W&A With Chuck Prophet
On his 10th studio album, Temple Beautiful (Yep Roc), Chuck Prophet found his muse in the city he's called home for 30 years. Exploring the local landmarks and myths with friend and poet klipschutz, Prophet winds his way through San Francisco, stretching tales even taller along the way. But this guided tour isn't a detailed and prefabricated concept album, so much as it's the product of spontaneous inspiration, and it's not a document of the city's past as much as it is of its present. MAGNET caught up with Prophet to explore some of the things that inspired the making of Temple Beautiful. Prophet will also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.
MAGNET: Temple Beautiful has been dubbed your "ode to San Francisco." What inspired this album-length exploration of the city?
Prophet: I was writing songs with a friend of mine, Kurt; his pen-name is klipschutz. We were just kind of messing around, really, and we tapped into this vein where I was just like, "This could be a San Francisco record." And that's really it. It kind of floated to the top, then once we tapped into that, everything started flowing.
I know ¡Let Freedom Ring! had a bit more of a political tone or thread. Do you feel like giving yourself these sorts of conceptual frameworks helps the album come together?
Yeah, for me it does for sure. I know some things about writing songs. I know how to put things together. But really, I'm kind of in awe of the whole process. Mostly, I feel like I don't know anything, so I guess it helps to be pushing an idea along. Then it's like, you have an idea in a room with somebody, and you're playing some chords, and you're shouting at the walls and bouncing sounds around, and, you know, somebody says, "Well, we're going to have to see if Willie Mays will show up in one of these songs." That's kind of the way it goes, you know.
Is it a deliberate thing for you, to come up with an idea for the record before you start really getting into the meat of the song?
I mean, I can write songs, like love songs or relationship songs or whatever. But I feel like at some point something emerges. At some point you stand back and squint and say, "Well, this is kind of where this record's going." I dunno. Maybe it's something you figure out when the record's done.
I wonder sometimes, too, how much is just critics projecting.
People only have so much time. So, if somebody says that they went to Alaska and lived in a teepee for a year and wrote these songs, that might be the best way to describe it. I really don't know. I know that when we tapped into the spontaneity and the kind of energy that brought me here in the first place, then we had songs I was excited about. I guess that's it. And you gotta understand, too, I was born in Whittier, Calif. I was born only a few miles from where Nixon had his first law office, and for all intents and purposes, I should probably still be down there pushing a lawn mower or something. I didn't really grow up very culturally aware, so most of it came from listening to records and stuff. I started traveling, then when I moved to San Francisco I started getting my own sort of self-education in different people of different races and colors and sexes and shit, punk rock and arty stuff. For me, coming here kind of opened my eyes. When we tapped into that, I felt like we were tapping into something I could get excited about.
When did you move to San Francisco and what brought you there?
I basically moved here to go to college in the early '80s, and I never left.
How many of the characters in the songs are real? I recognized a lot of the places, or have found out about them after hearing the songs, but how much are the people in there actual people of San Francisco?
We kind of leaned a little more toward the mythological side of things, but, I mean, Willie Mays is very real. There's also a whole host of characters on the record, from the Mitchell Brothers to Redman to Jim Jones—a lot of people who probably wouldn't be caught dead with Willie Mays, or Willie Mays probably wouldn't be caught dead with them. We knew he was going to be on the record somehow, and he's a very real person, and he's sort of the hero of the record. He's a kinda quiet guy, and he's a man of substance and stood up to racism. There's probably a lot of thick books written about him, but all we knew about him is that he always swung for the fence.
The reason I ask is I read an interview from January, where you'd said, "I'll always take the myth over the truth." When you're writing creatively, that's always kind of what you're doing, shaping the truth or the memory, but do you see mythmaking as part of your goal in writing these songs?
No. Well, if you're lucky, sure. I'm trying to think of the guy from the Silver Jews (David Berman). He has an expression that somebody told me. He calls it "Google Pure." If you can Google something and not find it, and it doesn't come up anywhere, he calls it "Google Pure." A lot about this record is sort of "Wikipedia Pure." We didn't really know. We were definitely in a woodshed when we wrote the songs, in the sense that we didn't have any Internet. Even a song like "Castro Halloween," that we snuck out about the parade that happens really only a couple blocks from my apartment every year, I thought two people were killed, but it turns out that really two people were shot and nine people were injured. The first line of the song is "When the shots rang out/And two men died," so somebody corrected me, like, "Actually, Chuck, you know, nobody died." Spoilsports.
That's how storytelling works, though. Through memory or accidents things change and become something new.
It's also rock 'n' roll; it's not journalism. Sorry. Sorry you got the short end of the stick when it comes to the fun.
I was interested to see that you had done some gigs playing London Calling front-to-back. That's been one of my favorite records forever because there's so much variety in it. It seems like maybe that's an attribute you value in your music.
Oh, absolutely. I think that the Clash are very roots rock and world music and all that stuff with London Calling. For me, prior to that, punk rock was pretty narrow, and that record showed what was possible. I still feel like that's probably the record I've been trying to make, in many ways. They were just discovering American jazz and rockabilly and ska, and they had a deep well of music history that they were drawing from, and they dipped their bucket down into that well, and they weren't afraid to drink it. Even if you listen to "Train In Vain," which was a very contemporary-sounding track at the time, they weren't afraid to play with disco, which was really just contemporary black music. It's an adventurous record. I think if it wasn't a direct influence on me, it at least showed me what was possible.
You've worked with a lot of people. Whether helping Sonny Smith put out a record or helping Alejandro Escovedo write one or playing guitar with god knows how many folks at this point. How important is collaborating, and getting fresh insight from people?
I like it. I appreciate writing songs by myself, but I sometimes like having somebody in the room with me. With somebody like Alejandro or klipschutz, it's easy company. It's probably also my social life, in a lot of ways. What I like is I like a shared experience. I've been playing with my wife, and I've been playing with my friends, and that's why I got into playing music. I didn't really get into music to be by myself. I like the shared experience, and I think that's something that helps me to work with other people.
Would you say that you're actively searching for new sounds and new influences?
I don't know if I'm actively doing much of anything really. I have a pretty healthy appetite for music, so yeah I like to listen to records.
You've complimented the new crop of garage/psych bands in San Francisco, bands like Thee Oh Sees, Girls and Fresh & Onlys. What about that do you relate to, or find inspiring?
I like to see people playing guitars and making noise with their friends. It's inspiring to see a new crop of bands from my hometown. And just the energy of it, I really like. It's inspiring because there's energy and that thing, you know?
Do you feel like you're, by virtue of being in the same place, a part of that in any way?
I don't know. Like I tell people, I've been duct taped back together so many times I don't even know what I'm a part of. I'm probably not a part of it. They do their own thing. When Green On Red was playing `60s music and into psychedelia and stuff, that was just our way of saying fuck you to everything else that was around, and that's pretty healthy, I think ... In a lot of ways, the money ruined everything in the `90s. Money makes people stupid. I think a lot of bands around here got signed, and I think there were these unrealistic expectations, and there were a lot of bands that ended up signed to major labels in the wake of all that, when the music business model was just massive. I didn't think of that as an inspired time, but now I see people recording records in their closets and people building studios in their basements, and people making records with just the sheer desire to do it. I think that's always really inspiring.
With Temple Beautiful, what would you hope people hearing it get out of it?
I'd hope they didn't need an owner's manual to get into it. I hope that when it hits you, if you like rock 'n' roll, that it'll speak to you.