Interview – Chuck Prophet
- by Shawn Conner
In the annals of Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Chuck Prophet deserves a chapter, if not a whole separate book.
Lucinda Williams, Warren Zevon, Kelly Willis, Alejandro Escovedo, legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson – Chuck Prophet has work with them all. Indeed, at 43, he’s the American music equivalent of Kevin Bacon – probably more than half of the recording artists in U.S. could be traced to within two or three degrees of the San Franciscan.
But for those with long memories and bigger record collections, Chuck Prophet will always be known as one of the founding members (along with singer/songwriter Dan Stuart) of Green on Red, an alt-country band before there was alt-country. The group’s third record, The Killer Inside Me (1987) is, in this writer’s opinion, a criminally underrated classic; the follow-up, Here Come the Snakes, is no slouch either. And no road trip mix is complete without the all-time greatest road anthem “Gas Food Lodging”, the title track off the group’s second album.
Video – Green On Red live, “Two Lovers/Change”, The Town and Country Club, London, Sept 1992:
Now on his ninth record – his first, Brother Fire, was released in 1990 – Chuck Prophet has a healthy solo career to go with his in-demand writing and guitar-playing talents. His latest, Let Freedom Ring!, has been getting excellent reviews, with the Village Voice going so far as to calling it a kind of alt-country update of Bruce Springsteen‘s Born in the U.S.A. (dark side of the American Dream, blah blah blah).
We reached Prophet at home in San Francisco, a few days before he was scheduled to resume a tour in support of the record with his band the Mission Express, which includes his wife Stephanie Finch.
Shawn Conner: I was just reading this list of your favourite movies you did for the IFC website. There’s one I’d never heard of, the documentary D Tour.
Chuck Prophet: If somebody gives you a list, you have to throw one underdog in there. I think those are the rules. It’s a moral obligation. I probably wrote most of that while I was driving around England when I didn’t really have anything in front of me. I could’ve kept going.
SC: You’ve had some success with song placement in movies and on TV shows.
CP: It’s been great because it’s paid the utility bills. And, you know, it’s also very flattering. But oftentimes with cues in music, people don’t really hear them as the movie goes by.
SC: But then, shows like True Blood [the cable vampire show featured "You Did", a Prophet song, during the end credits of one episode] must be pretty beneficial.
CP: I felt like that generated a lot of interest.
SC: People love their vampires.
CP: Yeah. It’s just one of those things, like the first Violent Femmes record, it’s something people have to go through. [laughs]
SC: I wanted to ask you about one of my favourite records, The Killer Inside Me. I always thought it was underrated.
CP: Oh. Well. Yeah, it was a difficult record. Up until that point we hadn’t really taken the record-making process that seriously, and most of the records had been hit-and-run affairs, and that worked, ‘cos it just kind of documented what we were doing onstage.
And Killer Inside Me was the first time where we were given more than enough rope to hang ourselves. It was one of those records that went on for awhile. When they go on for awhile, the molecules move around on the tape. Something you recorded six months earlier might have given you a visceral kind of a feeling, and then that feeling is gone.
It gets confusing, and those are hard records to put together. And I think we cut way too much material. I mean, much of the process was cool, because we were working with Jim Dickinson. But it was also the record where we were forced to confront our weaknesses as a band.
Some of us hit the wall. Suddenly people were talking about getting another drummer, and all the cliches that just happen. So when I think of that record it’s coloured by all that stuff. And also the fact that at the end of the European tour for that record we essentially imploded. It was so bombastic I think that colours the way we all feel about it. I don’t know. Dan Stuart used to call it “Music to hang your wife by.”
SC: Were all of you guys reading a lot of Jim Thompson [pulp noir writer, whose first-person psycho novel gave the album its name] at the time?
CP: Absolutely. It just coincided with the fact those books being reissued. We’re populist. That was kind of the difference between Green on Red and Leaving Trains and some of those bands, what the guys in Green on Red used to call “the Westies”—the Rain Parade, the Bangles. I think it referred to the fact they came from the west side [of L.A.], and they could afford imported records, or whatever. Who’s the mad genius behind Pink Floyd? The first guy?
SC: Syd Barrett?
CP: Yeah! We didn’t know what that was. [laughs] We were into Neil Young or whatever. Music that later probably got called alt-country, but essentially you’re talking about music that’s easy to play. Like literally, five open chords and you’re off and running.
SC: Green On Red seems like the most direct precursor to Uncle Tupelo and eventually Wilco.
CP: Well [Wilco frontman Jeff] Tweedy had told me he’d seen a Green On Red show in St. Louis, that he and his brother had gone out of their way to drive there. They had their antenna up. But yeah, we were definitely into the pulp fiction stuff, because all those books had been reissued at the time, so they were available to everybody. And it flew around the van.
SC: When you were writing about All the President’s Men in the IFC list you mentioned you were taking journalism classes but that you got tired of always looking for parking. And then there was something in the bio about you getting like 27 parking tickets while working on Soap and Water [Prophet's previous album]. Is parking an obsession?
CP: It’s an ongoing thing. I’m just impatient. I have a certain mojo I can work where I live. But college was tough, baby. I’d drive for 20 minutes and I’d be like, fuck this. It’s disturbing. The way the Mission District has gotten so gentrified, none of my haunts work.
None of my fall-back parking pans out anymore. It’s rough. It’s rough out there! And I think parking tickets, when you see ‘em and they’re floating around your car, they’re piling up, it’s indicative of letting myself go. And that’s what happens.
SC: Any parking tickets from making this record in Mexico City?
CP: We had a personal driver. There’s nothing better than making your personal driver wait two hours while you’re trying to get a take. If we didn’t have a take and had to keep trying to wrestle some beast to the ground he would just wait. And I was like, oh, this must be what it’s like to be a rock star.
SC: There were problems though with power outages?
CP: Yeah, in Mexico City. It’s just an everyday occurrence, five or 10 times a day. It’s like a bomb ticking, and you hear it, but you never know when it’s going to go off. And inevitably it would be in the middle of the most side-2-Marquee-Moon epic guitar solo that could never be recreated. So I learned to get zen, I had to. I actually grabbed the studio owner by his shirt collar. “Man, you’ve gotta do something! The power keeps going out!” “Yeah, I know man. But it’s back on now!”