Riding the riff to its logical conclusion
Chuck Prophet finds more than one way to make music
"He came to San Francisco and we spent about a year writing—a lot of talking, a lot of laying around listening to Mott the Hoople records in the dark and long, long naps but eventually we wrote an album's worth of material and recorded it around Christmas."
The 13 songs on Real Animal document Escovedo's life and times with a narrative flourish. Ideas went back and forth to get the right approach, says Prophet. "Often times Alejandro would tell me a story and I would say something like, `Well it would be great to capture some of that Chelsea Hotel mythology in a song. You get a riff and you ride on the back of it and you just kind of follow it through to its logical conclusion."
The album was produced by Tony Visconti giving Prophet a chance to watch firsthand the man responsible for some of David Bowie and T. Rex's early successes. "Tony has a real gift for using a fine brush," he says. "When we were tracking it was one thing to get the groove together but later when it came to the strings and things like that I could really see Tony's gift for getting in there. He's been doing it for a long time. We used to watch him put his hands on the faders and kind of massage the console. He can take a seemingly uninspired mix and with just a few moves make it sound like a record. He's like a master painter in that respect."
Soap and Water takes a similar storytelling approach but that's where the similarities end. "For me it's really liberating to try and make records that work outside of the singer/songwriter box," says Prophet. "There's probably enough songs out there about people's coffee getting cold. For me, if I can pick a character and breathe life into him and capture the way they talk that's a lot of fun for me. But there must be some of me in there as well, even if some of these characters I don't really like that much."
Traditionally Prophet and his band have played more in Europe than in the U.S. but North American audiences are starting to come around. When Prophet is asked where they most like to perform he responds: "I think the British audiences are some of my favourite audiences. We spent so many years just ignoring North America hoping it would go away. We toured in Europe and it didn't go away. Seattle, Minneapolis and Austin, Texas were some of the early beachheads—we've got a place in our hearts for those towns."
Working with Warren Zevon:
"He used to drink so much Mountain Dew halfway through the day he would get these migraines. He could really be a contentious guy, almost in a perverse way—so funny and so smart you didn't want to miss anything. I did a lot of sitting around but I tell people it was the best internship I ever had."
Writing with Escovedo:
"We wrote a song called Nun's Song where we talk about our first groups and just the thrill of being in a band. Al started playing the 96 Tears riff on his guitar and I just started shouting and screaming until I was hoarse and I recorded it all on a handheld cassette. We listened to it back and took the best parts, typed it out and that was it."