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Sunday, August 16, 2009


Prairie Prince discusses the Apple Venus sessions

Album of the Week -- Prairie Prince

This week we've got our second interview with artist and drummer extraordinaire Prairie Prince -- founding member of The Tubes and current drummer for Todd Rundgren (who will be touring, with Prairie on the drummer's throne, in the coming months to play his seminal album A Wizard, a True Star in its entirety, along with some other favorites).

Last time, Prairie remembered what it was like to work with the band on the Skylarking sessions; this week, he spoke with Todd Bernhardt about recording with XTC during 1998's Apple Venus sessions. The song we'll put up this week in Prairie's honor is "Greenman," since he does such a stunning job on it.

Before we get going, we have a tale of technological woe to tell -- though the conversation surrounding the AV sessions lasted for almost an hour-and-a-half, for some reason the second tape didn't record (user error, no doubt, though the user has trouble accepting this), so we only have the first hour, which covers everything up to "In Another Life." During the rest of the conversation, Prairie talked about "My Brown Guitar" and "The Wheel and the Maypole," as well some of the personal dynamics among the band during the sessions. We will try to catch up with him later about this, and hopefully will amend this blog accordingly. In the meantime, please enjoy the hour of conversation we managed to capture.

We'll be back in two weeks with a look at one of the band's more threatening songs. Speculate away!

TB: Let's talk about the Apple Venus session. You have said there were some tense moments there, and it seems to me that much of that could have had to do with the fact that Andy's demos were so well-realized, or fully baked, so there wasn't the opportunity for the other members of the band to have the same amount of input that they might have previously had, when they were all arranging songs together.

PP: I would say that his songs were not only fully baked, but well-done! [laughs] I received a batch of demos in the mail, and I was very excited to get it. The anticipation was killing me. They had called me maybe a couple of weeks before that, and secured me as their drummer -- if I indeed liked what they were going to send me. I said, "Oh, I'm sure I'll like it."

After I'd sat down and listened to the demos, I just went, "Do I really need to go do this?" [laughs] I mean, the drum programming was flawless, and the songs sounded great. Probably the only thing missing was real strings, which they ended up doing at Abbey Road.

TB: When you got these demos, how many songs were on there?

PP: Everything! Everything was on there except for the two songs that they wrote later on -- "Standing in for Joe" and "I'm the Man Who Murdered Love." Those were written later, as the second album came out, I think.

TB: Yeah, they added those, but the funny thing about that is that they were both actually older songs -- "Man Who Murdered Love" was written around the time of Nonsuch, while "Standing in for Joe" was originally meant for the Bubblegum album that never came to fruition.

PP: Oh, no kidding? I wish I had those demos right now, but I can't find them -- I've been looking through my tape box, but I have about 5,000 tapes [laughs], and it's totally unorganized! I know I'm going to find the tape at some point. The songs might have almost been in the same order as it ended up on the album -- on Apple Venus, Vol. I, anyway.

TB: Tell me about the call you got.

PP: I think Dave called me first and asked if I would want to come over and record, and that Andy would be following up with a call to discuss details. I said, "Of course -- sure."

When I heard from Andy, he said, "We were kicking it around, listening to our last three albums, and decided that we liked your drumming the best of all three." He wouldn't say that he liked the album, just that he liked the drumming! [laughs] He was still a little bitter at that point, I think.

I was very flattered by that, and I said, "Great!" I think he offered me a certain amount of money, which seemed a bit low to me at the time, but I just thought, "Whatever -- I'll do anything to go over and have this experience again with these fabulous musicians."

So, I accepted the job, and I think I got the demos about 10 days later. About a month later I was on my way over there -- flew to London, and then took a cab, or maybe someone picked me up, and drove to Chipping Norton Studios. Chipping Norton is in a little village in the Cotswolds. The recording studio had been a boy's school probably 20 years before or something, and I think some pretty classic albums have been done there.

It was a working and living situation -- they had the studios, with some side rooms or isolation rooms, and then the rest of it was a big house, with living quarters and a kitchen and a couple of little cottages on the side. It was just very charming, and the whole thing was great. We all lived there, though I think the engineers came in daily. The band stayed there, along with some cooks, housekeepers and gardeners who were living there.

It was amazing. The first day I got there, Andy came out and greeted me, and said, "So good to see you again." We had a nice laugh, and Colin and Dave were there -- we all sat down and sort of reacquainted ourselves, then went immediately into the studio and started on the first track! [laughs]

I said, "We're going to play together, right?" And Andy said, "Oh no no no, I'm just going to put down some scratch guitar, and a little scratch vocal, and I want you to go in and put drums on it." I don't recall which was the first song, but I have a feeling it was "I'd Like That."

You know, I was going through these songs and trying to remember the order that we recorded them in, but for the life of me, I cannot remember.

"I'd Like That" actually doesn't have drums on it! It has me playing my knees, and some syncopated, Flamenco-style handclaps that I think both Andy and I did together. But otherwise I was sitting there on a stool with my knees getting redder and redder with each take. [laughs] And I remember there were many takes! He just keep saying, "That sounds great! Beat it up, beat it up!"

TB: [laughing] Easy to say when it's someone else's legs, right?

PP: Right!

TB: Did you originally try the song on drums?

PP: I think I might have. I might have sat down and tried a real simple, kind of marching-snare thing, but then he said he liked it better with hands.

TB: So, you recorded your parts before the band had recorded any significant backing tracks? It was just scratch vocals and guide guitars and such?

PP: Yeah. I would be pretty much sitting around with Andy, mostly, who would just record a simple guitar part or maybe a little drum machine click thing that I played along with on a couple of songs, and a scratch vocal. I'd be sitting around while he would do this first, to show me how it was going to go. Of course, we'd refer to the demo. Then I'd go in, and he'd kind of work me through it.

I don't really remember doing more than one song a day, and we were there for a solid month, doing this whole record. Nobody else was really performing much at all, except for Andy, and Colin, when he would do his songs -- "Fruit Nut," "Frivolous Tonight" and "In Another Life."

I played on those song just by myself, playing along with a scratch vocal from Colin, and maybe an acoustic guitar.

TB: No Dave playing piano or anything like that?

PP: I think Dave actually did overdub some piano on one -- I remember him playing piano on a few songs, and I think that was one of them.

TB: It has such a strong piano feel to it.

PP: Yeah. That's really the only time I remember Dave doing too much. I think he did maybe one or two guitar parts -- little overdubs, and maybe he wasn't really happy with them. They were just more concerned about getting the drums while I was there.

TB: So, it was a month, basically, getting the drum tracks down?

PP: Pretty much, yeah. But we did all of the songs on both records. And then I guess they replaced my parts on a bunch of the stuff on Wasp Star. I played on maybe four of the songs.

TB: Yep, you're on "Stupidly Happy," "In Another Life," "My Brown Guitar" and then, the last song in the XTC catalog, "The Wheel and the Maypole."

PP: That was a little disturbing to me because -- I don't know, [chuckles] as I remembered the others, the way I played them, I thought that at least several of them were just as good, if not better, as what they ended up with. But who am I to say? I don't know all the circumstances around it.

I know it was much later when they released Wasp Star. They sat on that stuff for about a year.

TB: Yeah, I think that had a lot to do with it.

PP: I wish I had some rough mixes of the tracks that I did with them.

TB: So, they didn't send you back with scratch tracks to remember the session by?

PP: No. I wasn't allowed any of that. But also, I'd love to hear the demos again, too. Those did come out, didn't they?

TB: Yeah -- Homespun and Homegrown are the demo releases for those albums.

Concerning the logistics of you going over there -- did you bring any of your own equipment, or did you hire everything?

PP: I had Yamaha supply me with a set of drums, and Paiste with a set of cymbals. Plus, there was percussion that Andy had around the studio that we used -- tambourines, maracas, stuff like that.

TB: Did you just have a single snare, or did you ask Yamaha for several types?

PP: Several -- I think I had a brass snare, and a couple different wood snares.

TB: Different depths? Different types of wood?

PP: Yeah for both. I think I had a birch, and a maple. I'm sure I used them all, or at least tested them all, in front of Andy and [producer] Hadyn [Bendall] and [engineer] Barry Hammond.

TB: Was your kit a birch kit?

PP: As I recall, they were birch.

TB: That's your preference?

PP: The first set I got from Yamaha was birch, and I've always liked them, yeah. I have a good set of maples that I like as well, but they don't quite have the attack that birch does. Maple is warmer, which is good in certain situations. I also like beech drums. I like oak -- I like all of them! [laughs] I like them all for different reasons. The oak drums have the most attack of all -- they're so loud.

TB: That's the hardest wood, right?

PP: Yeah, I think so. They're wonderful drums. But the maple has a special warmth, and the birch has a special sound to me because I've been playing it for so long. The beech -- I don't know if I've actually played a whole drum set, but I've played several of the snare drums, and I like them a lot. I have that Yamaha Akira Jimbo-model 13"x7" beech snare, and it's really good for that kind of popping, Funk sound.

TB: So, let's talk about the songs themselves. "River of Orchids" doesn't have any drums at all, correct?

PP: But what a great percussion track! The dripping water percussion is so unique. I'm sure that was the first song on the demo, and I remember being struck by what a great build that was.

TB: And the pizzicato strings are very percussive in their own right.

PP: Very percussive.

TB: Did you and Andy ever talk about the possibility of adding any drums or percussion for that song?

PP: I think I might have been pushing toward that, but in the end, I guess he didn't need it! [laughs] Or he had the idea that the plucking strings would be enough. It's incredible stuff -- I love that song.

TB: You've already pretty much talked about "I'd Like That," so tell me about "Easter Theatre." It's hard for me to understand how you could have played drums for that without any other reference than a scratch vocal and guitar, and the demo in your head.

PP: We did a lot of that song in sections. In fact, we did several of the songs in sections. With this song, for example, we did one whole track of cymbal swells -- you know, which you hear with what sound like tympani rolls on the floor toms.

I wish I could talk to Andy, and see what he remembers! [laughs] Because I'd hate for him to go, "That's not how it happened at all!"

TB: [laughs] But you know what? When we talk about this stuff, sometimes he says, "Oh, you'll have to ask Prairie about that."

PP: [laughs] Okay, good -- so I can just make it up as I go along!

But I remember doing a lot of things in sections. He'd say something like, "Okay, that was a brilliant take for that section." Then he'd ask, "Are you tired? Let me walk on your back." He had great pride in his back-walking massage technique.

TB: [incredulously] He actually walked on your back?

PP: On the studio floor, yes! He's very good at it, too. I'd be sitting there all day, doing these tracks, and would need a break. It'd be, "Is it time for tea, or a back rub?" [laughs]

We'd have breakfast in the morning, and everybody would be watching the Teletubbies -- which I guess had just come out -- while eating Marmite and toast, and then we'd be off to the studio. We'd start the takes, and there'd be a tea break around 10 or something, then lunch, then work again until dinner, and then work until 10 or 11 at night. That was every day for a month!

TB: Wow. So you earned your paycheck!

PP: Man, I don't even remember a paycheck! [laughs] But, you know, I was nervous about the whole thing, and when I got there, I was so jetlagged. I remember reading all my notes that I had taken after listening to the demos for a week or so, trying to remember the parts and stuff. I'd be up at 3 in the morning until 5 or 6, and then I'd sleep until 8, then get into the studio.

TB: I was surprised that they'd pull you right into the studio to work on "I'd Like That," because coming from the West Coast, you were looking at a significant plane ride. You had to be jet-lagged.

PP: Yeah. We definitely went right into it.

TB: Can you sleep on planes?

PP: Usually I can, yeah.

TB: That's a gift. I wish I could.

PP: Even in economy, in the middle seat. I can usually just put my head on the table, and just go out. [laughs] Without drugs!

TB: [laughs] So, with "Easter Theatre," you built it up in sections -- do you remember Andy talking about any particular feel he was going for?

PP: He just wanted it very orchestral and symphonic. Something that would remind you of church on Easter Day, with the smells of beautiful spring flowers and chocolate bunnies. [laughs] I loved it. I just love that song.

TB: There are part of that song that remind me of the Beatles, especially the very dead-sounding drums. Did you do anything in particular to the kit, or was that all after-the-fact processing?

PP: I remember that Andy would definitely sit back in the producer's chair, as we were working on the drum sounds before each track, and really work the tuning. He would pretty much tell me how he wanted it to sound -- "Tune this up, tune this down a little bit, play this, play that." A lot of time was spent on the sound, I recall.

For that song in particular, there might have been some dampening to make it sound a little more tympani-like than tom-like. When I was listening to it today, I was shocked at how much it did sound like tympani, or an orchestral drum ensemble.

TB: I was wondering if perhaps you had done any overdubs using orchestral percussion.

PP: Maybe they actually did some things later on, when they got to Abbey Road with the orchestra. I didn't do any overdubs, other than doing the sections separately, which is almost like overdubbing.

TB: "Knights in Shining Karma" has, I think, just wood blocks on it -- is that you or Andy?

PP: I think that's Andy. I don't think I ever played on that one. Great song. I love the title.

TB: "Frivolous Tonight" -- I had talked to Colin about this a little while ago, and one of the questions I had for him was whether you played this with brushes or not, because it sounds kind of like that.

PP: I think I played it with Blasticks. That one, and "In Another Life" -- I might have done both of those together with him, maybe in one day. I'm not sure, but we kind of knocked those out.

TB: That makes sense with the Blasticks, because some of these songs make me wonder if it's brushes or sticks. And doing things in sections makes sense, too, because that would make it easy to switch between brushes or Blasticks, and regular sticks.

PP: That's true. Of course, sometimes I just flipped them -- Blasticks can have a wooden handle.

Colin's songs on these albums really have that Kinks, four-on-the-floor, boom-boom-boom-boom "Sunny Afternoon" feel to them. [laughs] Which was kind of fun to play! And, compared to Andy, Colin was easy to amuse. [imitates Colin] "Oh, yeah, that was fine. That was just right." Where Andy would take me for six or seven hours on one part, I did at least two tracks with Colin in one day.

TB: "Greenman" is a rather epic production.

PP: When I first heard the demo, that was my favorite song of the bunch. I almost like the demo better than the way he mixed the drums on the finished version! I was a little disappointed in the way that the drums sounded, as opposed to the way the demo sounded, where the drum groove seemed like it was more up-front in the mix than the final version. But I guess he decided that the orchestra was more important than the throbbing Middle Eastern groove, which is more prominent on the demo.

TB: Although there are some cool things you do on there that really stand out, like that little triplet you play right before the vocals come in...

PP: Yeah, a couple little embellishments that I added.

TB: Do you remember what you did with the equipment on that, what kind of drums you were playing?

PP: I pretty much just played the drums I was playing, I think.

TB: Did you tune them up high?

PP: I might have tuned them up a bit, yeah, to get a little more a tabla-ish sound on some of the toms. Plus, I think I used the snare drum without the snares pulled up against the bottom head, so it sounded like a high-pitched drum. I think that might have been the case as well -- let's say it was! [laughs] Now that you've asked me all these questions, I need to go back and listen again!

Since then, I've done a lot of research on the history of the Green Man, since Andy brought this character to my attention.

TB: Has he made his way into any of your artwork?

PP: He has! The cover of Tabula Rasa, which I did for Lyle Workman, turned out to be an interpretation of the Green Man. He's not really green, but there are leaves coming out of his head, and all that -- there's the whole rebirth theme.

I've done his last three album covers. He just came out with a new album called Harmonic Crusader -- it's all instrumental, very majestic, symphonic orchestration, with lots of Jazz infusions to it.

TB: Do you play on any of those albums?

PP: I haven't played on any of his records, unfortunately. I requested the next one -- I told him, if he doesn't ask me, I'm not going to do his cover! [laughs] "Oh, by all means!" he said -- like he never thought of it. But, of course, he's played with some great drummers -- he has Simon Phillips on this one, and Vinnie Colaiuta.

TB: Oh, Jesus. You shouldn't feel too bad, then!

PP: Yeah, it's sick. The drum solos on this record are unbelievable.

TB: So, back to Apple Venus -- the end of "Your Dictionary" is pretty much tambourine and bells, I think.

PP: That was all Andy. I didn't do anything on that song, though I love it as well. Very Beatlesque to me.

TB: That's one that, for me, seems almost better in demo form because it's more immediate and raw.

PP: I felt the same way.

TB: Did you guys ever talk about you playing drums on it, and then you both decided not to?

PP: I don't think he ever intended to have any drums on it, and I think a lot of the things that he did, he added later, after I had gone. I don't recall working on that song at all, or even hearing them work on it.

TB: "Fruit Nut" is the next one. There are some cool things you put in here, like the hi-hat on the "three" during the verse, then during the chorus, you're doing some cool accents. When I was talking to Colin about "Frivolous Tonight," he seemed almost apologetic, basically saying that he felt kind of bad about just asking you to do "meat and two veg"-type playing. He wasn't really stretching you too much on that, but it sounds like on this one you had a bit more room.

PP: I think he gave me a little bit of leeway on this one, and just sort of said, "Play it how you feel it." I knocked it out pretty soon, I think -- we went through it a few times, and he said, "Yeah, that sounds great, now let's start taking it." He gave me a few ideas of course, but he was pretty happy with the drum part on it. And what a wacky song it is! [laughs]

TB: His demo wasn't quite as realized as Andy's, so it must have been quite a surprise for you to hear the finished product!

PP: It was, yeah. Pretty amazing. In fact, his demos were pretty simple, if I remember right -- just him and an acoustic guitar, maybe with a little drum machine part.

TB: Did you play any cymbals at all on "Fruit Nut"?

PP: I don't think so, except for the hi-hat.

TB: Do you remember Colin asking specifically for that?

PP: I recall him saying he wanted kind of a thudding song, very Troggs-like.

That was one of the things we did when we got a little bored in the studio, or had some time -- someone at the studio had the outtakes of those Troggs sessions, and we listened to the whole thing. Everyone would chime out the parts they knew so well -- [imitates accent] "Drummers! I shit them." [laughs] It was just crazy -- we were dying laughing. That was a fun day.

TB: "I Can't Own Her" is the next one, and this strikes me as the most orchestral of the bunch, especially at the end, where you're doing those runs down the toms.

PP: Yeah, I was thinking of Martin Denny as I was doing that. He had this kind of Trader Vic's circular "toms in a pattern" feel to his playing.

TB: This was one of the songs where Andy worked closely with you on the tuning?

PP: He definitely did, yeah. He wanted the toms to go exactly with the rest of the music. The cymbal swells and the short little groove sections were all probably done separately.

What a gorgeous song that is. I think that's my favorite song, now that I think about it. "Greenman" for its groove, but "I Can't Own Her" for the incredible feeling you get. It's like a beautiful dream.

TB: When those strings swell like that, you kind of feel it in the base of your spine, don't you?

PP: Yeah.

TB: I think it's probably the most improved of the demo songs. The orchestra and the orchestration on it really take it to the next level.

PP: Which is also true with "The Last Balloon." On those two, the orchestra is just incredible.

I was sad not to have been included when they did those sessions at Abbey Road.

TB: How soon after you finished your parts did they go into that studio?

PP: I think it was a few weeks, maybe a month later. So, it wasn't an option for me to go, but I would have loved to have witnessed that.

TB: Have you ever worked at that studio before?

PP: Nope. I've worked at Apple Studios, the Beatles' studio on Savile Row, when I recorded with Nicky Hopkins, but never at Abbey Road.

TB: So, the next song is "Harvest Festival," which sounds to me like it could be another Blasticks song.

PP: I think I might have used real brushes on that one.

TB: With sticks during other sections of it?

PP: Yep, this was another one recorded in major sections, waiting for my part to come in -- trembling, hoping I would get it right! [laughs] For the hundredth time that day. No offense, Andy!

TB: [laughing] He knows what he wants!

PP: Yes he does! And he knows how to get it. I'm glad I could finally get it before dinner, or before bed. [laughs]

I love "Harvest Festival." My girlfriend, Diana, came over about halfway through the sessions and lived with me, partook in the breakfasts, and witnessed the building of a lot of these songs. Which was nice, because at that point I needed some support. Plus, it was early in our relationship, so these songs really bring back such wonderful memories of my love for her.

TB: The last one on Apple Venus, Vol. 1 is "The Last Balloon."

PP: My favorite part of that is when the vocal leads into the flugelhorn. And the orchestration on that song -- it's just like magic.

TB: The whole track is very atmospheric. Dud you guys ever talk about you doing on full kit? I think it's Andy doing a ride cymbal, and just that, right?

PP: I thought I played it!

TB: Did you?

PP: I definitely played that, yeah. I was listening to it today, trying to remember if I actually played more than a ride cymbal. I thought I might have played some brushes as well, but I can't decipher the difference between the sound of the "hot air" in the balloon, and the actual drum -- I'm going to have to listen to this one again.

But it might only be the ride cymbal, and I definitely played it. He might have re-done it! [laughs] You'd have to ask him, but I remember spending hours on the part.

TB: [laughs] Oh my. You would think that would be an easy thing, but again, with the lack of the other instruments, with so much focus on the part it would be easy to keep re-taking it, going for exactly the right thing.

When I was still doing a lot of recording, I got to the point where I liked to record the drums by themselves first, with just a click track and the song in my head. When you hear the drums by themselves like that, it really does expose everything. You know that if you can come away with a bare-bones drum track that sounds and feels good, once you put the other instruments on top of it, it's going to sound that much better.

PP: You can't hurt it, yeah. That's absolutely true. I love to go back and hear basics of recording projects that I've done, where you just have a simple guitar part, and bass and drums, because you really get a feel for the song. I have a lot of basic tracks like that from The Tubes that I'll go back to and listen to a lot. I love some of the drums sounds that you hear before they get squashed!

TB: Yeah, before they get swallowed up by the other sounds!

So, let's get into Wasp Star -- let's talk about the songs that made it on the album, of course, but I do want to hear about the other songs you recorded, too, and your memories of those.

PP: Sure thing. The first song, "Playground," was so much fun to play, and I thought I did an excellent job on it! When I heard the final version, I've got to say, I thought, "Well, I liked my version just as well, if not better." But, you know, it still sounded great.

The one track on the record where I was most astounded by Chuck's playing -- a song that I was having a hard time with -- was, "We're All Light." He did an excellent job on that.

TB: That's a tough groove, isn't it.

PP: It is. It's a tough groove, and even though I think I got close with it, I had the feeling that Andy wasn't satisfied. That one, and "You and the Clouds" -- the two kind of African-sounding tracks on the album. I thought Chuck did a great job on both of those.

TB: Yeah. his playing is very groovy and fluid on those tracks.

On "Stupidly Happy," they did keep your playing of course. Now, it's not a hard part...

PP: [laughs] You know what was hard? Having to do it over and over and over again. I must have done that song 100 times.

TB: Trying to play a simple part consistently, without deviation, throughout a song can in some ways be harder than switching it up, playing fills, and all that!

PP: Yeah. You feel like all three of the Ramones' drummers at once! [laughs]

But yeah, to play the same thing over and over, and feel like you're building it, but not really changing your part that much, is really hard. You can only get a little more intense, to try to match him as he builds the song and adds each instrument -- you want to make the drums sound more exciting and bigger, but it's still the same part, no matter what.

TB: Which had to be even tougher, because you were playing with only a scratch guitar and vocal.

PP: Exactly.

TB: You want to fill the space, right?

PP: Well, that's it. I would try to build it, to try to get it more exciting, but every time I would do that, he would say, "No, just keep it as straight and intense as possible." Very Stones-ish, you know.

The last sound engineer who we used for Todd Rundgren, our front-of-house guy, would always start his after-show tape with "Stupidly Happy." For years! As soon as the lights went up, he would put that on.

TB: Did he know that you played on it?

PP: Actually, I don't think he knew I played on it when it became one of his favorite songs, but I told him later. He was a big XTC fan.

TB: It's funny how XTC is so popular among musicians. Musicians definitely "get" the band.

"In Another Life" -- you've got that big, thumping bass drum going throughout. Was there anything in particular you did to that, to get that sound? I remember, when you and I talked about Skylarking, that you said you took some bass drums and turned them on their side on "Sacrificial Bonfire," to create "faux tympanis."

PP: We didn't do anything that like on this record. All I can remember about this session is that it was just me, the engineer and Colin, and I remember Colin saying, "Keep it simple and play what you feel." I did, and I think he was pretty happy with the way it came out.

TB: Would he have been playing along with you?

PP: No. He never played along with me. He did on Skylarking, but when I asked if we were going to do that for this session, he said, "No, I don't think we need to do that." And I went, [dejectedly] "Oh!" [laughs]

TB: [laughing] "But I like that! I want to play with you!"

PP: Yeah! I love playing with that guy. And Dave! And Andy! But pretty much this whole record, I played by myself.

[And, at this point, the first tape ended, and the second tape failed to record. We will update the blog when and if we can.]

11:28 PM

©2009 by Todd Bernhardt and Prairie Prince. All Rights Reserved.