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."