Funk/rock/R&B Master Michael Bland talks about his days with Prince, the music business, and becoming a full-time member of Soul Asylum.
by Billy Amendola
Most MD readers know Michael Bland as the funky, R&B groove-master behind Prince’s hits “Cream” and “Diamonds & Pearls.” What you might not know is that Michael also played on the pop/rock hits by Evan & Jaron (“Crazy For The Girl”) and Bleu (“You Know I Know You Know”), as well as albums by The Backstreet Boys, Mandy Moore, Josh Kelley, Paul Westerberg, and Jonny Lang, to name but a few. This interview is a continuation of our Update on Michael in the November ’06 issue of Modern Drummer magazine.
MD: When I first heard the new Soul Asylum record, The Silver Lining, I would never have guessed it was you. The drumming is so pop/rock.
Michael: [laughs] Well, that’s really where I come from. I didn’t come across the R&B thing until I had it shoved down my throat. I think that’s one of my best attributes as a player—that I know how not to be seen. I’ve played on a lot of records, and people have no idea it’s me.
When you work for Prince, you have to have a really pungent musical identity. That’s almost what he seeks out. So I found a voice with that music. But I spent most of my formative years learning how to play drums listening to FM album rock. That’s what I know. I can turn on any FM album rock station in any city and know exactly what’s going on.
Shortly before I got with Prince, I started to hear Sly Stone records—but not Fresh. That record hadn’t happened for me yet. Then when I got with Prince, he said something to me like, “Play the break like on Fresh, like how he goes over the barlines on ‘In Time.’” I’m like, “What’s Fresh”? He’s like, “Oh man, you haven’t heard ‘In Time’ on Fresh? You’ve got to stay after school.” [laughs]
So his housekeeper brought over a dozen records, and I had to sit in Studio A with Prince for like three hours, playing records—Graham Central Station and Sly records mainly, just analyzing every track: “Tell me why this was cool and where that came from.” I was like nineteen. Prince really ought to be a music professor somewhere—and not just popular music. There were many times I would be goofing off or hanging out in Studio A waiting for rehearsal to start, and I’d go to put a CD in, press “open,” and Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite would be in there, or some Duke Ellington CD. It doesn’t stop for him with the popular form.
MD: Prince’s track “Beautiful Girl,” which you played on, has one of my favorite feels.
Michael: Thank you, I’m glad you liked it. I was just trying to play like the Stylistics’ drummer [Earl Young] on that one.
MD: How did it come about that you played on Prince’s new 3121 title track?
Michael: That was done back in November of ’04. We cut eleven or twelve tracks in three and a half hours that night.
MD: I heard he’s always recording.
Michael: Well, he does that a lot with people who know how to do that with him. I’ve been working for him for about seven years now, and we’ve developed a sort of shorthand way of communicating. He’s very good at broadcasting what he wants—if you understand the language.
The time we did those tracks was after a gig I had at the O’Shaughnessy Theater in St. Paul. I’m at soundcheck and I get a call from his guitar tech: “Prince wants to know where you and [bassist] Sonny Thompson are at.” I say, “We’re at soundcheck for a show tonight with [French saxophonist] Michel Portal.” So we’re in St. Paul getting ready to do this jazz festival, and he says, “Can you guys come out to Paisley Park after you are done”? So it’s about 11:30 and we head out. The sounds are pretty much up—there’s always a kit there miked up ready to go, and Prince’s rig is always on—and Prince says, “Okay, there won’t be any mistakes, just pay attention and go for it.” And we really just mowed through it, and rolled it out.
MD: So you never have an idea what’s going to make the record?
Michael: No. The studio is open to him all the time; all he has to do is book it. We were always recording something. Even on the road he’d book a studio.
MD: So how was your overall experience with P?
Michael: It was great. It’s always fun playing with Prince. His time is impeccable, and his imagination is insane. There’s really only one musician like him in the whole world to me. He’s very rare.
MD: Let’s talk about how Soul Asylum came about.
Michael: When I joined Soul Asylum in the fall of ’04, they were without a drummer and were interested in making a new record. I heard that [Soul Asylum singer] Dave Pirner had the idea of working with me once before. I’d read an article about me in the Star Tribune, and Pirner was pretty much the main person they spoke to about me. The headline said: “The Best Drummer On The Planet!” That’s what Dave had said to them. After that article, everybody wanted my head. [laughs] So the next rehearsal after it came out, I’m like, “Thanks a lot, Dave, I got nothing but new-jacks coming down to my gig with their arms crossed, giving me that look like, “C’mon, show me something.” [laughs] And I’m like, ‘I’m not here to play for you, I’m here to keep these women dancing.’ [laughs]
Anyway, soon after that they decided to hire me to play on their new record. Then somewhere during the second week of rehearsal Pirner said, “Hey, why don’t you just join the band.” I went “Okay,” and that was sort of the informal way it happened. It didn’t really get inked or serious until recently. The gig was consuming quite a bit of my time and I had a lot of offers at the time, but they didn’t want to worry about the possibility of me leaving, so they cut me in as a full partner.
MD: Are you happy with the situation?
Michael: Very. No one has given me that type of consideration in my entire career—with the exception of Jonny Lang, who I recently recorded with for his new record in Nashville. When it came time for him to start assembling his band, we did talk about it and he did offer some sort of point action on the record.
MD: What’s his record like?
Michael: The drumming on Jonny’s record is going to be closer to what you’re more familiar with hearing me do. It’s a Gospel record, and he really wants the rhythm section to step out.
MD: So he wanted more soul/funk-type drumming?
Michael: Yes. The Soul Asylum thing, that’s how I know myself to sound like. But when I’m playing music that requires more soul and less rock, or more funk or just more pyrotechnics, it’s definitely more that sort of thing.
MD: So would you consider yourself more of a rock drummer than an R&B drummer?
Michael: Oh, yeah! The straight-up rock thing is what I’ve been doing. Last year I was on tour with Paul Westerberg.
MD: Did I hear that you auditioned for the “new” Guns N’ Roses?
Michael: Yes, I auditioned for them in ’97. I think Josh Freese was originally supposed to do the gig. I went to the NAMM show, and I ran into Axl at the Anaheim Convention Center in California, and then I went to the audition later that night. He was very cool to me. He didn’t seem at all like the person the press makes him out to be. The audition went well, but I knew they weren’t going to hire me, with them being a bunch of skinny white dudes…[laughs] Although that’s what Soul Asylum is too. [laughs]
So anyway, in the fall of 2005, after Katrina, I played a benefit with the Dixie Chicks and I had a good time with them. They were trying to nail me down to tour this year, but…. I guess it could be interpreted as a stupid move to not take a steady-paying job. But I didn’t really get into this business for the steadiness of it. To me it’s the equivalent of a desk job, more or less, when you have no artistic stake in what it is you’re doing. You have a salary cap essentially. Their offer was a sound number but, but I’d have no possibility of making any more money for that year, and they were going to consume all of my time. I know some people were upset: “How do you call a gig that pays that much money a desk job”? But the difference between owning what you’re doing and just going out…that’s essentially like being in a cover band. You’re out playing music that you have nothing to do with. But it all worked out. I actually handed the information off to a friend of mine, Fred Eltringham. The Wallflowers were on hiatus, he didn’t know what was going to happen with them, and he’d just had a baby, so I said, “The Dixies probably hate my guts because I turned the gig down, but here’s the tour manager’s information.” So what I’m saying is that every gig is good for someone. And to be fair, it was the same when I first joined Prince. It was like playing in a Prince cover band—granted, a really good one. [laughs] But, it’s still like…I didn’t have any personal attachment to the music.
MD: There’s something to be said about being a bandmember as opposed to just being a side musician.
Michael: Exactly. I’ve been a side musician for years, and you don’t make a whole lot of money other than…like, we were on retainer with Prince for tour and rehearsal, but we weren’t cut in on the songwriting and record end of things. Some days that’s just like having a job anywhere else. I also got a call about doing some gigs with Nine Inch Nails, which never materialized. That was also at the point I realized, I’m a man without a country, and no job. It was a different sort of year. And Jonny Lang was also talking to me about touring. He offered me a half point on the record and a really good weekly wage. But in the end, honestly, I had to pray about it. I had to talk to God for a while. And God said, Finish what you started. So I stayed with Soul Asylum. They made it possible for me to do what I needed to do.
MD: Will you still have the opportunity to play on other artists’ records?
Michael: Oh, yeah, they’re cool with that.
MD: Let’s wrap up with how the new record, The Silver Lining, was tracked. Did you cut the rhythm tracks live?
Michael: Yes, we cut together a lot. We did re-cut the drums on a couple of tracks, because the bass lines had changed. Some things got changed when Tommy Stinson came in to cut some of Karl’s bass parts. [Original member Karl Mueller passed away of throat cancer on June 17, 2005.] Also, producer John Fields is a stellar bass player, and he did some bass playing on the record as well. So then I was like, Wait, my kick drum pattern doesn’t work here now, or, I should have used a fatter sounding snare. So we just kept adjusting until we got something that sounded cohesive.
MD: It doesn’t sound like it’s Pro Tooled to death.
Michael: No. That’s the other thing: John trusts us. And his ear is so acute. He doesn’t want it to sound stiff, he wants it to sound like a really good live band in the studio. That’s what he aims for.
MD: I still wouldn’t have guessed it was you playing.
Michael: That’s great! [laughs] It means I’m doing my job.
For more on Michael, visit his Web site, www.michaelbland.org.