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Wednesday, 21 March 2012 16:28

'Still chasing that buzz' An interview with Chuck Prophet

'Still chasing that buzz' An interview with Chuck Prophet
Written by Matt Sorrell
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Chuck Prophet's 10th full-length solo record, "Temple Beautiful," is a spare, rocking homage to his adopted home of San Francisco, both the town and its denizens.

Prophet is currently on the road with his band, the Mission Express, and he'll be performing at Off Broadway this Thursday night, March 22, for a KDHX-welcomed show.

I caught up with him recently via email to see if we could get a little bit of insight into the new work, as well as discover just why he's not a household name -- yet.

Matt Sorrell: What led you to devote an entire album, "Temple Beautiful," to San Francisco? And why was it important to make it at this stage of your career?

Chuck Prophet: San Francisco. That first hit, it really does a whammy to you. And if you're like me, you can find yourself chasing the San Francisco dragon for the rest of your life. Tapping into that feeling or whatever, made writing the songs fun.

Sonically, where does "Temple Beautiful" fit in your canon? Is it a stripped-down throwback to earlier sounds, or the next step in your sonic evolution?

Yeah, it's stripped down I guess. The songs just seemed to stand up for themselves without having to add too much. The record isn't quite as layered as other records I've made. Just a couple guitars and drums pounding away. The songs didn't seem to have any more needs than that. Even the cover is simply black and white. I don't know if I've evolved per se. Devolved maybe.

I remember seeing the Flamin' Groovies. I saw them when I was like 15 at the Temple Beautiful. What I didn't know at the time was that they were just taking all this timeless rock and roll, all the forgotten ugly irredeemable stuff, and adding Beatles harmonies and turning it sideways and making it their own. They embraced all this music that had been cast aside at the time. Pretty cool.

You co-produced "Temple Beautiful" with Brad Jones, who you worked with on "Soap and Water." Why did you decide to bring him onboard again, and what did he bring to the finished record?

We compliment each other. While I run hot and cold, Brad is a very no-nonsense, Midwestern guy -- not really one for emotional outbursts. He also has a deep well of knowledge, really deep. He gets it, knows the secret language of rock and roll and speaks it fluently. So, I feel safe with Brad on the other side of the glass.

Why was it important for you to record your previous album "Let Freedom Ring," which deals so much with the state of America, in Mexico City?

Mexico is 1,000 feet above Denver. I thought it would be a great vantage point to look backwards through the looking glass at my own country. We got there just as the black plague broke out in the form of the swine flu, and we came home to Michael Jackson's death. It was an adventure. I've had a few addictions in my past, but music and my addiction to the adventure of it all is probably the healthiest of them all.

You've been recording as a solo artist for 20+ years now. What's the key to having longevity as an independent recording artist?

Being lucky enough to wake up interested in what you're doing, have someone to share it with and maybe even get paid for it from time to time. I suppose the rest is all gravy.

As for the longevity … I don't know. I have a smart and decent manager who puts up with my lunacy. And that goes a long way. Having someone in your corner who's a believer. Together we've managed to keep this mom and pop business afloat somehow. We've taken some hits. Seen times where it seemed we couldn't afford to keep the whole thing rolling along. But, we've never really been dependent on a label or whatever. So, we've always bounced back from whatever disappointments have come along.

And I'm big on the shared experience. I enjoy driving around in a van with my friends playing music.

Another part of it: I think somehow that if I can make a great record, and this might be a lie I tell myself, but if I can make a classic, a real great record, that somehow it will make sense of all my bad choices and foolishness. The pangs of regret that I carry around will be lifted, or I'll somehow make sense of my life. I doubt it's true, but it drives me. I guess there are worse lies to tell yourself.

You've expressed your disdain for MP3s and other digital media before, but your records are available as iTunes downloads. How do you reconcile your personal feelings on this versus the realities of the music business?

I think MP3's are crappy sounding, but this conversation about the business and where it's going and vinyl, vinyl, vinyl and the music business … I don't know. I don't have much to say about that stuff. Then again, come to think of it, cassettes sound pretty good too. As with any addiction, it's the dope that's important, not how you get it into your bloodstream.

Are you still a music fan? Do you still wait with anticipation for certain artists' latest release?

Yeah, for sure. I'm a pretty healthy consumer of music. Movies too. And writers. Last night I was thinking that it was time for me to reread "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." There are probably some great blogs I'm missing out on. But yeah, I still get excited about records. The last couple New York Dolls records are great. Gentleman Jesse, the Hold Steady ... What else? Art Brut, Ezra Furman.... There's all kinds of great new music. I still make time to listen to the Stones and the classics and, of course, Dylan never lets me down. I used to feel that way about Springsteen. Nowadays he's kind of veering towards slogans for the Democratic Party. I don't know, maybe that's what we need. But like someone said recently, "What do you want from Springsteen, a tax plan?" I just miss his characters. Who wouldn't want to be Wendy on that back of that motorcycle?

What's your writing process? Do you sit down with a plan or does it come when it comes?

I guess I know a thing of two about writing songs. But at the same time, I really don't know anything. I am in awe of the process. I'm in awe of everything. When it comes together, it is a buzz. I'm still chasing that buzz, and I never really know where the next one is coming from.

Many of your songs feature pretty colorful characters and cinematic story lines. Would you have any interest seeing any of them used as the basis for a film?

Yeah, sure. You want to write one? Better yet, a musical? That could work!

You always have a unique, recognizable guitar sound. Are you a gear geek? How much time do you spend tweaking your tone?

I probably should tweak a little more. I like the sound of a Fender guitar into a Fender amp. I guess that's the Swiss Army knife of tone, really.

Will you ever retire that Squier Telecaster?

They say Leo Fender made all the right mistakes. There should be thick books written about him. Put down that jesusPhone and that Steve Jobs bio. Learn a little about Leo Fender, the Frank Lloyd Wright of the guitar. I once asked Jonathan Richman if he thought there is any way that the Fender guitar could be improved. He said, "You can't improve on a 1953 Studebaker Golden Hawk or a 1956 Ford Thunderbird. I ain't going to mess with that." I agree.

Why are you not a household name?

That's all coming: The fame, the money, the glory. I can taste it on my tongue, like white noise. It's all coming. I just know it is. It might take 200 years, but it's coming. Wake me up when it gets here, okay?

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