Chuck Prophet – Performing the Miracle in the Distrito Federal
Chuck Prophet released my hands-down favorite album of 2009, ¡Let Freedom Ring! On Saturday, August 21, he and his band the Mission Express will play the second annual No Depression Festival at Marymoor Park in Redmond, WA. (Their set is at 3:40pm.)
When I spoke with Chuck late last year, he’d just put Alejandro Escovedo on a plane. They’d been writing the album that would become this year’s stellar Street Songs of Love and, according to Chuck, “taking naps.”
“We locked ourselves in this room for three days. He had a couple of things that he was already kickin’ around. Some of those, we threw up on blocks and kinda rotated the tires…and occasionally, we would pull something out of the air fully-formed.” On their collaboration, Chuck said, “It’s nice when you find somebody you have that ease with, where you can sit in a room and as Dan Penn calls it, ‘perform the miracle.'”
(When asked about the legendary Mr. Penn, with whom he’s written many songs over the years, Chuck said, “One of the best things about writing with Dan Penn is that when you’re finished with the song, you get to make a demo, and you get to hear Dan sing it.” I can imagine.)
After 2007’s ambitious, layered Soap & Water was released, I’d read an interview in which Chuck suggested he might not make another record. Quite a remark to follow with such a triumphant statement as ¡Let Freedom Ring!, don’t you think?
CP: Yeah, I always feel that way when I’m done…it’s not like I have anything on deck. Every time I set out to make a record, there’s generally an initial burst of inspiration of some kind, and it’s like a virus that infects the whole record. I get interested or excited about a cluster of songs, and from there, I can get excited about making a record.
LB: So you kind of have to wait for it?
CP: Yeah, I don’t have some kind of plan, like Chairman Mao, like ‘in four years I’m gonna do this.’ I generally burn myself out at the end of a record, with touring, etc. I know it’s totally outdated to still think in terms of albums, but it’s the way I’m wired.
I asked Chuck about his favorite moment on ¡Let Freedom Ring!, and he chose the album’s strutting opener, “Sonny Liston’s Blues.”
CP: It was all recorded live. It’s a live vocal, and no overdubs, so it’s just a moment, and I take pride in that performance. It means something to me.
On his fascination with Liston himself:
CP: For me, Sonny Liston is really the embodiment of myth…he represents everything that is myth. As a character, he belonged on the record because he is the American dream. He’s part myth, and part reality—loved by many and hated by more. He never knew the day he was born, and we’ll never know the day he died.
Before the Nick Tosches book (The Devil and Sonny Liston), I had seen a clip on HBO of a press conference with Sonny Liston and Ali, and it was Ali’s show all the way…he was so charming, and he had such a way with the press…and Sonny climbed into himself a little bit. He was a little withdrawn; he was always wary of the media, ‘cos he was picked on…they nicknamed him “the Bear.” And finally, one of the reporters shouted, “Mr. Liston, Sonny, do you have anything to add today, before we go?” And he said, “Well, I’m a man of few words, and I think you’ve heard most of ’em today.” And he sorta pushed himself up from the table and walked off.
CP: I think that’s what he said; I don’t even really know…which just goes to prove my point! That image always stuck with me. And I think that he was a guy that had a big heart that few people could see. And that’s really who the character is in that song, “Sonny Liston’s Blues”: he’s not really able to articulate what it is that he wants to say, but I think if you look close enough, you see a guy with a big heart, where other people just see a monster.
When it was time to take the ¡Let Freedom Ring! sessions south of the border (to Mexico City’s Estudio 19), Chuck tapped legendary producer/instrumentalist Greg Leisz to helm the ship. Having been a longtime fan of Leisz’s work, I asked Chuck how he knew Greg was the man for the job.
CP: We’ve been friends for a long time, and Greg has played on most of my records in some capacity. Greg’s got a certain presence that reminds me of the way Jim Dickinson described Sam Phillips…he’s a standup dude, whereas I’m kind of a hustler. If I can hustle you, I will, but Greg’s the kind of person that when he’s on the other side of the glass, I wanna please him. I know that if he responds to it, we’re on to something. He’s not gonna cheat me.
Greg’s a very sensitive musician; he’s very sensitive to what’s going on in the room. He’s kind of a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kinda guy, whereas I can run hot & cold. He kept me between the lanes…he’s just everything I think a great producer should be.
Having made some more ‘produced’ records (the kitchen-sink loops and samples of 2000’s The Hurting Business, for instance, or the strings and children’s choirs of 2007’s Soap and Water), I asked Chuck if he’d made a conscious decision to go ‘back to basics’ for ¡Let Freedom Ring!:
CP: No, I just kinda listen to what the songs need…there are some songs and some records that seem to have more needs than others.
I know that some people have been encouraging me to make a record that’s more guitar-oriented. That’s certainly not something I can just decide, but after I wrote the first batch of songs, I thought, “This might be that record.” It just seemed that the more melodious things got, the more it took away from the words. These songs seemed to work better with a really simple frame. And I know that approach worked better, because when we cut the basics, they stood up for themselves.
Greg Leisz is a steady, steady guy, and he can really get to the essence of a song. A lot of overdubbing just didn’t seem to suit these songs.
LB: It seemed to obscure the point, rather than enhance it.
LB: Based on what I’ve seen online, there appears to be a documentary in the works about the LFR sessions. Can you tell me about that?
CP: Well, some friends of mine had a volunteer film crew, and they came around to try out some new cameras at the very beginning stages of what this record turned out to be. I basically just sat there and played some of my songs, ran through my notebook, and talked about this record, but at that point, I didn’t really have the cast together. And then from there, the cast just sorta fell together…y’know, the budgets for my records are a lot smaller [than they used to be], and for the people that fell together, I went down to Kinko’s and printed up the IOUs…
CP: So we just kinda documented some of this stuff, when people were available, and then when I decided I was gonna go to Mexico City, a couple of guys in the film crew got excited about that. And then a few days after we arrived in Mexico, the swine flu scare broke out…so there we are, in a city of 27 million people, and suddenly, it’s a ghost town. But we’ve got all this footage, and there’s a story there…so we’ve gotta distill it into something.
LB: Do you have any idea when we’ll get to see it?
CP: Well, my attitude with the filmmakers was, if they’re gonna make a decent movie, they’re gonna have betray me on some level. They’ve got a lot of footage, a lot of stuff, and frankly, a lot of it’s not very flattering. But in order for them to make a good movie, they’ve gotta do their thing, and in order for me to make a good record, I’ve gotta do my thing. That’s kinda been my attitude, so when you ask when it’s gonna be done, I can’t really tell you those things. I’m at their mercy.
When Chuck & the Mission Express played Seattle’s Tractor Tavern back in December 2009, I noticed they’d added a number of twin-guitar overtures (a la Thin Lizzy) to some of the LFR numbers (and a raging take on Bruce Springsteen’s “For You”). I asked Chuck about his favorite twin-guitar moments on record.
CP: It goes back to [Lou Reed’s] Rock ‘n Roll Animal, for me. And people definitely respond to that live – y’know, you may not even like classical music, but if you sat up close, and heard a classical symphony at the top of their game, it’d kick your ass. I’m not really a connoisseur of classical music, but I think that it does something when you hear those twin guitars in harmony. It takes you somewhere.
LB: As someone who came up as a guitar-slinger, I’m curious how your approach to singing has changed over the years. Is it something you enjoy? Or do you dread it, but feel like it’s something you have to do?
CP: Oh no, I like the way I sing…the way I sing makes total sense to me. It’s flattering when other people sing my songs, but there are always subtle changes…and I like my versions, y’know? Is that OK to say?
LB: No, I know just what you mean.
CP: Lucinda Williams told me that she liked how I wrote for my own voice…I don’t really have much choice at this point. I like singers who just sing, as opposed to singers that sound like they’re singing. The same way I like songs that are just songs, as opposed to songs that sound like they were written, or sound too ‘writerly.’
LB: I’m curious, then, who are some of your favorite singers?
CP: I could listen to Dusty Springfield sing “The Look of Love” on repeat and be happy. And Bob Dylan…now there’s a great singer.
And finally, a couple of questions from our mutual pal Guy Neal Williams:
“Does Stephanie (Finch, wife, longtime partner-in-crime, and damn fine singer/songwriter in her own right) still catch you every time you sneak a cigarette?”
CP: (laughs) It’s the only thing that keeps me from smoking! To have to explain…
LB: Shame is a powerful motivator.
CP: Yeah. Especially when you’re Catholic like me…
“What’s the asking price on that beat-up Squier of yours?”
CP: (laughs) It’s not for sale. If it wasn’t for that guitar, believe me, I’d be pumping gas, or folding sweaters down at Target right about now. It saved me…
LB: Well, thank god for that guitar, then…
It’s been eight months since Mr. Prophet and the Mission Express last rolled through Seattle, and I can’t wait to hear the turns the songs have taken in that time. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll even get a glimpse of his next miracle.
— LINCOLN BARR