Susan Rogers On Prince “Sign O’ The Times”

When most think of Prince they think of Purple Rain but 1987’s release of his first album after disbanding The Revolution was just as prolific. Sign O’ The Times was the album that saw Prince mature and evolve as an artist sealing his place in music history as one of the greatest. Warner Brothers are reissuing a remastered edition with previously unreleased tracks and a live recording of Prince’s 1987 New Years Eve concert with Miles Davis. The Super Deluxe Edition includes a 120 page hardcover booklet with previously unseen handwritten lyrics as well as photographs, studio material and unheard tracks.

Susan Rogers was Prince’s Sound Engineer from 1983-1987 working on Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade, Sign O’ The Times, and The Black Album. Starting out as Prince’s technician she quickly worked her way to be his engineer building up a lifetime of priceless memories. Rogers chatted to the Hi-Fi Way about the album, what it was like working with Prince and how music affects as all in different ways.

Purple Rain stands as the most famous and commercially successful of Prince’s records, how would you compare that to Sign O’ The Times, in the sense of his achievements from an engineer’s perspective?
Sign O’ The Times represents a more mature artist. Prince underwent incredibly rapid maturation, growth, and a lot of changes between 1983 when I joined him making Purple Rain and 1987 when Sign O’ The Times came out. He was working at a furious pace and a lot of records were coming along but it was a crucial time in his life for the transition from being a precocious youth who was extraordinary on so many instruments and could write and perform so well to being a man. He was 24 years old when he did most of the recording on Purple Rain and he was just about to turn 25 when it came out, but he was approaching 30 when we did Sign of the Times. At this point as an artist he wasn’t concerned about being a star. It was already established that he was, I think at this point he was concerned of his legacy. Would he be an artist who had one great album in him, or would he be an artist like Stevie Wonder or other artists before him that had more than one great album? So, Sign O’ The Times answered that question for most of us.

Do you think having said that, because Sign O’ The Times has no allegiance to a particular genre, was this deliberate on his part, the creativity and experimentation and wanting to put a stamp on his legacy?
Yes, I think so! In the music business styles are pretty short lived. Trends will last for four or five years and then they are gone. The public’s appetite moves on to other things, but some styles will last longer than others. Certainly, Rock music had a very long run as did Folk music and in 1987 when Prince was doing Sign O’ The Times, he was pretty well aware that Rap and Hip Hop weren’t just going to go away overnight. 

By 1987 Rap and Hip Hop which started in the late 70’s, if it were a passing trend it should’ve gone away and at this point it was only growing stronger so I think he very deliberately decided he wasn’t just going to jump on that bandwagon and copy what every-one else was doing. He was going to stay true to himself, do the music that appealed to him and work as he put it “the street where he lived” and stay right there on the street where he lived which was Pop, Funk and Dance music and let the chips fall where they may. Even if he knew darn good and well that his music would not be extremely popular for much longer, he was still willing to do that and keep his integrity.

Obviously, the album has stood the test of time. It’s one of my favourites, even more so than Purple Rain.  I see Sign O’ The Times as still relevant today as it was back in 1987.
Yes. Yes. Yeah, I agree with you, now I was in a meeting with a group of executives not too long ago where one of them said a sentence where I disagreed with completely. I think this sentence is used in business a lot, she said “You can either let the wave fall on you or can ride the wave” and the subtext was anybody who is smart is going to ride the wave and not let it fall on them. I thought “Boy I don’t know if she knows the music business because both Prince and Michael Jackson were smart enough to not go hire a Hip Hop producer and ride that wave. 

They were smart enough to just stay right where they were and let the wave fall on them because it will be fine. If a wave falls on you what does it do? It falls on you then it goes back out to sea and when that wave did go back out to sea it was a record like Sign of the Times. There are other folks staying in their lane and kept doing what they were doing. Those folks were there when the trend passed and those records stood the test of time. Prince in so many ways had an intuitive understanding of how this business works and what would be the smart move for him in this business. He wasn’t always right but sometimes he was right.

You spent a lot of time in the studio with Prince was it challenging at times?
Every day was a challenge in the sense that it was hard work. You’d start a session any given day at any given time of the day. Sessions could start at any time of the day. You were in for a long stretch. If he had let’s say business to do in the morning and we didn’t get started until later in the afternoon at say 2 or 3pm I would not see my home again until morning light. Sessions were always like that.

He was so prolific. His songs were coming so quickly at an extraordinary clip that I spent a lot of time with him facilitating his music making. By that I mean my main role was to make sure that everything working and routed properly and that things were ready for him as soon as he needed them. He liked to move from instrument to instrument to instrument mostly silently because he could do so much of the playing himself except when he would call in Eric Leeds to play saxophone. As he is playing drums you had better have the bass ready and you better have those keyboards ready and they had to be turned on, tuned up and routed totally ready for him on a dime if he wanted to go. You also needed to be able to turn on a dime if he decided he wanted to go in a different direction.

Everything we did together whether he was working with me or someone else the demand was we go as quickly as possible. He did not have the patience. His ideas wouldn’t wait for you to slow down, take your time and be cautious. You had to be almost reckless in getting his sounds to tape and getting them back again. Almost reckless. His style of working rewarded folks like me who started as technicians and we knew the gear really well. There was never any fear on my part if something did break. I knew what to do about it. I could work around it or fix it depending on the time, so I could keep pace, but it was a very, very, very fast pace.

Another thing that we had to be prepared for was any given moment of the day and he’d do this many times, he would wake up in the morning and decide that he would want to play a show that night so he’d find a club often it was First Avenue but sometimes it’d be a different club. We’d have rehearsal early then pack up all his gear then get it in the truck, we’d get it over to the club, we’d set up the stage, he’d play a show then carry down all the stuff from the stage, get it back to the warehouse and get it set back up again. Then you might get an hour or two of sleep then its rehearsal the next day or he’d decide “You know what? Let’s go to Los Angeles!” so you’d pack up the tapes, you run home pack a bag as fast as possible, you get on a plane, you get out to Los Angeles and have no idea how long you’re going to be out there for!

I remember once they told me to pack for two weeks and I came home months later and my Christmas tree which had been green before I left for Los Angeles was just a stick with a pile of dried pine needles on the floor (laughs). That’s how long we were gone for (laughs). It was challenging in a certain way and thrilling, mostly thrilling in another way, always exciting and unpredictable. I was always grateful every single day to be there.

Obviously, you would have learnt a lot from Prince but was there anything he learnt from you?
Gee you know, he would never admit to it (laughs). He wouldn’t admit to it as he wasn’t that type but you would do something and the only way you knew he liked it is if he didn’t change it. So, if you did something and he left it alone it meant he liked it. If he hated it, he would let you know immediately! (laughs) You worked by trial and error. I’d bring in new sounds or little bits at a time I’d try something different. Sometimes he’d be out for the afternoon so I would have time in the studio to play around with some of the gear then he’d come in and I’d show it to him. If he liked it, he liked it and I would keep it!

I remember one time I was playing around on the Publison and he left the room. When he came back, I was playing around with the song Bob George. I don’t know if Bob George is ever going to see the light of day and ever be released. What I had done was taken Prince’s lead vocals and ran it through this Publison. I shifted it down by an octave or more and I was really playing with that vocal. He sounded like he weighed 300 pounds and was 55 years old. It was so funny, and he absolutely loved it. That was the version that we kept (laughs).

So, he did learn from you but didn’t show it in obvious ways!
No, he wasn’t forth coming with compliments. You learned that if you were waiting for a compliment you better not hold your breath (laughs) but you could also tell when he was pleased. It wasn’t hard and those were kind of heart-warming moments. If he was pleased, he would be in such a good mood. Most of the time he was in a good mood and if he was displeased, he would let you know so fast! I mean just so fast!

If you had an idea that he wanted to try out he insisted that it go very very quickly because he was not going to sit there and wait. Sometimes he’d say, “How long would it take?” and you’d say, “Just give me two minutes, just two minutes.” Prince would then say, “You’ve got one minute!” So you would be patching something just as fast as possible and you’d be almost there just getting ready putting in a final patch cord so you can check this thing out to show it to him and he’d say, “Quit it!” and quit it meant, STOP! That was the end of that because he wouldn’t wait any longer. That was just Prince.

So, we know eight of the sixteen songs came from the Dream Factory project which The Revolution worked on, but after The Revolution was disbanded, Prince eventually released Sign O’ The Times as a solo album after re-working those songs and adding others. Given The Revolution’s original contributions (especially Wendy and Lisa’s) do you consider Sign O’ The Times the last Prince and The Revolution album in a sense?
No, I think Parade is definitely the last Revolution album. It’s Gonna Be Beautiful Night is The Revolution being represented on the album and Strange Relationship is one we did quite a lot at rehearsal but for the most part the Sign O’ The Times album represents the end of a transition period for Prince. A very long transition period. He was transitioning between The Revolution and Sheila E and her band. He was transitioning out of his long-term relationship with his fiancé Susannah Melvoin. They had been friends and together for a long time. He was also transitioning out of his 20s and into his 30s.

When we put together the Dream Factory record The Revolution were still together and so you would put out a record that your band could play on stage and tour with the band. So, it would feature the songs that showed off what your band did well but when that band fell apart the record had to come apart too. When the new band came through; Sheila E and her crew came from the San Francisco Bay/Oakland areas and their sound was very different from the Los Angeles sound that Wendy and Lisa brought to Prince.

The Oakland sound is a tougher, harder edge and much funkier so The Dream Factory record wouldn’t quite work. Prince eventually transitioned into Sigh of the Times but in the middle, in between the Dream Factory and Sign O’ The Times was the Crystal Ball record. That was the record that was originally three albums at one point in one figuration of it and a lot of those songs talked about his relationship and the tension in his relationship with Susannah. There were love songs, songs about disagreements like Witness for the Prosecution and the song Crystal Ball is Prince trying to express the tensions in his relationship and his life as well as the tension going on in the world. At this point we were all taken by the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding, the rise of AIDS and a lot of things going on in the world. Yet he expressed those as kind of a relationship of love album in Crystal Ball and possibly the idea of another band like The Coco Boys or Camille. He was playing around with different ideas for another movie and trying to figure out what his next move would be ultimately when Sheila and her band came in, he had the songs ready to tour with but only for a short while. 

We toured Sign O’ The Times in Europe for a little while and then Prince made what many considered to be a rash decision, but he made the decision not to tour Sign O’ The Times in the United States. I think he made his transition and he was done. He was ready to move on.

Do you think he made these decisions as he went along or were they well thought out?
No, he was so smart, but he was pretty impulsive. I have written about this and I do think it’s true the more I look at it; Prince used his music to express who he was and to talk. In his private and personal life you’re just getting to know him when you realise he really doesn’t talk much at all. He famously did not do a lot of interviews, but music was his favourite way of expressing himself. When he had something to say he wrote a song to say it and you would think if you didn’t know about the music business, you’d think that was fairly common, but it isn’t. 

For most people music is just an aspect of their lives and other aspects of their lives include their friends, family and their loved ones. They are the ways they express themselves, but Prince expressed himself almost exclusively by making music. When he was done saying something, he was done, and he got very bored saying the same thing over and over again. So, every time we were on tour he couldn’t wait to get off tour so he could be back in the studio. When we were in the studio of course he wanted to take the songs out and play them in front of people. It was hard for him to be on tour for any length of time.

So, when you spend so much time with someone like Prince in the studio, did his way of doing things stay with you after you left the Prince camp?
That’s a really good question! Yes, but in kind of a bad way. There’s an engineer named Dylan Dresdow who worked with Prince after 2006 and he has worked with a lot of artists like Beyonce. We were on a panel together and she said, “After Prince you had to unlearn Prince.” That was such a concise and accurate way of saying it. The time I spent with Prince made me think that this is how most people do it. I did not come to him as an experienced engineer. I came to him as an audio technician. So, when I left Prince the only real engineering experience, I had was working for him and I just thought that’s how really talented people do it. They write a song a day and they play these instruments practically in one take and they work at lightning speed. They work all night long and that’s just the way they do it and never get tired! 

When I left Prince and went back to Los Angeles, I learnt just how extraordinary he was, so I did have to unlearn his way of doing things and I had to set expectations to a normal level. Expectations for writing, singing, playing ability and how fast things would go. It was a huge surprise to me. It seemed people made records at such a slow pace. It seemed so ridiculous to take a whole week on one song like it was a sacrilege. Then after a while I recognised “No that’s normal” and that’s what normal people do! (laughs). I learned some good things from him, but I also learned skills that really only applied to him and his way of working.

With regard to your own professional research and study, do you think humans are genetically wired to desire certain musical sounds and styles or can musical appreciation be cultivated?
Oh, that’s a nice question. I’m writing a book right now with a co-author that’s about music listening and we’re touching on most topics from several vantage points. The vantage point of my work as an auditory neural scientist, record producer and as the underappreciated non-musician. We listen to music different to trained musicians listen.

I think the best way to think of our musical appetites is its similar to our appetite for food. Some people like salty and some like sour or bitter, sweet or with a lot of fat and some don’t like fat at all. Some like crunchy or smooth. We develop these appetites over the course of our lifetime and tend to seek out what we’re in the mood for at that time. There’s a little bit of range in there. We all have a varied personal music library, but we do have unique appetites for risk taking when it comes to music.

Some of us are musically adventurous just like some of us are adventurous with food. While others are “Hell no! I just want to eat what I normally eat. Don’t bring me anything weird!” (laughs) We have various appetites for what reward we are seeking. What we like to visualise when we are listening to music. I like records that feature real human beings playing real instruments. That gives me such a thrill because that’s the kind of mental image I want in my head when I’m listening to music.

I’ve met people who I didn’t realise existed until recently who would actually prefer to not see any human beings in their minds eye at all. When they listen to music and they can picture the performers it ruins it. They prefer their flights of fancy and prefer seeing imaginary worlds. My colleague Erica Knowles has a PhD in neural science and also a cellist said to me “If I can see the players it ruins it.” I asked her “what about going to concerts?” She said “I never go. I hate them!”

My co-author is one that can’t stand songs with lyrics because he doesn’t want any humans in there, so we all have these different appetites. Some people listen to the music for the memories or for nostalgia because it reminds them of people and places in their lives while others listen to music for the adventure. We all have different appetites and seeking slightly different rewards when we engage with music just like when we engage with visual art. Some of us like abstract paintings, some like realistic art and some like sculptures while some have no appetite for it at all. We are all different!

It’s interesting! The fact that some people don’t want that human element to it is very fascinating.
One thing I cannot stand is people feeling ashamed of their musical taste. I see it at Berkley sometimes where some of the kids are into pop music and they are put down by some of the other students. Boy, does that get my hackles up (laughs) because our taste is just our taste! Who cares if you like vanilla ice-cream or cilantro lime ice-cream, who cares! It’s just your taste and everyone’s tastes are valid.

Sometimes you just want to listen to something deep and in depth, but other times you just want to listen to something simple that invokes a memory, or a time in your life.
Music is a form and a function. Its form has to serve its function and its functioning as music for you. It could be Ornette Coleman, or it can be Britney Spears! If its functioning for you then its good. It’s good FOR you! There’s not much point comparing who is better or who is best. Objectively speaking somethings are cleverer than others but all we are doing is serving music to consumers who have an appetite for it. No one will ever make a song that appeals to everyone. Just like a chef will ever make a dish that appeals to everyone. It can’t be done. It would be the most boring thing in the world. The variety is what is good about it!

Interview by Anastasia Lambis