Each week, we ask an artist to tell us about something they find inspiring from outside the world of music. Today it’s the turn of Californian semi-legend Chuck Prophet.
Lots of things have come and gone in my life. People… places. But, corny as it sound the music has always been there for me. What can I say about art without sounding totally pretentious? Here goes: I guess I try not to take myself too seriously. I try not to be terribly precious — but then again, I don’t think it’s ever hurt me to be obsessive and dogged at times. To have some inner drive to get things right. Even if that’s not really possible in the end. So there’s the rub.
And as for inspiration? Visit hunting lodges. Taxidermy is good. The more on the walls the better.
Okay, I made that up!
Well, inspiration is everywhere. It’s anywhere. Thinking bout the energy and weirdness that brought me to this city, I remember looking at some old posters…. I noticed how the old posters always said: ‘Minors welcome’. I guess as long as they served food the ABC would allow kids in the bars. I remember those days. The Berkeley Square would panic if someone ordered food. Then they’d send someone to the store and come back and throw a 7-11 burrito in the microwave. Every once in a while you’ve got to send someone out for a burrito, right?
[During the writing and recording of Temple Beautiful] I was listening mostly to records from, say, 1979. That period. Roky [Erickson], Roy Loney, S.V.T., Flamin’ Groovies. Early Petty, Dwight Twilly. Stuff like that. Guitar music. I moved up to San Francisco to go to college, majoring in student loans back in the day. I saw the Dead Kennedys at the Mabuhay Gardens and all the early Slash Records bands like Rank and File (with Alejandro Escovedo on guitar). Saw The Flamin Groovies at the Temple was another one of the first gigs I saw. Weird and then some. In fact, I was talking to Brad Jones my producer about that gig recently and he asked me, “Did they play Slow Death”. I’m like, hell I don’t know what they played but I can tell you what they were wearing!
Anyway, that’s the records. And we were making a San Francisco record. And so consciously or not I was listening to music from that period.
[Playing live] can work for you or against you. If I were a comedian I’d be the kind that keeps telling a joke just because I like it – or I’m convinced that it’s funny, regardless of whether or not the audience laughs. So, I don’t always test songs in front of an audience. And often times the first time I really perform a song for the first time is if I do a demo of it. But I’m always paying attention. And if I do a demo and suddenly the vibe in the room changes with the musicians or the coffee boy or whoever . . . . well, I’m hyper aware of that. For better or worse.
But a song is a song. And if it’s a good song you can beat the hell out of it and it’ll still stand up for itself. But you CAN get attached to an arrangement in a here-comes-the-strings kind of way. I guess you just have to unlearn the song to learn it again. I mean if your record is just a sound or something that’s totally all atmosphere, that could be a problem.
I can play a song a million ways. The problem is hearing the right one way. It’s all a process I suppose. I hate to hear people explain their process. There’s a lot – probably too much talking about writing and recording and mike pre’s and stuff. But what you really want is magic. And no one really knows where to dig for that. If they say they do. Even the best guys are 1/3 bullshit. But I’d say but for me. It’s something like (And don’t quote me as I might be quoting someone else here). The process is something like: You get an idea. You play. You play some more. Sing something. And the idea turns into another idea. Somehow the ideas start to connect. The music moves it along. You think of ways to start it; you think of ways to end it… and the rest is history or misery depending on how hard it is to get it to sound and sing and turn into a record. The rest is where to eat lunch.
I suppose I’m a little weary of getting attached to one version though. And then if I get in the studio and we’ve been playing it one way? Well the band can get a little stubborn. And you feel like you’re driving with the brakes on. And the fear for me is falling into a kind of ‘well it was working good live…people were diggin’ it’ trap. Songs are mercurial. You got to be on your feet. Stay nimble.
It was fairly easy going recording the new record. We tried to stay away from the world of digital. But we broke down here and there. I’m not a purist weirdo. I just like things to sound good. We got it to behave without much tears. I think the solos and the vocals and the whole thing was liver than ever. In some cases no overdubs at all – live. It was a small cast of characters in the studio. Brad slept on the studio floor. Stephie would drop by after hours and over-dub vocals or some keys here or there. We got hot. We weren’t complacent. The tape was rolling and we were desperate. Going straight to tape we had no choice. I mean, you can’t just go to lunch and expect the pro tools to magically fix your performance. So yeah, we were going for takes. And that’s as hard as the song wants it to be. Some more than others.
Temple Beautiful is a San Francisco record though and my favorite drinking hole [in that city] is the Li Po Cocktail Lounge - where the gin and tonics are mostly gin. If I ever start drinking again, that would be the spot.