West coast soul: Chuck Prophet taps into the summertime thing
By Mark Guarino
At first glance, Chuck Prophet could be considered just a lessor known Beck. In the setting of a roots band, there’s an occasional sample, and sometimes a drum loop or DJ breakbeat.
But spend some time with any of his albums — including his sixth, “No Other Love” (New West) — and you’ll discover music funkier and emotionally deeper than anything by his more famous counterpart. Besides the marriage between techno and acoustic is Prophet’s voice — a quintessential soul swagger. Part hipster, part joker, part heartworn romantic, Prophet doesn’t necessarily sing his songs, he holds a conversation with them, negotiating his way through the end until every angle is covered.
“If the song’s good, I feel kind of cocky behind it,” he admits. “For me, the definition of soul music is it’s not pop music. I like pop music too, but I don’t think I’m qualified to sing it. Soul music came from Memphis and they never made pop music in Memphis. They made rockabilly. Howlin’ Wolf made records there. Charlie Feathers made records there. And all the great Stax Records from Booker T to Isaac Hayes, plus Willie Mitchell and Al Green. That’s the kind of pop music that appeals to me.”
Further complicating the lineage is the fact Prophet is from San Francisco, historically home to musical misfits (“if Jerry Garcia tried to start a band in L.A., they would have run him out of town so fast, saying, ‘get that banjo out of here, we want Jim Morrison!’”), but not so much anymore. But with the Woodstock generation long nested in Silicon Valley, Prophet represents a new generation of musicians staking their claim in the city amid the high rents and shrunken artist’s base.
“It was totally dispiriting during the dot com era. It got so white hot that I couldn’t keep musicians. They were being drafted out of record stores to seventh floor office spaces,” he remembered.
Prophet’s characters are straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel, and his new songs could be broadcast from the back rooms, alleys and lost highways they inhabit. Swampy, romantic, slinky and more often than not funky, the album also includes a genuine, could-be summer hit (“Summertime Thing”), a three-minute cityfront beach party boasting one of the steamiest grooves this July.
At the center of Prophet’s blue-eyed soul is the feeling that firecrackers are attached at the bottom — from the genuine love ballad, “After the Rain” to the slinkier, “I Bow Down and Pray To Every Woman I See.”
Prophet says each song is a sense of discovery and finding it comes from patience and intuition. “If I hear a scratchy breakbeat in my living room and turn it up and run around with my acoustic guitar, I’ll chase that feeling,” he said. “And sometimes you wrestle the idea to the ground and if you have to, put it on blocks and rotate the tires. Just chasing that thing is really what keeps me going.
“You hope it connects. Everyone wants to be Paul Westerberg. When Paul Westerberg sang ‘Unsatisfied’, there was really nothing you could do to make it better. He just sounds so unsatisfied!” he said.
Likening himself to playwright David Mamet who stocks all his films with the same actors to cut down the time, Prophet’s albums feature his usual band plus wife Stephanie Finch, who plays keyboards and sings harmony on tour. A newcomer is co-producer Jim Waters who worked with Jon Spencer and R.L. Burnside.
“No Other Love” is his first in a long time on a U.S. label. Although his albums are usually licensed to labels here, Prophet enjoys a more concentrated and larger fanbase in Europe, where he gets regular airplay. His last album was released by Cooking Vinyl in England.
“We were able to stay busy in Europe,” he said. “I think it’s an easier market to approach. Other people think Europeans are culturally and artistically that much further ahead of us. I’m not sure if I agree with that. You’re not making this music for Europeans and it drives you nuts.”
After an almost 20-album output (in the ‘80s, he was a member of the California band Green On Red), Prophet admits he’s starting to figure the often chaotic life as a musician. “I think it has to do with sort of having wrestling my demon to the ground,” he said.
Last year, he kicked a nine-month drug addiction that followed problems with alcohol.
“I would like to think I was writing great songs when I was shooting dope or whatever, but I don’t think I was,” he said. “People say the problem with touring is not the two hours onstage, it’s the 22 hours of waiting around. Not for me. The problem with me is not the two hours onstage, it’s the other hours (expletive) off. It pulled me away from what I cared about. Besides, I didn’t have a choice (to get clean) after smoking crack. It completely brought me to my knees in a short period of time. I was unrecognizable to myself. But I eventually did what people told me to do and shut the (expletive) up and learned to listen. And I got clean just like they said I would!”
Lucinda Williams invited him to join her current summer tour, which arrives for two nights at Metro next week. Prophet says these days, his trusty companion on the road is a good book. He enjoys touring once more because priorities are downsized. “Generally, I can find a pretty good coffee in every town,” he said. “You bring your own weather with you in life. It’s not complicated.”