Chuck Prophet turns music into movies
Lynagh's was launch pad for cinematic-style singer
There's a song on Chuck Prophet's new album, Age of Miracles, called West Memphis Moon that tells you all you need to know about how effortlessly the San Francisco songsmith blends story and style.
The lyrics outline a murder mystery, the tale of a self-described "walking razor blade" detailed in misty shades of black and white. But the accompanying sounds couldn't be more colorful: hand claps, vintage keyboard orchestration and washes of wah-wah guitar. Suddenly the song's sense of fleeting menace is big enough to fill a movie screen.
"Actually, I cast a song like a movie," Prophet said by phone last week. "Every one is different. I work out an arrangement more than most rock guys. But I also like to think I keep my ears open for any kind of strange collisions or accidents that might happen. I like to be well-prepared but remain willing to adapt and improvise. A song, to me, is a way of getting behind an idea and pushing it forward."
Lexington has been lucky enough to watch Prophet's musical movies unfold with a series of performances that began at the now-defunct Lynagh's after the release of 2000's The Hurting Business. He returns to town Thursday.
Prophet's early solo records took directions he never considered. Literally. They were released mostly through overseas labels, which meant he performed more in Europe. The Hurting Business increased his stateside notoriety as well as domestic distribution for his music. Lexington soon became one the first touring destinations to champion Prophet's earthy mix of twang, pop and cinematic-style rock `n' roll.
"Around the time of The Hurting Business, I got a manager," Prophet said. "We decided it would be a good idea to get a booking agent and a van. That's when places like Lynagh's became early anchors for us."
Popularity for Prophet's music has mounted since then. The breezy pop single Summertime Thing became a surprise radio hit in 2002. Tours with Lucinda Williams and, more recently, the Old 97s followed. And in June, a version of the title track to his album No Other Love was released by, of all bands, Heart.
"Sometimes I still have a low-level anxiety about where the next song is coming from," he said. "But I feel more committed to what we're doing now more than ever. I feel I'm just getting started."
Billboard Picks - Album Picks
Chuck Prophet has been solo since 1990, after establishing his bona fides with California's psychedelic country punks Green on Red. But it's only on his last New West album, "No Other Love" (2002), and "Age of Miracles" (his seventh solo outing), that he has really fulfilled his great artistic potential. Commercial potential is another story: His music is, by design, difficult to classify. The whimsical choice of instruments ranges from guitar to glockenspiels, violins to Moog synths, and usually aim for a bluesy groove. But Prophet's songs are seriously beautiful, charming and unpredictable. Killer track "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)" reverses the eternal question "Who Put the Bomp?" by placing the unexpected answer first. From the tragic narrative of "West Memphis Moon" to buoyant love song "Just to See You Smile," Prophet keeps the listener engaged and attentively off-balance. In "Smile," he sets up a picnic for his perfect love and brings a pack of firecrackers. Some airplay might get Prophet the explosion he deserves.
A Prophet walks among us
Rocker to lead last Waterfront Wednesday show
Chuck Prophet loves him some Heart. Those Wilson sisters, Ann and Nancy, absolutely rock. Heart's new album features a cover of Prophet's "No Other Love," which means a significant payday for an artist who doesn't see a lot of those. It helps that Heart does justice to Prophet's beautifully sad ballad.
Chuck Prophet began a solo career during Green On Red's final days and has probably performed or recorded with nearly every one of your favorite bands. "It wasn't sad when they recorded it," he said, laughing. "That was a good day for me, dawg."
Prophet is a funny guy. Conversation with him can veer crazily from films to books to music to absurdities, not necessarily in any order.
Ask him about writer's block and suddenly he's talking about crime novelist Jim Thompson. Mention digital recording technology and in seconds he's going on about filmmaker Lars von Trier. He sports an active, curious mind, which may be essential to surviving a 20-year career in a business noted for ignoring its best talent. When things get tough, there's always comfort to be found in a Sterling Hayden marathon.
Prophet and partner Dan Stuart helped define Americana music with Green On Red throughout the 1980s and early `90s. He began a solo career during Green On Red's final days and has probably performed or recorded with nearly every one of your favorite bands.
Saying that Prophet is only now peaking as a writer isn't a hard sell. His last four solo albums - "Homemade Blood" (1997), "The Hurting Business" (1999), "No Other Love" (2002) and the new "Age of Miracles" - are studded with powerful songs.
It's no coincidence that on the last three he has expanded his possibilities by exploiting digital technology in the arenas of recording, editing and performing. Once an example of straight-up traditionalism, Prophet has embraced tape loops, beat boxes and creative editing, but, unlike so many others, he uses it all to serve the song. Rarely have electronics sounded so organic.
"When Pro Tools technology came along, all the roots-rock Nazis were still arguing about vinyl sounding better than CDs, which is an easy way to get me to leave the room," he said.
"You can definitely use Pro Tools to get rid of all your mistakes. You can make something that's perfect. But the cool part is taking the mistakes and making them repeat so you get these really abstract hooks."
Live, Prophet remains a tough, visceral rocker - even a guitar hero. He will headline the season's final WFPK Waterfront Wednesday concert, on Harbor Lawn.
While alt.country squandered its moment on vintage gabardine shirts, Chuck Prophet's roots-rock has never needed dressing up, whatever sub-genres he has crossed along his fifteen-year solo career. Not to say Prophet's music is bare—Age of Miracles, the SF singer and guitarist's sixth album, has Beatlesy strings, bluesy snares, a top hat's worth of synth tricks, and Prophet's own seasoned leads and drawled vocals. It's the sort of virtual orchestra Beck would use for postmodern bachelor-pad music, but Prophet writes the kind of fundamentalist pop songs underrated in the music industry since the mid-`60s: ones that would look good no matter what they're wearing.
If the Brill Building were still in business—and let's say we have a stage-set view of what goes on inside—we might catch the Flaming Lips psyching out Miracles' liltingly cynical title track (Gonna eat and drink our fill/Lose that baby fat for real/No secrets left to conceal). In the next window, maybe we'd spot Jack White belting the politics out of "West Memphis Moon" or Rufus Wainwright balladeering "The Smallest Man in the World" into exquisite melodrama. And look, there's the maestro himself on the top floor, counting his money. But here in the real world, Prophet embodies all those elements himself (except the money-counter), still hungry and decking out his songs with his own lush, slightly scruffy sound. Lucky for us, at least.
For years, the Bay Area's Chuck Prophet has been "utility guitarist" to the alternastars: Aside from membership in Green on Red in the `80s, his credits include Penelope Houston, Cake, and Warren Zevon. His solo career began in 1990, and with luck his latest, Age of Miracles, will garner him greater acclaim, as it's as fine a roots rock album as you'll hear all year. Prophet draws upon American sounds beyond country and blues, never endeavors to sound "authentic," and augments his earthiness with ambition. "Just to See You Smile" is a great devotional—or parody of a devotional—love song, presented with a neat-o Phil Spector-via-Springsteen wall of sound, complete with chiming guitar riffs. Throughout, there are strains of `70s R&B/soul (wah-wah'd guitar, funky grooves) and `60s orchestrated pop (sultry, far-off-sounding strings); "You Did" even mixes languid trip-hop beats with `60s garage-band organ and Rickenbacker. Prophet sings with a cynical (but heartfelt) Tom Petty-meets-Iggy Pop drawl, and his hearty six-string sound has a coiled-kingsnake bite.
Morning Call, Allentown, Pa
Age Of Miracles
With his seventh record, "Age of Miracles," Chuck Prophet, crooning like the bastard son of Leonard Cohen and Marianne Faithfull, serves up a potent brew of hip-hop, electric blues, soul, pop-rock and funk. With his knowledge, love and mastery of such disparate influences as Dylan, Brian Wilson, Johnny Cash and Isaac Hayes, the former Green on Red singer-guitarist fuses 11 otherwise wayward, fragmented tracks into a cohesive whole. The chugging "Automatic Blues" churns with a hypnotic cacophony of guitars and car horns, while the title track picks up where Cohen's "Tower of Song" left off, insisting, almost delusionally in the face of the overwhelming darkness of the age nearly upon us, that "there's more to see, all lost time will be retrieved, I know it's true, it's on TV, in the age of miracles." Prophet proves he can deliver a pop hook on "Just to See You Smile," which slips loose with gorgeous, muted guitars shimmering just below the surface. It's "Pet Sounds" meets "Highway 61 Revisited," with the latter seeping through and pooling in the next track. "West Memphis Moon" is, underneath its traditional country gleam, the tortured lament of a brutal child killer who is no more than a child himself, and as dark a song as Dylan or Cash ever wrote. With its electronic country-swamp folk flavor, "Age of Miracles" is a post-modern traveling revival show, setting up just down the road from Wilco's "Yankee Foxtrot Hotel."
Too many people get their hands on pedal steel guitars and lumberjack shirts and start thinking they're Glen Campbell. That's never been a problem with Chuck Prophet, the San Francisco singer-songwriter and former Green on Red member who has spent 15 years fighting to make Americana music sound (a) good and (b) listenable. It's not as easy as it sounds. Just look at Jay Farrar. But on his seventh and latest solo album, Prophet delivers a set of ace tunes like "Smallest Man in the World" and "West Memphis Moon" simply by clamping his hard-luck voice on dreamy, soft-focus melodies that aren't afraid to stretch expectations. And not one of the lot sounds anything like "Rhinestone Cowboy".
Chuck Prophet is on a streak. With a consistency born out of a strong work ethic and an almost obscene amount of pure talent, he's released three great albums in a row. So does his latest record Age of Miracles achieve the standards of Homemade Blood, The Hurting Business and No Other Love? Absolutely. Once again, Prophet and his musicians gracefully paint a rootsy building with modern colors, mixing soul, folk and good old rock & roll with contemporary electronic production methods. So many artists make this combination sound forced or gimmicky, but not Prophet; his style is never less than organic, and this record is no exception. Make no mistake: this is not some singer/songwriter layering his words and guitar solos over pre-programmed backing tracks. Real instruments are the foundation of every cut; the lush mixing, electro-flavored arrangements and ability to pick just the right effect put what might have been an extraordinary roots rock record into a universe of its own. Of course, all this is merely gravy on the main course: songcraft. Though an accomplished bandleader and a white-hot guitar picker, Prophet has always subsumed flash in service to the song, and his tunes here add more classics to his catalog. The slinky R&B of "Pin a Rose on Me" and "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)" shares worthy space with the heartfelt balladry of "Solid Gold" and "You've Got Me Where You Want Me." Rock groovers like "Automatic Blues" and "Heavy Duty" use quirkiness the way actor Johnny Depp does: as flavor, not a substitute for lack of substance. Prophet sneaks some social commentary into his usual examinations of the dance of the sexes; "West Memphis Moon" looks at the infamous West Memphis Three and the deeply sarcastic title track tunefully surveys the state of America. One could argue that Prophet does nothing here that he hasn't done in his most recent work, and that's a valid point. But since Prophet's music sounds like little else out there and it's of consistently high quality, that's mere carping at nothing. Age of Miracles is yet another brilliant record from a great American artist.
FORMER GREEN ON RED SONGSTER STAGES STUDIO VERSION OF THE SURREAL LIFE
When Chuck Prophet inadvertently scored a left-field Americana radio hit with his catchy tune Summertime Thing from 2002's No Other Love (New West), there was some concern that the former Green on Red guitarist might have found his true pop calling and decided to cash in his cult credentials for good.
But listening to Prophet's just-released Age Of Miracles (New West), on which he tries to rap his way through a cockeyed answer song to Who Put The Bomp? -- appropriately called You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp) -- it's apparent that some people are just destined to be outsiders.
Anyone can have a fluke hit, but it takes a real fringe artist to squander that rare moment in the spotlight. Soon the cash windfall will be blown and he or she will be back to weirdness as usual. For Prophet, that means assembling a seemingly unconnected cast of creative collaborators -- anyone from Kim "Bette Davis Eyes" Carnes to Consolidated's Mark Pistel -- and just letting the music happen. It's kind of like the Surreal Life approach to record-making.
"I read this interview with filmmaker David Mamet where he was saying how he likes to get together a cast of actors he's worked with before -- even though they may not have worked with each other. That way, he doesn't need to pass around an owner's manual. They all know what's expected. Then he'll throw in a few blind dates. It seemed like a good idea.
"That's how I cast my recording sessions now. I'll call on some old friends so I know we'll understand each other, and then I'll bring in a couple of wild cards to fuck with shit and, you know, liven up the party a little bit."
Having certified eccentric Captain Beefheart alum Eric Drew Feldman come in and give things a tweak certainly didn't hurt.
It's interesting to note that over the course of his seven albums since going solo in 90, the frequency of Prophet's collaborations -- particularly on songwriting -- seems to have increased since he gave up alcohol. Prophet claims it's not at all a coincidence.
"Since I quit drinking and cleaned up my act, co-writing has replaced the social life I gave up. Some people are really private about writing songs and try to preserve the mystery and magic of it all, but there are others, like, say, Dan Penn, who believe it's easier for two people to perform the miracle. I can appreciate both ways of working, and there are advantages to each."
Prophet's partnership with Southern soul poet Penn -- the man behind Dark End Of the Street, You Left The Water Running, Do Right Woman, Out Of Left Field and countless other timeless classics -- led to the understatedly elegant A Heavy Duty, a highlight on Prophet's new disc.
"When I started going to Nashville to try my hand at Music Row songwriting, I got a gig at the Bluebird Cafe that I didn't realize was on the same night as the CMAs. Only three people showed up -- the bartender, the sound man and Dan Penn. We've been writing together ever since.
"Somebody might call up Dan saying, `We need you to write a song for Solomon Burke.' And then we'll start by just talking. He'll say, `You know, Chuck, when Solomon gives you his word, he'll stick by it, he's a man of in-teg-ri-tay! The song we wrote for Solomon, I Need A Holiday, was recorded for Don't Give Up On Me, but unfortunately, it didn't make the cut."
They had better luck placing Penn's vocal take on A Heavy Duty on the second volume of the Country Got Soul (Casual) blue-eyed soul compilation.
"Someone from the Casual label called up Dan asking for a song, and he sent them a bunch. They wound up choosing A Heavy Duty, which is really just Dan playing guitar and singing and me doing everything else.
"We've got a load of songs recorded the same way. There's probably enough for an album if someone wanted to put it out. Hey, I'd buy it."
That makes two of us.
It's always a minor miracle when an artist you figured had reached his top speed cranks it up to another level. So often when listening to any singer/songwriter with 7 solo albums behind him, like Chuck Prophet, you know the best is not yet to come. It's probably somewhere in the distance of your rearview mirror. Happily, this is the reverse with Prophet. He's on a road to bigger and better sounds with each release, and Age of Miracles may be his best yet.
Prophet blends styles with an effortless ease, pulling from a big grab bag of country, R&B, hip-hop, and blues and evoking Leonard Cohen as if produced by Beck. Not everything always works well together, but stellar standout tracks like "Just to See You Smile," "Pin a Rose on Me" and the title track are better than the sum of their parts. And Age of Miracles really shines when Chuck's strong timbre is tempered by female backing vocals.
Overall, this is a solid release from a seasoned veteran who's aging well. Prophet has an uncanny knack for adding just enough of that new car smell. Hitch a ride with this prophet down his new road. The trip's just getting interesting.
Chuck Prophet knows how to keep a listener's attention on "Age of Miracles" (New West) with slyly twisted (think Randy Newman meets Bob Dylan) lyrics and a "pan-genre" musical aproach that shifts gears from rock to soul, pop to funk, blues to hip hop without ever "clutching." A great follow up to his 2002's gem "No Other Love" and past work with Green On Red. A-
Chuck Prophet's a walking contradiction. A streetwise city kid with an eye for the country, Prophet's a West-Coast Jim Carroll, an urban John Doe. Prophet's seventh solo album, Age of Miracles, presents so many sides to his personality that it?s a musical Rubik's Cube. The former member of Green on Red leads off with a blues ("Automatic Blues"), detours through hip-hop with the G-Funk inspired "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)" and hits the hard country for "West Memphis Moon"—all the while running his mouth like he's starring in a Kerouac novel. The verbiage and hipster pose keep things entertaining; but there's no substitute for the raw emotion that makes "You Got Me Where You Want Me" endearingly sad and "Solid Gold" ultimately hopeful. Because no matter how many tricks you've got up your sleeve, it's wearing your heart on it that gets `em every time.
Since Chuck Prophet released the bleak masterpiece Homemade Blood in 1997, bringing down the curtain on the alt-country and roots-rock stage of his solo career, his music has come to encompass a dizzying array of styles. Multigenre hybrids like 1999's The Hurting Business and 2002's No Other Love nodded to influences as diverse as Bobbie Gentry, Dr. Octagon, Chuck Berry, and Maxine Brown. On Age of Miracles (New West), which comes out this week, Prophet indulges an affection for sweeping pop-soul and funky spaced-out blues. While his lyrics have always been indebted to two-fisted noir proponents like Warren Zevon and cockeyed southern storytellers like Dan Penn, on Miracles their more subtle qualities—wry humor and a keen understanding of women—yield the most satisfying results, as on the cool kiss-off "Pin a Rose on Me" and the supple surrender "You Got Me Where You Want Me." Elsewhere, Prophet's laconic baritone gives contemplative tunes like "Solid Gold" and the title track a craggy warmth that few—besides perhaps Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits—could hope to match.
Chuck Prophet performs musical miracles
Chuck Prophet covers a a wide range of musical ground on his latest outing. In then opening tracks alone, we got from loud and dirty rock ("Automatic Blues") to cross-generational Lennonesque (think: Mind Games) psyche pop (Age Of Miracles") to the hip-hop infected, hyper melodic nod to the history of pop culture idioms (`You Did") -- which if it doesn't answer, at least raises many more musical questions, including: Who put the ram in the ram a lama ding dong...? Who raised the roof and never made a sound? Who cleared the static and made it sing? You did" Prophet seems to have a fondness for throwing many different people and various sounds together just to see what happens. Dig the transformations throughout a cut like "Pin A Rose On Me". The Magic of such experimentation is no mistake; Prophet knows what he is doing. The results are enchanting, particularly the Spector of Wilson that drives a tune like "Just to See You Smile" or the lilting groove of "You Got Me Where You Want me". I never did believe in miracles, and I'm beginning to wonder why.
For a number of former Americana artists, leaving the twang behind was the healthiest thing they could've done for their music career. Just ask Chuck Prophet. After joining the country-tinged Green on Red in 1985 and leaving five years later, Prophet spent the '90s making roots records which almost no one but critics seemed to like (or hear). But over the course of his last three solo records-beginning with 2000's The Hurting Business, 2002's No Other Love and now Age of Miracles-Prophet has genre-hopped with giddy abandon, all without sacrificing his trademark sound and sensibility. Pick a track at random and you might find soul, rock, R&B, pop, funk, electronica, country or even hip-hop. Prophet grabs liberally from the American songbook and makes each style his own. He pulls it off is because he remains unswervingly true to his own vision and themes—and that's why the songs on Age of Miracles, though populated with sad lovers, desperadoes and injustice, bring a smile to all but the most jaded listener.
Age of Miracles proves again that Prophet can rock you silly or break your heart in the space of a song. Tapping into the Philly Soul of "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)," the straight country of "Smallest Man in the World," or the bluesy rock of "West Memphis Moon," he creates opulent arrangements that fit these styles.
Prophet gets a hand on Age of Miracles from some familiar folks-wife Stephanie Finch, string arranger and keyboardist Jason Borger, and a host of studio musicians—but this is his genre-bending, musical-adventure show from the get go.
Like Joe Henry, onetime Green On Read Stalwart Chuck Prophet has evolved since his alt-countryish beginnings into a refreshingly unlabel-able artist who, in mixing and matching genres, thrives on offbeat textures and carefully etched moods. One difference is that while Art has been whispering a little too loudly in Henry's ear of late, Prophet has over the course of seven solo albums raised his accessibility as he has honed his vision. His new album, Age Of Miracles, features some of his most infectious tunes. If not quite as challenging as its two immediate predecessors in drawing from `70s soul and back-porch blues to hip-hop and Moogified pop, it's more cohesive and consistent. While there's a current of modern unease running beneath the tunes for Prophet's craggy baritone to bring out, the album has a brightness of purpose that lifts even the sad stuff. He may not have written a more convincing feel-good song than "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)", which answers the age old question, "Who put the bomp?" (as posed by Bill Building wordsmith Barry Mann), with a loving expression of gratitude and a seductive hip-hop groove. "Just To See You Smile" is nearly as uplifting, and with Prophet's wife Stephanie Finch on answering vocal, "You Got Me Where You Want Me" (one of two tunes written with Kim Richey) happily completes a romantic trilogy of sorts. Another knockout song is the oddly affecting "Smallest Man In The World", which can be read as a meditation on freakdom, or fame, or both. With its Chinese menu's worth of guitars (including baritone, tres and lap steel) and keyboards (including organs, electric pianos, synthesizers and harpsichord) and other instruments, Age Of Miracles could have you playing a game of name that effect. That it doesn't is a measure of how successfully Prophet integrates the musical styles that influence and move him -- and how well the songs, separately and as part of a package, work. "Who cleared the static and made it sing?" He did.
Probably best known—"if at all," as he jokes—as the white-hot guitar slinger for `80s Paisley Underground turned alt-country avatars Green on Red, Chuck Prophet finally seems to be carving his own niche in the rock world after 20 years of scuffling. With a résumé that boasts collaborations with everyone from Cake to Kelly Willis and a string of exceptional albums under his belt, Prophet's name is begging to be uttered in the same breath as a cult of similarly styled, soulful storytellers: Dan Penn, Ry Cooder, and his spiritual mentor, Jim Dickinson.
Beginning his solo career at the dawn of the `90s with the country quaint Brother Aldo—a modest collection of late-night demos made for just a few hundred dollars—Prophet spent the next decade recording a succession of accomplished platters that won him acclaim throughout Europe but earned little attention in America. His stateside profile finally received a much-deserved boost with the release of 2000's The Hurting Business—a stirring mélange of new technology and old soul that earned raves across both continents. This year's equally ambitious follow-up, No Other Love, has pushed his burgeoning popularity even further, spawning a single, "Summertime Thing," that landed in the upper reaches of the AAA charts.
On the eve of his two-night Seattle stand, we caught up with the always engaging Prophet on the road in Minnesota, in the midst of a tour with the Mission Express—his crack backing band featuring wife Stephanie Finch (see main story) and longtime Bob Dylan drummer Winston Watson. A gifted raconteur and doyen of deadpan, Prophet weighs in on a variety of topics, from his long overdue success, to working with Warren Zevon, to his envy of Keith Richards' appendage.
Seattle Weekly: So the last time we spoke back in June you were getting your first bit of real exposure with "Summertime Thing"—which ended up becoming something of a hit.
Chuck Prophet: Yeah, it's been a weird summer, man. David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar made peace, Chuck Prophet had a song on the radio after 20 years in the business, . . . and we're going to war. You know, it always comes in threes.
Have you seen any change in the audiences at shows because of the airplay?
Yeah, I'd have to say it's had a profound effect on things. There seems to be an increase in the ratio of shapely young ladies to men with beards down in front. Of course, nobody's complaining about that—not even my wife.
I mean, it's just exciting for me to have my skinny foot in the door of pop culture. It's such a little sliver, but to go into, say, a supermarket like Whole Foods—or as we in the band like to call it, Whole Paycheck—and hear my voice coming out of the speaker above the salad bar, it's a total thrill.
You've also got your first big national TV appearance coming up (Oct. 8, on CBS' Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn).
Yeah, we just confirmed that. That's sent everybody in the camp here into a whirlwind of activity. Everybody's arguing about what they're going to wear. So it's chaos. We're actually gonna play the second single: the song with the uncompromisingly long title of "I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I See." Hallelujah!
Speaking of women, in addition to your wife, you've had great working relationships with a number of female artists—Kelly Willis, Kim Richey, and Lucinda Williams, who you recently opened a tour for.
Yeah, it would be impossible for us to even invent a better tour to be part of. Lucinda's got such a great audience, a really astute audience. And also, there's some kind of mysterious, magnetic, charismatic thing to Lucinda. It was just a joy to watch her every night. It was like going to church. Or going to school. Or both.
It's a weird coincidence but I was planning to ask you about working with Warren Zevon (Prophet played guitar on Zevon's 2000 album Life'll Kill Ya) and then news just came out that he has a terminal case of lung cancer.
I heard about it yesterday. (Long pause). I . . . I don't . . . words kinda fail me on that.
Working with him, though, he was intimidating in so many ways, but also astonishingly intelligent. It was just incredible to be around him. [laughs] He must've drank about a case of Mountain Dew a day—and you didn't want to be around when he ran out.
He really is one of the sharpest, funniest, wittiest people I've ever been around, and he truly intimidated the dog shit out of me. I tried to just kinda of blend into the wall when we were in the studio. But as acerbic as he is and as surly as he can be, he's also one of the sweetest guys, too. I don't know . . . it's tragic.
He's also a guy who didn't lose his edge when he had a taste of success. Obviously, yours is on a much more modest level, but has the relative success you've enjoyed with the last two albums changed the way you approach things at all?
It's taught me to follow my instincts. Because the way I've been making the last couple of records . . . I didn't go in with any expectations. More and more, I've found people who let me make my records—for better or for worse—and there's been very little meddling by anybody in the process. And I think that meddling has really fucked me up in the past.
But there must be some pressure on you as you look to write the next record?
It's funny, Dan Penn said that after he got his first song cut, he was never ever really happy from that moment on. He said, "I might be out swimming or waterskiing or on a boat somewhere, but I'm never really quite happy unless I'm in the process of wrestling a slick idea to the ground." And that's kinda what songwriting is all about. For me, as much as this [new] record has made a little bit of noise, you'd think it should give me some confidence. But the reality is, I'm such a superstitious, neurotic, irrational motherfucker that now I've got this constant low-level anxiety of "Where's the next one coming from?" [laughs]
And I hear people like Keith Richards do interviews and say [copping an English accent], "It's like you put up your antenna and the songs just come to you, man." And, I'm like "Damn, I gotta get one of those antennas."
Building on the hippety-hoppy, funked-out, rocked up, smoothed-down grooves of his last knock-out release, No Other Love, Prophet and "long-suffering wife/bandmate" Stephanie Finch (along with keyboardist Jason Borger, Red Meat alum/pedal steel whiz Max Butler, four bassists, five drummers, a beatbox and a programmer) gleefully continue to break all the rules here.
The lyrics at first seem deceptively simple-straight-forward love songs or story-songs or thematic current event songs or dark, cosmic-surfer songs-but upon closer listen, one finds Prophet to be among the rarest of song-writing talents: One who's able to meld the sage observations of the omnipotent Outsider with the painful, all-too-human declarations of what he calls "... the smallest man in the world ..." to create tunes that let the listener both peer anonomously into fascinating tales and simultaneously experience the emotions of the subjects thereof.
He probably nails his own wonderfully twisted psyche and gloriously original oeuvre best in his own words: "All roads lead to Dylan I suppose, beyond that, if I mention one influence I'd have to leave out a hundred. One definite influence on this record is my increasingly acute awareness that we're living in the modern age. Don't get me wrong; I'm not about to throw my laptop into the river any day soon. I'd probably end up developing some kind of a tic without it. There's just no time. No time to daydream, even less time to think. Fast food express lines, meth?paced TV, medications marketed to women who `have no time for yeast infections' (as if the rest of us have the time). Genetically cloning the family pet, prescription miracle drugs, mad cows, madder scientists ... watch those carbs! The psychosis! On second thought, I wouldn't have it any other way." Neither would we, Chuck. Neither would we.
Light Finally Shines on Chuck Prophet
There's been lots of water under the bridge since Chuck Prophet's band Green On Red tried to take the airwaves by storm in the 1980s. They wrote the right songs, had the right look, and performed a kick-ass live show. Big record labels rolled out the red carpet and extended Big Time contracts. But things just never panned out. Chuck quit the band, cleaned up his act, and throughout the `90s released critically-acclaimed, slim-selling CDs. But suddenly, Chuck Prophet's on the radio. "Summertime Thing" is a hit, and finally, finally, America's getting a taste of the genius of Chuck Prophet.
Jeff Troiano: What's happening, Chuck?
Chuck Prophet: Not much shaking here. I finally resurfaced after about six months of submarine duty.
How long have you been home?
I guess for about a week. I went to Nashville and did some work after the tour ended.
How do you like that Nashville scene these days?
Well, I dig it, you know, because for me as a writer, well, for a number of reasons. I don't really party anymore, so that's what's left of my social life-writing with other people. And Nashville is the last vestige of any sort of Brill Building spirit.
What kind of building?
The Brill Building was a place in New York where Carole King and Doc Palmis and Gerry Goffen wrote songs. If you got lucky, somebody might record one.
You've had some luck in that regard lately. Who's been cutting your tunes?
Well, I've had a bunch of obscure records over the years, but last year I did have a top-40 single by a girl named Cyndi Thomson. It caught on. Cyndi's a nice Christian girl, farm-fed, centerfold material. My friend Kim Richey and I wrote a song called "I'm Gone," actually upstairs from the Red Vic on Haight Street. It's kind of a `60s Tommy James kind of song. We made this real ghetto demo of it in this crappy studio with a cement floor, and we played it and cut it and put a few things on it, and we decided it needed bongos, and a year later it comes out on the Cyndi Thomson record-with bongos.
So they stayed true to the Haight Street feel?
Getting a song cut, even if the version strays off from what you had envisioned, is amazing. There's no such thing as a bad cover version of a song. It's a good day.
How do you get compensated when someone else makes a hit out of your song? Is that big money?
Well, yeah, there's sort of a bittersweet ending to that story that I'm not going to bore you with, as far as making bad business decisions. On a record like that, you should make some change. You get compensated for every time it's sold; you get your pennies for every time it's played on the radio. It's all gravy.
The reviews have been very positive for your new CD, "No Other Love." How's it selling?
This record was pretty rare. There was probably less blood on the floor after we finished this one than any of the others. We caught a little bit of a wave with the single on the radio. And for so many years we had just ignored North America, hoping it would just go away. Not that we were selling out stadiums or ballrooms across Europe, but Europe has always been good to us. Our single has allowed us to infiltrate pop culture, just a skinny little foot in the door. I heard it coming out of a little speaker in a salad bar in Philadelphia, which was rather cool. That helped a lot. And Lucinda Williams took us out on tour all summer; that really helped with record sales.
How did that happen with Lucinda?
My A&R guy, Peter Jasperson, is an old friend of hers. He played the record for her, she liked what she heard, looked up and said, "Do you think he'd come out on tour with me?" That was it.
How many shows did you do with her?
It might have been 20-some odd dates with her. She only plays three or four times a week, so we were out there for a couple of months in the Midwest and the East Coast.
What did you do with all of that downtime on the road?
We did everything we could do to keep up with her two buses. I tell ya', man, I mean sometimes there might be 800 miles between gigs, and I have an `88 Dodge Ram, so we spent a lot of time sucking her diesel, as they say. But the highlight of the whole thing for me was when we had this show at an amphitheater, and the weather was beautiful, and these beach balls were bouncing everywhere. Lucinda just kept looking at these things while she singing like a puppy, and she said, "Heck, I don't know. It's a summertime thing." But there were many nights when we'd play the gigs and we'd gather around the catering, and we'd have an official band meeting, and we'd say, "Okay, tonight, after we finish our set let's load up the van, get the union guys to help, and get the fuck out of here, and try to get in four hours tonight. So we'd make the grandiose plans and then, inevitably, when the time arrived, I'd look around for everybody and they'd be glued to the side of the stage watching Lucinda's first encore. Night after night, watching Lucinda is like going to church or going to school or both.
You tasted success in the past, during the Green On Red days. Did you ever have the big tour bus?
There were times. I mean, somebody else was paying for it. Yeah, we tasted success, but we were always well under the radar. We had a couple of major deals with labels, but we were always kind of stowaways for those labels. Eventually they'd have a board meeting and say, "Who the fuck are these guys?"
The new stuff seems to have lots of interesting influences. I hear a bit of hip-hop, some Middle Eastern, some sampling, and of course the roots-based stuff. How'd that happen?
As a songwriter, I'm a slave to traditional song craft, whatever I do. I mean, my heroes are still going to be Dylan and Carole King and Hank Williams. But for me, the process of making new records is a matter of constantly seeking new ways to cast the movie. I'm turned on by people like Moby and DJ Shadow, and I appreciate what those guys have been able to do by bending traditional song structures. As much as I admire that stuff, I'm still a "first verse, first chorus" kind of guy. I see some people out there taking some sort of modern approach and trying to shoehorn it into their songs, but that doesn't really work. You've got to listen to the song's needs and go with that.
How do you categorize your sound these days?
What I do is "American" music. You might call it "Americana." I just do what I do, throw in what interests me, what I gravitate toward, throw it into a pot, bring it to a boil, and I see what floats to the top. The European tradition of music is that you play music as it's written on the page; I'm not part of that tradition.
Which radio stations are playing "Summertime Thing"? What do you call that format?
There's a format called AAA-WXRT in Chicago; KFOG here in San Francisco; there are a lot of them, kind of like KFOG. KFOG has had an incredibly profound affect on the things here at Chuck Prophet, Inc. I mean, I've got my `88 Dodge Ram van with 250,000 miles on it; I've got a five-piece band; I've got a drummer with a teenage daughter, and radio has really helped. I'd heard about good things like this happening, and I'd read about it. It's just wonderful.
I heard something about a national TV appearance...
We did the Craig Kilborn Show. It was pretty exciting, pretty nerve-wracking. We had a rehearsal to set the camera moves and stuff, and you play it once through for the audience and that's it. It was cool. Craig is not at his best when you're playing, but I kept pointing over there and yelling at him, "Yo, Craigy, `I bow down and pray to every woman I see. Can you feel me?'" So that was sort of my inside joke. But he was pretty cool. He tracked me down into my dressing room and said, "I'm hearing a little Iggy Pop in there." And I said, "Yeah." And he said, "I'm hearing a little bit of Dylan, a little Beck," and I said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah."
Who are you listening to these days?
"Leonard Cohen's Greatest Hits;" David Holmes' Organization; I like the new Cornershop record. I like a little bit of the new Dixie Chicks' record. I listen to a lot of old music and as much new stuff as I can. When it comes to songwriters, it's still Warren Zevon, John Prine, and Randy Newman for me.
What's it like doing what you do from here in San Francisco? Is it awkward sometimes? I mean, do you ever want to be in L.A. or living in Nashville?
No, I love it here. There's just something in the air here. It sounds kind of corny, but there's just a certain spirit and a certain quality to the light that I love. I moved here to go to college, and it has just always seemed like a place where people were waving their freak flags high. I've always been able to find a place to play and to work with some great musicians. And it's not an industry town; it's a town for freaks.
Who would you recommend that we listen to locally these days?
There's a guy in the Mission from Detroit, Kelly Stoltz. We played a gig with him, and he gave me a vinyl record that he'd recorded on his 8-track. It's probably one of the most beautiful things I've heard-that I can ever remember hearing. I'm all for Kelly Stoltz.
I'm going to throw a few names at you. In 10 words or less, tell me what you think. Here's the first one: Eminem.
Stone cold genius.
He's just an exceptionally talented puke.
No redemption there.
Oh, writer of perhaps the best song to come out in 2002-"Traveling Soldier"-as covered by the Dixie Chicks. If it doesn't bring tears to your eyes, then just check yourself for a pulse.
Beyond country rock; beyond rehab.
And last but not least, Mr. Bob Seger.
Kelly Willis made the following quote about you: "If I could sing like anyone, I'd sing like Chuck Prophet." What do you think of that?
She was confused but I'm not gonna call her on it.
Do you care what anyone else thinks about your music?
I can't afford to care too much. I had a conversation with a friend the other who said, "Well, I guess everybody's happy now, now that the record's doing well." What do I fucking care? I'd never get anything done. And that's the kiss of death to start to care too much. Don't get me wrong-I want the love. But I don't wanna have to work to hard for it.
All Music Guide
Prophet's follow-up to The Hurting Business finds him in excellent form, still making American roots music but casting his net a little wider to bring in a few more influences. For example, "Elouise" kicks off with a rhythm straight out of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" before evolving into something looser and less threatening, and "Summertime Thing" has the laid-back vibe of the Young Rascals' "Groovin'" welded to some funky wah-wah guitar influenced by the Isley Brothers. With a voice suggesting that he's training to be Tom Waits when he grows older and occasional lyrics (as in "Run Primo Run") inspired by the vintage Dylan songbook (the Farfisa organ that recurs in the album only furthers the connection), there's a strong romantic streak running through his work, most evident in "No Other Love" and even the growing-older wisdom of "Old Friends." His songwriting continues to grow and his guitar skills (which he tends to hide under a bushel a little), never flashy or grabbing the spotlight, have become mature and sophisticated, a long way from his days in Green on Red. One of America's great underground artists, Prophet's slowly blooming into a major figure.