Though Prince’s use of drum machines—in particular, the LM-1, designed by Roger Linn—was a major part of his singular sound, he could also play serious grooves in a wide array behind a real-deal drum kit.
Prince began drumming at age 12. “I learned on a big box of newspapers,” he told Modern Drummer in 2001. “I kicked the box 2 imitate the bass drum and played the flaps 2 imitate the hi-hat and snare.” Prince told Yahoo! Internet Life in 2001, “Anybody who has followed my career knows how much technology has meant to me. When it was three o’clock in the morning, and I’d try to get [Revolution drummer] Bobby Z to come out to the studio, sometimes he’d come, sometimes he wouldn’t. But I’ve had this Roger Linn drum machine since 1981. It’s one of the first drum machines ever created. It takes me five seconds to put together a beat on this thing. So from the very start, technology gave me a direct result for my efforts.”
Nonetheless, by the end of the eighties, Prince was ready for a new sound. Enter Michael Bland. Along with bassist Sonny Thompson and keyboardist Tommy Barbarella (birth surname Elm), Bland formed the nucleus of Prince’s main nineties band, the New Power Generation (or NPG), from 1990 to 1996. Though Prince would regularly rotate band members over the years (and even bands—see 3RDEYEGIRL), Bland would work regularly with Prince in the studio, often alongside Thompson, till shortly before Prince’s death. The Current’s Michaelangelo Matos talked with Bland about Prince’s drumming, drumming with Prince, and whether Morris Day did, in fact, play drums on his two crucial early 80s albums.
The Current: How would you typify Prince as a drummer?
Michael Bland: Imaginative. Very syncopated—clearly influenced by Clyde Stubblefield from James Brown’s band, as most of us were. But also heavily influenced by the drummer from Tower of Power, whose name is David Garibaldi. I immediately recognized that in his playing, in his touch, some of the rhythms he’d be attracted to. “Tambourine” [from Around the World in a Day] is a pretty good example of rhythmic displacement—he takes kind of a solo in the middle. I guess it’s not really a solo, but he plays very ornate and builds a bridge based on the drum track.
I know a lot of the songs he cut in the mid-80s for sure would start with the drum track and then he’d work his way into completing the track after that. As a matter of fact, I remember specifically asking him about the first [four] songs on the Under the Cherry Moon soundtrack, Parade. I said, “It sounds to me like you sat there and played it out—the first nine minutes of that record sound like it was a single performance, straight through.” And he said, “How did you know that?” I said, “Because it sounds like that. There’s a continuity—like you had all this music in your head and you just had to get the drums down first.” He told me that’s exactly what he did, he played the drums first and then went back and filled in all the music after, basically. It just sounded like that to me, ever since the first time I heard that record.
Which rock drummers did Prince admire?
I know he liked how Charlie Watts played. When we were recording “Cream,” he was saying, “Play like Charlie. Play like Charlie Watts.” That’s why that track is pretty driving and there are not a lot of drum fills going on. It’s pretty barebones. He never talked about John Bonham or Keith Moon or anything like that. The guy who was a very influential drummer to him from the seventies was Billy Cobham in the Mahavishnu Orchestra and especially solo records like Spectrum. Prince loved all that. That’s pretty rocking drumming, but it’s also very virtuosic.
How did you begin working with Prince in the studio?
I think it started, probably, in late ’90, fall of ’90. The first time we [Bland, Thompson, and Barbarella] were actually rehearsing to do something at Glam Slam, when he opened that club in downtown Minneapolis. He came in as we were getting ready to leave, and he said, “I got this idea for a song and I wondered if you could help me with it?” He showed us a couple of the chords and a riff and we kind of developed, about two-thirds of the way, and he said, “Can we record this before you guys leave?” That ended up being “Diamonds and Pearls.” So we were in Studio B, took two takes of it, and the second one was the one he liked best. Then we left—we went downtown to Bunker’s.
He sent his brother and another dude on security down to the club to tell us he wanted us, after the gig, to come back out to Paisley. We ended up recording another song called “Live 4 Love.” I think that was the beginning of the trend of, I like this better. I believe he liked it better because as a producer he got a lot more objectivity. He could take back and listen to what we were playing in real time and decide what was working and what was not.
What stands out to you about Prince’s own drumming, both live and with machines?
The use of space. With the programming there was a very specific approach to using the Linn drum. A lot of other people used it, but not in the same way. Prince’s recording techniques—you can ask anyone who worked with him, he was fearless. He’d try things that other people wouldn’t try. Gary Numan had a Linn machine too, but he probably never thought to run some of the sounds through his guitar pedals and flangers and distortion and detuning. It’s never the brush, it’s the painter. It’s the person who is operating the tool. He had a unique viewpoint and always got it across.
The actually live drumming: I think on the first couple of records, you can tell—I can tell—there was a definite difference in the sense of dynamics and in the approach than on Dirty Mind and Controversy. I still believe that Morris Day played drums on the majority of Dirty Mind and Controversy — I really do — as well as on those Time records; that was mostly Morris drumming. That’s partly what I’ve heard from other people, but I’ve also seen Morris drum before. His style is what I’m hearing.
Prince’s statute is very—you know, he was a diminutive person. So he didn’t push a whole lot of weight when he was playing drums. And that’s why on “I Wanna Be Your Lover” or any of those songs on the first couple records, there’s a very light, crispy, graceful sound. But Dirty Mind is just, like, somebody is pounding the crap out of those drums. It sounds like they were recorded in some basement somewhere with a couple of microphones and a lot of compression, and it’s a different style. Morris has this aggressive, funky sort of pocket that I believe I can identify.
What are your own favorite performances as Prince’s drummer?
Oh boy. Listening back to a lot of it forces me to be uber-critical of myself. If I listen to Prince’s music, it’s usually something that happened before I got there. But if I’m forced to choose some performances I think work well, a lot of them are on the symbol album, the one with “7” and “My Name Is Prince” and “The Morning Papers.” I tried some tremendous things that happened to work out. “And God Created Woman” I think is a very good take. He really allowed me to express myself. If I’m not mistaken, that might have been a first take. “The Morning Papers,” I think, stands up pretty well: I hear it, I don’t cringe. [laughs]
When he called for me and Sonny to come out to Paisley, usually he was reliant on our ingenuity to make something work. We had a very shorthand way of communicating. It was something that the three of us got; he probably worked with other people differently. Sonny and I kind of see and hear music the same sort of way. A friend of Sonny’s came down to Bunker’s to listen to me and him play one time, and he said, “I think you and Sonny came down on a frickin’ spaceship.” [laughs] It’s a viewpoint; it’s a perception. We’re after the same thing when we make music together. He has perfect pitch; I have perfect pitch. He has a very strong sense of time; so do I. Together we make this sort of sound that Prince just had a lot of use for.
Theft of the Dial: The Revolution. Join Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Bobby Z., BrownMark, and Dr. Fink for an hour of curated Prince tunes and an interview with host Andrea Swensson.
Theft of the Dial: Donna Grantis. Prince’s 3RDEYEGIRL guitarist Donna Grantis hand-picks some of Prince’s best guitar jams and chats with program director Jim McGuinn.
Roger Linn, inventor of the LM-1 drum machine, talks Prince and “When Doves Cry” with writer Cecilia Johnson.
Michael Bland shares his incredible stories of working with Prince, Soul Asylum, Westerberg and more in an interview with Andrea Swensson.
Susannah Melvoin on the hidden tenderness of Prince and the story behind “Starfish and Coffee.”
Sign up for the Purple Current newsletter
Get the latest stories about Prince’s musical legacy and updates on what’s playing on Purple Current.