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Former Green on Red guitarist Chuck Prophet speaks to Anthony Strutt about his solo career, and his eleventh album, 'Temple Beautiful', which is about his home city of San Francisco
Singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet released his first solo album, ‘Brother Aldo’, in 1990, and since then has released another eleven albums.
He was also the guitarist in the critically praised Americana band Green on Red, joining them in 1985 in time for their second album, ‘Gas Food Lodging’. Although the classic line-up of that band of Dan Stuart (vocals), Chris Cacavas (organ), Jack Waterston (bass), Alex McNicol (drums) and Prophet broke up after their disappointing 1987 third album, ‘The Killer Inside Me’, Stuart and Prophet continued to tour and record using the Green on Red name, and released another four albums, ‘'Here Come the Snakes (1988), 'This Time Around' (1989),'Scapegoats'(1991) and 'Too Much Fun'(1992). The group, who split up in 1992, played a reunion tour in the classic line-up from 2005 to 2006.
Last year Prophet formed the Spanish Bombs, a tribute band, who played all of the Clash’s ‘London Calling’ in its entirety at shows in Spain and the United Kingdom. He released earlier this year his latest solo album, ‘Temple Beautiful’, which is a collection of songs about his home city of San Francisco.
Pennyblackmusic spoke to him at a show in Leicester promote the new album.
PB: Green on Red still existed and were still touring at the time your first solo album, 'Brother Aldo', came out. Was ‘Brother Aldo' planned as a side project, or were try to do something different and putting your toes into the water to see what a solo career would be like?
CP: No, Green on Red broke up in 1987 or 1988. We didn't so much break up though as we ran out of business. We got dropped by Phonogram. We had put out‘The Killer Inside Me’, and by that point we were rolling around in our own stupidity and getting paid for it.
Dan was back in Tucson and I was in San Francisco. I started playing in the backroom of this bar called The Avalon, which is at 16 Avalon Street in San Francisco. They would pay us $50 and we would do four sets a night.
It was myself, Steven Yerkey from a band called Nonfiction that put out a great record out on Demon which is now impossible to find, and Patrick Winningham, who was Stephanie's boyfriend (Stephanie Finch, who is now Chuck’s wife-Ed) at the time. Everybody had been in a band that had folded up, or broken up or crumbled under the weight of expectation, so we took over this backroom, and we were all writing songs or trying to write songs, and that is how that first solo album came about.
We recorded some stuff in a guy’s basement and the cassette of that did the rounds, and this guy that I knew got me a deal with Fire Records for £500 to put a record out, and that was ‘Brother Aldo’.
In the meantime, Green on Red had got back together and made ‘Here Come the Snakes’, and Rough Trade, the label we were going to release it on, had folded, and so China Records brought that record out of liquidation and released it.
I had this solo album out on Fire in the background, and then ‘Here Comes the Snakes’ had also cme out. Nothing was done by design though.
A lot of people liked ‘Brother Aldo’, so China Records also footed the bill for the next one, ‘Balinese Dancer’, when it came out in 1993. I liked that album a lot. It was the first time that I had Stephanie sing on one of my albums, and, as soon as she starting singing, I was like, “You have got to ditch our boyfriend.”
PB: At the time you and Dan were still touring under the Green on Red name, and using different musicians as a backing band? Did you use the same musicians in the UK and Europe as you did the USA?
CP: What happened was the more we signed to British labels, the more emphasis was put on the UK, and, so because of that, we stopped touring the USA. Things just fell away there, but, yeah, we used a lot different British musicians.
PB: You used, Christopher Holland, Jools Holland’s brother, on keyboards at one point, didn’t you?
CP: Yeah, he was always great. Dan and I were pretty chequered out, and so often we didn't even know who was playing in Green on Red. We were pretty chequered out with each other as well and with the playing, and sometimes we were inspired and other times we weren't, A lot of the time nobody took an interest in what we were doing, and sometimes we didn't and it showed.
PB: Over the years, you have been on various labels- China, Fire, Cooking Vinyl –with your solo career, and the current one is YepRoc. Do you have complete artistic freedom, or do you record an album and then offer it to the labels or have they come to you first?
CP: No one has really meddled with me, I kind of wish they had done sometimes, I could have done with some help, I have usually as well made the records by myself, and then taken them to labels.
PB: But that's better, isn’t it? To do what you want rather than being interfered with?
CP: Yeah, people tend to interfere when they are spending a lot of money. But at the same it's nice to have money. People get all self righteous about not selling out, but that’s usually because no one offered them a cheque. I'm not going to get self righteous. I do wish I had some help on some of them.
PB: Do you write quickly, or do you tend to have songs sitting on the backburner for years?
CP: I have songs that are kicking about for a long time, some of which I have recorded and have never managed to get right. I don't have a song writing habit or routine though.
PB: Do you have a lot of unfinished material?
CP: Yeah, lots of things. A lot of them aren’t good though. They are not released for a reason.
PB: Are you still friends with the members of Green on Red, such as Jack Waterson?
PB: Chris Cacavas as well?
CP: Yeah, Jack came out to see me recently when I was playing a gig in LA. Dan and I, even if we don't talk for ages, are like brothers.
PB: Do you give each other records for feedback?
CP: No, we don't do that, but Dan has asked me for advice on a few things recently. He asked me, for example, a question about mastering. He has got out a new solo EP, which is really good, and is also in a band the Slummers.
PB: How long did it take you to write and record ‘Temple Beautiful’? I am assuming it was an easy one to write because it's about your home town of San Francisco.
CP: I co-wrote it with a friend. We spent about a year writing in it because I was touring a lot and there was also a lot of other stuff going on at the time. It was recorded though in eight days.
PB: That's pretty quick. We have a romantic view of San Francisco over here. How would you describe it?
CP: Well, it is just a black hole. It is kind of glamorous, but there are about twenty seven San Franciscos and they all overlap. Some cultures run into others. It was, to pick up on your point, an easier album to write as a result of that.
PB: Have any in the past been really difficult to write and record?
CP: Yeah. With the second record, ‘Balinese Dancer’, I felt like I was pole vaulting over fucking mouse turds (Laughs).
PB: In between ‘Let Freedom Ring‘, your last album, and ‘Temple Beautiful’, you toured The Clash's ‘London Calling’. I know a Spanish promoter asked you to do it. Are you a Clash fan?
CP: I'm a fan of that record. I got that record when it came out. That record in many ways showed me what was possible. Prior to that punk rock was pretty narrow and dogmatic, but with that album the Clash started playing from a really deep well of influences, such as ska, jazz, rockabilly, and country and folk music. They dipped their bucket down into the well with that one, and weren't afraid to drink whatever, and that was kind of cool.
The weird thing was that we didn’t know it would be so much fun. We almost didn't want it to stop. Originally it was just for some shows Spain, but then we came back to Spain for a victory lap, and then did a few UK dates as well, and then we were done.
That was the record that influenced more then any other one, because it showed what was possible. In many ways, that is still the record I'm still trying to make, a record that includes everything that I like.
PB: Thank you.