Chuck Prophet might not have known what a nerve he would hit with his most recent album, 2012's Temple Beautiful. It was an intimate-yet-raucous love letter to San Francisco in record form, and one that garnered critical praise from everyone from the Washington Post to NPR to the BBC. But in a city going through serious growing pains, odes to Willie Mays and Halloween in the Castro (the album's title itself is a reference to a long-defunct punk club on Geary) took on another level of meaning to longtime S.F. residents.
Prophet and his band the Mission Express have been touring the U.S. and Europe on-and-off since then. Back home in the city this week, he was gearing up for two special appearances: On Sunday, Nov. 24, the band will be joined by an eight-piece string section to perform Temple Beautiful straight through in a one-off performance at the Great American Music Hall. But first, tonight, he'll be at GAMH as part of a sizable lineup performing Bob Dylan songs at the San Francisco debut of Dylan Fest. We caught up with him beforehand to talk musicals, condos, and why he feels at liberty to hassle Supervisor Scott Wiener when he sees him on the street.
What compelled you to do this one-off performance? With a string octet, no less?
To be perfectly honest, my label, Yep Roc, wanted to re-release the record with some kind of expanded package, and they were thinking about maybe adding a disc with outtakes and things like that...including some things that have already snuck out on 7-inches. And I just felt that was a little bit of a rip-off. People would probably buy a few of them, but that's kind of just using your audience as an ATM. So this was, what could we put out that's new?
What's this about you originally wanting to do a musical?
I battle with my own grandiosity from time to time. My friend Kurt -- who wrote a lot of [Temple Beautiful] with me -- we had been fantasizing about making a musical with the record. I love musicals. But it turns out that kind of thing takes venture capital, and we would be in way over our heads. So this seemed like the thing to do: re-imagine it with strings and record that.
Temple Beautiful was, critically, really successful. As you've been touring, do you feel like people connect with it differently in San Francisco vs. how it's received in other places?
I don't think you need an owner's manual to enjoy it. I never know what makes one record connect with people over another, I can just kind of feel it happening when it's happening. But also, I don't make records to be successful. I'm just trying to get it right. It's like Bob Dylan said in "When I Paint My Masterpiece" -- someday, everything is going to be different. Maybe I'll make something that makes up for all the bad decisions I've made and stupid stuff I've done.
Can you tell us what songs you'll be doing at Dylan Fest?
A few songs from the '80s. I'll definitely be doing "Jokerman," and also "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," a Traveling Wilburys tune.
Excellent. I love them. I keep waiting for the Traveling Wilburys resurgence.
It's going on, I think. I was at a party at [singer-songwriter] Kelley Stoltz's house, who'll also be at the [Nov. 24] show, and there were people there of all ages, from all walks of life, and the one record we could agree on was the Traveling Wilburys. You listen to those guys and you just want to hang out with them; they seem like a lot of fun. You can kind of imagine them jumping on your car, squirting you with a water gun.
It sounds like you haven't been home much in the last year or so. Are you tired of the conversation about gentrification in the city, or is that something that gets you going?
Oh, I'm pretty cranky about it. I've hassled Scott Wiener before. If I see him on the street, I'll talk to him. My attitude is, we've gotta watch these guys: If they could figure out a way to drain the ocean, clear out Ocean Beach, build a dam or whatever to get a few thousand more square feet, they'd build more condos there. It's frustrating. Obviously growth is inevitable, but look around. See what's happened to other cities when greed gets in the way.
What do you see happening here?
I mean, I suffered through the last tech boom and crash. I think everyone knows it pushes out the fringe element, and that's what makes this city roll. That's what makes it turn, is the freak factor. And when people can't afford it and it pushes them out, they never come back.
I opened a Twitter account, and then I realized if you've got a Twitter account you gotta get verified. It was, "I want to be verified like Yoko." And I know somebody there, so we went over to Twitter and were sitting in the cafeteria and they have all these sushi chefs...this was when they were negotiating tax breaks with the city. And they were saying, the city has to understand that if they don't give us these breaks, we'll go elsewhere. And I'm thinking, great, take your money and go to Cupertino, and eat at the fucking Olive Garden every day. You want culture and character? It's expensive to be in the city. Part of the illusion was that they were going to create jobs somehow, and give a lot of that money back to the community they're in, and as far as I know there's nobody policing that or overseeing it.
So you stay pretty up to date on these issues when you're on the road.
I mean, I'm not a political person. But I keep an eye on it, and it would be nice to see some people in the community benefiting from what's happening in the mid-Market area. I rent a little shoebox there, that's where I do my writing. You don't want it to get too gentrified -- you know, you'll get another Barney's or Sak's or whatever, and people still don't have a real grocery store.
Aside from fighting the good fight, what else do you have on tap for today?
Well, looking toward Sunday night -- right now I'm gonna go back to trying to get everybody to agree on a time to rehearse.