Preserving the 'universal energy' of Prince, deep inside an LA vault

WASHINGTON, Johannes Schmitt-Tegge (dpa)- The keeper of Prince's vault has the keys to an overwhelming amount of material left behind by the artist. Michael Howe, who is overseeing the archive's tedious digitization, wonders what Prince would have thought about it being released.
Every two weeks, Michael Howe boards a plane in Nashville, Tennessee, flies to Los Angeles and enters a vault holding previously unreleased music recorded by deceased pop star Prince.

The closely guarded archive is the Prince estate's crown jewel, and on almost every visit, Howe discovers some treasures.
Howe personally knew Prince, who died in April 2016 of an overdose of the pain-killer fentanyl, an opioid. He was Prince's A&R (artists and repertoire) manager at the label Warner Bros., providing the link between "his world and the world of work."
Howe, 47, spoke with dpa ahead of the September 21 release of a new Prince album, "Piano & a Microphone 1983".
dpa: How does it feel to be the person in charge of scouring though the recordings of a star like Prince?
Howe: A lot of it is emotional for me. I've been given the opportunity here to work amongst some of the greatest pieces of popular culture in the 20th and 21st century. Being able to immerse myself in that is a very humbling experience. The material means so much to so many people, myself included. I take it very, very seriously. I like him very much, and I had immense respect, and I just want to do the guy right.
dpa: What exactly is your job?
Howe: I'm the chief archivist of the vault. I work for the Prince Estate, taking care of audio-visual material. I'm preserving and digitizing everything in there, labelling things that are partially or incorrectly labelled or not labeled at all. We're taking status of things to conceptualize potential releases. I view the job as if I were sitting in the Smithsonian or MOMA [Museum of Modern Art] along a room full of fine art. There's a tremendous amount of material in there, not all digitized yet.
dpa: How much progress have you made?
Howe: I can't say with certainty, but it's relatively low - less than 50 per cent has been worked through. It takes a while to get in a rhythm and determine the best path forward. You want to handle those tapes as infrequently as possible. You want to put it on the machine, do it right the first time and theoretically never touch the master tapes again. The machine has to be calibrated, tones have to be set, tapes run off in real time, no way to accelerate the process. I would expect it will take many more years until the digitization and preservation process has reached completion. The date is hard to anticipate.
Q: What's it like inside the vault?
A: It's a very secure, climate-controlled, unsexy environment. It's basically an impenetrable building in Hollywood, very industrial. It has earthquake proof shelving. All the tapes are in there, all work stations. Nothing ever leaves there.
Q: What has excited you the most thus far?
A: It is pretty astonishing - the breadth of ability the guy had. Even his cast-offs - the material that he didn't use - in many cases are orders of magnitude of A-level artists. His output was enormous basically from minute one. The guy was just titanically creative.
Q: This is evident on "Piano & A Microphone 1983." What's your assessment of the album?
A: It was him in his home studio kind of thinking aloud onto a cassette, one continuous musical thought. It was largely improvised. I don't think he sat down with notes or a chart in front of him. Some things are much more evolved than others. "Purple Rain" is an 88-second snippet. My suspicion is that song had not been completed and he was just working through some ideas.
Q: Will there be future releases after this album?
A: You can expect other releases to be sure. I certainly think both existing fans and fans to come will be very pleased with whatever ends up emerging. There is a lot of unreleased stuff of a very high calibre.
Q: Prince was highly self-critical and strongly protective of his music. Would he be happy with this album showing his creative process in light of unfinished work?
A: It's something I think about daily. I have dreams about it. Prince had very strong opinions and could be known as a fickle guy, but he recognized that a lot of what he withheld, that was in the vault, was certainly worthy of being heard at some point. There are clips of him saying maybe this stuff will come out after I'm gone. We try to be as respectful of the integrity of the art as possible. I'm very aware of the universal energy of this stuff.

Thursday, September 20th 2018
Johannes Schmitt-Tegge (dpa)

New comment:

News | Politics | Features | Arts | Entertainment | Society | Sport

At a glance