Renowned for his love of experimentation with sounds, styles, and musicians, Prince formed The New Power Generation (The NPG) in 1990. A group of musicians with so much finesse and funk that they helped to create Diamonds & Pearls, an LP that had more hits on the Billboard charts than any other Prince record since the heavily prized Purple Rain was put out into to the world.
After reuniting in 2015 as the backing band for what was sadly Prince’s final studio album, HITNRUN Phase Two, The NPG will be making their way back down under in 2018 to give us Aussies a live show that’s been dubbed a ‘celebration’ of Prince’s music, and a look back at the songs that put The NPG on the map.
The NPG’s keyboardist and musical director, Morris Hayes caught up with Happy to talk Bluesfest, why Prince was a modern Mozart, Melbourne having the “best shoes in the galaxy”, making hot new hits, and more.
How do you honour the legacy of someone like Prince? We sit down with Morris Hayes, bandleader for The New Power Generation.
HAPPY: You guys will be playing Bluesfest Byron Bay as well as a few other shows down under next year. What can we expect to see and hear in the live show?
MORRIS: Well you should expect to hear some Prince classics. Prince had such an amazing body of work, so many songs, and some of the crowd they expect to hear certain things, and being The NPG we definitely want to draw from the NPG pool of songs and focus on that, especially some of the tracks we may not have played in a while.
This band has a huge repertoire, we have got a lot of music that we’ve learnt over the years and we’re prepared to play whatever. We just want to make sure we touch on things that the crowd connects with and make them go ‘oh that’s my song! That’s my jam’.
We just really want to keep the party moving, we want to hit them with something powerful every song, and we had many hits so there’s no reason why we can’t just completely fill our 90 minute shows with stuff that everybody loves.
HAPPY: So, would you consider the live shows a celebration or tribute to Prince in a sense?
MORRIS: I think that anything we do at this point is absolutely a tribute to Prince and his music, it’s a situation where we’re honouring the guy who put all of this music on the map, and us on the map as far as The NPG, so we definitely want to represent that music.
We try to of course, represent him in the best possible way, the thing is we don’t have him, but all of the people around us are people that Prince handpicked and trained so we very much know how to do what we do, we know how to kill it, everyone that we’re working with is working at the top level because he approved us in the first place.
So, that’s where we’re coming from. We definitely just want to make sure that everything we do we’re doing at a high level so that if you were just out in the audience you would be like ‘I’ve got to go get a piece of that, it’s that good!’ We have to represent everything with 110 percent.
HAPPY: What was it like to work with someone as legendary as Prince? Do you have any favourite memories or stories to share?
MORRIS: It was amazing! Being a young musician seeing Prince in the game when I was in college, I watched him rise when he had the Dirty Mind record and ended up having 1999 and all of these other records that just got to be smashes, one after the other, until I found myself in that situation where I had that feeling like ‘whoa, that’s that dude!
He’s the cat that created all of this music, he basically created a thing, a sound. He’s responsible for creating his own. It’s very difficult to come up with something new, when it comes to anything, people always say that there’s nothing new under the sun, but what Prince was able to do was kind of morph out of all these different personalities like James Brown, Sly Stone, Little Richard, and Elvis and he rolled it all into a sound that was his own, and created something new.
He told me the way that he came up with that sound, he said “man, everybody had horn sections when I started in the 70s, everybody! Earth, Wind, and Fire had players, everybody had a horn section and I wanted to play those parts but only on the synthesiser” so he figured out how to play those parts but only on the keyboard, phrase it like that, and that became his sound. That shifted the whole game, it shifted the whole sound. If you listen to the horn parts that’s what that was, and it’s like ‘WOW! I never even thought about it like that’, and he did it on purpose, he was like “I just wanted to forge a different kind of sound”.
So, he’s the father of that and when we were working with him it was just like ‘man, this dude is a genius, he’s a modern day Mozart!’ Amadeus was his favourite movie, at least that’s what he told me. He loved that movie, and I hadn’t seen it at the time that he told me about it so when I went and watched it I was like ‘Oh my god, I can see why this is his favourite movie – this is him!’ I got it then. It was remarkable.
HAPPY: Wow! So, what’s your story? How did you get involved with Prince and The NPG?
MORRIS: It started with a band that I was in called Fingerprint, in Memphis Tennessee in the ’80s, and they were playing and Prince was on tour, and just like he would do with NPG, we’d go to clubs after we’d do a concert we would go to the local night spot, especially if there was a band playing, and we’d crash their little situation and jam with them or just watch them. So, they came to this place where my band Fingerprint was playing and they approached us afterwards because the band played Prince songs, and they said “You guys sound like the records! Everyone butchers our stuff but you guys sound like us, you play like we do. The sounds were there, the singer was there, it was just dope!”
That started up a relationship, and we ended up getting called to Minneapolis, myself and the lead singer, to audition for a group called Mazarati, it was Brownmark’s band, and he had Paisley Park record label, so that was my initial connection to the purple kingdom. I started working at the studio as production assistant, driving a van, whatever I could do just to hang around the facility. I got a break on a Time record, and then Prince had us open for him and Carmen Electra on the Diamonds and Pearls tour. So, that’s what started everything off.
HAPPY: Awesome. Talk about fate! Now, the NPG reunited to play on HITNRUN Phase Two which would sadly be Prince’s last LP. What were those recording sessions like?
MORRIS: Well, see I was gone by 2012, a young man named Josh was there, Josh and Hannah from the 3rdeyegirl were there around that time, so that’s a little after me. I stopped in 2012, and as a matter of fact my last foreign tour with Prince was Australia, in that same year, then we did some stuff here, I did my last concert with him at an arena in Chicago. That was it for me.
HAPPY: Oh, cool. What were some highlights from that last Australian tour with Prince?
MORRIS: It was phenomenal. Sydney was fun, Melbourne was crazy! I like Melbourne so much I want to move there, it’s so dope. They’ve got the best shoes in the galaxy! I wore some shoes I bought in Melbourne and I got all kinds of compliments, and I’d say “if you ever get a chance and want to go shoe shopping go to Melbourne! They’ve got a street that’s got everything on it, Chapel St I think she is, it’s awesome”.
I was directing everyone to spend their money in Australia on shoes, even Prince complimented me on my shoes, and whenever Prince compliments you on your shoes, you know that they’re dope! All of his shoes were crazy.
HAPPY: That’s for sure! Now, you mentioned earlier this year that new music is on the horizon. Tell me more! When can we expect to hear these new tunes?
MORRIS: That’s something that we definitely want to do. It’s one thing for us to go out and play Prince songs all day, but he’s made it so that we can do this and create music on our own, so that’s something we’ve already started to do. I told the guys “everybody start putting your tracks together and send me what you’re working on, I’ll send you something, and you put your spin on it” and we just send everything back and forth over the internet until we get something that we’re digging. So, we’re definitely starting to put those pieces together and working on something new.
We know that we’ve got to bring it at the level that we used to, it can’t be anything less, people are expecting something hot, so we’ve got to give it to them. I don’t care how long it takes, we’ve got to make it right, we’ve got to make a hit, we’ve got to make it to the standard that people are accustomed to, and what we’re accustomed to, because that’s what we’ve been trained to do.
HAPPY: Great! Well thanks for chatting, I look forward to seeing The NPG live.
MORRIS: Absolutely. It’s going to be a blast, I’m telling you it’s going to be crazy!
Catch The New Power Generation live in Australia in 2018. Dates are below, grab your tickets here.
Mon 26 March – 170 Russell, Melbourne
Tue 27 March – 170 Russell, Melbourne
Wed 28 March – Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Fri 30 – Sat 31 March – Bluesfest Byron Bay