CHUCK PROPHET'S ADVENTURES IN MUSIC-MAKING LEAD BACK TO MEMPHIS
By Bob Mehr
Published Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Whether recording in Memphis, Mexico City or various points in between, singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet has always been one to turn the process of making an album into a journey — musical as well as geographic.
The Bay Area-based roots rocker's ninth, latest and arguably finest solo effort, ¡Let Freedom Ring!, was created during a tumultuous 10-day period south of the border that included power outages, natural disasters and pandemics.
"I am definitely attracted to the adventure of making records. It probably comes from watching too many Werner Herzog movies," says Prophet, who plays the Hi-Tone Café on Sunday.
Last year, inspired by the 2008 economic crash and the turbulent international climate, Prophet penned a batch of "political songs for non-political people." He decided to head to Mexico City to make the album, eventually settling on a studio that was "totally state of the art... for 1958," jokes Prophet.
Prophet and his studio band, which included producer/pedal steel player Greg Leisz and former E Street Band drummer Ernest "Boom" Carter, weathered a series of frustrating technical problems during the recording.
Those issues were merely a teaser to the massive earthquake that rocked the region during the sessions, and the explosion of the swine flu epidemic, which practically shut down the country.
The tension and uncertainty of that experience finds its way onto the record with songs like the cutting "Sonny Liston's Blues," and the jagged funk number "Where the Hell Is Henry." Elsewhere, Freedom finds Prophet dialing back on his cut-and-paste cleverness, and dialing up the guitars and backbeat to brilliant effect.
Although it's been four years since Prophet's last appearance in Memphis, he's no stranger to the Bluff City, having been a frequent visitor through the latter part of the 1980s, when he was wielding a guitar for Los Angeles hell-raisers Green on Red.
For Prophet, a student of the twisted legends, dark underbelly and dusty corners of rock history, Memphis proved to be a perfect place to learn.
"We got signed to a label in England and started working with Jim Dickinson," recalls Prophet of the late producer. "We cut some stuff in LA but Jim really encouraged us to come to Memphis. We arrived and basically camped out at the Midtown Holiday Inn."
"At the time," says Prophet, "there weren't a lot of people who really had an awareness or appreciation of the history here and what it meant. I mean, when we worked at Ardent (Studios) we wanted to use the Mellotron that was on (Big Star's) Sister/Lovers album, and they were confused as to why we would even be interested in that."
After the original Green on Red lineup imploded following the release of 1987's The Killer Inside Me, Prophet and singer Dan Stuart continued with the group, returning to Memphis to cut the 1989 classic Here Come the Snakes. "Part of that process was going to Sam Phillips Studio and recording ideas and fragments and songs with Jim and (veteran Phillips' engineer) Roland Janes," says Prophet.
"I remember being in the studio and meeting Roland in the control room and I innocently asked how many tracks we'd be working with. He said, `Well, we've got 16 on a good day.' And then he looked over at the machine and some of the tracks had tape covering the vu meters. `Well, we got 14 today,'" says Prophet, laughing.
For Prophet, making music in Memphis was an experience that was at once concrete and ephemeral. "The thing about the air hanging heavier in Memphis and all that, that's definitely true," he says.
"There are technical things too. In, Memphis the bass drum, the kick drum is a little bit louder. That's a taste thing. They'd didn't go in for things like long fades. It was a classic view. They were classicists in many ways. I mean, Jim was somebody that was into pushing the boundaries. But there was some tradition that always seeped into the way things were done."
Since transitioning into his own solo career in the early-'90s Prophet has indulged a variety of styles, creating a dazzling mix of albums from 1997's dark roots opusHomemade Blood to the funky spaced-out blues of 2007's Soap and Water.
In addition to his own career, Prophet's proved a prolific foil of late having co-written much of fellow roots rocker Alejandro Escovedo past two LPs. Prophet also produced a new album for his wife and bandmate Stephanie Finch.
As Prophet rolls into town, he'll be carrying a little bit of Memphis with him. Local musician Paul "Snowflake" Taylor has been manning the drum kit in his backing group, The Mission Express, since earlier in the year. "He's been a shot in the arm for the band in a lot of ways," says Prophet. "The secret language of rock and roll — he speaks it fluently."
After wrapping his current tour and finishing some commitments overseas early next year (where he'll perform the Clash's London Calling album in its entirety at Spain's Primavera Sound Festival), Prophet plans to start work on a new album.
This time, however, he says he won't be indulging in any far flung adventures. "I'm thinking of making a hometown record, a San Francisco record," says Prophet. "I'm trying not to leave the neighborhood."
Chuck Prophet and The Mission Express, The Jeremy Stanfill Band
9 p.m. Sunday at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar Ave. Tickets are $10 and are available in advance at hitonememphis.com. For more information, call 278-86