Seth Sharp is a musician and performer in Iceland who is perhaps best known for his Prince tribute shows. On June 25, his band performed a tribute concert to honour the memory of The Purple One upon his recent passing. Seth shared some of his thoughts with us about Prince, Julian Assange’s dancing, and what artists can learn from one of pop’s iconic performers.
We first met in 2004, when you were newly arrived to Iceland, and you had a Prince tribute band even then. Is this something you’ve been doing ever since?
It’s not the only thing I’ve been doing. I have been writing, recording and releasing my own music, too. But I always come back to Prince for musical inspiration. And for me in Iceland, Prince was sort of a way for me to push the envelope for my own music. I felt as though I was a little too conservative and reserved when I was performing as myself. It was funny how I could be comfortable singing in my underwear as Prince, but not as Seth. Even in songwriting, too—Prince was really good at taking filthy topics, making them radio-friendly, and doing it in such a way that you could appreciate the brilliance of it.
Every Prince fan I know seems to have a moment when they realised, “Oh my God, this man is a genius.” What was that moment for you?
I can’t say I remember the exact moment, but one of the earliest things I realised and appreciated about him as a kid is how a black man could present himself. The current state of African-American men is hypermasculinity. It’s very unusual to see a black male celebrity come from this hypermasculine culture, defy convention, and still be considered heterosexual. I mean this guy got away with wearing women’s underwear.
I wasn’t allowed to listen to Prince as a kid. My parents forbade it. But you know, when you’re a kid and your parents tell you not to do something, you find ways to get around it. I bought ‘Parade’, both on CD and on vinyl, and I very quickly wore out the CD and wore out the grooves on the album.
Now, there are some uncomfortable issues that come up when we talk about Prince; especially regarding some homophobic remarks he’s made, or his involvement with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
He got into a lot of trouble with the gay community over remarks he’s made about gay people in interviews. Which is kind of mind-blowing, I mean, he was one of the icons of queer acceptance, and he would even allude to not being heterosexual in the lyrics to some of his songs, like in the song “Uptown,” which he wrote when he was 17 or 18. So I think it was a shock for people to hear this homophobic stuff. But I think as with any great leader, I think people can look at him and appreciate what he did for the movement, even if they don’t appreciate the man.
Since you’re a musician yourself, I imagine there were also aspects of Prince’s songwriting and work ethic that inspired you, too.
Yes. Prince was notorious for working hard, and that’s one of the things I picked up from him, too. That kind of perfectionism; of not being satisfied until you get something right. Another thing was, on his early albums, he wrote all the songs, played all the instruments, and did the engineering. This was something that I learned as well. I learned everything I would need to know to take a song from my head and put it out into the world. I think he noticed what I noticed when you have a band: it’s a lot of work having to go through different people and different opinions. I wanted to learn how to do as much as possible, so I could believe in my own ideas.
A lot of musicians starting out will get their inspiration from established musicians, but very few will decided, “You know what? I’m going to form a tribute band.” What led you to that decision?
When I moved to Iceland, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do here. I’m a performer, and a performer has to perform. So I asked myself what I could do, as a performer, to bring something that was missing in Iceland, something that would benefit music lovers. For me, the Prince tribute band was a natural thing. I mean, if you live in New York, you don’t need a Prince tribute band, because you’ll see Prince sooner or later. But I wanted to do a Prince tribute; I did not want to be a Prince impersonator.
Can you explain the distinction between a tribute and an impersonation?
I think a Prince tribute shows people how that artist influenced you, as an artist. It allows you to interpret his songs, rather than trying to mimic them exactly, and it allows you to look like how you look. Some people tell me I look like Prince, though, so before a show I might do my hair different or go on a diet. But I’m not trying to copy his moves exactly. I’m much taller, weigh like sixty kilos more than he did, I’m browner. It’s not like going to see an impersonator in Las Vegas. I’m interpreting his songs in my own way.
This tribute concert you have coming up, was this inspired by his recent passing?
Yes. I think within hours of his death, I started getting phone calls and texts and Facebook messages. People were like, “You gotta do the Prince tribute.” And I got an offer in the UK just hours after he died to do a Prince tribute concert there. It was weird! I think what threw me off guard was just how much people associate me with Prince. I mean, it had been quite a while since I last did a Prince tribute.
I think I look at death in much the same way Prince did. I’m not cold about it; I’m just realistic about it. I didn’t cry when I learned he died. I was just very surprised, like, “Wow, I didn’t even know there was something going on with him.”
You mentioned that you also write and release your own songs.
Yeah, I do record a lot of my own material. Every once in awhile I’ll record a track for another singer, because I might find it easier to mix someone else’s voice rather than my voice, on account of my perfectionism. I had a song once that sat on the shelf for a year because I wasn’t satisfied with my own singing. So finally I asked someone else to sing the track, and it was done in a week. I sometimes release these tracks through a label, but usually release these tracks myself. This is another thing I learned from Prince: releasing your own material is much more profitable and rewarding.
A lot of people forget that Prince was one of the first people to speak up against how major labels treat artists. When he was walking around with SLAVE written on his cheek, people thought he was just being weird. Today, we know a lot more about how the business works, and he was right. This is why he encourages artists to do it themselves; to have as much control as they can; to get a distribution deal rather than a record deal. I mean, a record deal can help you out in the beginning, but having total control will pay off for you much more in the long run.
Now, I have to ask about the Julian Assange dancing video.
Oh my god. Yes. Well, I was DJing one night at Glaumbar, spinning a lot of my own material. When I saw Assange out there dancing, I didn’t actually know who he was. To me he was just this old guy dancing. Which I love! I want to see older people on the dancefloor. We had taken some photos from the night, and we tried our best to ask everyone if they minded if we put them on Facebook or whatever. Assange was one of them, and he was like, “Yeah sure whatever” about it. That’s an important detail here: those photos of Assange dancing were on my Facebook for like two years, without a single complaint.
Anyway, one time I was having a conversation with a friend about Assange, and I mentioned that I had a video of him dancing—to one of my songs—on my hard drive. My friend insisted on seeing it, and he couldn’t believe I’d been sitting on this video all this time. So I posted it, and it made its way to Reddit, where it just took off.
Now, I understand Assange wasn’t happy about this. I heard he had tried to sue the producers of a British documentary about him, over that clip. The judge ruled that Assange couldn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy on the dancefloor. I’ve heard he’s still been trying to get the video taken down, but I haven’t heard anything from him personally.
With this tribute show, are you going to be spanning Prince’s whole career, or just one specific period?
His whole career. We’ll be starting with his earliest recordings, and working our way through. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but the end of the first act is going to be something.