Morris Hayes on 'The Gold Experience'

Morris Hayes, Prince's longtime keyboardist and music director for the New Power Generation, talks about his early days in Prince's band. (MPR)
Morris Hayes speaks on The Gold Experience
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If you weren't already familiar with Prince's 1995-2010 discography when it hit streaming services this year, you may have wondered where to dive in. That's why we created this purple flowchart - and that's why we reached out to one man who was there all along, keyboardist/musical director Morris Hayes.

Covering musical and personal ground, New Power Generation keyboardist/musical director Morris Hayes and Purple Current host Sean McPherson taped a marathon interview - more than two hours, all told - so we're sharing it album by album. Here's the first of ten.

The Gold Experience

I'm Sean with Purple Current and I'm talking with Morris Hayes, and we're going through some incredible records from the era where you were very active with Prince, both doing keyboard and also a lot of musical directing, and I want to look in depth into some of these records and travel back to some really different times. I want to travel back to 1995 and to The Gold Experience. This is a record that is full of innuendo and full of whatever is more than innuendo. It's a very sexual record and it's a very funky record as well, and I just wondered if you had some memories from that time, making that record, what that era was like for you and the group.

It was really interesting because at that time I was still relatively new and really kind of getting my feet wet with the whole Prince experience. I think it was interesting, thematically, how he approached records and how he approached - because Prince really looked at records like an art piece. It was looked at in a complete kind of a way. That Gold Experience record was really - the whole way the staging was around a thing that he called the "Endorphinmachine." It's funny, I didn't really realize until I stood back away from it and looked at it, like without looking at it for what it was, and really saw what it was. I'm like hey, wait a minute, like this is all like sexual parts. It's like there's that, and there's a womb here and there's this thing here, and it was really crazy. And everything just kind of went around that theme, like Endorphinmachine, and we were playing in this Endorphinmachine, and so Prince is coming out of this womb with the curtain open on a conveyor belt, and it was just really crazy, but the record itself - it just would be one of my favorite records that I've worked on. The first Prince record I worked on was the Come album. But the Gold Experience album was like this band had really just got into that crunched down, super tough, well-rehearsed band that was like a powerhouse band.

It shows on the record, and you guys are powerhouses in some different ways on that record. You brought up "Endorphinmachine." That song is like a straight up rocker in a lot of ways, whereas a lot of the stuff is sort of a little more slinky/funky. So when you're dealing with material that is that broad on a record like The Gold Experience, how do you pace in the studio and when you're working in the live setting? How do you pace the rockers next to the more sort of R&B music?

On that particular record, unlike some of the other records we did, like for instance this is one outside of the scope of what we're talking about, but the Exodus album that the NPG did, eight of those songs were done in one sitting. Prince would get in the studio and basically call the changes. We said okay we're going to do this song. It's going to be in D, and you give Michael Bland a beat and then he'd say, "Play this beat," and then he'd give Sonny a bass line, and then give me a keyboard part, and then from there we'd just call what the changes are going to be - go to the four, go to the five, whatever. And then take a solo here - he'd just call your name out and you'd just solo. And then we'd go, after the fact, and do post production and get the horn players and all this stuff. We'd call Mike Nelson and he writes the horn scores out. And it was put together like that. But The Gold Experience we did at different times. We didn't set up like a day, as far as I can remember, and really just pound out a bunch of songs. We just recorded over the course of many days, and I remember for like "Eye Hate U," I remember walking in the studio, because it was so crazy for me.

I had so much stuff to do with the tech that I was using, so I was always the first guy to be there and the last guy to leave. I happened to come in one day, and Prince was just sitting at the piano, and he's kind of like going through these chords, and I'm listening to him and watching him do his thing, and he's like picking it out. [sings what Prince played] As I'm watching him I'm like wow, this is crazy. So he gets it kind of worked out, and I tell him, "Prince, that's crazy. You just made like a million dollars right now." That's a hit. I said, "Dude, how do you do that?" He said, "I really don't know how other people don't know how to do it." I was like that's crazy, man.

And that would be "Eye Hate U," and I remember when we all started to play it. He just kind of let us feel it out, like I had this crazy chord that I just like - and I hit this chord and he's like yeah, that, like that, I like that chord. And he just would like take everybody's input and roll with it. And so many new songs happened like where he already kind of know. Some just came out of grooves. "Billy Jack Bitch" was like kind of crazy. We just kind of like got this groove going, and it just turned into this thing. And it was just cool. So everything just had a kind of different way and a different day, and his mood would be from one day to the next would be really different, which is why we'd have a completely different type of song like "Endorphinmachine" or something like that, that was kind of different from "Eye Hate U," and that sort of thing.

On a record like The Gold Experience, when you're doing so many different types of sounds yourself as the keyboard player, and also, as you said, a lot of different moods, I imagine that the tenor of the room changes a little bit based on the song. I want to ask about a particular song that I think captures something that I heard Prince do throughout his career, but I was disappointed to see often get sort of washed out of Prince's history. I'm thinking about the track "We March." There's so many times in Prince's career where he spoke to issues surrounding race and also issues surrounding justice, and I get really frustrated because people - I really hate the term "he transcends race". I believe that Prince is an incredible artist. I know that Prince is an incredible black artist. I wanted to ask about capturing a mood of a song like that, compared to doing something that's a little more romantic or something like that.

Well that's the thing that was almost always - when we would have conversation that was always in the front part of his mind, is he was very socially conscious about what was going on, even though he kind of stood aside from politics. He was fully aware of what was happening and what was going on, and a lot of times he won't address. And Nona Gaye was a great friend of ours, and she was really just a wonderful person and when we did that song, it's crazy because it kind of went through a few different kind of evolutions, and it really ended up being this real funky thing that we really enjoyed playing because of the funk that was kind of in it, but still the message that was there. And I think that was always one of the things I think he was careful about. He wanted to have a groove so you're grooving, but at the same time he wanted to put something on your mind, something to think about. And he would do that, and I agree with you. I think a lot of times that kind of would get poo-pooed and put aside, and concentrate on more provocative things or just some other things, and really didn't get the credit that it deserved for what he was talking about, and I think that song is a perfect example of that.

It's Purple Current, and I'm chatting with Morris Hayes, longtime keyboard player with Prince and the New Power Generation. Right now we're talking about The Gold Experience, a record that dropped September 26, 1995. And we cannot pass this record without talking about the song "Shhh," an incredible - would you call that a ballad? It starts so hard, it ends so hard - is it a ballad.

To me it's the definition of a power ballad in terms of - it was crazy. We used to love listening to old music and old school type music like the Ohio Players and different types of things like that, and there was a song the Ohio Players did called "I Wanna Be Free," and it has this crazy drum solo in it, and then it just drops down - shoop, shoop, shoop, and it just goes to this really smoothed out thing. But then in the middle of it you got this crazy drum solo that happens out of nowhere. And I think when we did "Shhh," it was a great song Prince wrote for Tevin [Campbell] and everything, and it was cool, and we wanted to do it, but we wanted to put some edge on it. We wanted to put a little something on it. He wanted to play a guitar solo and all this stuff, but he still wanted to have that broken down smooth part and then bring it up, like that Ohio Players song. We thought this is so cool.

Michael Bland did this crazy drum solo, and again, I love that record because the mixes were so good. I was just like very sensitive to the engineering and how stuff sounded. Tom Tucker just killed that record, man. And the drums sounded like thunder, and then all of a sudden it just breaks down into this thing, and that was just one of the favorites. I loved playing that song - a very complex song for me to play because all of the parts involved in the vocal samples and things that I had to fly around. But it was just a fantastic song to play, and very dynamic, and I just liked that part of it. It was like a show song that he put on the album that just kind of worked out. Because usually what happens with Prince is he has these songs that he does, and then when we get ready to do it live it turns into this other thing, and it just goes up. When that record came on the record like up, like it was already show-ready. We learned it and played it like that, and then recorded it that way.

Do you think that's because he had sat with the Tevin version and was ready to already make the live version of it?

I don't think Prince in some of those cases thought too long ahead about it. He would have it - you know what, we're going to do this song, but we're going to put a thing on it. Everything we did, man, he was very quick about - when he thought about it, we had to implement it quickly. Like zero patience. So he'd say, "I'm going to do this. Let's learn it and we're going to do it," and it's like what, like right now? And it's like boom. Fifteen minutes later he's like okay we're going to record it, or we're going to do whatever once we learn it. And some of it is like some super hard crazy stuff that I'm sitting going like man, I'm way out of my pay grade, this is crazy. But the fear of being killed was more motivation than not, so I guess I did what I had to do. It was pretty intense. I think he just would feel something and be like this is cool, this feels good, we're going to do this, and then pow, he'd just implement it.

You're with Purple Current. I'm Sean. I'm sitting with Morris Hayes and we're talking about The Gold Experience, and you've talked already about some really complex songs and some songs that have tons of different dynamic settings and some different chords. One thing I've been really impressed with in this era, and particularly in your tenure with the band, you add a lot of dynamics and interesting sounds to songs that on a leadsheet would be repetitive. I'm thinking about something like "P Control," where it's basically just sitting on one thing, and then fun of it is in the sounds. I know that you did a lot of the heavy lifting on that, so I was wondering if you could talk about those songs where it is a vamp. How did you and how did Prince make that such a good listening experience when there wasn't a lot to work with?

The thing about it, what made it cool, is I was a real tech geek. I was just really into tech. I remember when I first even joined with Prince; Prince had all this crazy equipment like I was one of those poor musicians. I only had two keyboards, but they were two really great ones. I had an S50 and a D50, so one was a sampler and one was a kind of do everything keyboard. I just needed things that were like Swiss Army Knife things. And then I had this really cool other sampler that I ended up getting. I remember when I got with Prince, I told him - and I saw his big giant racks or stuff, and I'm like bro, this is all like really antiquated stuff. My gear shouldn't be better than yours. You're Prince. I'm thinking I'm doing something pretty smart, and it turned out to be not the good - said we'll fix it. So that meant go to my production guy, tell him what you have, and he's going to match that. And when he found out what it could do, he said okay great. If you can do that, then you can also do this. I was like oh, but that's going to - okay. So it was like I doubled my workload in terms of what I could do.

And I had another great keyboard player in Tommy Barbarella. The great thing about Tommy, I was a tech head and he was the player. Tommy could play anything. He was fantastic because he could cover a lot of real estate in terms of style and different things. I had a lot of tech savvy. I knew how to set their samplers up to do this and that and the other. I saw how they used the other samplers that they used. I had a really incredible tech named Stuart White, and Stu was like the professor on Back To The Future. He was a genius, and knew how to take my ideas or Tommy's ideas and figure out how to make it happen on our gear. And so what it did was Prince so how cool that we could implement sounds, and then but he just had no patience for us to dig through them. So he would listen to a couple sounds, and if he found - stop. And then he'd give us a line with that sound, and then just make it go like that, so a lot of the different sounds was just him getting to a sound and then figuring out how to use it, rather than we had to spend 30 minutes or however long it is digging through an archive of all of these sounds. He had no time for that. He'd just - pull up that. That sound. Now I'm going to make a line to go with that sound, rather than the other way around. So that's the genius of Prince, because he could just figure it out on the spot, where it was just a lot of time wasted in us trying to dig through stuff. And he just like no, no, we're not doing that. We're going to go now.

The sounds on the record The Gold Experience are incredible, and I know that getting sounds like that still is not easy, but certainly in 1995 I'm sure it was a serious uphill battle.

It was. Fortunately, like I said, I spent a lot of time with a lot of the equipment. I love - Roland made some really lush keyboards, and on the of the things that I noticed even before I got with Prince is that he was one of those kinds of guys, when he discovered a keyboard he'd use the snot out of it. Like when he first go it, everything on the album was just that unit. I work with keyboards to the point that I can listen to anybody's record and be like they used this, that and the other. I could hear the sound associated with the keyboard company that the sound came from, for the most part, unless it was like a boutique type. I knew all of this - like that's the patch right there for that. So even after the fact if Prince went in the studio - because sometimes he'd do the track by himself. He wouldn't even use all of us. I knew how to then go - and Tommy too - could dissect it from what we heard and just say he's using that. And we'd dial it up, and then we could recreate it and reproduce it with the right sound from the record.

You're listening to Purple Current, and I'm chatting with Morris Hayes, longtime keyboard player with Prince and the New Power Generation. We've been talking about The Gold Experience, and you've shared so many interesting gems about that period. Is there a standout track for you from that release that is at the center of that album for you?

That was such a great record to me. I was so happy to have played on - "Shhh" was very cool because he really featured the organ. The B3 is kind of one of those things where - I'm a church cat, and so Prince liked that influence from me. When he heard what I was doing, organ-wise, he really made that a central piece of the sound from that era, is the Hammond. That's - when I came on, the Hammond came in. And so that got to be my thing, and so he just kind of let me do my thing as far as that, and put that at the forefront on that record. "Shhh" was crazy. I loved that because I can really hear it in the mix.

"Endorphinmachine" was cool because I always love rock and roll because when I was a kid I lived out in the woods in Arkansas. I didn't get the - we had an AM station that was like pretty terrible as far as the range where I was. It was scratchy, and for whatever reason, I was learning that you have superpowers before you know you do. I just would hear stuff in stereo and it just resonated with me. And so that was the station that played Supertramp, and played the Eagles and Steely Dan and all of this stuff - Roger Nichols. So I'm listening to this stuff. I'm like oh my God, this is amazing. So that is what I listened to all the time, because that's what came in super clear. So I had appreciation for like rock and roll and the Stones and all the other stuff they would play on the rock station, because it sounded great.

And the cool thing about rock and roll, it's just kind of got this shelf life that certain songs, like if he wrote it right now it would still work. When you get to some eras like in the '90s, there's certain sounds they used for drums, there's certain styles that you played that point out that time ad space, like you know it's from the '90s or you know it's from the '80s because it's got that sound to it. Rock and roll is like guitar, drums, bass, go. And you can do it right now. Any Jimi Hendrix song, like if he came out with it right now it would still hit. It just would hit because it's just timeless, and that's the thing I like about it.

So "Gold" was a great song. Prince was an extraordinarily cool, very good anthem type writer. He wrote anthems like "Purple Rain" and "Gold" and some of these songs, and it's always like B-flat, and it always [sings] - this big song, and the vocals were big, and so I like that song too. But it was so many fun - what I liked about doing a tour - I remember when we went on the Gold Experience tour, it was like one of the first tours we'd been on. The whole tour was basically that whole album. We played everything off of that album. He didn't really want to touch the hits. We did, but it was something that he really didn't want to do. He just wanted to play that record because we loved that record so much, so we played "Now," we played everything like off the record and just had these crazy arrangements that we just would do for it, and it was just amazing. I just love that whole record.

Hosted by Sean McPherson
Audio by Michael DeMark
Video by Steel Brooks and Cecilia Johnson
Web feature by Cecilia Johnson

Morris Hayes on Prince's 1995-2010 discography

The Gold Experience (1995)Crystal Ball (1996)Emancipation (1996)Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)The Rainbow Children (2001)Indigo Nights (2008)Musicology (2004)3121 (2006)Planet Earth (2007)20Ten (2010)

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