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Chuck Prophet - The IndieLondon interview

Chuck Prophet

Interview by Sue Wilkinson

CHUCK Prophet is a musical missionary preaching his straight-down-the-line rock ‘n ‘roll euphoria and mayhem to the masses. From his early days as a teenage wonder-kid with American country rockers Green on Red, he’s blazed a trail as a singer songwriter and producer.

With nine solo albums under his belt, his latest release ¡Let Freedom Ring! delivers a raw snapshot of today’s troubled times, diving deep into the underbelly of the failed American Dream. We spoke to Chuck Prophet ahead of his gig with the Mission Express – at London’s Borderline on Friday, May 14.

Q. Which artists did you grow up listening to?
Chuck Prophet: Whatever was in the air! My sister went to see Bowie and Zeppelin with her boyfriends and a lot of records got left around. I’d listen to whatever I could get hold of – Neil Young, Bob Dylan and country artists like Waylon Jennings. Later, I’d listen to The Clash. London’s Calling – that’s a great record.

Q. How did you come to make Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams, your ‘tribute’ to country icon Waylon Jennings?
Chuck Prophet: It’s a re-imagining rather than a straight tribute. It started as a dare. I was with some musicians in a studio and the subject of that record came up and I said: “I could probably recite that record from memory.” So, we recorded a couple of songs and decided to see how many we could get through. We were halfway through it by the end of the day and then we decided to come back the next day and do the other half. I never really made it expecting anyone to hear it – it was just an exercise. I didn’t realise what I’d done until afterwards.

I remembered that when I made my first solo record – Brother Aldo – I was listening a lot to Waylon Jennings – and the cover of my first record has this sepia cover rather like a Waylon record. I guess that I could identify with Waylon. He was an auteur within the system of country music. He played his own lead guitar, picked his own material and recorded that with his band. I guess that an auteur is someone who writes and records and produces. I suppose, like Waylon, I do that too. I also have a knack for getting involved in interesting and difficult collaborations. I’ve worked a lot with Dan Penn and that’s been a very fruitful relationship.

Q. Is there anyone else you’d like to collaborate with?
Chuck Prophet: I don’t really think like that. I don’t plan anything. If it happens as I go along, it happens. It just develops. I’m still waiting for the call from Bob Dylan though. He hasn’t rung yet but you never know – there’s still time!

Q. Your latest album, ¡Let Freedom Ring!, was recorded in Mexico during the swine flu epidemic. Tell us about that experience…
Chuck Prophet: I wanted to get outside the USA and record somewhere with a different atmosphere. I wanted to record in a place where there was a lot of energy. You can really feel that energy on the streets in Mexico. We were hoping to feed off the energy there. I didn’t want to go for the mariachi horns type of sound like Calexico – otherwise I would have recorded the songs in Tucson.

It was pretty insane in Mexico. It was hard at times. The power outages were pretty difficult to cope with – the power would go out five times a day. The recording studio was state-of-the-art – for 1958! The swine flu outbreak didn’t help the situation. There were lots of people going around wearing masks. It was easy to get slightly paranoid. I kept on feeling a bit feverish after working all day but I didn’t know whether it was swine flu or the fact that it was really hot because of the extreme heat. It was frustrating at times but we carried on working and developed a kind of energy from the chaos that was happening outside the studio. I had a really brilliant relationship with my producer so in the end we got a really great result.

Q. You’ve described the songs on ¡Let Freedom Ring! as “political songs for non-political people”. What do you mean by that?
Chuck Prophet: Well, I didn’t want to make a political statement or wave any flags. I’m not really a political guy. But we live in troubled and anxious times. I think of myself as a photographer and I believe that I can shine a light on things in my songs. When I was recording in Mexico I was thinking a lot about Mexican immigration, for instance.

Chuck Prophet

Q. Your songs about everyday, heroic people are a trademark. Where do those stories come from?
Chuck Prophet: I’m not sure really. I pick them up on my travels and as things leap into my mind. I guess that I’m attracted to people who are complex personalities. For instance, for the song Sonny Liston’s Blues, I was attracted by the boxer and the myths surrounding him. Many people thought he was a monster. Mohammed Ali and George Forman didn’t like him. He wasn’t a popular figure. But for me, he’s the perfect analogy for the American dream. I tried to capture him up in the lyrics: “I’m a man of few words, baby/I think by now you’ve heard them all.”

I write each song a bit like a movie and I try to find the characters to make it come alive. Sometimes stories about everyday people are more interesting to me. I can see a parallel in films. It’s a bit like Werner Herzog. The film about making Fitzcarraldo (Burden of Dreams) was in some ways more interesting than the movie. The same was true about Eleanor Coppola’s film about the making of Apocalypse Now. I like to write about characters rather than adopt, you know, the confessional style of song writing like Jackson Browne. People like him have spoiled it for the rest of us! [laughs]

Q. What are your plans for the future? Chuck Prophet: I don’t like to think about that! Who knows what might happen? I tend to see what comes along. I haven’t got any recording plans right now. I’ll have to write some new songs first! I think more in terms of just getting out there and making music. I have an addictive personality, but music is probably the healthiest addiction I’ve ever had. My biggest fear is that I may have to stop.

Q. When is the documentary about the making of ¡Let Freedom Ring! due out?
Chuck Prophet: I’ve no idea when it’s coming out but we have hours and hours of film. There’s some really great stuff we shot. I let the director, Scott Compton, do his thing and I do my thing – and I’m really happy with that. I hope it’ll come out at some point though.

Q. One music journalist asked recently – ‘Why isn’t Chuck Prophet a superstar?’ What’s your reaction to that?
Chuck Prophet: Oh no! I told that journalist not to use that line. What does it matter? I don’t think of that, I just think of the next record and making music. I’ve had a successful career so far with nine solo albums and I get a good crowd for most of my gigs, if that’s a measure of success. It’s lazy journalism! It’s more important to make the most of what you do over a long period of time and to keep it authentic.

Q. What about the numerous stories about Chuck Prophet and crazy stuff? Are they true or are they urban myths?
Chuck Prophet: Yes, they’re all true! And there’s many more too! A lot of them stemmed from the fact that a friend of mine wrote all the stories up in a book. And, yes the tale about me leaping across two San Francisco rooftops to impress a girl and then falling three floors is true! I’ve grown up a lot now. I don’t want to embarrass my parents any more. It’s just as well they can’t use Google and read all the stories about me.

Q. What lessons has 20 years in rock’n‘roll taught you?
Chuck Prophet: Follow your instincts. Try not to take yourself too seriously. I really like that Mark Twain quote: “As soon as you realise it’s all insane, it all makes sense.” I think there’s some truth in that!

¡Let Freedom Ring! is out now on Yep Roc Records.