In 1984 the biggest record and movie was Purple Rain by Prince and The Revolution. Bassist of The Revolution, Brownmark gives readers a front row and centre seat to all the crazy times with his memoir Life in the Purple Kingdom. The book is a classic “Rag to Riches” story from a young man playing arenas to ninety people on a nightly basis, living that quintessential rock ‘n roll lifestyle to how Prince influenced his journey through music and eventually overcoming adversities to get back on track “in this thing we call life.”
Brownmark chatted with the Hi-Fi Way no holds barred about his early years in Minneapolis, the friendship with Prince and what life was like in The Revolution.
What can people expect when they read your book?
Firstly, it’s not a book that’s sheds a negative light or says anything bad about anybody or anything that I was a part of, because I’ve heard a couple of rumours out there that I’m bitter and so I wrote a memoir… well that’s not true and I would like to clear that up.
I went through a lot in my life, a lot of drama, a lot of ups and downs and music was my only outlet. I grew up poor with no money as many of us did in Minneapolis but we were all connected to the same music scene. That’s what inspired me to write this book. It tells my story about how through high school I worked hard to be a bass player and then meeting Prince in a pancake house where I was a cook. Then ironically a couple of years later I’m in his band. It’s a really cool story of how we met and then when I was in the band, what a rollercoaster ride that was! Prince had already been in the industry for four or five years, but this was all new to me.
That story within itself is a tale and the struggle of “how do I fit into all this?” “where do I fit into this?” Prince and Dez Dickerson were established as Rockstars and I was just this little kid, wet behind the ears coming right out of high school joining up with them. That was a struggle for me.
The book goes from the Controversy period all the way to Purple Rain, to the peak of our career where it was mind blowing “like wow!” and I was too young to comprehend what was happening in that three to four year period with Prince. It then goes into how I spiralled out of control. Prince and I bumped heads but the book tells the story of us coming back together and spiritually uniting again. We became friends again after we had a falling out but it’s a really good story with a positive ending. A kind of ‘Rags to Riches’ story.
How was writing the book for you? Was it a cathartic experience? Absolutely! It was therapeutic for me. As I said I was so young when I was playing small bars to one hundred people a weekend maybe one hundred and fifty if we were lucky! Putting twenty five dollars in my pocket. (laughs) I went from that to supporting the Rolling Stones and a screaming ninety thousand people audience. I mean that’s a shock to one’s system and women chasing you down the street just like in the TV show The Monkeys! I had only seen that kind of thing in the movies and at that point I found myself running for my life from a mob of people chasing behind me. So, it was a lot for me to process and no one taught me how to process it.
Was it fun at least?
It was a lot of fun! I don’t take that away at all. We had a blast! It was a lot of fun but a lot of depression too. That lifestyle showed me why a lot of musicians turned to drugs although I never did. Unfortunately though I did turn to alcohol. Being on the road nine months of the year and even though I had a home, I was never there. That weighs on you after a couple of years.
When you started writing the book did you find that you remembered more of the memories, fun times, the ups and downs of that period in your life?
Yes, I did. The book starts from when I was age six or seven years old. I’m taking people on this journey through Minneapolis and how black men like myself grew up. Guys like Prince, Morris Day, Andre Cymone, Alexander O’Neal, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, all grew up in the same environment and we all knew each other. Jimmy Jam lived one street over from mine and Terry was a northsider. I knew all of these guys and it’s so ironic how we all ended up in the same camp.
Prince gathered us together and he was the ringleader. He was the spirit that took us out of this thing we called the ‘chitling’ circuit. Back then if you were a Black musician you couldn’t get a gig better than small dive clubs like Elk’s Lodge or the Nacirema Club. That’s what we were used to playing so we didn’t have the opportunity to hit the big time until Prince. He was the first one out the gate and then everything just followed him. It was like a dam. Prince kicked the first brick out and the water came gushing out so then we all stormed it! (laughs)
All those amazingly talented people you mentioned, I’m sure Prince would not have selected you to be a part of his musical circle if you didnt have something special!
Absolutely! Absolutely! We used to have ‘Battle of the Bands” like you see in the movie Purple Rain. That’s how we used to do it. My band was called Fantasy that I started at fourteen years old. We would battle The Time which were at that point called Flyte Time and have ‘Battle of the Bands’ every Friday in these small dives where we had someone at the door collecting money. (laughs) We were street kids hustling and packing these small clubs doing our own advertising. It was crazy being a part of the street scene but then Prince open the doors for us to enter the professional arena.
Thinking back on that did you get a little nostalgic reminiscing and remembering all these amazing experiences in your life?
It was good. Like I said it was therapeutic for me. When I got out of the music industry, I found myself very depressed. There’s a lot that goes on in the industry that is not easy. Its not a walk in the park and not all glitter or gold! It’s not what people think the ‘rock star’ life looks like. I learned the hard way it’s nothing like that.
The book goes into the pain I experienced and my way of releasing. It was like going to a therapist. I started the book about twelve years ago writing different pieces. As the pieces started to come together the stories got bigger and the dots started connecting with the timeline. Therapy! That’s how I look at this book.
Prince knew I was going to write the book. He was like “Ahhh so you wrote a book?” (laughs) and I was like all nervous “ahh, yeah” and he said “You’re going to let me see it right?” and I was like “Of course!” Unfortunately, he passed before I got the chance to get his blessing.
Just with that, its been a few years since he passed, you knew him on a personal and professional level, whereas as a fans we had a relationship with his music which I feel I’m missing him even though I didn’t know him like you did. The fact that we will never hear a new record from him and even though there is music in the vault, it’s not anything he is releasing. Do you find there’s something empty and missing since he’s been gone?
I feel that he was one of the last of his kind. There’s been many like him and many who aspired to be like him, but none as great as what he accomplished… nowadays you don’t find that. Everything is self-generated or computer-generated beats. There’s not a lot of creativity anymore. Not a lot of people know how to pick up an instrument and have a jam session for an hour. To sit on a groove and find a pocket to just sit in it! It’s so rare. I don’t enjoy jamming with a lot of musicians nowadays because they don’t know how to! We come from a generation where, man, we could sit in a pocket for four or five hours just get stuff done and feel like we’re on the top of the world!
Do you find you were more creative when you were with Prince in those days?
I find I’m more creative now than I’ve ever been. I think what happened with me, I was always trying to find myself in his shadow. You’re talking about a brilliant individual. There was no one like him. Everyone talks about Michael Jackson and I love Michael Jackson but he didn’t pick up a guitar and shred it. He didn’t pick up a bass and lick that thing like it was no one’s business or get on the drums. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do that didn’t amaze you! Then on top of that he was a showman; he could sing, he could do the splits like James Brown and I can’t even explain it. He was from a different planet or something. I miss that!
He taught me to be creative, he taught me how to approach music and how to free myself through music and I want to share that with people now. I release new music every quarter and I’m also creating homemade videos of mine and other people’s music on my YouTube channel. I’ve also been releasing EPs of my own new music so I’m a lot more creative since I’ve found myself and that’s a blessing. I attribute that to him. It’s almost as if he gave me a pat on the back.
Is there a question that no one has ever asked you about your time with playing with Prince that you wished was asked that you want to talk about?
Oh there’s a lot of things (laughs). A lot of people think he taught me how to play the bass and that’s not true! (laughs)
Well we got that straight! (laughs)
Yeah, we got that straight! (laughs).
Did Prince just want to push everyone to do their best and it came across as something different?
That’s a loaded question. There’s a lot more to it. So, one thing I am, is honest. I don’t sugar coat or beat around the bush. I speak my mind and I’m not afraid to speak the truth but without bashing people. Bottom line is we are all humans, we all do things and later look back and think “ahh, I wish I didn’t hadn’t done that.” A lot of that happened with Prince where we bumped heads and all those stories are real. I’m just shedding light on the positive side of the outcome of those stories. I don’t dwell on the negative.
Like I said he was my friend, he was like my big brother and yeah, brothers fight and get mad. You will see that in the story but the outcome is real. It wasn’t so much he was pushing me to the musical limits it goes beyond music. We were friends.
There was obviously a lot of respect on both sides.
Yeah there was! Absolutely. The Revolution was a family. We were like the Brady Bunch. It was crazy! (laughs) We all came from different walks of life like adopted children of Prince.
There seems to be a very strong and special connection to The Revolution amongst Prince fans. Why do you think fans have connected with the group in such a way as compared to his other bands?
I think why people love The Revolution, is because we were Prince’s extension. Prince could feed all of his creativity through us. With the bass lines he didn’t give me a tape and say “learn this bass line.” He would always say “Mark, come on give me something. Give me some growl” and I’d be “like this?” or he’d yell to Bobby Z “Bobby, Bobby kick that note, hit that snare!” We would all start grooving putting it all together. It was always a collaboration.
At that time, I also had a band called Mazarati and I was writing for them in secrecy. I would be at the rehearsal studio and have the drum machine going, the keyboards being sequenced and I’m jamming on music that I’m trying to create. Prince would walk in and ask “What’s that?” and that’s it, I knew I lost the song because he would want it. As the band trickled in, we would be jammin’ on that song for the next few hours. That’s what was so cool about The Revolution and the Prince experience.
The New Power Generation was a concept that he was putting together that morphed into all these other bands that were created from it. NPG had many faces whereas The Revolution had one face, we were his band. We helped him to that pinnacle and when we hit the heights of Purple Rain where could we go from there? We all said it, even Prince said it! We were at the top, there were no more mountains to climb. So, life became very different at that point.
I have a question from a fan perspective: Was there ever a chance of getting the band back together again with Prince? Not just a one off but a tour or an album?
Absolutely! I can’t speak for the rest of the group but he did talk to me about it. Prince would always fly me in from wherever I lived for a day or two and we’d sit up at Paisley and jam. He’d be trying to put together music or figure out a new band angle to come at with and I remember having this conversation “Well you’re trying to find what once was so why don’t you just put us back together?” That’s why he was flying me out. He wanted that rumble on the bottom and he wanted it back. I said to him “Have you ever thought about just putting us back together?”
Prince looked at me and said “Well, of what benefit would that be?”
I said “Of what benefit? The fans would go berserk!”
Prince said “Well, I don’t look back!”
I said “Well you’re looking back right now. That’s why I’m sitting here! You want something that what once was and now you’re wanting me to bring that back. What’s the difference?”
So Prince eventually said he would think about it, but it never happened of course, because he passed.
Australian fans are yearning for The Revolution to play live in Australia. Is it possible to make that happen?
I can’t wait ‘til we get there! We’ve been talking to promoters for a couple of years but they only want to pay just enough to get us there but it’s like “Guys we need to eat too!” (laughs) The pay out is so low but our production is so high so its been impossible to come out there.
It could still happen, but the fans really have to press hard on the promoters. We have a booking agent and the promoters reach out to them. We have a very high production and have to come out a few days before just for that. The costs for that and flights are high. The offers we get only cover the costs and the sad reality with that is we would have to cover some costs out of our own pocket. That’s just not viable.
I know NPG have been out there a few times but you’re talking about a whole different set of circumstances. The Revolution show is very high fidelity and up there on the scale of engineering alone. We have Prince’s old engineer, to make sure we give the people the same experience they got in 1984/85 so to carry that to Australia it’s not cheap. The promoters in Europe managed to work it out. We don’t want to give people a lesser experience in Australia to what fans had in the USA and Europe. It really is going to depend on the promoter’s ability to try and work that out.
Can you tell us the time you realised that playing the bass guitar was what you wanted to do in life?
I was fourteen years old. I started playing bass when I was just a kid like seven or eight years old but then I put it down because I couldn’t get it. It actually wasn’t a real bass it was a guitar with four strings. It was hard to figure it out but I encountered my first real bass when I was foyurteen and I had some idea on how to play it because of the guitar.
Once I felt the power that thing had it blew me away. I looked around and there were all these people standing around watching me playing this thing for the first time thinking I had been played for years. That’s when I knew, when I saw how it moved people I was like “This is what I want to do!” From that point on I was building my own basses, taking wood shop, electronics and anything I could do to learn to create what I needed to make them because I was too poor to buy my own.
Who were your early musical influences?
Wow! Lots! Larry Graham I have to say was the most influential bass player. He influenced me on a heavy scale. Louis Johnson, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius and Mr Marks (Mark Adams) from Slave. These guys were just so incredible. I mean there’s a whole bunch more like Verdine White from Earth Wind and Fire, I mean I could go on. If a bass player was funky, I was studying his style. Like a sponge I was sucking in everybody’s style and that’s where my own style comes from. I have my own style of playing that is unique to my past but it came from listening to so many bass players. Not just listening but absorbing them.
I see that you are releasing some new music. How does it feel to release your own music?
I love it! I have an EP out right now on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon and pretty much everywhere! The band is called Brownmark and The Bad Boyz of Paisley and we have a five song EP out now. I like to release something every few weeks. My new single is called Empty Handed.
My single A Change is Coming is also out now which was inspired by the police brutality and the situation that is happening at the moment. If we can find a way to help the George Floyd movement, we are definitely going to approach that charitable contribution.
Interview by Anastasia Lambis