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Chuck Prophet's Dystopian Future

Music Features Chuck Prophet
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Chuck Prophet's Dystopian Future

Chuck Prophet’s album Night Surfer arrived late last year as yet another example of the singer/songwriter’s versatility both as a master lyricist and instrumentalist. Each album has more or less focused on a different style, though undeniably with Prophet at the helm telling stories of the darker side of America. His latest record excels at taking a heavy dose of sardonic humor and distilling it with sugary-sweet jangle-pop. We sat down with him during a recent tour stop in Louisville to chat about Twitter, a Cormac-McCarthy-inspired future, and the White Night Riots of San Francisco.

Paste: You’ve been in the business now since the ‘80s, right?
Chuck Prophet: I guess so, yeah. I’m still trying to break in.

Paste: You’ve gone through the entire machine. You’ve seen it from all angles. You’re running things mostly on your own at this point. Does the dream change? Do you have different goals that you’re looking for that are different than 1996 or even 1986?
Prophet: For me it’s stayed the same. Making records, although it’s not the Great American Novel, it’s something like that in the sense that there’s a feeling and a lie I tell myself. And as far as lies go there are worse ones. Basically if I can make a great album, a classic, then it’s going to fix everything. It’s going to make up for all my bad decisions, all my foolishness, all the stupidity. It’s going to make it all happen. And so you hang onto that idea with records. It’s probably not true. Nowadays people are saying, “Why are you still making records? You should be putting out one song. Don’t you want to be successful?” This has never been about being successful. This has been about something else entirely. So my fear, when you’re talking about the business changing, whether there are cassettes tapes or kids with mp3s, when people start talking about analog or whatever, I kind of tune out. For me it’s still about getting a song to behave and wrestling it to the ground and making a record and getting that song to stick to the tape and come back out of the speakers. Throw the ball, catch the ball, get the job done. That’s what it is for me. My biggest fear is not that people are going to suddenly start streaming the music and not pay me properly. My biggest fear is that I’d have to stop.

Paste: It would seem like you’ve figured out how not to stop. A lot of people stop just because they give up the dreams, but if you can sustain in a mid-level career, you can go on forever.
Prophet: Yeah, I enjoy the side of making Chuck Prophet records and touring and collaborating with people. It’s also part of my social life. Writing is pretty lonely. A lot of isolation.

Paste: Is collaborating for you more about sustaining yourself financially or is it more “Hey, I’m sitting here, you’re sitting here, let’s make a song”?
Prophet: Like, in film, writers are pretty much at the bottom of all of it. “The film is by Steven Spielberg.” There are times when I get a little cranky about it, I guess. But I don’t really look at it as a job. And if I can get in a room with someone like Alejandro Escovedo, if we can get a place where we’re shouting at the walls and turning up the drum machine and are uninhibited and can pull these songs out of the air, well, they wouldn’t have existed otherwise. That’s fun.

Paste: I’ve heard you call your new record Night Surfer your glam-rock record.
Prophet: Every record that I make is a reaction to the one I made before. Temple Beautiful was all about San Francisco, about the place and people and history, all the characters and everything. The music was pretty stripped back. Two guitars, bass, drums. Even the cover was in black and white, just a drawing. The whole thing was monochromatic. When the songs started coming together for Night Surfer, there was a dystopian theme running through it. Living in San Fran, living in these anxious times in a city that in many ways is under siege, unless you’re venture capitalists, those are the problems to have. So I thought this is getting kind of science fiction. If I didn’t major in glam rock, I minored in it. Growing up I was way into Mott the Hoople, Bowie and Lou Reed.

Paste: I find Lou Reed in “White Night Big City.”
Prophet: Absolutely.

Paste: Are you channeling anyone in that song?
Prophet: The White Night Riots were a thing in San Francisco. There was a protest that started in Castro and worked its way to city hall. Overturned police cars. Protesting the Dan White so-called Twinkie defense verdict where he got off with manslaughter. And people were pissed off after the assassination of Harvey Milk. So I co-wrote that song with Kurt Lipschutz. He said, “I got this title, ‘White Night Big City.’” Yeah, kind of sounds like Jimmy Reed. It was three chords. As far as the Lou Reed influence, I’m definitely into singers that are storytellers. I’m not attracted to singers that sound like they’re singing. I don’t even read writers that sound like they’re writing. It’s not what I’m attracted to.

Paste: With lyrics, is it more about something that happened in history in an area, or are you allowing yourself to become a political speaker?
Prophet: I don’t think that would have worked out. First of all, it’s not journalism. You got the short end of the stick on that gig. We got so many of the facts wrong on the record. Next time we’re going to hire fact-checker.

Paste: But sometimes you’re allowed to say something even if you have to play with the facts. “The Night Chicago Died” isn’t a factually accurate song, but there’s an idea there. With music, it’s like you’re allowed to say something without exactly saying the truth.
Prophet: Well, it’s a part of San Francisco history. At this point we had written songs that included Bill Graham, Carol Doda and Jim Jones, and we started feeling kind of bad. There are other parts of San Francisco that we should explore. By coming up with this kind of joyful ‘60s fraternity rock sound we made light of this darker incident.

Paste: You’ve got a blog post right at the beginning of the year where you said, “This is how I’m going to better myself and I’m telling you so you all can hold me to it.” How are the New Year’s resolutions coming?
Prophet: I don’t remember what they were. I quit smoking about 10 years ago. I started thinking about the money I saved. I want to get a massive watch. A big watch. Those big chunky chrome things. That could be a new look for me. When I get home after this tour, before I deposit all of those sweaty 20s, I’m going to get a fat watch.

Paste: One of the resolutions you mentioned was that you’ve got to stop looking at Twitter so much because of the idea that we’re so glued to those little phones.
Prophet: Oh, I’m okay with Twitter. Everybody’s got to have their sandbox. Twitter just happens to be my playground. I signed up for Twitter back in 2008 because I went down to Mexico City to make a record. Mexico City is three hours away on a plane, but believe me, it’s the other side of the moon. It’s like a Rosetta Stone of our future. It’s really extreme. Beautiful, full of crime. It’s full of generous people, corrupt cops. It’s full of flowers. It’s a city full of 37 million contradictions. You got flowers growing out of the gutters and it smells like sulfur.

Paste: You think this is the future?
Prophet: Yeah, if we don’t look after…

Paste: How do you survive? How do they survive?
Prophet: Because there are miracles. But Mexico City is still safer than Houston any day of the week. There are a lot of millionaires in Mexico City. More than here. I suppose you can say that there are places in Mexico City that you don’t go, but there are places in Los Angeles that you don’t go. Like Beverly Hills. But anyway, that’s when I started my Twitter account during the swine flu outbreak. I felt like a war correspondent. My family didn’t know if I was going to be able to get back in the country.

Paste: When I listen to “Countrified Inner-City Technological Man,” that dystopian idea that runs through the album, is that the darker side of humanity?
Prophet: The dystopian thing for me really came together when I read an interview with Cormac McCarthy and they ask him, “How could you come up with such violent scenes?” I think he was talking about Blood Meridian at the time. He said, “Well, I just look around and see what’s happening in the world and I imagine what it’ll look like in 20 years.” And I think he said that 20 years ago. Would he know that people were going to roll headless bodies onto the freeway in front of a grammar school in Veracruz in the middle of rush hour? Would anyone have been able to predict seeing people being beheaded on television? It’s incredible. That’s kind of what I tapped into.

Paste: And it sounds like such a happy record when you don’t listen to the words.
Prophet: Who wants to be a downer?

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