Prophet Ear

Ex-Green on Red mainstay Chuck Prophet continues his solo metamorphosis with The Hurting Business

The first thing you notice talking to Chuck Prophet, naturally, is his voice. Not so much the way it sounds -- a raspy, unfettered bark -- but the attitude it projects. His is the tone of a polite cynic -- filled with gallows humor, self-deprecation, and a world-weary indifference. The kind that seems logical given a lifetime of cult success and junkie excess. The L.A.-born Prophet spent nearly a decade with '80s psychedelic cowboys turned roots avatars Green on Red, most of it riding shotgun with partner/singer Dan Stuart. By the time the group ground to a halt some nine years and 10 albums after it had begun, GOR had yielded a rabid underground following (especially in the U.K.), a vaunted critical legacy, and little in terms of tangible success.

Meanwhile, Prophet had become the victim of the clichéd rock 'n' roll existence, plunged into the depths of a herculean heroin habit that left him at death's door.

But by the mid-'90s, life found Prophet clean, married, and in the throes of a fruitful, if overlooked, solo career.

Terminally deadpan, the lanky guitarist brightens when discussing the genesis of his fifth and latest album, The Hurting Business -- a radical and triumphant departure from the journeyman country-rock of his past.

The idea for the record was hatched after Prophet returned home from a lengthy tour in support of 1997's Homemade Blood. In his mind, he had already conceived a loose-knit concept album which would take an aural shift away from the innately folkish charm and Exile-era Stones aphorisms that had marked his previous work.

"I had a sound in my head," recalls Prophet. "And I wanted to take a cinematic approach with it."

Prophet's primary influence in creating The Hurting Business wasn't musical, but rather inspired by Danish director Lars von Trier's "Dogme 95" film movement. Stylistically rooted in naturalism and realism, von Trier's pictures (most notably Breaking the Waves) focus on the vagaries of contemporary life, filmed without effects, using natural lighting and jarring movements provided by hand-held cameras.

"It's at the point where people are taking traditional songwriting or traditional structures and figuring out ways to twist and turn them sideways. That's always the fun part -- kicking the song around and wrestling with it. Seeing how much you can beat it up beyond recognition before it gets worse."

Much of Business is augmented by loops, scratching, and the occasional sample -- the bulk of them provided by prominent Bay Area turntablist DJ Rise. The album's cut-and-paste fusion teems with an overall quality that mimics the laid-back jazz cool and foreboding sonic textures of Portishead and the Sneaker Pimps.

While the move may smack of an aging roots-rocker's bid for postmodern relevancy, Prophet incorporates the subtle electronic touches so deftly, they seem less an intrusion or distraction than just another instrument at his disposal.

But beyond modern accouterments, the foundation of The Hurting Business is rooted in a bedrock of deep soul sounds -- black and white, North and South. Songs that draw on greasy R&B, from Muscle Shoals to Harlem, and a strain of late '60s country/pop that Prophet calls "housewife goth." "Bobbie Gentry, Tom T. Hall, Dusty Springfield, Jimmy Webb -- all the great story songs from that era."

Consequently, there is a heavy emphasis on craft. Half the album's 12 songs clock in at three minutes or less, a structure that Prophet regards as vital to the essence of his work.

"Rock 'n' roll has just gotten too precious. I hear records nowadays and the fades are like a minute. If you go back and listen to James Brown or Charles Wright, Betty Harris, Lee Dorsey, any of the stuff I was soaking in the couple years where I was working toward this record, they're like 2 1/2 minutes long -- that's it. And when they're over, all you want to do is put the needle back to the beginning. That's the kind of record I wanted to make."

Kicking off with the funky Ennio Morricone-influenced opener, "Rise" ("A change, a change is gonna come/ Those very words once left me numb"), Prophet fashions a sometimes dark, often funny narrative of modern life, seething with urban tension, and sprinkled with caustic insights and pop culture references.

The title track is an insistent Farfisa-maraca number that hints at Beck, were Mr. Hansen in the midst of a serious Sir Douglas Quintet jag. A he-did/she-did tale of fraught relationships and bruised romance ("You hurt me, baby, and I hurt you/ Sometimes we fake, sometimes we jab/ Sometimes we bounce right off the mat"), it takes its name from the unlikeliest of sources, a Mike Tyson quote.

"It was during a press conference after he bit off Evander Holyfield's ear. They asked him if he wanted to apologize, if he felt any remorse about what he did. His reaction was just belligerent and insolent: 'You understand, I'm in the hurting business, that's my job,'" says Prophet in sotto voce, imitating Tyson. "He thought he was doing his job in there. I liked that. I don't know how it relates to what boys and girls do to each other, but it ended up in my notebook."

Not surprisingly, the record does stumble upon some of Tom Waits' patented gruff 'n' clang, with the jagged blues and vocoder/megaphone intonations of "La Paloma" and the funky "Shore Patrol" (another vaguely Beck-ish sounding number).

At his best, Prophet seems capable of synthesizing his many influences -- musical and lyrical -- into a uniquely original vision. When he does, the results are the apogee of understated brilliance, as on the album's centerpiece, "Apology."

A languid mesh of warm bass and Mellotron, the song takes the universal human need for forgiveness and turns the concept on its ear with a litany of comical examples: "CBS from the MTV," "the shoulder from the road," "the Cancer from the Scorpio."

But the moment that best captures Prophet's ironic worldview comes after a verse in which he opines that "someday soon the Vatican is gonna call" -- an allusion to the recent papal apology for the Catholic Church's toleration of the Holocaust. Prophet follows that heady reference with a bridge that asks, "How can I swallow every little thing she says?/ She don't even know Elvis from El Vez."

Surprisingly, Prophet's signature guitar work is downplayed on The Hurting Business. The album boasts few traditional solos, as the instrument is more a character actor than a featured star in Prophet's wide-screen production. His twangy runs and subtle fills are still there, but they never rise above the songs, married instead to a bed of keyboard sounds, clipped percussion, and ghostly background vocals (provided by a studio cast that includes Prophet's wife, singer/ pianist Stephanie Finch; bassists Roly Salley and Andy Stoller; American Music Club's Tim Mooney; and longtime drummer Paul Revelli, among others). For Prophet -- a man who made his early reputation as a six-string hot shot -- the lack of over-the-top fretwork isn't a problem.

"My tendency is to turn the guitars down. I hear that sometimes with Lindsey Buckingham or J.J. Cale -- where it sounds like they're just a little bit underneath everything. I don't know why, that's just where my sensibilities lie. It's not that way onstage, though," he says.

Like a number of his fellow roots-rockers, Prophet has long faced an unusual career quandary; all but ignored in his home country, he's maintained a healthy following -- even minor star status -- overseas.

"I've got a love/hate relationship with Europe. I mean, I enjoy the success we have over there, but I'm not making this music thinking what someone in Paris would like. I'm making American music," he offers adamantly. "After a while, you start walking around thinking you're crazy because you're not connecting with more Americans. But I think we've sort of turned that around with this record. It's been really gratifying to go to shows and see a lot of people, especially when they speak English."

Prophet's popularity is flowering in many quarters, thanks in part to the cult surrounding Green on Red, one that continues to grow on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1995, China Records released a GOR best-of; in 1997, Germany's Normal issued Archives Vol. 1, a retrospective collecting demos, B-sides, and live tracks; in 1998, Edsel U.K. put out the group's last four albums as a pair of special-edition two-fers. And later this year, Restless Records will issue an expanded, remastered version of 1985's altcountry pioneering Gas, Food & Lodging.

Prophet (who hooked up with the originally Tucson-based Green on Red in L.A. in the mid-'80s) looks back at his time with the group fondly. Still, he has no regrets about GOR's 1992 demise.

"You can only drag your adolescence so far into your adulthood. Being in a band is like living with your parents. You gotta move out of the house before people start talking -- 'How old is he? Thirty-five years old and he's still living at home!'" he says, amid gales of laughter. "It's just natural to get out of it. Plus, nobody can break me up. I've tried. Believe me, I tried to break myself up and it's hard to do."

Prophet's immediate plans include the long-delayed completion of the debut album from Go-Go Market, a collaboration with wife Finch that he describes as "fulfilling a Brill Building jones."

A follow-up to Business is also in its early stages. Instead of again taking the redacted studio route, Prophet plans to write and record a more ornate and traditional album, one that will feature fleshed-out arrangements, horns, and a string section.

It's hard not to marvel at Prophet's versatility and output. It seems especially remarkable for a man once regarded as the epitome of wasted, junkie cool. The same Chuck Prophet who once denounced "rehab" as artistic immolation on the pages of Melody Maker.

"In a lot of ways I feel like I'm crazier now than I was back then -- I'm just not on drugs anymore," he says, laughing. "I'm off my medication and I feel like I'm much more dangerous now. I really do."

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