Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Hugh Swaso, lead singer of Swaso and 1999: A Prince Tribute, about juggling tribute music with original work and how he pulls off a convincing imitation of Prince’s persona.
CP: Why Prince? What is it about his music that speaks to you or that you thought would speak to others?
HS: (Laughs.) Musically, he's extremely challenging, and as musicians, we all really love doing his stuff because it's bad ass. The way it came to me is that I actually played in the Michael Jackson tribute band, Who's Bad, and their booking agent came to me and said, “It would be great to have a Prince tribute band. You're the one to do it.” I declined the offer. Then, another band from the same booking agent asked if I wanted to do a Prince tribute thing, and I said I didn't know. Finally, a couple months later, he came to me personally and said, “We would really love for you to do this thing.” That was the process.
CP: What do you appreciate about his music? Have you come to like him better?
HS: His music is incredible. It's just absolutely fantastic. Even before the tribute band, it was just like Prince was incredible. The New Power Generation is funky as hell. Prince is a musical phenomenon, a force to be reckoned with. That's coming from one musician to another musician. He's just incredible. I enjoyed listening to it. There's not really anything bad you can say about Prince's music. It's pretty bad ass.
CP: Prince is one of those personalities in the music world that has a very distinct persona. What kind of pressure does that put on you to replicate?
HS: I don't look anything like Prince. (Laughs.) I'm not small and I don't have the hair. I look more like Lenny Kravitz than anything else. The main comment we get regarding this is that people look at our picture and say, “You guys don't look anything like Prince and the band doesn't look like The Revolution, but from seeing that, we can tell that it's all about the music.” That's very true.
We get up on stage, and we actually put on the exact show from the performing tour. Every sound is correct, every feel is correct and every tone and emotion from that concert in that era is given out.
It's not very tongue-in-cheek, like “This is a Prince look-a-like.” It's like, when we play “Purple Rain,” there are grown men crying in the audience because we play from the heart. That's what we do. It's about the music. We try to get that experience because if it becomes a huge circus, you lose the point. If you want that, go to a wax museum. (Laughs.) We all work really hard. We're all musicians, so we take great pride in what we do, musically.
CP: You're also in the band Swaso. How do you juggle responsibilities between the two? What percentage of your time is spent with which?
HS: With the tribute, we spent a good month and a half of intense work just getting the show down. Our drummer, Justin Holder, took up the reins to get the show together and get everything correct. Once the show was set out, it's pretty much set. That concert was set down exactly as we do it. We have added songs along the way, like “Hey, let's do 'Pussy Control'” or “Hey, let's do '7,'” we can just pick it up and learn it.
The Swaso thing is a continual thing because it's our original music. Whenever we have an idea of working a tune into the set, it's continually growing.
Traveling is really not too hard, actually. What's funny is, because we open for ourselves as Swaso, people, at first, are like, “That opening band was pretty bad ass. I hope the Prince act is as good as this guy because he's shredding on guitar and all these things. It's crazy.” Then, we come back out dressed in the Purple Rain and Revolution attire, and people are completely flabbergasted. They're like, “This makes perfect sense that this band would be the tribute act.” They get a huge kick out of it, and we actually get great responses from it. People are like, “We love the Prince and The Revolution stuff, but we also like the original stuff. It's a perfect package. We couldn't imagine anybody else would do it.”
Swaso has its own rock star persona, indeed.
CP: How much have you tweaked the show since you started?
HS: We've tweaked the show quite a bit. We go with the flow. A lot of times, we can see which songs work best with the crowd and which ones don't. Every single show and concert is extremely plotted out, like “This song leads to this to get the crowds emotion this way, and then we'll bring it down.”
This show has been tweaked for shortening the length of songs and doing montages of songs. It's just stuff that will work better for the audience's enjoyment so when they come see the show, it's like a well oiled machine.
There are some songs that people really, really want to hear and that we'll get requests for, but the mass whole of people are like, “I don't really like that song,” or “I'd like to hear something different.” It keeps things interesting for us to rotate shows around instead of getting stuck in a rut. It keeps things fresh for us to constantly change.
CP: Do you find that it's a relief to get on stage as Prince after doing the Swaso thing for a long time?
HS: It's not really a relief. With the Swaso stuff, it's definitely more stressful, especially in front of an audience we've never played in front of before. They're waiting for Prince and they know an opener is coming on, but they don't know who it is. You play something they've never heard before.
No one is going to instantly relate to your music the first time they hear it. The first time you listen to a song, you're taking it in; you're consuming it and analyzing it. The only type of stress I get is what they're going to think of the music after we're done. We actually get the same response, which is “Hey, that was incredible. It's really different and awesome.”
Swaso is pop rock, but not your standard pop rock; there's definitely some flair to it. We're talented musicians, and we like to expose that part of ourselves, as opposed to just playing bar chords, straightforward rock'n'roll.
It's really enjoyable to see these kids in front of the stage hear this rock band and see their minds just blown from what they're hearing. It's like, “How do you think of this stuff? Where can I get your record?” that sort of stuff. That's where the pay off comes through. It's not the instant, “Wow, we love this music.” They just stand there and don't say anything and are blown away, and as soon as you walk off stage, that's when they're hounding you. That's where it feels better.
The Prince thing is easier because it's instant gratification. Everyone is going to be excited about Prince. When you're going to see a Prince tribute band, you're already going to be happy. The work is already done. (Laughs.)
With the Prince thing, the stress for that is the audience's expectations. There are Prince fans who are really hard core. Everyone is a fan of something. I'm a huge Muse fan, and I love them to death and think they're fantastic. But there are these hard-core Prince fans who know every single song, every single word, why the song was written and know the history of Prince, inside and out. We actually met a couple who named their child Paisley Park; they were hardcore Prince fans.
These are the fans who come to the shows to analyze it and see if you're worthy to play Prince's music. That's literally how they think. That's good, and what comes from that is that we get a lot of positive feedback from the hardcore Prince fans. They are, to a tee, happy with what we do. That's great, because if we disappoint the hardcore Prince fans, we shouldn't be doing what we do.
CP: What's the characteristic of a Prince tribute that you really have to nail for the average person to walk out satisfied that you're doing the music justice?
HS: The thing we absolutely have to nail would definitely be the energy. Prince's energy on stage, besides the obvious energy of running around being able to do pretty much everything, is the inflection. He's sexy. He's sweet. He's emotional. He's religious - extremely religious.
You can't say these things. You have to ooze that rock'n'roll persona. You have to ooze that immense amount of know-how, that you know what you're doing, that this is your stage and you are Prince, in some aspect. You have to exude that you know this.
CP: How easily do donning that persona come to you?
HS: It comes kind of easily. The Swaso stuff is very much the same thing; this rock star ego comes out. That comes from the music, not from our general persona. You get on stage and you give it your all, and everyone loves it, too.
It's not that much of a difference. It's not like we all the sudden decided to do a Prince band after working day jobs. We're all musicians, and the Swaso thing involves a rock star persona, so the basic idea was to do that with the Prince thing.
I'm not Prince, obviously. People want to see that honesty about it. They want to know that the music they're listening to is honest, that you're doing an honest portrayal and you are honestly giving your all in your heart. That's what you need for your rock star swagger.
CP: What era of Prince's career do you pull from?
HS: We pull from the early part. We go from as early as the “1999” record to as late as “New Power Generation.” That's about as far as we go because we only do the 1985-1986 Purple Rain tour. There are some songs on there we don't do. We don't do “God,” and we don't do “Irresistible Bitch.”
We edit it some times to put in songs that are a little more what people want to hear. There are some really obscure tunes that hardcore fans want to hear, but the general masses don't know what it is. Sometimes we pull it out, but most of the time we don't because we want to reach a broader range of people.
Our demographic stretches from early 20s, who are familiar with Prince, in general, to people who saw him live when they were 18 years old. We want to create a good spread across his musical career to cover all bases.
CP: How large is your repertoire?
HS: We probably know about 22 Prince tunes. We don't play all 22. The concert keeps growing. These 22 are pretty awesome. Of course, we do “Purple Rain” and “Little Red Corvette.” We do “Pussy Control” and “Darling Nikki” - people are extremely excited about “Darling Nikki,” wondering if we're going to do it or not. We do “1999” and “Kiss.”
CP: Is there a crowd favorite?
HS: I want to say “Kiss.” That's a huge one. Everyone is happy when they hear “Purple Rain,” but when “Kiss” kicks in, everyone starts dancing. That's when everyone woman and every guy stop looking at the stage and get down and start dancing like crazy the entire time. It's one of my favorite songs to play. People are like, “Oh! That's 'Kiss.'” That's their jam, everywhere we go.
CP: Do you feel like the Prince thing has opened doors for Swaso?
HS: That's true, yes. It totally has. Being an original band is hard. Doing original music really is tough to get off the ground. The Prince thing is definitely a way to get it out there. Swaso's music can stand on its own, but this is a way to make that happen faster.
We did The House of Blues for 1,600 people last evening who have never heard of Swaso before and never would have seen us. We opened up, and we blew their minds. Everyone was like, “We've gotta get a record.” That's great. That's a huge opportunity to get a spotlight on you.
Outside of doing tribute bands, to get an original act out there, you've got to do some intense touring with some other bands, and you're not going to make a lot of money. By not make a lot of money, I mean nothing. That's just how it works. There are some bands that pay other bands to tour with them. I know Kings of Leon paid a substantial fee to tour with U2, just so they can get brand new fans.
That's how music works these days. It's all about relationships and who you are in front of. It's extremely not cost efficient. It costs quite a bit of money. You're not putting money in your pocket, only in the hopes that you'll get your music out there to an audience who has never heard your music before but who will like it and want to be a part of it.
With the Prince thing, it's the same thing. We get our music in front of people who would never otherwise have heard us, and it doesn't cost us any more than just the cost of travel, which Prince pretty much pays for. It's actually worked out very well with us. People are like, “The Swaso stuff is kind of like Prince. You're a flashy guitar player. You run around stage and you rock out. It's really cool.” Then, they see the Prince thing, and they're like, “Oh my gosh. That makes sense.”
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...