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.

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.”

In 1994 while attending the New Orleans Jazz Fest, Prothero discovered a young sextet with a surplus of funk chops called Galactic. After recording some of its songs, he realized he had something potentially large on his hands. He pitched the resulting album to various labels, all of which agreed on its artistic merit but couldn't imagine selling many copies.

“For so long, nobody wanted the record,” he remembers. “Then I realized, “Hey, I want it. I believe in it. Even if no one gets into this funk thing, that's okay, I'm used to it.' It was the kick in the pants that I needed. Plus, I guess I'm enough of a contrarian that the idea of putting out a record that no one wanted and making everyone want it after the fact was an appropriate use of my energy.”

In marketing Fog City's and Galactic's debut release Coolin' Off, Prothero decided to follow the example of the most successful similar-sounding band, Medeski Martin and Wood. At the time, MMW was laying the foundation for the post-Grateful Dead jam band scene by concentrating on tireless touring and heavy improvisation. “Galactic toured similar clubs and found a similar following, despite the fact that [its new fans] had no other funk records in their collections, which I think is great,” he says. “It's a total tribute to that scene's appreciation for musicianship, which is really high on my list. So even though I don't necessarily share a major portion of my record collection with most of the people who buy my records, I appreciate their deep dedication to the music. They know what regional culture's about.”

Despite the encouraging success of the Galactic record, which sold around 20,000 copies and led to the band being signed to a major label, Prothero has been careful to balance the Fog City roster with non-jam band acts. His latest record, MOFRO's Blackwater, is a kind of backwoods funk with an “Earth First!” message, while earlier signing Papa Mali is a white Texan with dreadlocks who sounds like Taj Mahal. Having recorded, engineered, mixed, promoted, marketed, and visually designed his records, Prothero understands the music industry from the ground up. He knows that diversity is the key to longevity and that jam bands typically sell more tickets than albums.

And yet there hasn't been a straightforward funk release from Fog City either. After a quick perusal of Prothero's own music collection (see sidebar), one would wonder why the label's catalog doesn't offer a deep funk throwback record like the ones released by the now-defunct, much-revered Desco label. Currently, there is a heavy demand for “new old” funk singles, which sound exactly like forgotten 45s from the mid-'70s and which Prothero could probably approximate quite well.

“Basically funk's about mating, which is a really important function,” he offers. “If we don't have that, everything dies, the species no longer exists. But it's not everything. There's courting too, and there's also compassion, which is maybe a higher calling than the biological imperative. So if I want to make a song about compassion, maybe it's not time for the big fat breakbeat. So I can't really apologize to the funk head for there not being a breakbeat on every song. But on the other hand, I think all of my records have a few fat beats on them, something you could loop and make another song out of, so there's always some momentary tribute to that whole scene.”

In other words, Fog City puts out sole music that refuses to follow in anyone else's footprints.

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