Side Stage: The NPG’s Morris Hayes
As one of the longest standing members of the New Power Generation, Morris Hayes played with Prince for over two decades. He speaks to Shaun Ponsonby.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re pretty big Prince fans at Planet Slop. So, when we were offered the chance to speak to Morris Hayes, one of The Purple One‘s most consistent band members – a quarter of a century in the fold – we couldn’t possibly turn it down.
Mr. Hayes (Morris to his mother) joined Prince‘s second backing band, the New Power Generation, in the early 90s. He stood behind him, playing keys throughout his battle with Warner Bros, all the time he went by an unpronounceable symbol, through his massive commercial resurgence in the 2000s, and kept it together at arguably the most legendary gig of his career.
Although Prince‘s other backing bands, the iconic Revolution and the latter day power trio 3rdEyeGirl, had fairly stable line-ups, the NPG had a massive roster throughout its long history. With that in mind, Hayes is clearly a musician that Prince respected and trusted to keep at the forefront of his music.
He is currently promoting a series of tribute shows with a reformed NPG featuring a tremendous singer named MacKenzie, who has the unenviable job of frontman. They roll into the U.K. in December, and we had just 20 minutes to chat about his career with Prince and the NPG today. Here’s what went down…
Planet Slop: What led to reforming the NPG? Is it full time now?
Morris Hayes: Yeah, pretty much. We’re working as our agent books shows. But after 2016 we did a tribute after Prince had passed away, and there was such an outpouring of fans, who were like “Man, we’re so happy that you did it”. And we enjoyed the show – we played almost a five hour show and people were really happy about it, and there were a lot of people who didn’t get a chance to come and wanted to experience it, you know? So I guess about a year later we thought, if this is what the fans would like, and there is a demand for it, then let’s do it. And it’s generally cool, of course I think that the biggest hurdle is people understanding what it is without Prince, I think that’s a big thing. But when people see it, they get it.
PS: Well, I haven’t seen you play yet, but I’ve seen some clips online – and I really have to congratulate you on MacKenzie.
PS: I mean, it’s so easy to get the wrong front man for something like this, but he’s really special. How did you find him?
MH: Well, he was actually working with one of the bass players we had for a while, Andrew Gouche, and Jill, our manager, decided to reach out to him and see what he was doing. It was a perfect fit, man. He is amazing. He’s got all the qualities I like, plus the quality of not being Prince.
PS: Yeah, it’s a strange thing!
MH: I was careful about whoever we got, just not trying to recreate Prince. You can’t do it, so it’s just stupid to try. So you just have to get somebody who can interpret in their own way and still have their own identity. And I think he hits all of the criteria we wanted to have and I think he fits it.
PS: Yeah, it’s really interesting watching him because he does his own thing, but he doesn’t trample on Prince’s legacy either. You couldn’t have got a better person, I think.
MH: Yeah, that’s the way we feel about it. He’s a good cat and adding to the people we’ve already been working with like Andre Cymone, it’s just been a great addition.
PS: And since you mention Andre, he is more associated with the beginning of Prince’s career, whereas the NPG was more the second half. So do you go right through Prince’s career on stage?
MH: Yeah, of course, a good portion of our show is NPG-centric, but of course a lot of the fans wanna hear songs that they resonate with, so we walk a fine line with picking the things so that everybody gets something out of the show. You’ll have people who are big The Time and Revolution fans, you’ve got your 3rdEyeGirl fans and we just try to play a cross section of music that we feel like is going to make the crowd move and people will enjoy. It’s not an ego thing, it’s about a celebration of Prince and his legacy and his music. That’s one of the things about being in any of the later bands; The Revolution wasn’t required to play NPG because it didn’t exist. But 3rdEyeGirl were required to play Revolution, NPG and 3rdEyeGirl.
PS: [Laughs] Yeah, when you go through the back catalogue, it’s so vast. So how do you select what songs to play?
MH: It’s hard! There’s so many, it’s like a kid in a candy store! There are so many great songs, so what we try to do is pick the ones that people really connect with. But then we also wanna find something obscure that they may not have heard Prince play, or heard us play.
PS: Yeah, I saw some of your setlists and there were a couple of songs in there like Daddy Pop [from 1991’s Diamonds & Pearls] and Beautiful Loved and Blessed [from 2006’s 3121] that I don’t think Prince even played live since they first came out, and you’re dusting them off.
MH: And we’re gonna continue to do that, and at some point we may even pick some stuff that was unreleased from The Vault.
PS: Wow, that would be amazing!
MH: We wanna do that, we wanna just keep switching the setlist up like he used to. I mean everyone wants to hear Purple Rain, it’s kinda that song that defines Prince at the height of his career, and I think people would be disappointed if we didn’t play it.
PS: The NPG was active for 20-25 years, so there was obviously a huge roster of musicians who came and went in that time. So how did you put this new line up together?
MH: Well, because there were so many and because of economics, we couldn’t take everybody who was ever a part of the NPG!
PS: Oh, God no! It would be bigger than George Clinton’s band!
MH: What my dream was, personally, was that we get all of the bands – The Revolution, NPG, 3rdEyeGirl. And then all of the other artists have our own Prince-apalooza.
PS: That would be incredible!
MH: And we’d all get together and do a big all day festival kind of thing with just our bands. And there have been talks about it, but that is ideally what I would like to do. Because then I think we could encompass everybody and bring everybody and make a big deal out of it, but it would have to be done on a grand scale like that because the reality of touring is that you can’t have 25-30 people in a band. You couldn’t stay out like that. So I focused on the original NPG that Prince started with, and that’s how we decided to go with this incarnation.
PS: Just thinking about your time with Prince generally, I think the first time you were seen by fans was in the Graffiti Bridge movie with George Clinton?
MH: Yeah, that’s true.
PS: Were you playing with P. Funk anyway, or were you just drafted in for that scene?
MH: I did do a jam with P.Funk, I played at…not First Avenue. Glam Slam [Prince’s nightclub in the 90s]. But basically I was a production assistant on the movie and they needed some people for the band, and they knew that I played and they were like “Yeah, dude, come on in – we’ll toss him in the George Clinton line-up”. Like, cool! That’s funny because I had met George, I was driving a van and I had picked him and Mavis Staples and Tevin Campbell up and drive them to the set every day.
PS: Being on the set of that film with Prince, George, Mavis, you got Jam and Lewis and The Time…
MH: Yeah, it was the best thing ever man! Just phenomenal!
PS: So, from there, how did you end up joining the NPG?
MH: Well, the short story is, I was music director for the house band at Glam Slam, and then he wanted us to go out with him on the Diamonds and Pearls Tour, and I was music director for Carmen Electra [Prince discovered Electra – even named her – and took her along as the opening act]. So, being out on the road, we got to be kinda cool and then after Rosie [Gaines, vocalist and keyboard player] left, he decided to give me a shot.
PS: I’ve got to ask, because I’ve always wondered; why did he refer to you as Mr Hayes, rather than Morris?
MH: Well, Prince used to look at me like a comedian, man. He’d always tell everyone, like Oprah “You know, my keyboard player, he’s a funny guy”. I used to do all of this church schtick, cos I’m from the church and I would do all of that. And I think him laughing all of the time about it like “Mr. Hayes! Reverend Hayes!” kinda stuff, and he just decided to do it like! I’m just glad I kept my own name! [Laughs]
PS: When you came in full time, it was a really interesting period for Prince, because it was the beginning of the whole Warner battle – so did he discuss what was happening with the band, or did he keep it separate from the music?
MH: Oh, no. I had many, many conversations with him about the Warner scenario. I mean, Prince was just concerned about controlling his own legacy and making his own decisions about what he wanted to do musically, so that was always a big thing for him. He spoke about it a lot, and there were a lot of fights about it. I was in his office for some pretty crazy telephone calls with Mo Ostin [Warner Bros CEO] and some of the people at Warner Brothers. There was one time where I was sitting there on the couch going “Ooooh! Oh! Wow!” I saw him standing up in his chair one time, like yelling at Mo or something and I had that scene from The Godfather in my head, like “You can’t talk to Mo Ostin like that!” [Laughs]
PS: [Laughs] I can’t even picture that!
MH: It was funny, man!
PS: How misunderstood do you think he was at the time, then? Because a lot of what he was saying turned out to be prophetic, but people didn’t take him seriously at the time.
MH: I think he was very misunderstood. There were people in the same position as him, and he spoke for a lot of artists who had conceded control to a lot of labels, and I get the labels put money into an artists, but his thing was creative control of his own destiny. And Prince was one of the pioneers in the early days of the internet, just really figuring out what it was and how he could leverage that to kinda get to where he wanted to be, which was an independent artist. So I think a lot of people just didn’t see it at the time, but he was always forward thinking.
PS: Definitely. I still don’t think he is given the credit now. His releases at that point too, even now it’s quite confusing just to keep up with everything. Did you ever know what project each song was being prepped for, or would you just play on it and it would show up on an album somewhere down the line?
MH: Sometimes we knew, sometimes we did not know. Prince worked so quickly. We’d be on one record, and he’d already have the next record done. So it would just be like “Dude, what are we doing?” It’s crazy. But that’s how he worked. That’s how he just did things, he was so prolific and so fast.
PS: I’m especially thinking of [1994’s] Come and [1995’s] The Gold Experience, some of the early configurations of those two are pretty interchangeable at times from memory. Actually The Gold Experience is probably my favourite of the symbol albums. He sounds so inspired on that!
PS: Did it feel like that to play with him at the time?
MH: Absolutely! I know for the NPG, man. To me that was the height of the NPG, The Gold Experience. I mean the sound, Tom Tucker [the album’s engineer] just had that record smokin’, man. Michael Bland’s drums sounded amazing, and it really heighten my interest in mixing and how engineering worked and how great that was.
PS: Even now, it just bursts out of the speakers.
MH: Yeah, absolutely!
PS: I need to ask you about this, because I’m one of the younger fans still in my 20s, but I can pinpoint the moment I became a die-hard fan – and it was at the Superbowl. And I’m not even a sports guy, I don’t know why I was watching it but I was just blown away and over the next few months, I literally bought everything. I know you were there, so did that feel like a special moment?
MH: You know, man, there’s certain gigs that you do in life as a musician that you aspire to. You know when you sit around and you’re like “Yeah, we’re gonna make it, man! One day we’re gonna play Carnegie Hall, we’re gonna play Wembley Stadium, we’re gonna play the Superbowl!” That’s like the three – and Madison Square Garden – the four biggest things that you aspire to, because you know once you’ve hit those, you’ve reached the pinnacle of your craft. And the Superbowl is the Superbowl – it’s one of the most watched sports events, next to the World Cup.
So for us to do that and for the things to happen as they did, a lot of technical things that happened, there was a storm coming. They had to shut everything down, and it rained during Purple Rain – the first time it ever rained at the Superbowl. It was just so many magical moments that made that work, man. It’s one of those things that you know will go down in history. And it’s still revered as one of the best Superbowl shows.
PS: And it’s a kind of no frills approach. There’s some special effects, but hardly any, and its more about the music, and it was so powerful.
MH: That’s what it was about. And one of the other things that was great about that was that Prince didn’t focus on just his music. He was more interested in the flow and the emotion of it. So we played a Foo Fighters song, we played an Ike and Tina Turner thing. We did a lot of different types of songs that wasn’t Prince’s music. But he liked it because it was just the flow that it created in the show, so you know All Along The Watchtower, like Jimi Hendrix. So it was really cool.
We spent some time in the studio just talking about what we wanted to do, and what kind of emotion it would conjure up. I just thought it was very unselfish of him. Just play some other stuff and focus on the energy of the show rather than it be this whole Prince thing, which he could have easily done, it’s what everybody else has done. He could have very easily played all his own music, Lord knows that he has enough music to do that.
PS: When I think of Prince, I just think of music generally. I can’t think of anyone where it just flowed out of him so easily. Morris, I could speak to you all day, but I think I’ve only got time for one more; you played on most of his albums from the mid-90s onwards, is there any one song that is a real deep cut that you would say to people – check that one out?
MH: You know what? I just played it at one of my shows, and it’s one of my favourite songs. It was on the first Prince album that I played on, and it’s a song called Dark.
PS: From the Come album, right?
MH: And I love that song, man, and it was one of my first things and I remember Prince just kinda telling me “Just relax man, just do your thing. I like your vibe and that organ thing that you do, just relax and do what you do”. And he just let me do my thing, and some of the licks I played he just let the horn section mimic some of my parts. That was cool. That’s one of my favourite songs I got to play on next to Eye Hate U. That was two of my favourite songs to play on.
PS: [Sings Eye Hate U] Sorry, I’m singing it now! I’m gonna have to go, I think I’ve gone about five minutes over, but thank you so much for talking to me!
MH: Bless your soul, brother!
The New Power Generation including Morris Hayes are on tour throughout December, including a date at Manchester’s O2 Ritz on Wednesday 11th December 2019.