Michael Bland is the type of guy who could literally talk for hours and never cease to be surprising, enlightening, and downright hilarious. Having been discovered by Prince at an early age and enlisted as one of the founding members of his long-running New Power Generation, and later becoming a revered session player and touring drummer for quintessential Minnesota rock acts Paul Westerberg and Soul Asylum, Bland is bursting with anecdotes and one-liners about his wide range of musical experiences.
Michael speaks in a joyful cadence, laughs easily, and needles everyone around him playfully. Our interview for a recent episode of The Local Show lasted over an hour, but felt like it went by in an instant. It was accompanied by a musical playlist hand-picked by Michael, which you can stream below, and we touched on his memories of working with Prince, Dave Pirner, Paul Westerberg, Mayda and much more.
You can see Michael Bland playing with his longtime collaborators and co-founders of the NPG, Sonny Thompson and Tommy Barbarella, plus special guests Julius Collins of Greazy Meal, Homer O’Dell of Mint Condition, Ryan Liestman, Jeremy Yvlisaker, Dave Pirner, Jamecia Bennett, Margaret Cox, and the Hornheads, this Thursday through Saturday night at the Fine Line Music Cafe for the second installment of “This Thing Called Life: The Prince Tribute 2017.”
Andrea Swensson: Everyone has their own story about how Prince came into their life. I know yours involves Bunker’s — can you tell me more about how you first met Prince?
Michael Bland: Sure, I was 18, I was going to Augsburg College and I was working at Bunker’s every Monday night with Dr. Mambo’s Combo, who are celebrating their 30th year playing at that place — we’re going to have a proper party this fall. Dr. Mambo’s Combo was also doing a short stint at the Fine Line on Wednesdays, and Prince happened to go in there and see the band. I was playing across town with a different band, so I wasn’t able to do those shows. But his first time seeing the band, Gordy Knudtson, who was another really great drummer from in town, was playing with the Combo, and Prince recognized Margaret Cox because she had worked with Jesse Johnson in Ta Mara and the Seen.
He asked [Margaret Cox] to get in the limo and they chatted for awhile and he was saying “Really good band you guys have,” and she was the one who said, “Well thanks, you should see us with our normal drummer, he’s really great!” So Margaret’s telling Prince all about, you know, “he’s this young kid,” and she piqued his interest. So he comes down the next week on a Monday at Bunker’s, brings his entourage and he came looking for me, really. And he sat in with the band and he was kind of recklessly eyeballing me, looking at what I was doing. I tried to act like I wasn’t really paying attention or super concerned, but it’s Prince watching everything you’re doing.
How old were you?
18 going on 19.
Wow, yeah a little nerve-racking.
Little bit, yeah. So things unraveled over the next couple of months, and he eventually offered me a job properly. And I remember being naive enough to ask him, “Well do you think I’ll have time to get another semester in of college before this starts going?” He just laughed really hard and he was like, “I don’t think you’re going to have any time for any of that.” I didn’t really know — I’m from nowhere and I knew nothing.
Yeah, you weren’t going to be playing Monday nights at Bunker’s anymore.
Yeah exactly, that was the best I could possibly imagine at the time.
So what year would that have been, ’89 or ’90?
I believe the first time I met him, the first time he came to the club, would’ve been fall going into winter of ’88.
Oh okay. So a very pivotal time in his career. He had just put out Lovesexy?
He had just got off the Lovesexy tour, that’s right. And fired everybody. So he was clearly looking for what’s the next you know, who am I going to acquire to take on the next chapter.
Something that I think is so interesting is that you really had a front row seat to him forming the New Power Generation, which is a band that continued in different incarnations up until he died. What were your impressions of where he was headed musically and what you were going to bring to this band?
I honestly didn’t know. It was all kind of surreal to be honest. I’d never worked with somebody in that capacity and also somebody who you know was world famous and established in the world like that. So, it was interesting to get in and to have that be the first thing that you do, you don’t really have anything to compare it to. It was a lot of late night parties and a lot of impromptu recording sessions. The path was paved — he wanted to see how I would respond in different environments and under different circumstances. When he offered me the job, he was sure that he wanted me at that point.
I mean when you’re dealing with somebody who’s so flexible musically and has a crazy imagination, you don’t know what’s coming next. You can’t really you know, I mean he could go a certain way for a while and then completely change. So it kept things interesting but if you were trying to predict what was coming, you couldn’t.
I read a piece where Tommy Barbarella was talking about how sometimes you’d be recording songs in the studio, and you didn’t even know if it was a Prince song or someone he was working with and it was really that fluid, that there was just constant creation.
That’s right. The first few sessions I did with him turned out to be songs for a singer named Elisa Fiorillo, who actually returned to the camp later on and sang with him, along with Shelby J. and Marva [King]. I didn’t know what it was, it was just me and Prince in the studio, he was playing piano and I was playing drums and we were talking and getting to know one another; I didn’t know what we were doing and he didn’t bother to tell me, so I guess I figured that I didn’t need to know.
Do you remember the first song that you were in the studio recording at Paisley Park?
Absolutely, it was for a song called “The Grand Progression.” That was supposed to be on the soundtrack for the Graffiti Bridge movie and ended up getting replaced by another song called “Still Would Stand All Time.” His father was there, I walked into Studio A and they were both in the control room and his dad was standing there and Prince was like “this is the drummer I was telling you about.”
And I’m like, okay great — this is Prince and his father, my first recording session. And from the playback I couldn’t really understand where I was supposed to go with the music, like I was trying to learn what was happening but it moved along in a very mysterious sort of way. It sounded like a band that was learning a song as it was happening. A few bars played and Prince stopped the tape and was like “Is there something wrong?” I said, “Yeah — well I can’t, I don’t understand where things are going.” And he said, “Well play that way, that’s the idea — in the movie that’s what’s supposed to be happening.” At least that’s what was going to be happening in the movie: it was supposed to sound like musicians were just trying to figure out how to play this song. And that’s what I was doing, but I was certain that I should be approaching this with some sort of certitude and that wasn’t what he wanted at all.
Well it would’ve helped if maybe someone had told you that was the scene in the movie or that’s what was happening.
Well I mean that was the other thing about Prince, he was always interested to see what you were going to do. ‘Cause if you give too much instruction then you’re controlling the quality of the result. And people can surprise you, in good ways and bad.
Can you talk just a little bit about that time period being at Paisley Park? It seemed like a very bustling atmosphere, with a costume department and many employees. What do you remember about that?
Oh just late night parties, jamming with Mavis Staples and George Clinton. And I mean, it would go all night — five, six in the morning. Yes, there was the business side of things that proceeded during the day, but you know after six or seven o’clock it was just us. I think it was always his favorite time of day, those hours where none of that matters. For a lot of musicians, between midnight and six or seven in the morning, that’s when the things happen that appeal to you. You can get your mind in the right place and the world’s quiet, except for the noise you’re making, so it’s easier to concentrate and focus.
I like that. So I want to have you pick some music. What song do you think we should start off with?
Well I don’t mean to draw a direct link right away, but you had me thinking about some of the recording sessions I did at Paisley and one of the ones I did in more recent years was for an album that Prince released called Lotusflow3r. But it didn’t start out that way; it started out that I walked in and he says, “I heard that Soul Asylum song.” He said, “That’s a great song, why wasn’t why wasn’t it a hit?”
“Stand Up and Be Strong.” And what’s weird is that at the time when Dave [Pirner] wrote it, a couple of people in the organization were like “Nah.” They didn’t think that it was the right sort of single to lead off the record. I was like “Dude, why aren’t we doing this one?” and Dave was like, “I don’t know, the camp’s not really into it.” I was like, “Well I’m into it,” and he went “Okay!” So me and Dave just kind of pushed it through and it ended up being the first song on the record and Silver Lining actually turned out to be a real fan favorite. I remember we ran into Eddie Trunk somewhere and he was like “Hey, that Silver Lining record is great” — the Trunk endorsed it straight away. And Prince was like, “That was supposed to be a huge hit, what happened?”
Then he says, “Well, can I cover it? I wanna record that song.” I said I imagined so, and he said “Well, will you call Dave right now and ask him?” So I stepped out of the studio and I got Dave on the cell phone — which is hard enough to do anyway — and he just happened to pick up, and I told him, “Prince wants to cover ‘Stand Up and Be Strong’ but he doesn’t want to do it without your approval, he doesn’t want any problems later on.” Dave was like, “Yeah absolutely man, I’m honored.” So we cut a version of it that’s in the vault somewhere, but I remember that was kind of a point where a world that I was just entering into, and a world that I was still dabbling in, kind of collided. So I think it’s appropriate that we lead off with that. Also Dave is joining us for the tribute. He was a great fan of Prince’s music and Prince clearly liked what Dave was doing too.
I want to talk to you a little bit more about these tributes, because last year when you played the shows at the Parkway, the news of Prince’s passing was very fresh. I’m wondering if you could reflect a little bit on what that experience was like for you, and the decision to pursue the tributes this year?
Well Tommy Barbarella, Sonny T. and I had lunch at the the Monte Carlo and we discussed how we were going to deal with it, because it was completely unexpected and surreal and it was like a bomb went off. You know what I mean?
There was just this sort of open space and you could feel it, everywhere you went. I remember walking down the street downtown and I tend to try to be pleasant — “Hi, how are you,” you know, give people the nod — and for a moment they would break out of it and say “Hi,” and then they’d go back. You could see it on people’s faces.
You could feel it in the air, I felt. Like it was heavy.
Yes. It changed things in a way you couldn’t have imagined. And we had been talking to Julius [Collins] about it and he was like, “Well, what do you guys want to do?” Because I had just done a David Bowie tribute with him earlier that year, and we were kind of reeling from that and then all of a sudden Prince dies and it’s like wow, what can we do? And Tommy and Sonny were feeling the way that I did — there was just this hole that you couldn’t fill — and it’s like, well, what else is there for us to do except to honor him the way that we know best and just play. Just play through it and try to find some you know, closure and good vibration to carry you through it.
And of course it didn’t have the adverse effect, but we still just cried like babies up there. It was such a fresh wound and a person that we were close to, but he was not the type of person that you could really — he was very personal. So you can only know him to a certain degree. And there’s a lot of people that came out after his death saying, “Oh, me and Prince, we were great friends,” and it’s like, if you really knew Prince, you knew that that was an impossibility for the most part. It’s unfortunate that a person that works their entire life to be successful ends up being isolated and insulated by that success, because as you well know, the better you do in life, the more people you attract who come for various reasons. So I never took his general distrust personally. I got it: everybody wants something from you when you’re on that level. And you don’t want to walk around saying no to everybody, but on a certain level you kind of have to, you know, to keep yourself in tact, you have to leave something for you. I’m sorry, I think I’ve gone off subject to a certain degree.
No, you’re right on subject.
Alright so anyway, bottom line is that we just wanted to give the fans something and give ourselves some respite and coming together in his memory helped a little bit.
It helped me. I was in a rough place at that time and it was absolutely cathartic to have it be that soon, and to know that it’s people that had this incredible experience alongside him. And I really get the sense, too, that the three of you have a unique bond, not just through your experiences with Prince, but also musically — something happens when the three of you come together.
We met just being musicians in town. Tommy and Sonny and I, our work predates the New Power Generation — we’re colleagues, our relationship extends before that and continues after. While it’s true we are core members of the New Power Generation, we all kind of found each other without his help and he realized after, you know — oh, you, you and you. He saw the kinship and figured out how to exploit it, in a good way. It’s always better if you have musicians who are familiar with working with one another. Because then all the communication is shorthand, you get things done faster.
I wanted to ask you specifically about horns getting pulled into Prince’s sound, because when I think about what defines the Minneapolis Sound of the ’80s with Prince, it was the horn parts being replaced by these synthesizers. And you were really there at a time when the horns were getting pulled in, in an analog way, and being pulled into the show. Was that something that you were thinking about and observing? What was it like to add that to the band?
I’ll tell you exactly what happened. Prince stopped me in the hallway at Paisley and said “You need your own band, you need an instrumental group, like with a horn section.” And I had been working with Steve Strand and Mike Nelson and Brian Gallagher, rest his soul, on another project at that time. I said, “I know three,” and he said, “You need five.” And he turned around and walked away from me. So then the Jensens, Dave and Kathy, were employed so I had five horns. We were working up arrangements of some of the Madhouse material, and we were recording the rehearsals from day to day. And Tommy and Sonny were also playing with me, so it was me and Tommy and Sonny and the horns. And Prince was getting these cassettes of rehearsals for about a week, and he comes in at the beginning of the following week and says, “Can you have those dudes come to the studio tonight?’ And I knew as he was walking away from me again that my band was done — he was going to hijack the horns and they were going to become a part of the larger picture. So yeah, not only did I observe it, it’s my fault. [laughs]
You actually did it.
Well that’s really cool. Is there a particular song that really epitomizes that movement towards this kind of live horn section?
Well the one — I don’t know if you can play the one, but you’d have to play the edited version. Can you play the edited version of “Sexy MF?”
Alright, well I guess you better, then.
We followed up “Sexy MF” with “Diamonds and Pearls,” and you were telling me a really cool story about this song. One of your first real recording experiences with Prince and the NPG, right?
Yeah. That was probably the first track that we recorded with the new rhythm section — Tommy Barbarella and Sonny Thompson and me. We were rehearsing for a different project Prince had going on, and they weren’t in the band yet. We’d come back from the Nude Tour, 1990, and Prince was interested in finding a direction for this new record we were going to make because Rosie Gaines had joined the band prior to the tour, and she was in Graffiti Bridge.
So he was like, how do I form this new sound, how do I make a sound that represents where I’m headed? And Tommy, Sonny and I were still hanging around rehearsal, we were rehearsing in the sound stage at Paisley and Prince comes down and says, “Hey, you guys have a minute? I’ve got this idea for a song.” And he sat down at the keyboard and he started to show us, and we went back to our instruments. And we got so far on the arrangement he was like, “Can we just record this right quick?” So we go into Studio B, and we took two takes, and the only difference he asked for in the second pass was that there was this hole in the middle of the bridge that I left open because I was not instructed to fill it. So we took it again and he was like, “Oh, this time put something in there man, you know something memorable, something you want to hear for years and years.” Prince will ask you, “Do something legendary,” in this cavalier manner, and then you have to consider the rest of your life in that moment. So what happened was I had borrowed this sort of idea that I saw some other drummer using and I adapted it in the moment to make it work and Prince was like “Great, okay.” And that was the big drum fill in the middle of “Diamonds and Pearls,” on the bridge, and it’s forever haunted me since. Mainly, if I do any interviews for drum magazines, they always want to talk about the fill.
How do you feel about it all these years on?
I think it still stands up. It was one of those moments that he gave me the room to sort of do something spectacular and improvisational, but it just sort of happened on its own once I stopped agonizing in my brain — I had two minutes, you know, while I’m playing to figure out, what am I going to do here? So it just sort of happened, and after that, Tommy and Sonny and I went down to Bunker’s and sure enough, it probably was Duane — Prince’s brother used to help with security — who comes right into Bunker’s at midnight and says, “Hey, Prince wants you guys to come right back to the studio when you’re finished down here.”
And we went, “Okay.” So we drove back out to Chanhassen and that night — actually Shelia E. was hanging out at the studio, so that was the first chance I got to meet her — and we recorded another song on the Diamonds and Pearls album called “Live 4 Love” at around 2:30 in the morning.
And that was all the same day? Well, kind of.
Within the same 12-hour cycle, let’s just say that.
Wow. That’s rigorous.
That experience with that rhythm section got his mind going in the right direction, and there was a place for everybody in how that music was arranged and put together.
So you were 18 when you first started with Prince, and I imagine it was at a time where you’re still kind of absorbing music history and your own influences. What do you think you learned about your own playing and your own style from working with Prince at that time?
Wow, that’s a really good question. I’m not sure what personal reflection I can really say I had; the whole thing was moving so fast. I mean in retrospect, if I was a better positive critic of my own work, I would be more in touch with it. The process is always moving forward; I don’t play like I used to, and I don’t really want to play like I used to. Certain things worked for me then that work against me now, and that’s difficult to explain in a way that wouldn’t be just wasting your time. [laughs]
Well maybe a different way to ask that is, I know Prince was kind of a music historian, and could geek out at length about specific records and sounds. Were there conversations that you had with him that opened your mind to different styles or different drummers?
Not only conversations — I mean he literally, sometimes we’d be rehearsing and he’d say, “Play it more like this or that,” and I’d be like, “Well I’m not familiar with that,” and they’d go, “Aw man, this young dude doesn’t know nothing.” And Prince would say, “Well you’ve got to stay after school.” And I would follow him into Studio A after rehearsal and there was a phonograph always wired into the console. He’d call his housekeeper and give her a list of records to bring over, and I would sit there and have a listening party with Prince while he would educate me about all these different records. And I mean really, it’s an invaluable experience and I don’t know if he ever did that with anybody else, but I was really grateful that he took that extra time with me and exposed me to a lot of things.
I mean I had known about Sly and the Family Stone, but I didn’t know about certain cuts and different drummers that had played a certain kind of way. So a stack of records would show up and we would just sit there and he would say, “well this is derivative of that” and so on and so forth. I would just sit there and my head would be spinning by the time I’d leave, and I’d go to play some gig at the Whiskey Junction or somewhere and I’d just, you know, be brain dead because I’ve absorbed all this information.
It’s like being in school and having a master class.
Literally! Exactly, like you’re trying to catch it all but he’s moving so fast.
That’s incredible, wow. To only be a fly on the wall in that kind of conversation.
Well, it wasn’t really a conversation. It was me sitting there and shutting up and Prince playing On Time and going, “See, you hear how the high-hats sound like they’re about this big? That’s the sound you want, you want it to snap like that.”
Michael would you like to pick another song for us to listen to?
Wow, I mean can we literally play anything? My goodness. Well, while we’re at it, can I throw in a little turn?
‘Cause I recently, well within the last few months now, I reached out to Paul Westerberg, because he was actually the first person to hire me after Prince fired us in ’96. I met Paul in Studio B. I just kind of walked in there and people were like — the assistant engineer was guarding the door because Paul really didn’t want anybody coming in or going out. And I understood that and I’d never met him before, but I was pretty familiar with the Replacements just from growing up here. And I said, well I want to meet him and he said, well, you can’t. And I waited until he went to the bathroom or something, and I just walked in there. We had been shooting a video on the soundstage so I’m in complete regalia — I’ve got these crazy clothes on and my hair is all done up like some sort of modern samurai. And I just kind of walk in there and he stands up, “Oh, oh hey man how’s it going,” you know, and he’s like, “Do they make those clothes here?” And then we start talking about clothes for about 30 minutes, and music was a very small part of the conversation. I was like, “Well it’s good to meet you,” and he says, “You know, I’ve got a couple songs that I need drums on.”
So I ended up recording two songs with Paul that week. At Paisley, in Studio B. It was for a record called Eventually and you could play one of those songs. One of them is called “Century.” The other one’s “Time Flies Tomorrow,” but I think I want to hear “Century.” Didn’t see that coming did ya?
I did not. Thank you for the curve ball. I love that, that’s awesome. Another song you chose is Mayda, “Stereotype” — a newer record that you were a part of. And you produced that one in addition to performing on it, right?
That’s right. Mayda and I met and we had this immediate sort of musical chemistry — she liked what I liked, I liked what she liked. She also was pretty heavily steeped in Minneapolis music, of course a big fan of Prince, and because I had an intimate feel for that, I was like oh, you want to do that sort of thing? Yeah we can that, we can do that all day. Our first meeting, actually, was interesting because she played me probably four or five songs on guitar and just singing and I was just like, “Uh, I don’t know.” I didn’t like it; we weren’t in the same space yet. After she started this song she said, “Well, I’ve just started working on this song, but I don’t really have it all together,” and she kind of plays the bass line, she starts singing the words to “Stereotype.” Okay, I got it now. Once she played that for me I knew where she was coming from.
She’s just this diminutive person with the attitude of an eight-foot, you know, I don’t know what. I don’t mean to call her a chihuahua, but it’s that thing where it’s like I’m tiny, but I’m aggressive and I’m going to get what I need out of the situation no matter what. So I really liked her hustle, you know, and even now she tours Asia and Cambodia and what not on her own, a guitar on her back. And she goes and just she does her thing and you have to respect it, ’cause she was given nothing, no advantages whatsoever. She just wanted what she wanted and together we helped get it moving. So I’m proud of that, I’m proud of her.
Aw, that’s great. To close out tonight, we’ve been talking about how you were mentored by Prince at this very pivotal time and you’ve gone on to mentor other musicians. What would you tell a new musician about getting involved in the music industry, starting out a career?
Wow, well as most people who know me personally, I don’t generally advocate getting into this business because it’s not for everybody. It takes a lot. It takes your life, you know? And if you’re not ready to give it, you can do us all a favor and just go into the cushy gig that you went to college for and just don’t add to the noise. I don’t mean to be pessimistic about it, but what I’m saying is if you want it then work hard, no excuses. Get to work, otherwise there’s plenty of people doing this on a very sort of casual, laid back basis with this sort of surface affinity for making music. Or you know people who really don’t have anything to say, but they’ll take all day telling you about it. So it’s just gotta matter, that’s all I’m saying. I don’t mean to be a hater. I’m just saying if you want it, then work for it.
Especially now, there’s just so much music coming out.
Right! As a matter of fact, that’s interesting you’d say that because I remember one of the last conversations I had with Prince, he was talking about how he had dinner with Elton John and they were talking about how there’s entirely too much music being made on this planet right now.
And Prince goes into this dissertation about how being a musician used to be something that those people did. You know what I mean? It was not even a respected profession. I saw an episode recently of I Love Lucy where she wants to go on tour with Ricky — Lucille Ball played saxophone a little bit and he’s auditioning horn players. And so she’s asking Fred Mertz, “Well, how do you act like a musician?” And he goes, “Oh that’s easy — you eat bad, you don’t get any rest, you stay out all night and you check the race form.” Like it’s a very unsavory profession to be in, or at least it was looked at that way. And now all of a sudden, everybody wants to do what we’re doing. And I don’t think it was supposed to be like that.
Interesting. That’s kind of surreal to picture that conversation happening between Prince and Elton.
Yeah, it was even hard for me too. I’m like, what does Prince want to talk to Elton John about? You know, not that he’s not great, but I mean — I remember a story I like to tell. My first tour with Prince, I’m going to the dressing room in Wembley Arena and Peter Gabriel is sitting outside of Prince’s dressing room. And I take this opportunity to meet him cause I’m like, “Dude, you’re great” — So had been out and I liked that record a lot. And I go to my dressing room and come back and he’s gone, so I’m thinking that he went into Prince’s dressing room and they talked. And sometime after that, I got called into Prince’s dressing room and he was telling me something he wanted to do different in the show. You know, he’s got his curling iron, he’s doing his hair, he’s in front of all this makeup and he says “Okay, you got it?” And I said, “Yeah yeah. Oh, did you talk to Peter Gabriel?” And he starts laughing and says, “About what??”
[Laughing] About what.
Yeah, what am I going to talk to Peter Gabriel about? He’s doing that world beat, whatever that is, I don’t do that. So Prince, he was a very funny guy. It’s funny, ’cause Dave Pirner said to me on the tour bus not too long ago, he said, “Prince fans have no sense of humor.” And I said, “Really? That’s ironic because he was very funny.” And I started thinking about it and I kinda, sorta have to agree on some level. Like a lot of them are very, super serious and kind of just, you know riveted. And it’s their prerogative to be that way, but they should know — Prince was not like that. He was a very funny individual. A lot of his music is an accurate portrait of his life or where his head was at at that time, but along with all that, he liked to laugh and he like to have a good time. [laughs] So you know, that’s what we’re hoping they’re going to do at the Fine Line on June 8, 9 and 10.