Everything in the room we set up in at this swanky Soho restaurant is purple, of course. From the walls to the carpet to the couch that they sit on, 3RDEYEGIRL are decoratively surrounded by reminders of their founder/mentor, a man so synonymous with the colour that they might as well rename it after him. Though he’s not in the room, it couldn’t be more Prince.
If they aren’t entirely responsible for the renaissance he’s currently enjoying, 3RDEYEGIRL are certainly a huge part of it. Since forming the band in November 2012, Prince seems to have been in a richer vein of form than in any point since 2006’s widely overlooked (but beloved by fans) 3121 album. Four records – Planet Earth, Lotusflow3r, MPLSound and 20Ten – have passed since, with none making more than a ripple outside of his hardcore fanbase. When he steps on stage with this band, however, the world takes notice.
The last time he and 3RDEYEGIRL were in London, thousands of people – myself included, on occasions more numerous than was sensible – queued for hours on end in the cold and rain to see them perform at a variety of venues that held crowds a fraction of the size their svengali and front man is more accustomed to playing. On February 14th, I went on my own to see them play at the tiny Kings Place in North London. It was the best Valentine’s Day I’ve ever had – it set me back £70.00, but I partied like it was £19.99. That and all the other shows were widely acknowledged to be astonishing; a mixture of drastically reworked older material that sounded fresher than ever, new songs the quality of which Prince hasn’t come close to in at least a decade, and more hits than even a professional stick shaker would dare do his thing towards. They left the uninitiated converted and the long suffering converts vindicated - frankly, they were the best concerts of my life. On this trip, sadly, there are no gigs planned (that they know of...), but unsurprisingly, the reception last time around endeared the band to the city no end.
Donna Grantis (guitar): I like the vibe here, it’s very cool. The Hit And Run tour, both part one and two, were just magical. Coming back I just think of that whole, crazy experience.
Hannah Ford Welton (drums): “The fact that people were willing to wait outside in the rain and cold – that made us want to come back. It was overwhelming how much people loved it.”
DG: “We honestly knew about the shows as the fans knew about them. Sometimes we found out about the shows through Twitter as well, which is crazy – we’re the band! But it’s totally true.”
Ida Nielsen (bass): “There was a special vibe about it. Everything was unorthodox. I mean, our first gig was in Lianne La Havas’ living room.”
HFW: “It was definitely way different from the normal way of doing things in the outside world, but when you join this camp, you have to adjust to the spontaneity of it real quick. At any moment we can just pack up and go anywhere in the world and perform for any amount of people. Normally, everything is so structured and scheduled and planned months in advance, and when you’re going on the road you know about it and can prepare for it. But with us, Prince and the NPG (New Power Generation) camp, anything goes at any time. We’re not worried about the next tour or the next show or anything like that, we just work on what we need to work on for that day, take a nap, and go back at it.”
I wonder whether putting together the PLECTRUMELECTRUM album was in any way more regimented, and am greeted with a three part chorus of “NO”s. One of two Prince albums released this week (the other being the synth-based solo LP ART OFFICIAL AGE), its makers were initially as in the dark about its existence as they were about the shows they were playing at the drop of a hat in London this past Spring.
HFW: “We didn’t even know we were recording an album. We’d just started jamming, and Prince was giving us lists of songs to work on daily. To remember the songs after cramming so much in to your brain, we’d record the rehearsals to have reference tracks to listen to while we weren’t rehearsing, so that we could really internalise the music. We didn’t know it was for an album for months. When we realised what we were doing, laying vocals down every now and then, the pressure would kick in. What was cool was that if one of us made a mistake – I don’t know why I’m pointing to Donna, but! – we all made a mistake, and had to redo the take. We had to nail it, all of us, all at the same time.”
IN: “I don’t know if recording live like that was the plan, to be honest. But it was a great experience. This was the first time I was ever in a studio recording with everybody in the same room. Sometimes you record separately and layer a track, or if you record live at the same time you’re at least in different rooms. Here, we’re all together in the same room, feeling each other, hearing each other, and you can’t really make any mistakes because then everyone has to re-do it. It keeps you on your toes.”
HFW: “I think when it hit me that we were making a record was when we recorded “PRETZLBODYLOGIC”, because we recorded the song musically and then laid vocals for it. Once we realised that vocals were being laid, it was a 3RDEYEGIRL song. That was when I first thought ‘Ahh, are we doin’ a lil’ summin’ summin’ here, what’s happenin’?’”
The proudly analog Plectrum Electrum was recorded at Prince’s own Paisley Park studios, a second home which has taken on a mythical status among his fans. The venue at which Prince and The Revolution recorded Around The World In A Day, Sign O’ The Times, Parade and a ton of classics besides, it’s also where 3RDEYEGIRL first met Prince, and indeed each other.
HFW: “Paisley Park is magical. I remember walking in, and there was this small drum kit set up which I was just adjusting to the way I like. And all of a sudden, in walks Prince, all low key and chilled. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said ‘thank you so much for coming – we’re excited to jam’. And that was the first time we met - at Paisley Park. There was never a moment where it was uncomfortable, even to this day. He’s extremely humble, a very nice guy, very respectful, and when he welcomes you, you actually feel welcome.”
IN: “I remember I was pretty nervous the first time I met him. But he’s super sweet. He started asking me about my bass, to make me go in nerd mode and relax me. It was really cool.”
Though PLECTRUMELECTRUM and ART OFFICIAL AGE are being released on the same day, they’re sonically very different – the former a classic heavy rock record on which solos and huge riffs abound, the latter a much more electronically based solo album produced by Joshua Welton, husband of 3RDEYEGIRL drummer Hannah Ford Welton.
HFW: “Both of these albums are great, great, great music. PLECTRUMELECTRUM caters to more of the gritty rock, garage band, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix fan; It’s raw and to the point, like a freight train smashing through a tiny little town. ART OFFICIAL AGE is more in the digital realm, but any time you hear a guitar or Prince’s voice, that’s recorded analog. What Joshua and Prince did together on that album is going to open up the digital world of music. If the producer who makes the track knows what musicians look for, and when the substance of the music and lyrics is powerful, it can change lives regardless of whether it’s analog or digital or a rock band or one producer creating a phenomenal dance track. It’s about what you’re saying, what you’re trying to convey, and the connection that you make with people. Both albums are phenomenal, and they stand strong on their own. But as excited as we are about PLECTRUMELECTRUM, I can speak for all of us when we say we’re just as excited about ART OFFICIAL AGE and the work that Prince and Joshua did together on that.”
To lean on a sturdy ol’ rock and roll cliché, PLECTRUMELECTRUM – which will delight fans of the long out-of-print rock workouts of Chaos & Disorder and The Gold Experience – really does sound like what it is; a band playing in a room. From the loose, open structures of the songs, which leave ample room for soloing, breakdowns and build-ups, one would suspect it was edited down from hours upon hours of improvisational jamming, and one would be correct in one’s suspicions.
DG: “With such a small group, Prince can cue anything at any time - we can just need to look at each other and take things in a different direction. All of those cues, and the ability to improvise over any chord progression in any style, that’s something I attribute to my jazz background. It’s just in a different context. This is a lot louder.”
HFW: “Improvising is crucial. You really learn how to communicate musically when you play jazz because there’s so much improvisation. There’s something there that really can’t be taught as much as it’s felt. It doesn’t come from being a good player; it comes from spending time together and your chemistry as people being great. If you communicate well off stage, you’re going to communicate even better on stage. And if you don’t, you’re going to hear it in your music and it won’t come across authentically.”
Though I’ve been vocal in my criticisms of artists drastically rearranging their hits recently, (*cough*Lauryn Hill*cough*), some of Prince’s most beloved songs have actually become dearer to me because of the reinterpretations provided to them at 3RDEYEGIRL gigs. The source material is in such good hands, and so strong to start with, that I’d even welcome an album’s worth of re-workings of old Prince material, despite being well aware how much those things usually suck. It’s just impossible to stress how far opposite of ‘sucking’ they sounded, and I’m unsurprised to find out that the band themselves are in agreement.
HFW: “Let’s Go Crazy”, “Something In The Water”, “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man”... I like those new versions better than the originals now! I think Prince is the only person who can take a classic, timeless hit, rearrange it and then all of a sudden it’s even better. I remember when we first were learning “Let’s Go Crazy”. He gave me a drum beat, and then gave Ida a bass pattern, and we were just grooving and locking it in thinking, ‘yeah, this is cool’, and then once he taught Donna the guitar part, we were like... WHAT?! This is “Let’s Go Crazy”! That’s when it clicked for all of us, and it was just insane. What’s cool with this band is he can pull from so far back in his catalogue, including songs he won’t have played in a really long time with the New Power Generation. We’ll get a set a couple of minutes before the show, and it could be songs that we haven’t played in months. We’ve learned a vast amount of tunes, and at any moment we could play anything.”
IN: “It keeps it interesting for him, too. Before the show we get a setlist, and I don’t think we’ve ever once stuck to it. He really likes to vibe it out and see how it feels with the audience.”
Connection with the audience is paramount at a 3RDEYEGIRL gig, as evidenced by Hannah Ford Welton’s impassioned pleas to the crowd before every show to, as a line in “FUNKNROLL” has it, “put your phone down and get your party on”.
HFW: “How rude would it be if you were asking us all these questions and I was sitting here looking at my phone the whole time? Reading stuff and talking to you without making eye contact, not being interested in what you had to say, pretty much ignoring you?”
I tell her that, given that she’s acting out exactly what she’s describing as she says it, it’s making me feel pretty uncomfortable, actually.
HFW: “Exactly. It’s irritating. People get so caught up in catching every moment on a phone that they miss out on it, and they go to post it, and it’s not even the same! For us, it’s totally a misrepresentation of the band and our sound, because the sound quality of the video is really whack. You don’t have a good representation of what was there that night and if you weren’t paying attention, your memory doesn’t have that recollection either. I know some people really disagree and that’s fine, we’re OK with that. But for us as the artists, there’s never a night when we step on a stage without giving it 100%. And I think it’s OK for an artist to ask the audience to give 100% too.”
DG: “There’s a magic you don’t really catch on a phone. You can go home and look at a crappy recording, and not remember the night. I think memories are stronger than a photo or a recording. I remember the first concerts I ever went to as a kid. I remember what it felt like, the picture in my mind, all the people, the energy. When you participate in the experience, that’s what really stays with you.”
HFW: “It elevates the spirit of the room incredibly, and it elevates our performance when we feel that people are there because they love us and they love our music. That’s how it should be.”
The band might not have known they were starting on PLECTRUMELECTRUM, but the fans sure seem to have known about its existence for a fair while. So long in fact that many started to doubt it would ever come out, the likelihood of it ending up on the long list of unreleased Prince projects seeming far higher than ever seeing it spin on a turntable. It was only when an improbable deal was struck with Warner Bros. – who once prompted Prince to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol in order to break his contract with them – that it actually looked as if Prince’s new music would actually see the light of day.
DG: “The process of handing the record over to Warner Bros and working with them to distribute it, it was... a thoughtful process. We wanted to make sure we put it out in the best way possible.”
It certainly wasn’t a coupling that anyone would have predicted getting back together. What was behind it, after all that animosity?
IN: “Well... they gave him back his publishing.”
HFW: “Once he owned his music again, which is so weird to say, he was in a position to do whatever he wanted. This Warner Bros. situation now is the perfect partnership. We do what we do is create the music and get it to the point where we think it’s perfect. We then literally hand it over and Warner Bros., as the machine, they do what they do best. It’s not that we don’t believe in labels – labels are good at what they do, but the musicians should be in charge of their music, they should own their publishing, because it came from their minds and their hearts and it’s their passion. We don’t just do this to make money - we do it because we love it, that’s why we got in to it. So for people to tell us how to do what we love to do... it’s kinda backwards. We don’t walk in to your office and tell you how to do your job.”
True, but I’d be very happy if they did. There aren’t many bands I’d queue for seven hours in the rain to get to see, I remind them.
HFW: “I don’t really know any band I’d stand outside in the rain for seven hours for. Except maybe us.”
PLECTRUMELECTRUM and ART OFFICIAL AGE are out now on Warner Bros. Both are available to stream here.