Ever wondered what life was like in Prince's entourage in the '80s? Paul Peterson (aka St Paul) has a pretty good idea.
As a young and promising Minneapolis funk and R&B musician, Peterson joined Prince associates The Time in 1983, appearing with them in the classic Purple Rain the next year. When lead singer Morris Day left the group and others followed, Prince threw the remaining members — Peterson, Jellybean Johnson and Jerome Benton — together with his then-fiance, Susannah Melvoin, and his tour manager's brother, Eric Leeds. They became The Family, with Peterson as the frontman.
They recorded one album in '85, consisting almost entirely of tracks written and demoed by Prince (including the original version of 'Nothing Compares 2 U', later to become a mega-hit for Sinead O'Connor). Peterson left soon after, the rest of the group moved on to other projects and the criminally unheralded record has been out of print for decades. End of story, right?
It would have been, if they hadn't gotten a call from Sheila E. (another Prince protege) almost 20 years later to reform for a charity concert. A year later, Questlove persuaded them to play his Grammys afterparty. Finally, after a series of false starts, the band (minus Jerome) has released Gaslight, their first new album in 26 years, to rave reviews from The Sunday Times, The Daily Mirror, Uncut and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Of course, you won't find it if you look under 'The Family'. Prince — none too happy with the reunion — refused to let them use the Family name, leaving them with the somewhat cumbersome 'fDeluxe' moniker (at that point, they'd already recorded the album). Despite this, they remain forever connected to The Purple One, even engaging in a musical slanging match with him recently.
I got Paul on the phone to talk about his complicated relationship with Prince, how he compares with Sinead O'Connor, and his band's unlikely revival.
This is the latest chapter in something you started 27 years ago, but the band has a different name now for legal reasons. Can you talk about that?
I really don’t know what to say to you, man. I struggle to answer that question, simply because I have a profound respect for what Prince did and what he put together on our behalf. Little did anyone know the rest of us would be friends, let alone still making music, 25 years later. Am I disappointed we couldn’t call it The Family? To a certain extent, I guess, but you try searching 'The Family' on Google and see what comes up first. It probably isn’t the old band, so on that level it’s okay that we got renamed. Did we lose some fans along the way? Maybe.
The Family name has a stigma, it’s very underground and very loved by that whole culture. But those people already knew we were coming back with a new record, and they were part of the name change, and instrumental throughout the process. Who knows whether it hurt us at all? It was unfortunate that we didn’t get Prince to go, ‘aww man, go ahead! Of course! I love the record!’ But that’s not in him, so whatever. It’s a big whatever.
When Sheila E. got in touch with you guys about a reunion, did you need some convincing?
I didn’t. I had already been playing with Eric (Leeds) and (Jelly)Bean (Johnson) for years. The only people that I wasn’t able to play with, but was still in touch with, were Susannah and Jerome. The stars aligned and those guys were into it and I was into it and our schedules were free; we put it on and went out there. It was the biggest family reunion, no pun intended, of all time. It just felt so natural, and I guess we rehearsed enough when we were kids, that we stepped into rehearsal for an hour and we had our set down cold. It was literally just a love fest. We just missed each other. It felt so good. We had no plans to make a record, it was just a reunion.
We didn’t think about it, but we got offstage and went, 'holy shit, that was fun!' We were thinking about going out on the road, and then we found out Susannah was pregnant. So it was like, alright, I guess we’ll go about our lives. And then Questlove called a few years later and said, 'you guys have gotta open up for us for this Grammy party we’re doing'. We thought it was fun last time and Susannah had already had [her child], so we went and did it again. It was as much fun as the first reunion, and we realised, you know… there’s a reason for all this. Let’s just see what happens. Let’s get in a room together and write and see if we’re compatible.
Nearly four and a half years after that, the record came out. It was like giving birth. The world’s longest pregnancy.
You had your own stuff going on in 1990 [Peterson has recorded solo albums and toured with Kenny Loggins and the Steve Miller Band, while other members of The Family continued to play with Prince]. When 'Nothing Compares 2 U' became such a huge hit for Sinead, did you feel like that should have been you? Or did you not take much notice?
Oh no, we took notice. [Laughs] I took notice. I’m sure we all reacted differently. I was not… I don’t know if I wasn’t a fan of the treatment of the song, or if I wasn’t a fan of it not being me making it famous. There were many different feelings.
A little bit of it was jealousy. But I honestly love the treatment that Prince, David Z and Clare Fischer gave it. It's one of the most brilliant songs Prince has ever written in his entire life… that song deserved the treatment that it got with The Family. When it got turned into something that was a little more commercial… for me, it didn’t move me. But obviously that isn’t the case for a billion other people on the planet.
The song really did get exposed. I’m glad Prince was able to expose that song, because I really do think that rivals some of his best work, that particular song. You know, I really do have mixed feelings about it. It wasn’t the best treatment, but it’s our claim to fame now. ‘We did that first!’ We have to remind people in concert that are new to fDeluxe… some people don’t know that we were The Family and we actually recorded that first. They’re like, ‘why are they covering a Sinead O’Connor song?’ We’re not, you idiots!
A lot of people think Prince either wrote it for her or it was a cover of a Prince B-Side.
Yeah, but that’s the way the whole Family vibe was. It was very underground, very understated... I don’t even know what (Prince's) reaction was! I don’t know if he liked it or not. He usually didn’t like other people covering his songs, so…
He’s blocked people from covering his songs before, so…
I bet he didn’t block people from delivering that cheque, though!
On the eve of Prince's recent Australian tour, he sent a recording of a rehearsal jam to Peterson (and Terry Lewis, another member of The Time who went his own way). Incorporating altered lyrics ('Takin' back the ship / You should've been a little more hip') into The Time and The Family tracks 'Ice Cream Castles' and 'Mutiny', it was a none-too-subtle dig at his former associates.
The Family responded in kind with 'Hot Summer At Menards', a diss track likening Prince's awful 2010 track 'Hot Summer' to a hardware store jingle (Menards is a Mid-West hardware store).
You guys recorded a pretty funny cover of ‘Hot Summer’ recently. For people who don’t know the backstory there, how’d that come about?
It was completely out of left field. He and I have had interesting interactions in the last three or four years. Usually it’s “don’t use the name or I’ll sue you!” That’s usually it. So basically, he sent me the file and I wrote back and said, ‘is this spam? Did somebody hack your account?’ The last time I received a song from Prince was in 1984 when I was sitting beside my mum’s pool trying to learn 'High Fashion'! So it transported me back about 25 years.
I download the track and it’s ‘Ice Cream Castles’ and ‘Mutiny’ mixed in together with a change of lyric. I knew he was ribbin’ us. It reminded us of what we used to do, back and forth, with Sheila E. We’d rib each other in songs, sending cassette tapes back and forth from San Francisco to Minneapolis. So I’m like, ‘hey, maybe he’s coming around here! This is kind of funny!’
First of all, it was funky as hell. Secondly, I knew exactly what was going on. But it was funny because he said, ‘would you please promote our tour coming up in Australia?’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘aah… why on God’s green earth would you be asking me to do that? It’s not like you need my help!’ But sure! I played along, so I put it up and I said, ‘here’s the present we got from Prince’.
It was just funny to read… if you look at the feed on Facebook or Soundcloud or whatever, people's reactions were hilarious. 'Why would he ever put that up on the site? Doesn’t he know? Is he an idiot? Doesn’t he know Prince is making fun of him?' And I’m just laughing out loud. So I thought, ‘okay, that’s a good one, I have a little rebuttal for him’. I thought I’d give him a little ‘Hot Summer’. I thought that was a better use of that song than the original.
So it's fair to say 'Hot Summer' is not one of your favourite latter day Prince tunes?
Oh no, I thought it was perfect for use in a Menards commercial.
Given that so many of your fans are also Prince fans, were you worried about a backlash?
No, because I made sure to phrase it in a way that was playful. That’s all it is. I can’t be completely worried about how people are going to react to it. You have to choose your words very, very carefully, of course, because that’s all it is. It’s very playful. It’s just a conversation that he made public. I’m 47 years old, I’m not just going to say, ‘oh, that was great, Prince, and I don’t have anything to say about it’. I got plenty to say.
It's a conversation that's been public for a while, because he wrote 'Dream Factory' about you leaving The Family in 1986 [he also incorporated the chant 'St Paul! Punk of the Month!' into his performances for a time]. Did you expect your departure to have such an effect on him?
No, because we really didn’t interact very much. It was a very one-dimensional relationship, as far as I knew. It was very much… I interpreted it as a non-event. I could be totally wrong, because we never got to a point in our relationship where I’d be able to realise it was anything other than that. We weren’t necessarily friends. He was the guy, and I was a green little kid, following instructions from one of the most brilliant superstars of his time. I was in the most enviable position of any young musician.
I really didn’t think it would affect him like that, but I had an opportunity that I couldn’t refuse. Let’s just put it that way. We don’t have to get into flinging anything back and forth, but you know, it provided me with an outlet for my own music, and also, financially, it was a no-brainer. So, regardless of the success I would have had if I’d stayed with The Family… we’ll never know!
But I can tell you one thing, I don’t regret the decision and I’m very proud of everything I’ve done. I’m happy sittin’ here in the Lunds & Byerly's grocery store talking to you over Skype. I think I turned out okay.
Were you frustrated with the situation? He installed you as the leader of the band, but he didn't let you write your own songs, so...
Oh, it was the coolest thing on the planet. No, it was great while it was happening. I wasn’t in a position to say, nor did I care to say, ‘oh, I’m going to write everything myself!’ I had the guy who was The King... He wasn’t Prince, he was King, at that time. So I wasn’t in any position, nor did I want to be any position, to try to make any musical statement other than translating his stuff, because anything he touched was gold. As you know, that period of time was one of the most brilliant times he’s ever had. The only thing that’s funny was the business, man. That’s it. Musically speaking, it was a ten. Business speaking, not so much.
Given that things have worked out for you in the long run — as you say, you’re quite happy where you are — how do you feel about him now? Can you listen to his music without thinking about everything that went on?
Oh, boy, that’s a great question. No, I think… I don’t necessarily seek out new Prince material. Although, obviously, with the resurgence of The Family/fDeluxe there have been opportunities for me to pay a little bit more attention to what he’s doing. But what brings me the most joy is to hear the old stuff. It reminds me of when I was a kid, with Purple Rain and The Time and all those really good times. It really brings me back.
It feels, almost 30 years later, like such a different life. I’m proud of that history that we have and that I am a part of. I tend to look at it as a positive. I don’t have any ill will towards the man at all. I think he’s a brilliant musician and I wish him well. I would love to have a different relationship with him, as probably 99 per cent of the people who’ve been through his camp would like to as well, but that’s his choice. And that’s totally cool.
We're coming up on the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain. Do you think there's any chance Prince and everybody from his camp back then will be able to sort out their differences in time to celebrate that together?
Well, if I could predict what that guy’s going to do, or anybody like that, I’d go to Las Vegas and start laying odds. I have no idea. But wouldn’t that be nice? That’s about all I have to say. I mean, that would be the right thing to do! I’d pay money to see that! I really would. I’d pay money to see that, and I think the entire planet would, too... It wasn't even on my radar that Purple Rain was coming up on 30 years. Isn't that funny?
Well, it's still a couple of years away. There's time.
Thank god! I don’t want to consider myself that old yet. Thank god I was just a baby! I don’t know, I would be surprised if he would sanction that. But then again, what do I know? Maybe he will! Maybe he’ll have a change of heart and totally say, ‘c’moooon, let’s do this, let’s have a BBQ’. Who knows?
I always tend to look on the bright side of things, man, I really do. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way, and that’s disappointing, but it’s not my life. I’m happy where I’m at, I’m glad to be a part of that history, and I forge ahead.
Listen to Gaslight here. fDeluxe hope to tour Australia this summer; follow them on Facebook and Twitter.