Chuck Prophet: Can a Woman's Voice Drug You?

An Interview with Chuck Prophet

By Paul Hawkins

Chuck Prophet
Chuck Prophet

Having left a trail of sparks from his left hand with Green on Red and ploughed a determined solo path that has given birth to some of the best solo albums of the decade, Chuck Prophet has had a busy last year.

He has been in demand as producer (Kathleen Haskard and Kelly Willis to name two), recorded the album Dreaming Waylons Dreams after he was locked into his studio overnight, launched his label, (((belle sound))), with its first non-Prophet related release; Fruitvale by Sonny Smith, picked up the reins of the killer band Green on Red with Dan Stuart, Jack Waterson, Chris Cacavas and Jim Bogios with a reconquest tour that reminded us of how the barbed wire country rock book was written.

He also signed a deal to publish a book on the schizo-dynamics that musicians juggle with on an hourly basis whilst in tour-motion, played on various albums including Aiden Hawkens solo album, fitted in songwriting sessions with Alejandro Escovedo and recorded his new opus Soap And Water. A busy time, but one that reminds us that the demand for Chuck’s involvement in many different projects is as high as ever.

On Soap And Water Chuck lets his fearless yet subtle mixing of musical styles and mastery of the fucked-up ballad par excellence shine. He successfully disproves the old adage by working with choir of children who sing backing vocals on the album. His cool legend status as singer/songwriter with a back cataloge that sparkles and shimmers out of the speakers like the gold in a panhandlers calloused and blistered whisky-glass hand precedes him by some distance.

OK, I think we have established that he has some, how can I put this, savvy, style and class. We met up while he was doing promo in London for the release of his new album, Soap and Water.

When did the album start to take shape?

Well, I got lucky and I caught an inspirational virus after we came back from our first European tour behind the last record, Age of Miracles. I wrote three or four songs, Soap and Water was among them. I get into this routine where when I get back from Europe I don’t re-adjust my body clock, so I wake up at 4:30am and they say that’s the most creative hour, well that’s what the monks say. So I was able to catch a few song ideas, kick ’em around… thats was a couple of years back… I didn’t think much about making another record back then. I got dropped by my label New West and I spent most of last year figuring what to do. We didn’t have much tread left on our tyres after we toured behind the Age of Miracles. The band was a little dispirited, that tour probably went on a couple of months too long.

I guess you needed to recharge those batteries?

I didn’t think much about making a new record, but, a couple more songs appeared. Then I started to think, y’know, wouldn’t it be great to make a new record, and who might play on it, I guess I have some dark need to do this after all and that’s what happened.

What inspired you to write those songs?

Well, a lot of stuff swirls around and I do write for character, so that liberates me from always writing in the conventional singer/songwriter way, y’know “my coffee’s getting cold, or whatever”, so there is always inspiration, always ideas kicking around. I don’t always have the energy to wrestle the song all the way to the ground…

What about inspiration for your ears?

Yeah, I’m inspired by the O’Jays, Ike Turner and by this woman Peaches, this girl from Canada. She was formerly a 4th grade school teacher, she’s got a song called Shake Your Dick, which is pretty cool. She gives me a lot of inspiration and the courage to wave my own freak flag.

So, fresh ink on new record deals back home in the States (Yep-Roc), for the rest of the universe (Cooking Vinyl) and a new album out very soon (Oct 2nd in the US and Sept 17th everywhere else). Who plays on Soap and Water?

Oh, Aiden Hawken, who is a great singer/songwriter in his own right, he played a lot of keyboards. Brad Jones, who produced it, played bass, Todd Roper (Cake) and Jim Bogios (too many bands to mention) played drums in shifts and Tom Ayres, who is a real find, played guitar. Tom plays in a band called Persephone’s Bees he is just a fucking guitar wizard, a real resource. We had done some demos together and because of the way this record was structured nobody got paid, everyone got a stake in the masters.

How does that work Chuck?

Well, JJ Wiesler, who I should give credit to for engineering the record, pretty much got the ball rolling. He had a private studio that he doesn’t really use, day in day out, and we had worked together; myself, Tom Ayres and Aiden Hawken had worked on Aiden’s solo record. We were all really happy the way it turned out so JJ suggested we tried the same thing. I went away, came back with some songs and we hit the pavement running…

I heard some of the album, Kathleen (Haskard, singer/songwriter whose new album Don’t Tell Chuck produced) played me some of it… what? [laughing]

No, no secrets, [laughing] you acted as if you weren’t supposed to have it… like there was something illicit about it!

I don’t think there is anything illicit going on, man, it’s not like I have put it up on eBay. Yet. What I’ve heard sounds cool and its got a real presence and power.

We try our best to please.

Are you looking forward to this tour?

Yeah, I always look forward to playing. I do enjoy touring, in fact I feel as if I am probably one of the last three or four people who enjoy it and when the bands clicking there’s really nothing else I enjoy more, kickin’ the songs around on the bandstand.

And you are bringing over support for the European tour?

Yeah, Bob Frank and John Murry will be opening the shows, they are a couple of kinky motherfuckers: Bob [laughing] is a 63 year old Vietnam vet who disappeared from the music business for thirty years. He made a record that was a kind of cult classic for Vanguard, who were the premier American folk label, in 1972 and he’s a wonderfully mysterious, funny dude, the type of guy who seems like a full grown man, but who at the same time is not above scraping the resin out of your bong to come with… [laughing]

A last hit?

Yeah, one last hitty. I have become pretty close to Bob and John, who I adore, together they are quite a pair. I think its gonna be great even when it sucks!

I am looking forward to the gigs, I missed Bob and John on their last tour behind their Murder Ballalds album. Just going back to the stakes in the masters of Soap and Water, what happened there? If it sells X you each get X - Y + Z (less the square root of W)?

Yeah, well, I have a manager, Dan Kennedy, who invested some money in the album. He came up with a chart, y’know, you’d really have to be a mathematician to understand, I don’t know.

I like [laughing] the sound of that already.

Y’know I don’t understand it entirely, but I like the sound of it.

That’s good.

I mean, I am hoping that this business model will work. We licensed it to Yep Roc in the US and Cooking Vinyl for Europe and the rest of the world. Dan and I flew out to Camp Yep Roc in North Carolina to meet with all the Yep Roc brass, take a tour of the facilities.

Guess it was enough for you scratch your mark with Dan’s gold fountain pen?

I was impressed by how many people they have there and they are interested in finding new ways to do the same shit, so we kicked around different promotion ideas. My idea for this record was no different to others, y’know? My suggestion was we all form a circle and stand together… and… pray… [laughter all round]

And did you do it?

Yeah! On Monday I am going into Cooking Vinyl and I am going to suggest the same thing, ’cos if they are spoil sports at this stage of the game, it’s not gonna bode well for the future.

You know, Chuck, I looked on Cooking Vinyl’s new website and I couldn’t see Soap and Water up on there (yet).

OK.

I emailed them and suggested that they should be giving a little more publicity to your new opus.

Oh well, that’s better yet, y’see, [smiling] everybody is doing their job.

Well, so can I join your circle?

Yeah, you are always welcome. The circle is as wide as it wants to be.

Cool, would I be right in saying that you sell more records in Europe?

No, probably not. But the food is better in Europe, y’know I have got better at touring Europe over the years. Although after so many years touring over here I still can not speak any language other than English and I have always compensated by just talking loudly [laughing] and in a kind of Mexican/Spanish slang, but that has to stop.

Uh-huh, thats what most Brits abroad do they think it earns them some kind of respect [laughing].

I am happy to say that after I quit drinking I kinda calmed down a little bit on that, the shouting.

That’s good. When I lived in Spain I remember the Brits in particular talking VERY LOUDLY and S L O W L Y, or putting an O on the end of every English word, thinking that that translates well. Sad but true. Did you ever plan that somehow the new album would be out on your own label (((belle sound)))?

Well, in a way it is out on (((belle sound))), it’s my own label and imprint, but, y’know? I like to give the companies a stake in this record so they can feel some quote-unquote ownership and get behind it as well.

OK.

Well I pull for the home team, I think that after a number of years that companies like Cooking Vinyl and Yep Roc will still be standing after everyone else has fallen. I don’t have a crystal ball but Martin Goldschmit is a clever and capable dude and, uhh, Glen Dicker over at Yep Roc is too and well they have got impeccable taste, they signed me. So they are both survivors either way, with a long history.

Who else is on Yep Roc?

Nick Lowe, Paul Weller, Robyn Hitchcock, Heavy Trash, who are Jon Spencer’s new group, Ian Hunter… so I feel like I am in pretty great company.

Have you got any plans for releasing anything on (((belle sound)))?

Well I did hear a solo record of one of the girls who was a former member of the band Fanny Pack, who were on Tommy Boy Records and made a couple of great records. I adore that record but I don’t know if I am ready to go broke putting out another one, but if I did, I would like to see that record get out there. I think it could really fuck with people’s heads and of course Sonny Smith who just made this brilliant record called Fruitvale which is really the reason I stepped up the label a notch from just putting out my own bootlegs and stuff.

Fruitvale is a great album.

Yeah, he has that wild gift, a wild freedom for writing. I like that he comes from a place other than rock and roll. Sonny was like a failed screen writer. Peripherally, I have known him for years and we have gigged together. The thing that turned me on about Sonny is that he put on a play at the Make Out Room (San Francisco) that was sort of a taxi cab monologue I think, and he actually dragged a taxicab onto the stage and performed the whole thing from behind the wheel. I thought that was genius.

Now that really would help get his message over. You have been writing more on The Brink and your dotcom. Its always nice to read stuff, opinions and stories. Chuck, you have a book deal too, don’t you?

I was lucky to have a meeting with Chronicle Books and presented a proposal for a book that involves road diaries, ephemera, hotel stationary, drawings and photos from musicians who are all living in a world of constant motion. They thought it was a wonderful idea although its been pushed back and I haven’t yet developed a definite structure for the book, but it’s in the pipeline. I am out here touring soon, new record out, so thats where my head is at now.

Blogs and opinions are everywhere these days…

I don’t call it blogging, but I do like writing letters and posting stuff, diaries, it’s a nice way to relax after a gig sometimes. There was a period of time when Henning, my faithful webmaster, who was really able to get my chuckprophet.com thing happening when I didn’t really know what the internet was. We met way back in San Francisco when he was studying studio engineering. He is a brilliant artist/engineer/singer songwriter. He went back to Sweden and met his beautiful wife, had a couple of kids. He puts the snow tyres on every year out there.

On the Volvo?

Yep. Anyway there was a period when we didn’t know whether we would keep the website going. I asked people if they thought it was of any use. More than one person said to me, “oh, I just check to see if there is any new diary entries. And if there isn’t I just move on”. So I started to write some more.

You have been sitting in the producers chair too.

Yeah, well every once in a while I am lucky enough that Kathleen Haskard or Kelly Willis will call and I do enjoy it. I’m not a studio rat, you know I don’t come from an engineering standpoint, but I enjoy the the process of making records and song writing. I enjoy working with difficult talented musicians, the recording and mixing and it’s always nice when the phone rings.

You have worked with a number of producers over the years, guys with a pedigree, a track record.

I have watched a lot of good producers work, I mean my all time guru of voodoo and mentor is and shall remain Jim Dickinson. But I have worked with some producers who were so incredibly underwhelming and brought so little to the process it kinda scared me. I had some underwhelming results with a couple of guys, who I won’t mention and I was mostly disappointed. I have also worked with Glyn Johns, y’know he is like the Alfred Hitchcock of rock and roll, and he has worked with The Who, The Stones, The Beatles, The Faces, The Eagles and The Clash. Dan Stuart and I also worked with Al Kooper, who was a living legend and was one of the more musical producers. He taught me a lot and was very patient with me. We remain friends for a long time. He has given Stephanie Hammond lessons, which was kinda nice.

I particularly liked that Scapegoats album you made with Al Kooper.

Chuck Prophet
Chuck Prophet

I remember finishing that record and when it wrapped Danny had gone out and bought a set of luggage, I can’t remember the brand, and y’know, they come in all different sizes, there was, like, eight of them or something [laughing].

They all fitted inside of each other?

Yeah, and he came into the studio and said, “d’ya want one of these, I don’t need it…”, and I remember after we mixed it he went back to Spain to Nuria who would later become his wife and mother of Dan Junior. We didn’t speak for a while and about a month later he said “man, I don’t know, y’know I’m kinda a little bit proud [laughing] of this one” and I said, “yeah, I’ve been listening to it a fair amount and for pleasure!” So Scapegoats was a nice one, that was our Nashville experience. We worked with Tony Joe White, Harry Stinson, a great drummer, and Spooner Oldham and that was when I met Dan Penn during the recording of that record and, y’know, it was a good time… a good time.

I remember seeing you way back when you were touring it or maybe it was Here Come The Snakes, probably both tours…

Yeah in many ways that record, Here Come The Snakes was probably our most successful record. It was artistically and it was recorded very quickly.

That was with Jim Dickinson producing?

It was just one of those records that was made under no real pressure and with no expectations. Which was totally unlike the previous one, The Killer Inside Me, where we were kinda crumbling under the weight of our own grandiosity. We had just signed this major label deal and, I don’t know if everyone felt the pressure, but that was when the band became pretty dispirited, and Here Come The Snakes, by comparison, was just a breeze to make. Danny came up with some incredible stuff, I was generously credited as co-writer but I don’t really remember all the nuts and bolts of what happened, I really like the recitation on Tenderloin.

Yes, I remember that, it was a powerful confessional.

It really puts the hurt on you…

Did you ever play that live?

I don’t know, I doubt it!

So you got back together with Danny and the rest of Green on Red last year?

Well, I don’t get to see Danny all that often, but we talk and its always a delight and Green on Red was a funny bunch of guys that, if you saw us around each other, you may think we don’t like each other very much [laughing] and we spent a lot of time with each other. I feel really close to Dan and all the guys, we really did form that brotherly motorcycle gang bond but along with all the family drama and dysfunction. That’s all there too… I think we were all kinda pleasantly surprised how well everything held up when we got back together, how kind of effortless it all was.

That rescheduled Astoria gig was something else.

Well, as you are wont to say over here in the uhhmmm, olde worlde… it was a bit of a laugh…

Was that an English accent?

Errr… yeah

Would you say that again?

NO

[laughing] I have come across recordings, some good recordings of that gig…

Well that’s good, I’m glad they are out there. Y’know we got our old soundman, Nobby I think his name was, I don’t remember, somebody had dug up our original soundman which I didn’t know anything about until we were loading in and that was a pleasant surprise. We tried to get our original crew and I really think that was closest to our original setlist that I could reconstruct… uhhmm… from my notes [laughter].

Thats good, yeah. So will you write with Danny again?

Well, I think it would be fun, I think he’s at the top of his game, in many ways I love the Danny and Dusty songs and Dan and I are both good collaborators, maybe a little competitive in nature and I think we both enjoy the co-writing, or as Dan Penn said, “you get two people in a room its just that much easier to perform a miracle!!!!” [more laughing] I think that we were lucky to find each other because if I stand back far enough, y’know, there are a lot of Green on Red songs that I am proud of.

I think there are a lot of people who are pleased you wrote ’em. They came out to see you last year.

Well, not all Green on Red gigs on tour were big events.

Well, I remember seeing you guys at The Town & Country when your keyboard player was wearing gloves and sitting behind the drum kit…

Yeah, that would have been Brent Newman, y’know he didn’t want to blister up. Through no fault of our manager at the time, ’cos danny and I were so uninvolved in our career at that point, that when we did that tour we just asked our manager in England to provide a drummer, so he dug up this guy who played in this band James and it just didn’t work out, it just didn’t groove. He had some kinda medical history that…

Presented itself?

Yeah, that presented itself and that made it difficult for him to carry on and easier for us to fire him the night before the Town & Country show.

Shit. That would explain it then.

I think we called Jim Dickinson if he would play keyboard and Brent would move to drums, but his doctor, Dr Nick Papylonius, Elvis’s doctor, had told Jim that his touring days were over. So we had no keyboard player.

And that was released as a live album wasn’t it?

Unbeknown to us they recorded that gig and it became this live record, kinda t ypical of the way things operated within the Green on Red organisation back then, this pitiful gig became a live record.

I remember being in Wales and buying my trainspotter’s numbered edition cassette of that.

Yeah, well, come to think of it, I remember that Dan and I were in the studio with Glyn Johns, working nights and a cassette came in a DHL package. We had entered into this album with Glyn and we had no material.

That would have been This Time Around?

We were trying to choke the monkey, squeeze something out to go into the studio that night and record and this cassette arrived of this live record they wanted to release. Dan and I looked at each other and agreed we were really too tired to fight, so we never listened to it and threw it in the trash [laughter]…’Cos, well either (more laughter) way, it was a no-win situation because if we didn’t like it, they were gonna say “you’re crazy… it’s fucken great mon.”

Hold on, was that a Geordie accent this time…

Yeah…

Would you say tha…uhm… [laughing] …can you say that again in Scottish?

NO. Either way they would say that and we would have to just deal with it anyway, it really wasn’t worth investing any emotional energy into so we just threw it in the trash. I remember that specifically.

But I remember that gig because I went with my brother Jonny, it was edgy.

I think Rene Coman was one of the most undervalued bass players around, playing that upright bass, it really carried us. Glyn Johns on the other hand was unimpressed with Rene. I think Glyn was wrong about that, he wanted to use another bass player and to be honest when he suggested this during the making of the record I told Glyn verbatim “don’t you think we have bigger problems than that right now?” … I mean, we didn’t have any songs.

No songs for any bass player to play! On your upcoming tour, who is playing with you in The Mission Express?

Well, Todd Roper is gonna be playing drums, Todd used to be in a band called Cake, who I participated in for about 5 minutes.

They are so good, man, I remember seeing them do their cover of I Will Survive on TV some time ago now.

Oh yeah, they are a brilliant group, Todd is a founding member of that band and played on all their classic records so he plays drums, Kevin White, who has been my bass player for a while now, a great guy and a solid heavy dude, he will be there playing bass and, of course, Stephanie Finch, the woman who needs no introduction will be singing and playing and, who else we got?

Is Tom playing with you this time out?

Tom Heyman is taking a brief reprieve, he has a day job now and we are gonna have a guy named James Delprato, I think that’s his name, yeah, James Deprato, who Kevin found out on the outskirts of the outskirts of…

Outskirtsville?

Yeah, he came in with us and just played for 10 minutes and was just brilliant, so we got him and I have really high hopes for this line-up and I am looking forward to playing each and every town that will have us.

Tom said he may not make this tour with you.

You did a great piece on him, I learnt some things about him I never even knew and I have spent so much time with him on the road, he is pretty articulate.

Yeah, that was a good interview (read the Tom Heyman interview on brink.com) and was really fun to do, y’know he said in answer to one of the questions; “what goes through your mind when you are playing live?” and Tom said, “well, when I play solo I just try and remember the lyrics and stuff, when I play with Chuck I try and stay with the engine, play my parts with authority and try not to pull too many stoopid guitar faces.”

[laughing] That’s a great answer from Tom.

Chuck and I went on chewing the fat before retiring to the kitchen to split a diet coke. Later that evening we ate like kings with Kathleen, Dorian, Aubrey and Rebecca. The chicken was good, the sweet potatoes sweet and BB enjoyed herself by vigorously rubbing up against Dorian’s arm during the main course.

Chuck Prophet pulls no punches and only a select number of guitar faces on tour to push his new opus Soap and Water into your ears, hearts and CD collections. It starts in September over here.

Bob Frank and John Murry, who will be opening for Chuck on all dates, have their album World Without End out now on Evangeline/Decor Records. Bob Franks’ self-titled cult classic album, originally out in 1972 on the Vanguard label, is to be re-released to coincide with this tour.

Kathleen Haskard joins the tour party at The Luminaire dates. Chuck produced her second album Don’t Tell which is out now on Howlin’ Hound.

Maple syrup rules and Merch is truly King.

Chuck sat in the confessional box with great humour and a man-bag chock full of stories with Paul Hawkins for Hesterglock.

And yes indeedy, a woman’s voice can truly drug you…

Soap and Water was released on October 2nd on the Yep Roc label in North America and the rest of the world on September 16th on the Cooking Vinyl label.