A Foggy Notion

Dan Prothero's Fog City label releases Americana records that are neither country nor folk

Dan Prothero lives in the Lower Haight, produces dance music for his own label, and DJs around town occasionally. But you won't find any sequencers, drum machines, or synthesizers littering his home studio or the houses of the musicians he works with.

Prothero also travels all over the country making field recordings, searching out special sounds that occur only in certain places. Oh, you might think, he's one of those guys that gets off on taping cicadas chirping or the wind sighing through the pines. Wrong. There are no dish-shaped condenser microphones or safari hats strewn around his workspace either.

Prothero says he feels like he's making Americana, and he talks a lot about the mighty goal of authenticity. Aha! Now we've got him pinned down. He digs plucked steel string guitars and songs about yesteryear. Wrong again. Nothing on his Fog City label sounds anything like John Fahey, or reverberates with a country twang.

Dan Prothero: Sole Man
Akim Aginsky
Dan Prothero: Sole Man

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Clearing the Fog

Before Dan Prothero records a new band, he sends it a "required listening" compilation to make sure everyone's starting on the same page. The tape includes:

James Brown - "Can't Stand It '76"

Meters - "Just Kissed My Baby"

Headhunters - "God Make Me Funky"

Bill Withers - the whole Justments album

Fela Kuti - "Let's Start"

Lee Michaels - "Think I'll Go Back"

David Axelrod - "Holy Thursday"

Rotary Connection - "Song For Everyman"

Eddie Bo - "Check Your Bucket"

Lee "Scratch" Perry - almost anything from the 1970s

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An articulate, introspective expat from Cape Cod, Prothero clearly enjoys explaining the trajectory of Fog City and his intentions behind it. But whenever he gets close to words that demarcate sections in record stores -- i.e., funk, soul, jazz, or improv, all terms others use to describe Fog City's music -- he steers the conversation in another direction. Like many label owners, he simply says he puts out music he likes. The mystery behind what that indescribable essence is -- and how Prothero captures it -- is what makes the Fog City saga so intriguing.

"I tried recently to revise my mission statement as a label, and I had a hard time putting the word "funk' in there, so I didn't," he says, while sitting in front of his mixing console in his S.F studio/living space. "What I call it is s-o-l-e music -- essentially music you'll be likely to tap your foot to. And it's s-o-u-l music too. So my mission statement is that I'm trying to make sole music that's got strong musicianship and deep roots in culture, and hopefully has a groove, but even that's not that necessary."

According to the Fog City Web site (www.fogcityrecords.com), the label is about dance music played with "actual three-dimensional instruments," recorded live "with no overdubs or headphones." Prothero selects bands for a quality that the franchise-it-to-death strategies of American commerce seem bent on eradicating: regional character. Prothero is adamant that each act he records -- so far, Galactic (from New Orleans), Papa Mali (Austin), Stanton Moore (Galactic's drummer), Robert Walter's 20th Congress (San Diego), and MOFRO (Blackwater, Florida) -- reflects the locale from which it originates.

"When I say I'm making Americana, I mean it in the larger sense," he explains. "If you say Americana, people tend to think you're talking genre, like it's going to be country acoustic or something. I'm talking more about music that you'll understand better if you go to where it comes from, and you eat the food there and you meet the people. If you've been to Austin and tasted the barbecue, you'll probably have a better sense of what this Papa Mali record that I did is about. And if you go to Southern California and you get into some of that mid-century kitsch stuff -- the groovy surf music and the heavy-funk 45 collector vibe that's down there -- then you'll understand Robert Walter a lot better. So I feel I'm making recordings that are documents about regional culture as much as they're about music or a band. Hopefully, I'm making records about people."

Prothero is listed as producer for each record, but says that his role is closer to that of recordist. Before he makes an album with a new band, he packs up his studio equipment and spends a few weeks in the bandmates' hometown, meeting their parents and going to clubs with them. Only after he's gotten a handle on the players' lifestyles does he set up a makeshift studio and go about making what he hopes will be their "defining" album. He's there to transcribe the chemistry that occurs between the musicians as they improvise in their own living rooms, not to reprogram or process it, as producers often do in this age of computer-aided studios.

Surprisingly, Prothero actually got his start "making" music (the quotation marks are his own) in that technophile milieu, using a sampler to loop breakbeats and instrumental riffs for Ubiquity's Bulldog Breaks series, which was intended as a grab bag of samples for other beat manufacturers. Over time, his productions gradually "followed a linear path from being 100 percent samples to 100 percent sample free," he says. "I started buying recording equipment and gradually began meeting musicians and becoming more hip to how to put together recordings. I started feeling that, at least for me, maturity was going to be defined by "rolling my own' sounds instead of buying someone else's. Because it's not just the playing -- the playing is a huge part of it, but it's also the way to record a sound, to take an acoustic sound and make it compelling or bigger than it was, and make it perfect for a particular song. That was something I missed out on making just sample-based music, which is kind of like standing on the shoulders of giants."

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