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CHUCK PROPHET

Factor Eight
Hearsay #15 / 1997 / Interview with Pete

chuckp_jeremyharris
"it's maddeningly elusive and mercurial trying to capture a definitive performance"
 

In which Pete chats with CHUCK PROPHET about his new album Homemade Blood, movies, life and y'know, stuff. Here sandwiched between the BBC World Service and Q Magazine (temporally, that is) is that conversation in full ...bar the excision of the bits Neil thought overly muso-ey (the usual ramblings about which amplifiers travel best, etc.), bitching about record companies (the kind of stuff that could get Hearsay into trouble), and a lot of bemused umming and erring on both our parts, partly down to questions of the calibre: "Would you rather be wiretapped by your government or stalked by your own fanbase?" Hearsay doesn't actually ask him this, but Chuck ultimately concludes that if one has to be stalked by somebody, Pete "doesn't look too scary"...

'there's no such thing as bad questions, only unimaginative answers...' CP

HEARSAY: The new record has a real kick-start, both in the lyric and in the digital mastering, which makes it twice as loud as most other records, much like Cracker's fab Golden Age album...
CHUCK PROPHET: I'm glad to hear that. We paid a lot of money to have those guys Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie run it through that compressor. They did Hole and Radiohead. I turned 'em down for Feast of Hearts! I went out there and just thought they was a bunch of kids. But I was wrong, and I wasn't ready to make that kind of record. I like the Cracker record a lot. David Lowery's a fantastic songwriter – just totally incredible. He scares me. There's not too many guys my age who scare me. He's a nut, but great. He's just really inventive, and by holding him up to all the other great songwriters, everything that falls under that column, Lowery's got it.

Does this explain you using the Cracker rhythm section on Feast Of Hearts? Greg Leisz seems to be a pretty busy session player these days too...
Well, the drummer, Michael Urbana, lived about five doors down from me. He played on some demos for me for free, just for kicks and when it came time to make the record we were like, 'let's get that guy' and he goes, 'can I bring my friend Davey?' Sure! I brought Greg along because he's practically one of the family. I thought I discovered him; he wasn't too busy when I met him!

Is this album a reaction against the last one? Feast Of Hearts was quite 'produced' whereas Homemade Blood is fast and loose and dirty!
Oh yeah, I just figured with the last one I spent way too much time in the control room. I thought it was time to give some of the control back to the songs. As much as Steve Berlin is a really great record producer in his own right, I just found him ultimately to be a meddler and I didn't know if he knew where he was going with a lot of things. I felt like there was a lot of meddling for med­dling's sake and I think that if you're fishing around you're gonna find a lot of things that are gonna give you a small reward. The bigger rewards are the things that happen on the floor between the players and I know that if you just roll the tape you can capture some kinda document but I wanted to get something beyond that, I wanted to get some kinda spirit.

Is it fair to say that you like to do your meddling straight to tape?
There's some truth to that. I'm not against the process: all the little things do add up to the big things. I was just reacting to making that kind of record. I might change my mind next time around. It was very simple, if you listen to the song it'll tell you what its needs are; the song says, 'hey, y'know, I hear a little pedal steel', and someone says, 'so do I' so we get us some pedal steel. It's not that difficult. I also didn't want to make a Rolodex record where they just bring in people 'cause of their names. I wanted to make a record with a group of personalities, like a play, with five people interacting. The records that I really like, like Dusty In Memphis and Tonight's The Night, if you listen to a record like that you feel like you're somehow involved. I can only aspire to make records like that, but at least that's what I was using as inspiration.

Does the ambience of the Studio (Toast,
1340 Mission Street, San Francisco) rub off on the record?
Well, yeah it was a big room but it wasn't too big – that's the way things get diffused. I like the sound of all the music getting squished together so it's ready to explode, like Howlin' Wolf records... a record like Some Girls sounds big but it doesn't sound open.

You've recorded (among other places) at Ardent [Green On Red's Here Come The Snakes], and at Tom Mallon's Bait'n'Tackle (the basement of a fishing shop?!)... do different places produce a different vibe?
Well, music's kind of geography; in Memphis the music hangs heavier in the air, you tend to get those greasier tempos. I think that in San Francisco there's a certain amount of music in the air. I know that sounds flowery an' everything but I do believe that it's true. Bait'n'Tackle, actually, is just Tom Mallon's studio – he did the early American Music Club records and played as a member of the band. There's one in every town–there's one in Leeds and one in Birmingham where David Kusworth goes – that kind of place, but I figured to just call it 'Tom Mallon's' was kinda dull so I came up with Tom Mallon's Bait'n'Tackle'. And it worked!

Someone, I can't remember who, said that the Stones were pornographic and the Kinks were geographic...
Yeah, I think the reason people can't cover Stones tunes very well is 'cause it was all about feel; you can cover Beatles songs and you hear 'em in elevators but... I love the Kinks; I think Ray Davies is a genius writer–I liken him to American writers like Raymond Carver, who had a lot of his short stories massacred in that movie Short Cuts. I see Mike Leigh as an extension of the Ray Davies eye for detail and for taking things that are plain but telling stories that are real: the temptation is to make things more Gothic or to blow them up. But Kinks songs... he sang and he'd talk like the characters you'd hear. I felt like I got to know more about England and about him through the songs.

Carver's landscape of K-marts and Dairy Queens seemed to be there on Joe Henry's recent albums too...
Well, the temptation is to take something urban and romanticise it or take it out to a rural setting to give people some image of America as Marlboro Country, but it's not that. Where I came from was a real nowhere place, built in the 60s outside of LA. All that mundane shit, those driveways and station wagons... that's what drove me away. But when I went back there, I started bumping into girls and found all sorts of neat things I could put into the songs–you're always looking for people to shoehorn into them. And also I had gotten clean–when I stopped doing drugs and drinking, I went back home and could just kinda smell it it all came alive for me. I got a jump-start on writing the record from there.

The suburbs loom large...
There's something creepy out there!

...but Feast of Hearts is a far more city-based record...
Yeah, definitely.
Hungry Town smells like 16th Street, walking past all the Tacoritos and the junkies, going down to Mission Street to the Mission-16th. I can see all the songs: Firetrap is about a real bar that had been renovated into a sports bar, at the time that was a horrible experience for us and it seemed to mean so much. You're always looking to tap into a new vein and that's what I did with this record. Somehow it's more real or just as real but in a place that hadn't been strip-mined as much.

What are you strung-out on right now if not alcohol or Ritalin?
There's a lot of people from my generation that were given drugs to calm them down, they were experimenting with a lot of stuff like that and they thought it was really healthy, one of those great discoveries. I took a couple of long drives in California and came up with that stuff, and much as I'm a fan of someone like Nick Cave, I knew I could've easily shoehorned some Gothic, Biblical imagery in there and succeeded with the same things but I wasn't gonna connect with people like myself. That line ['strung out on Ritalin and color TV'] is kinda embarrass­ing, as the best lines usually are. There's stuff on this record that's fuckin' embarrassing! Some of the drum-machine stuff was a total accident and we were supposed to replace it, and some of the vocals are just hideous...

Alcohol to me wasn't really that inspirational; inspiration for me is when I do what I do and I'm actually enjoying it at the same time. That's kinda like a perk. Drinking was a way to keep the inspiration turned on or to turn it off. I'm not really in a hurry to find anything to replace that–I think ultimately it slowed me down. I found myself pole-vaulting over mouse turds, I'd be moving around in the dark just to try and find something. If I was drinking, this record would've taken more than ten days, definitely...

Do you see the songs as a different entity live?
Well, I don't know about you but my experience of making records is that it's very rare that I get a definitive performance on an album. When I say that to my friends, they say, 'well, of course! Records are always the definitive performance. A Day In The Life - is there a better version of that somewhere?' But what I mean to say is that it's maddeningly elusive and mercurial trying to capture that and you can beat it up until your fingers bleed and there's really no point in it. So luckily enough I can always go out on the road with the songs and kick 'em around every night.

Do you enjoy being your own boss? Are you?
Not all the time. Everything I do is collaborative... You want people to bring love to it, you want them to bring something extra than just doing a job with you, so you gotta give 'em something to run with and bounce stuff off, and when they give something back to you that's beyond your wildest dreams... This role of the singer-songwriter was kind of imposed on me because I was the source, it was like, 'oh what's Chuck gonna come up with?' The concept of a band was too strange to me, I already was in a band and that broke up, and if I was gonna be in another band that'd probably break up in six months, it seemed like it was time to just get out of the house and do it. I end up doing a lot of co-writing and a lot of my real sustaining friendships are through music.

How does it work, co-writing?
Sometimes I write alone, sometimes I get to the point where something's unfinished and I feel like I wanna drag somebody in the room with me. Sometimes I'll be jamming with the band and they might do something that suggests something and I'll run with it. I'm always looking for something. I write a lot with a friend of mine, Kurt. He's not as musical as I am but he brings other things to it, like structure, and he's got a whole literary background and he's soaked up a-whole-nother world. We're able to sit together in a room, take an idea and wrestle it to the ground. He's really good with words and he's great at editing words, and he's a sounding-board. In Credit where there's that line 'is that a birth-mark or a scar?'–that was one of his.

Did your collaboration with Jules Shear come through your mutual management?
Yeah, he's a genius, he's astonishing. He plays that upside-down, open tuned guitar with his thumb and he can pull a melody out of anything: it's astonishing to watch him do it time and time again. He rocks really hard and he's a great guitar player and he's just got a lot of experience in putting things together, he makes it look really effortless. He's one of the greatest people I've ever had the honour of working with.

Was it fun playing the Calvin Russell session?
Yeah, it was great working with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. I had to get used to them referring to Otis as if he was in the next room. Calvin had this chord in the song and I said, 'this is a bit odd–am I hearing this right?' and the bass player would say, 'yeah, it's right–Otis always used to use that chord!'

Are there other musicians you still aspire to work with?
I'm still waiting to get the call from Dylan. It's kinda cosmic the way people find each other and that's kinda nice. Everybody's kinda connected... like the 'Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon': 'Alex Chilton-Jim Dickinson-Ry Cooder-Mark Ettel-Gun Club-Green On Red-Jim Dickinson-Muscle Shoals-Calvin Russell-Townes Van Zandt-Chuck Prophet.' It's fun to think that there's a community, and rock'n'roll is kind of a secret language anyway. When I was working with the guys from Muscle Shoals, they had different words for things... 'We'll put a little button on it', or, 'we'll put a mark there'. Dickinson came outta the control room one time and said, 'we'll do eight bars and we'll have to talk in terms of GBUs', and we're all like, 'well what's a GBU?', and he goes, it's a garage band unit.' So everybody's got their own way of processing the information.

Do you write from the unconscious?
No. Well, everybody does but I just don't celebrate it, I don't wake up in the middle of the night and write my dreams down. Just cause it came to me in a dream doesn't mean it's gonna be any better or add any deeper meaning to it. Dreams are just a way of shedding useless informa­tion that you shouldn't be thinking about anyway. That's why you have nightmares–to get your fears out of your system. It's like a computer database–shedding all that stuff. That's my theory. I think I read it somewhere.

'The money-sniffing dogs are barking up a child's skirt.' That's a great line...
That was just a bunch of post-apocalyptic shit all tied together. I think 'the best lack all conviction, the worst get off scot-free' is like Yeats or something! I was sort of wondering who was going to notice that. Illuminati, One-World Domination conspiracy theory... I think that stuff's kinda fun. I'm not a real conspiracy buff.

You seem to get kind of gritty like Robert Frost, and laid-back like Wallace Stevens. Is poetry an influence?
Well, WH Auden and guys like that–they were clear: they tried to get closer to the truth and that brought them closer to God somehow. It's very easy to tie a bunch of lines and non-sequiturs together and pass it off as poetry, flex your literary muscles. But at the end of the day, one guy's gonna communicate more than the next and as a writer those are the things you're trying to recognise, 'where am I going with this?' Just because it sounds good that's not really enough. People applaud Dylan for this kind of psychedelic stream-of-consciousness but show me where! To me they all hold together, even songs on The Basement Tapes. When I hear Million-Dollar Bash I can picture him in some penthouse in
New York feeling like an outsider–'everybody gonna be there!'--to me it just feels social, it all seems to be about something. That's the problem I have with the new Beck record: on Mellow Gold I thought that song Soul Sucking Jerk was such a great minimum wage anthem for anyone who's ever worked fast food or had a shitty job, they can identify with that. But the new record is still a bit scattered and not as in focus for my taste.

I first heard Million-Dollar Bash via Fairport Convention. Is Richard Thompson an inspiration?
Yeah, Fairport kind of picked up on that cause it was on a bootleg, The Whitmark Demos. Richard knows a thing or two about writing songs. It just all kinda made sense to me, right off the bat. A friend of mine many years ago made me this worn-out cassette and it stayed with me, literally in my pocket, full of tobacco and stuff: if you shook it... That guitar tone was kinda brittle and it went from the Chuck Berry lick straight into these weird bagpipe things. It was familiar to me but in the same way it was completely other-worldly... And his songs from the git-go, like The Angels Took My Racehorse... to Devonside, there were just so many great songs that I kept going back to. Maybe he's gotten worse, maybe that's just something that happens, but I wouldn't write him off. I miss him playing with his British mates, I don't need to hear him playing with Keltner. That's where it all fell apart, the records didn't have as much mystery later as songs like I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight with the concertinas and there's weird shit! That spirit seems to be gone from his records now. The guitar breaks used to integrated into the songs and now they're just kind of obligatory.

You share an abiding love of feedback...
A lot of that's just luck, y'know. You take an Abstract Expressionist approach where you encourage things to just happen. You turn up certain mistakes and turn down others, it's just all in how you wanna paint the picture. That's really the record making process, it takes a lot of strength sometimes to throw away some of the good stuff and make the record stronger, even when it doesn't seem to make any sense.

Does your obvious interest in film come through in your writing?
Well, I like songs that have things in 'em. That's one thing
I notice about the writers I like, Hank Williams and Dylan and Hayden and Beck...there's a lot of concrete stuff and it's the chairs and the furniture that you put in the room that makes the songs interesting and I hear other songs that are like 'well the sky is blue and I was out late and, boy I dreamt that I...' and I'm like, What? What? There's no storytelling, there's nothing to grab onto. If too many things go by and it's all so elusive and vague, a couple of flags'll go up for me: 'back up here, where y'all going with this?', and hopefully I'd get rid of those. The best thing is when it all comes together and the music supports it and sometimes you don't even need that many words. Roy Orbison records are great proof of that, or Dylan... Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, Joker Man, Desolation Row are maybe great songs but people will remember songs like Knocking On Heaven's Door.

I have all kinds of fantasies about writing for television, but that's all they are. It's really too late for me to turn back. But there are other things in the world that are important besides rock 'n' roll. So much of the mystery of making records has been taken out of it for me, film's one of the last places I can get lost ...legally. I've worked in film a little bit, I've done a little bit of quote /unquote "acting", but to this day I don't see the cuts, I'm under the spell.

Who would play you in the TV movie of the Green on Red story?
Gary Busey or somebody like that. I like Gary Busey in A Star Is Born where he plays the manager. Great in Carrie and Straight Time. I couldn't believe that Time Magazine and all these literary magazines were applauding Springsteen's last record–what does he know about the
Central Valley? I grew up down there. He picks up a couple of Steinbeck novels and goes to the video store and rents a copy of Straight Time and writes a song called Straight Time... you know, I just didn't get the sense that he was digging very deep. Straight Time was directed by the same director who did Georgia which several of my friends are in, with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Whinningham. Mare's the sister of my best friend, Patrick, who wrote that song Scarecrow on my first record - he had a couple of great songs in him. We were all playing together, so when I made Brother Aldo I cut that because it was part of the set.

Do you derive inspiration from travelling?
It's my job to pay attention to details. I get inspiration
from movies and books and TV and talking to people and travelling, whatever. The inspiration just makes it fun. It's not like I read a book and go off and write a song about it, like Warren Zevon, or go out and rent a video like Springsteen who'll rent Badlands and then: 'she's sitting on her front lawn, twirling her baton.'

Does it free up my state of mind?
Oh, yeah, cause when you're on a plane there's a lack of oxygen, you start to space out, and I'm also alone when I'm on planes, so I do a lot of my best thinkin'. You think about all the things you're gonna do when you get home.

New Year's Day is a bit of a Carpe Diem, isn't it?
Carpe Diem, buddy boy! Seize the day. I think that's fair to say... kinda neat. I used to think that rock'n'roll was a place for me to box in the dark with all my demons, but there's so many maudlin morose posers out there who came from very well-to-do middle class backgrounds. I started embracing all that was good about my life and I figured that the only thing that goes right for me is playing and singing, the rest of it's kind of a struggle. To get it outta my system, I figured that I could have a lot of fun playing rock'n'roll, and that for me has gotten to be really important.

Have you thought about how you'd like to die?
Naw, I wanna put that off for a while. I've come close to dying a few times, I've ODed about four times, and I fell through a two-storey window... I just didn't think about it, I thought I was immortal. After I turned 30 I thought, jeez, I wanna hang around, life's too precious. It's easy to take a kid and send him off to war, it's easy for a kid to get in a car after eight pints, you get older and a little wiser and you start to connect these things... you're not so 'young'n'dumb'n'full of cum'. Anyway, it'd hurt so many people if I disappeared now. I don't have a real defined image of where we're going... I'll let you know though!

 
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