Chuck Prophet – Bringing It All Back Home
Every musician has a silly Euro-journo story. If Melody Maker’s “Pepe LePunk” parody is to be believed, these anecdotes require two simple elements: a particularly annoying, irrelevant, stupid or wrongheaded question, plus a bemusedly haughty French, German or Danish accent. The Eurotrash writer is also required to address the subject by his full name. The moment, then, is supposed to play out something like this random, fictional example: “Zo, Jeff Tweedy. Eez zees alternative country scene zee…how you say, ‘next beeg theeng?'”
Chuck Prophet’s most recent Pepe LePunk moment took place in Germany, when he was promoting his 1995 album Feast of Hearts. Being a brooding songwriter type, and one who has certainly struggled from time to time, Prophet has never been accused of excessive cheerfulness. But he’s not an overly depressed, bitter sort either — or so he’s always thought.
“I had this German woman say to me (stage direction: recite with mock Prussian solemnity), ‘You speak of loneliness and desperation,'” Prophet recalls. “So I go, ‘I do? Like what?'”
As evidence, the German scribe cited a single line from the song “Hungry Town” that goes: “I’m watching reruns of good times.” At least, that’s how it sounded to her Teutonic ears. The scene the lyric is meant to describe would actually read like this: “I’m watching reruns of ‘Good Times’.” Yes, the TV show. “I don’t know about you,” Prophet finally told his confused inquisitor, “but to me, that’s living!”
Chuck Prophet has had plenty of experience dealing with the European media. Like so many artists trafficking in distinctly American musical idioms, he is more appreciated overseas than he is at home. It has always been that way. Prophet, who is based in San Francisco, made his bones with Dan Stuart in Green on Red. Long after that band’s peers in the so-called Paisley Underground had dissipated, the two men remained the toast of the Continent, even appearing on the cover of the Melody Maker (something that’s impossible to imagine in this era of Oasis). In their later days, Green on Red recorded and toured almost exclusively for European fans.
Though Prophet has a strong following in his home city, his solo career has gone much the same way. His debut record, Brother Aldo, was made for the British indie label Fire. The follow-up, Balinese Dancer, found him on the larger China label (where Green on Red was also stationed). In an ironic but not entirely coincidental twist, both records received negligible American releases via the independent distributor Dutch East India. But negligible or not, that was still better than the fate of Feast of Hearts. China never saw fit to issue (or license) that record in the U.S. at all.
1997 represents a fresh start in the form of Homemade Blood. Prophet’s fourth record is the first that’s totally free from the specter of Green on Red, which had just kept going and going but now seems safely confined to memory. (Stuart finally made his first solo attempt in ’96; says Prophet, “I think there’s enough Green on Red records out there.” Something like 15, if you count compilations.) More importantly, Homemade Blood finds Prophet on a new label, Cooking Vinyl. Naturally, the folk and roots oriented record company is based in the U.K. But they do have a steady U.S. operation as well. Prophet hooked up with Cooking Vinyl thanks to a completely cliched music-biz ritual: During 1996’s South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, he was at the infamous Four Seasons bar meeting with a publisher when his manager, ever the player, shmoozed the label people across the room. “It’s all kinda gross, especially when you’re a part of it,” Prophet says
Homemade Blood feels like a direct reaction to its predecessor. The polished Feast of Hearts, produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, found Prophet collaborating not just with his usual friends and partners, but also with seasoned songwriting hand Jules Shear (the two men share a manager). It was an elegiac, groove-ridden record, but it lacked a certain grittiness. Homemade Blood, on the other hand, is as informally down and dirty as its title suggests. It was recorded in 10 days with producer Eric Westfall, best-known for his repeated work with the loosest band in America, Giant Sand.
“Four sets a night, six days a week I never saved a lousy dime,” Prophet sings on the record’s opening track, “Credit”. “Now my guitar it gently weeps, out of tune and out of time.” The couplet is as good a mission statement as any. “I just thought it’d be good to get a bunch of people in a room together, throw out some songs and catch them before they got too housebroken,” Prophet says. “I’m really into making records, I just don’t want to drown in that process.”
Process, in fact, makes it harder than one would think to just plug in and make a live-in-the-studio record. “It’s hard these days to find a room where you can set up and have fundamental things like eye contact,” Prophet notes. A San Francisco studio called Toast filled the bill, but not without a little effort. “In those 10 days, I think we spent a couple of them just figuring out how to set up so we could see each other.” After the sessions with Westfall, the finished product went to ace mixers (and producers) Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, who have worked with everyone from Uncle Tupelo to Hole to Radiohead to Radish.