"The hardest thing with musicians," he explains to a visitor to his Paisley Park recording studio, "is getting them not to play."
The quintuple-threat singer-songwriter-producer-performer-multi-instrumentalist is running a nine-piece band through a vigorous rehearsal in preparation for a Monday-Wednesday residency at the United Center, and right now the arrangements are getting too busy for his liking. He's like a drill sergeant in a brown, button-up, Asian-style long coat with a hypnotist's lulling voice.
"John, what's the thing you're doing?" he asks John Blackwell, as if he were asking his drummer to pass a bag of potato chips. "Your time changed again and it got boomy and ugly." To a guitarist he calmly advises, "You should throw that pedal away ... it's just taking up too much space frequency-wise." To his bassist: "I wouldn't thumb this, either. Mute it. Mute it."
No big deal. The musicians comply and recalibrate. A little accent on the cymbal here, an up-stroke on the guitar strings there, and everything moves a little closer to the sound Prince imagines.
The singer wants to hear different combinations of instruments — guitars with drums, then with keyboards and bass; voices a cappella, then with tambourines and drums — and he is constantly tweaking, adjusting voicings ("give that last chord more value"), humming individual parts and then seeing how they gel. Much of this band has been with him for several years as he's traveled the world during his extended "Welcome 2" tour, usually playing long runs in major cities where he can vary the set lists nightly, explore every contour of his songbook and cover artists and songs both legendary (Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music") and surprising (Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover"). He wants more musical options ready for Chicago, and that's why he's pushing so hard at this rehearsal.
"Only a few days left," he says, almost to himself. Right now, he is aiming for absence, trying to carve space into the music where it can become something sexy and sinuous. At one point, to illustrate a point he invokes the Chuck Berry movie "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll." He describes a scene where Berry goes ballistic, accusing someone of changing his amplifier.
"Chuck Berry went 'St. Louis' on my boy," Prince says, throwing an air punch and laughing. The band cracks up. "Movie night!" one of his backing singers cackles.
Throwing a little mirth in the businesslike atmosphere seems to unlock something in everyone, and the parts that Prince has so carefully orchestrated start to pop and fire. "Which way is up?" the backing singers chant. "I got a new lease on life."
Now Prince is dancing with a huge, dimpled grin beneath his tight Afro.
"When the horns get on top of this," he exults, "Lord have mercy!"
As if on cue, 11 horn players drift into the room and take their place on the riser, the brass adding even more heft and swing to the stew of instruments. Pleased, Prince gives the entire 20-member ensemble a two-hour dinner break before everyone reconvenes later in the night.
He walks out into a hallway and into one of the offices in his cavernous, 70,000-square-foot property in the rolling hills southwest of Minneapolis.
"Remember the scene in (the movie) 'Amadeus,' where he's dying, and he's hearing the music in his head?" Prince asks. "It becomes impossible to explain. He doesn't have the vocabulary. Now, I'm short — literally and also when I speak — and it's easy to get all, 'Can't you hear this? Can't you hear what I'm hearing?' And so I use humor when I feel my blood pressure going up."
He also leans on his Bible lessons. A devout Jehovah's Witness for two decades, Prince says his Bible teacher was none other than soul-music great Larry Graham, the bassist in Sly and the Family Stone.
"He told me, 'Keep studying. There are things they don't explain at Bible school, so it's up to you to keep learning.'"
So too for music.
"I nearly had a nervous breakdown on 'The Purple Rain' tour (in 1984) because it was the same every night," he says. "It's work to play the same songs the same way for 70 shows. To me, it's not work to learn lots of different songs so that the experience is fresh to us each night."
Prince had made albums entirely on his own, playing all the instruments, singing all the vocals, writing and arranging all the songs. But now he savors the relationship he has with musicians such as Blackwell and keyboardist Cassandra O'Neal.
"My favorite instrument?” he says. "It's the band."