As far as guitar-toting singer/songwriters go, Chuck Prophet is the real deal. A card-carrying Californian, Prophet makes music that’s both reflexive and outward-facing. He offers big, bold moments of celebration, but he can also go places dark and eerily insular when he wants to. Most importantly, though, Prophet’s songs toe the fine line that separates the private musicians from the communal ones. In the grand pop-music lexicon, I like to think he sits somewhere between Springsteen and the The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle.
This Saturday, June 28, Prophet returns to the Lobero Theatre as part of Sings Like Hell to perform his 2012 LP, Temple Beautiful, in its entirety with a string section to accompany him. I recently caught up with Prophet via email to discuss songwriting practices and gigging at SFO.
Did you always know you wanted to be a musician? I suppose. Sure I did, but I didn’t really think of it as a vocation. I didn’t know anyone who made a living playing music or anything. I just wanted to climb inside the records I was listening to more than anything. And later, I was always in bands but didn’t see it as a career or anything. It just didn’t seem attainable. It was really punk rock that erased the line between the stage and the audience. And punk rock was exploding all around me when I was growing up. So yeah, I got lucky. I had my kite up, and the wind changed direction. I really do think I was lucky in that respect. But honestly, I was brought up on records. Listening to records. I come from a conservative, non-musical family. I begged for guitar lessons and got golf lessons instead. But, growing up in Orange County — it was the kind of place where if you shook a tree, five guitar players would fall out. So, music was everywhere. And I soaked it up.
Growing up, what do you think had the biggest artistic impact on you? All roads lead to Dylan I suppose; beyond that, if I mention one influence I’d have to leave out a hundred. The other day I was telling my wife, Stephanie, about seeing Iggy Pop on the Dinah Shore show with my mom. She was ironing, and there he was writhing around with his shirt off on daytime TV. It was awe-inspiring. I didn’t think a life like that was possible, but I did think to myself, “Hmmmm … I want to hang out with people like that when I grow up.”
Who are some of the musicians who inspire you to make songs? Well, there’s The Clash for showing what is possible. Especially the LP London Calling, where they embraced so many kinds of music. All kinds of roots music. I like the wiry guitar players, like JJ Cale, Richard Thompson, and maybe biggest of them all, Alex Chilton. Alex was cool. And he made cool records. What is really amazing is the ease at which he did his thing. You could say the same about Dylan, I suppose. But yeah, Alex Chilton — he’s a hero. I’ve had many heroes over the years, but Alex has remained at the top. He always will. He’s done his time, but his time has never been up. Through The Box Tops, Big Star, and on to the days of his solo work, Alex is a role model for doing it your way. Springsteen, too, I guess. As a writer, Bruce has always been a voice for all the people around him. Hearing Darkness on the Edge of Town really messed my head up. He’s always kept his eye on the ball — where are his characters going? Where are they running to? What are they gonna do when they get there? He cares deeply about that stuff.
Your last two albums have been, it seems, pretty instinctually inspired by places. Are thematic parameters something you think about setting for yourself when you’re writing? Totally. We’ll be playing the entire Temple Beautiful LP with strings at the [Lobero] show. All the songs on that LP relate to the San Francisco experience. And the music is in there, too. There are the people — the characters and the music — and there is the history that flows through all of us here. Klipschutz [poet/songwriter Kurt Lipschutz] and I have written many songs over the years, but with that record — when we started to tap into the history, the weirdness, the energy and spontaneity that brings us all here in the first place, it started flowing. Here we are a couple years later, and I still love singing the songs.
Similarly, do you think having those parameters or themes to work with helps facilitate the writing process? If I am lucky enough to tap into a vein and go with it, that’s a gift. Getting up in the morning excited about what you’re doing is a gift. I don’t love to hear myself talking about songwriting. To hear people explaining it kind of weirds me out. But if I had to explain it, it’s something like this: You get a riff or an idea, and you lose yourself in it. Mess around with it. Play it to death. Mess around with it some more. Sing something. Listen to it all bounce off the walls. And if, like honking a horn in a tunnel, you like what you hear coming back at you, keep doing it. Maybe the idea might morph into another idea and collide in the air with some other thing or another. Ideas start to connect. The music pushes it along. Don’t quote me on this because I’m probably already quoting somebody else. That’s the process. It doesn’t mean the song will be good or anything. But that’s a process. There are many ways to the waterfall.
Do you have a writing routine? Or a space/place that you tend to retreat to work on music? I have an office. It’s really just an overpriced shoebox in the SoMa area of San Francisco. I go there and stare out the window.
What’s been your proudest moment as a musician (thus far)? I’m into the shared experience. And there have been many. I think our first British tour was out of control. We didn’t know what we were doing and just plowed through with no days off. Sweaty pub gigs. We got better every night. I look back on those days fondly. But, you always romanticize the ridiculous gigs. Some things are only romantic in retrospect. That’s how it is given enough time. A couple years back, we had a recurring gig at the SFO airport. Yep. Performing at SFO? You learn that it’s a service industry. It’s not quite showbiz. My mother somehow caught wind of it, or overheard me talking about it, and over Thanksgiving dinner, she’s like, “Are you still working out at the airport?” I’m like, “Mom! Stop saying that! I don’t work at the airport!!”
You recently reposted an interview titled “What I know now I wish I knew when I was getting started in the music business.” Given the opportunity to bestow some wisdom on a young musician today, what’s the one piece of advice that you’d share? Just do it. Do something creative every day. This might sound kind of vague or new age or whatever, but the best advice I can give is to listen to that voice from within. I don’t know, I guess that’s what the Quakers do, and they won the Nobel Peace Prize. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not. Follow your heart. Nobody knows anything. And even the best ones — your heroes included — are full of BS one-third of the time.
What does the rest of 2014 look like? Is there a new album in the works? New record. September 23 on Yep Roc. It’s called Night Surfer. It’s much of the same cast of characters from the last album. Brad Jones is producing again. Paul Kolderie, who worked on a few Radiohead albums, is helping us to lift up the sonics. Peter Buck came in to play some great 12-string and bring some jangle to it. It’s kind of a dystopian-themed record. Basically, just looking around at the world and trying to imagine where it’s going to be 20 or 30 years from now.
Chuck Prophet performs Temple Beautiful at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Saturday, June 28, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for tickets and info.