Interview: Chuck Prophet in San Francisco on fires and Dan Penn

Chuck Prophet has had a long and fruitful career as a singer-songwriter, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, beginning with the groundbreaking Green On Red in the ‘80s before launching a successful solo career that has delivered a new album every two or three years. These albums have been remarkably consistent, building to a very impressive body of work. He also has a long list of collaborations, working with many of the key artists in roots music. Recent media coverage for his latest album, ‘The Land That Time Forgot’ on Yep Roc Records, suggested he had left his San Francisco home, a rumour that Chuck quickly trashed. Martin Johnson caught up with Chuck at home to discuss the new album together with the impact of the recent San Francisco fires and working with his own personal heroes, Jim Dickinson and Dan Penn.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?
Like most people, I know some who have had COVID but my family is fine.

Where are you now? I read in the press you have moved to New York or something. Have you really left San Francisco?
I’m in San Francisco. There have been confusing reports because I recorded the new album in New York, that’s all.

What impact are the fires having?
People can’t seem to get their heads around what we are doing to this planet. Each year when the fires get closer and closer people are just shocked. I think it is disgraceful, really disgraceful.

While not nostalgic,’ The Land That Time Forgot’ seems to be looking back. What was in your mind.?
After it was done, I looked back and squinted, it was the best of times and the worst of times.

You have released solo albums of remarkably consistent quality, and each album has its own character. 15 albums in, are you still enjoying your career and how do you keep going?
That is a very good question,  I’ve asked that of myself many times. I would say every record has somehow started with an inspirational virus you know, it might be just one, two or three songs that might take me in a direction I haven’t been in before. That is enough to get me excited, and when I get excited I wake up every morning looking forward to writing or trying to get the songs to stick to the tape or whatever it takes to see it through. That is where the inspiration comes from, you know. Every time I finish a record, I am always convinced it will be the last one.

Until the next one.
I am as baffled by the process as anyone, honestly, I am. You like to think that you learn things and that you get better at the craft, but there is that X factor, that sort of magical thing that I don’t understand. I don’t know where it comes from, I don’t know how to conjure it up at will. The Gods need to smile down on you. You need luck, you need faith, you need to think it may not sound like much right now but once we get Stephanie Finch on there it is going to go WOW.

What is it like working with your wife, Stephanie Finch? She makes her presence felt on the new album and seems to be a key member of your band.
We have been through a lot together, a lot of miles, a lot of gigs a lot of tears. There were times when maybe she wasn’t as keen on me as other times, but I have always thought there is something magical when our voices join. I have a voice, she has a voice and when they join I think we have a third voice. When we are lucky enough, things just fall into place, we get excited by it too. We never really forced it, she did say something to me early on in the process: “I think you have some strong songs here, I’m not trying to tell anyone what to do but are you making one of those kinds of Rockpile records”. That gave me a little pause, and some of these songs are so self-contained and have a lot of acoustic guitar and just seem to lend themselves to that kind of thing. She became another character on the record, she is my Mia Farrow.

Stephanie had a solo album out about 10 years ago, is she happy to support you in your career?
I think she would probably like to make more records, everyone moves at their own tempo, and boy, we keep up the pace. We are either going on tour, or we have just got off tour and trying to get over being on tour, or we are getting ready to go back out on tour. Between that and the records, I don’t know where the time goes. When I do a newsletter and I cut and paste those tour dates I’m kind of afraid to look at them. It is frightening, I just try and stay in the moment.

Is there any significance in your new album’s title ‘The Land That Time Forgot’?
It was embedded in the song ‘High On Johnny Thunders’, and I don’t know, it just seemed to somehow assert itself, it just floated to the top, it was like once the title was married to the Jim Goldberg photograph it was perfect. I can’t explain why, it just is.

A selfish question from me. Your album with Jim Dickinson ‘A 100 Footprints In The Sand’ may not be the best record ever recorded but it is one of my own personal favourites. What was it like working with the late great Jim Dickinson?
Oh my God. Jim was a real guru to us in Green On Red. He was really the right guy, he understood Danny and he was the one who once said there was a decorum of sadness around Danny because sometimes Dan Stuart thought the whole thing was a sham, but it wasn’t, it really wasn’t. Jim believed in us and in what we were doing and he gave us belief more than anything. Later, I got to know Jim personally and I worked with him on other records. Dan Stuart once said even when he wasn’t around when we were in the studio he was with us, he is still producing. I guess the Latin word is in-absentia.

Another legendary musician you have worked with, Dan Penn, is releasing a new album soon. Will you be giving it a spin?
Dan is absolutely one of my heroes. Just having the opportunity to record with Dan in his basement and write songs was just a lot of fun for me. Everything he does is interesting. I was just listening to a record the other day called ‘Moments From This Theatre’ which was recorded live in Dublin, Ireland I think, when Dan and Spooner (Oldham) were out there with Nick Lowe. It has just some incredible performances, ‘Dark End Of The Street’, ‘I’m Your Puppet’, ‘You Left The Water Runnin’’, I mean I am not really like a spiritual person but there is something that is just a little closer to God when I hear that song.

Dan Penn is an amazing songwriter and singer but he has issued very few solo records in the last 50 years. What did you learn from him?
He came from a time when making records was not like today’s DIY era. He really discovered that later in life and he has been having a lot of fun with it. I mean, the thing about Dan Penn that people may not know,  is that not only is he a great songwriter and great producer but he is also a great engineer. If you listen to ‘I’m Your Puppet’ by James and Bobby Purify, boy when those drums come in, a kick drum, and that snare is just there and spanking. That is just Dan you know, that is him engineering such a fantastic sounding record. Dan is also the type of guy who likes taking apart motor-cycles and cars, he loves to weld and engineer them. He is not your typical muso.

You have been on New West Records, you are now on Yep Roc. These two labels have dominated the Americana genre, do you recognise americana as a genre and are you happy to be included in it?
I don’t mind that people wrap music in a bow and put it in a box, it is not for me to complain. I think if Led Zeppelin came out today they would be an americana act. Pop music has to move beyond guitar bass and drums, I’m OK with that. I still hear some pop music that I like, yeah, I suppose I am an americana act. I suppose I am still trying to make, in my own way, still reaching to make that classic record. Maybe it will make sense for all the stupid shit I have done.

What would your definition be of a Chuck Prophet classic record?
I don’t know, maybe a record that hits you the first time you hear it, and keeps hitting you each time you hear it. I don’t know what that is about Neil Young’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’, I don’t know what it is about Big Star’s ‘Sister Lovers’, I don’t know what it is about ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ by Bob Dylan. I don’t know what makes those records so great, it is a mystery to me, but every time I return to them they reveal more, you know.

As far as your songwriting goes Chuck, do you write all the time, or do you just write for a new album or do you only write when the mood takes you?
I don’t know, I don’t know. Every time I start a new record I am just as desperate as I always am. I just hope I get lucky you know.

No touring, new album to fund and promote. How has the business side of things been?
I have never believed anyone owes me anything. I have been very lucky, travelled the world, met all sorts of people, played everywhere with my friends, you know. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, I’m not so much worried about musicians so much as the whole musical eco-system. The clubs, the people they employ like the bar-tenders, the janitors, the cleaning staff, the sound man, the doorman, booking agents and all the people that make it all possible. If they don’t get help,  some big corporations will take over. I don’t want to come to the UK and see Starbucks in place of every great venue. Starbucks has enough money to carry them through, they have  Saudi Arabian investors. I don’t think the Brudenell family in Leeds has anything like that. We have to look out for each other, we have to make sure it works for everybody, not just musicians.

I’m about 20 miles up the coast from Liverpool, and it has been on the local news that the Cavern Club is in serious trouble. Obviously, with a brand like that, you have to assume money will be found, but it does show the scale of the problem. Are you still coming to the UK in February?
I love the UK. The audiences in the UK are the best in the world. Going out to the club is so ingrained in your culture, and I have been playing there so long, that people just get their pint of beer and belly up to the front to stand on that sticky black floor, then the house music goes down and the band comes on they are ready. If they don’t like what you are doing they let you know. I have been called a fat bastard, which I think is pretty off the bar, but who cares. I have loved every minute of it, even when it sucked.

At Americana UK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share the top 3  currently on your playlist?
I like ‘Love Is Strange’ by Mickey and Sylvia, I like Gray when he sings, I been listening to ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’ lately, particularly ‘My Back Pages’.

That is going back a bit, isn’t it?
I guess so, but it is all going back though.

What do you think of Dylan’s latest?
It is fantastic. It arrives like a letter from an old friend.

Finally, is there anything else you want to say to your UK fans?
No, I’m cool. I look forward to seeing you guys and thanks for all the support over the years, I don’t take it lightly.

‘The Land That Time Forgot’ is available now on Yep Roc Records and the Americana-UK review can be found here.

About Martin Johnson 378 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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[…] Chuck Prophet and Mission Express have announced their first UK tour since 2017, which includes eleven dates kicking off at London’s The Garage in late May. The tour promotes their most recent album, ‘The Land That Time Forgot’, which came out on Yep Roc in 2020. This, his fourteenth album, comes after beating cancer and getting through the subsequent pandemic. The album was produced by Grammy-winning Matt Winegar and recorded in Old Soul Studios in upstate New York after being priced out of his hometown of San Francisco. ‘The Land That Time Forgot‘ includes singles’ Marathon‘ and ‘Nixonland‘, and ‘Best Shirt on’. Of the album, Prophet says, “just as much a 21st-century exorcism as it is Americana“. Martin Johnson had the privilege to catch up with him last year; you can read that interview here. […]