for the movie, although I never got credit (although I think that was unintentional).
Diamonds and Pearls was my “baby” — I shepherded that from start to finish. We did some of that in London, which was also a lot of fun. I remember when he did the vocals for Money Don’t Matter Tonight they were totally distorted. I liked it though, and I guess he did too because we kept it. I could tell a million stories about each song on that record.
The Symbol album came out after I “left” and was finished by my buddy Steve Noonan. That is the only Prince record that has me playing music. He was going to let me finish “Blue Light” and I put bass and keyboards on it before I was dismissed. I was super surprised that my bass playing was still on that song when it came out. Some of the keyboard is there, too. I remember recording “Sexy MF” in studio A at Paisley, with Levi saying the title line into a shitty old SM 57.
I think Diamonds and Pearls is probably the best among those three, in my opinion, but I am probably biased.
I worked on literally hundreds of songs in my few years with Prince, so my name ended up on a lot of records besides these three. We did stuff for Martika, Paula Abdul, Kate Bush, George Clinton, Rosie Gains, Carmen, etc. It was a lot of fun.
In which albums/recordings do you consider you were allowed to work with more freedom? What was your input, further than the pure engineering?
I started as an assistant engineer, became his main engineer and eventually went on to write and produce stuff for Ingrid Chavez’s record. Other than the Ingrid record, I did not play or write music (except for bass on Blue Light). I did mix a lot of songs, which is a very creative process in terms of arrangement and such. But for the most part, with Prince’s personal projects, I was following orders. He did at times listen to my input. He’d ask my opinion from time to time. But generally he knew exactly what he wanted to do.
Having worked as engineer for Prince for more than two years, in a intense period of his career, you were a privileged witness of his working ways. How do you remember the evolution of Prince as a musician during those years?
I was dismayed that Prince wanted to emulate the sound of current black music. He listens to tons of music and he really like the hard edge of rap music and other pop music like “Everybody Dance Now”, which came out during that time. He worked hard to make parts of Diamonds and Pearls “hard” like that. To me, a song like “Sign O’ the Times” is the kind of stripped down funk that I love most about Prince. I put that multitrack tape up once for some reason and there is like 6 tracks on that. Many songs on D&P; had 48 or even more tracks. Tons of drums, loops, basses, etc. So it was a bit frustrating to see what I consider to be a very talented musician fucking around with a lot of trendy crap. Even so, there is great music on every Prince record and his pure musicianship is outstanding. The guy is really, really good. He could hang with anybody. There is still untapped potential there, IMHO.
In your Prince-related podcasts, you did some comments on the musicianship of Prince. Could you please elaborate a bit on this? It would be nice if you could describe your memories on the most brilliant performances & recordings you have seen from Prince and his band, either released or unreleased.
I discussed that a bit above. The coolest thing I remember is when Prince would be working on a new idea and I was in the room and he’d be playing something and it would be really cool and he could tell I liked it and then he’d say “You like that sort of shit don’t you?” and I’d say “Yup, I do” and then he would go back to doing what he intended to do which was totally different. So I heard him play things that no one else has ever heard him play. I don’t remember them exactly, but I remember hearing a lot of cool doodling and playing around on various instruments.
I recall with “Thieves in the Temple” that Prince basically walked in with the thing done in his head. I tag-teamed with Tom Garneau in the studio with Prince for 2 or 3 days straight and then they shot the video the next day. Like bam!
What was the Prince’s approach to the analogue vs digital recording discussions at the time?
We were all analog. We did tons of sampling, though, even back then with the Publison, a very odd, early sampler. Prince exploited the living hell out of the Publison. It was the main tool of his work when I first joined the team.
I don’t recall ever talking about analog vs. digital. Everything had always been on 24-track 2″ tape so that is what we always did. I did introduce Prince to MIDI and sequencing on my little Mac Portable at one point in LA. Now he has racks of that stuff. There was much more sequencing going on when I left than when I started.
You were the producer of the Ingrid Chavez album at Paisley Park, and besides you wrote the song “Spiritual storm” in it. Could you please explain your experience while doing this album? Which Ingrid Chavez tracks recorded at Paisley Park remain unreleased? What was the level of Prince’s input in this album?
I wrote and co-wrote several songs on that record, including Hippy Blood, Candledance, Winter Song and Spiritual Storm. I also produced, recorded and mixed quite a lot of it. It is a very long story. Prince did Elephant Box and another song or two with Ingrid and he had this idea of no singing, just the whispering/talking thing. He had recordings of her reading her poems. He let me try one and Winter Song resulted. I said “Can I do another?” and he said “Sure” and I did Candledance. Then Ingrid was in LA and I think Prince was gone and he told us to get in the studio and mess around. Hippy Blood was the result (which is, in my opinion, a great fucking song). Ingrid had a meeting with someone at Warner Bros. the next day and she played it for them. They loved it. Prince had not yet heard it. So a bit of a spat broke out ’cause Ingrid wanted to sing some more songs and Prince had the spoken word idea. He did like Hippy Blood, though. So Prince and Ingrid and Warner Bros. kind of argued for a while and then Prince kind of washed his hands of it and Levi and I were instructed to finish the record. There was a lot of excitement about that record but by the time it came out it had kind of fizzled and the record did not do well. Could someone please get Britney Spears to do Hippy Blood so I can retire? 🙂
One of my favorite memories in regards to Prince and the Ingrid record was when he played the guitar solo on Candledance. It was sort of my song, since I wrote all the music, so our roles were oddly reversed. He was doing a solo and at one point he said “You aren’t going to use any of this are you?” And I wasn’t going to! He hadn’t been hitting it. Right after that he played a great solo which we kept.
Have you followed the musical evolution of Prince in later years? If so, could you explain your opinion, particularly about the album 3121 and related performances and after shows?
I have not listened to his last few albums. I really should. I hear some of his new stuff is very good. Please point me in the right direction.
Do you feel Prince is currently recognized/respected enough as an important musician? With which artist would you compare his ‘importance’ in the music industry? And how do you think he would be remembered after let’s say, 50 years from now?
Hmm. Well, I think he’ll go down in history as one of the main pop stars of the 80’s aka Purple Rain. He wrote a ton of hits and made a ton of money and he has a lot to be proud of. He is a far better musician than most pop stars and I think that is somewhat recognized.
You are currently working in fields not related with music, although you keep doing music with your band Raintribe. Why did you leave the music business? What is your way of running your band while remaining out of the professional music world?
I left the music business for three reasons:
1. I started an Internet business and it began taking more and more of my time.
2. My kick-ass manager got a different job and I got transferred to a shit-ass manager.
3. I was starting to get disillusioned with the shallow, narcissistic, ass-licking world of the music business.
I am involved with music as a hobby right now and it is a lot of fun. I also write funk/trance/dance music and at some point may come out with a new project. I also have a groove I wrote that would be perfect for Prince. I am trying to figure out how to get it to him. I don’t know if he’ll take my calls these days, but I have to admit I haven’t even tried. I’m also studying astrophysics because I want to understand how the universe works. Life is too short to just sit in a studio with egotists and make inane pop music.
And finally, what is your opinion about the effect of internet and digital music for the world of music in general, and for the music industry in particular?
I think the Internet is the best thing that has ever happened to the music business. That the music industry doesn’t get it is proof positive of what a bunch of dim-witted dinosaurs they are. Music is important to people and they will pay for it if you make it convenient and affordable. On the grassroots side of things, the Internet is a-buzz with new music, new bands, home made music videos, myspace, etc. It’s going fucking nuts. It’s a renaissance going on right now and one that is likely to continue.
We would like to thank Michael for his very interesting answers. As explained in the interview, Michael Koppelman is currently doing music as a hobby (with his band Raintribe) and doing work related to astronomy… He keeps an active profile at different web sites. For further info, check his websites www.lolife.com and www.raintribe.com.