Ex-Motor man Bryan Black reveals all about working for Prince, collaborating with his electro heroes and his forthcoming album as Black Asteroid.
Attack: I apologise for kicking off an interview by talking about someone else, but I have to make an exception to the standard protocol here. One of your early jobs in the music industry was working for Prince at Paisley Park. Can you tell us a bit about how that came about?
“I think the parties were ultimately set up so Prince could secretly watch the upcoming talent and possibly meet girls.”
Bryan Black: I was gigging around town [Minneapolis] with my first band, Haloblack – a synth-rock project modelled after Nine Inch Nails and Meat Beat Manifesto – when the manager of Paisley Park heard about us and invited us to perform at the studio. They were doing a series of dance parties on the weekend – word of mouth, intimate affairs. I think the parties were ultimately set up so Prince could secretly watch the upcoming talent and possibly meet girls. So he saw the gig and one of his people invited me to work with the band as a ‘keyboard tech’. I think he was drawn to the way I used synths and samplers.
Paisley Park is a pretty unique opportunity for any producer or engineer. What kind of things were you responsible for there?
My first job was to dig up the 2-inch tapes from his back catalogue, sample various parts and sounds into samplers and map those samples across keyboards so the band could perform all his songs live without missing any signature sounds from the songs. This was also an opportunity to sample at 16-bit, whereas all his current samples were 8-bit at the time. I would then map out all the samples onto his keytar or other keyboards. He often broke keys off of the synths when performing so I also had the task of replacing keyboards and swapping out keys during gigs and rehearsals.
Did it open your eyes to different ways of making music? What did you learn?
I was just so impressed with his work ethic more than anything else. we would start live rehearsals around 11 AM, then he would be in the studio in the afternoon, then perform at night at Paisley Park for maybe 50 people lucky enough to be invited, followed by a late-night studio session. At this time we all had pagers, and I didn’t get much sleep. I was working on my own record at the time called Funkyhell as Haloblack.
At the time I was more into industrial and experimental music, but shortly after I left that job I revisited his back catalogue after finding a DAT of The Black Album at the studio. I quickly became obsessed with everything he did from 1979 to 1989, collecting bootlegs and rediscovering b-sides and rare tracks.
“Sometimes I'll spend days in the studio and come out with only two or three sounds or sequences.”
So, having come from that background in a (relatively) traditional studio environment, is your own approach to making and producing music focussed around ‘correct’ engineering approaches or are you more experimental?
I started making music in big studios with 2-inch tape and massive mixers and outboard gear – I got access to studios for free most of the time. I think it’s helped me having this experience when working with modern DAW setups. I spend most of my time making quality original sounds. For my debut album as Black Asteroid, I’m making every sound from scratch and every song so far has a distinctive signature sound. Sometimes I’ll spend days in the studio and come out with only two or three sounds or sequences, but these sounds define the songs.
You’ve released as part of Haloblack, XLOVER, Motor and now Black Asteroid and worked with people like Martin Gore and Gary Numan. How has the way you make music changed over the years?
Every project I’ve been a part of has a similar aesthetic: dark, heavy, synth-based grooves in a traditional song structure with random analogue sounds and bleeps. I started on 2-inch tape and MIDI-controlled samplers, and progressed to sampling analogue synths and controlling them inside a DAW rather than CV to MIDI. I still have a similar sound, but I’m now able to really manipulate my sounds in ways in which I couldn’t before.
XLOVER has the pop spirit of Prince with the production of Nine Inch Nails. I love big hooks, but I loathe cheese and formulaic music. I think Black Asteroid picks up where Motor first started – raw techno grooves with character. After Motor evolved into an electro project and we completed the ultimate record with all our heroes on it, I found myself missing the raw techno sound which I always find myself going back to since I started producing music. After the few big projects I’ve been a part of, Black Asteroid is where I’m really finding myself as an artist.
“This is an opportunity for me to make the record I've always wanted to make, incorporating the tricks I learned from Prince and others along the way into a techno record.”
You just started work on the Black Asteroid album, right? What’s the plan there?
Yes, the intro track was written yesterday and consists of an angry random ARP 2600 bass synth pattern and some white noise on top. Another track was written entirely on the piano. And today I’m working on some driving 4/4 techno. The idea is to make a dynamic, rich album that will work on headphones and still have something for the sweaty underground clubs. I’m collaborating with some vocalists on a few tracks and some visual artists for the packaging and videos. This is an opportunity for me to make the record I’ve always wanted to make, incorporating the tricks I learned from Prince and others along the way into a techno record which hopefully transcends the techno genre.
So finally, are you still in touch with Prince? Is he into techno?!
No, I lost touch with him many years ago. I haven’t really reached out, but I’m really impressed with what he’s doing now – more as a performer than a a songwriter. I think he lost something when he ‘found’ god after The Black Album but I think he always had an ear for techno sounds. I remember in 1994 he released this techno-ish dance record called Come – worth checking out.