Talking with the Night Surfer: An Interview with Chuck Prophet
It often sounds naïve, stupid or both to pick a favorite disc of the year too early in the year. With only a couple of months left in 2014 before obsessive listeners pick their “Best of” lists for the year I feel comfortable and confident picking Chuck Prophet’s Night Surfer (9/23, YepRoc) as my disc of the year. Night Surfer is a rocking guitar album with a romantic heart and Prophet mixes his sardonic social commentary with a healthy dose of optimism on his 13th solo album because in the end “Love is the Only Thing”.
HB-What’s a Night Surfer?
CP-Honestly it sounded like a title. Once it was married with an image it just started to look like somebody else’s record. I thought, Well, there it is, but there is a longer story if you want it. I grew up in Orange County, California and used to surf the Huntington Pier at night under the lights because it was so crowded. There’s something sort of almost post-apocalyptic about that image and at one point this record was kind of dystopian in the sense that it was an opportunity for songwriting once I tapped into that vein. I don’t really think it’s a dystopian record now or at least I had second thoughts about that but it was enough to get me excited about writing songs.
This is your fourth album on the YepRoc label. Do you have a deal with them for more to come or is it one record at a time. How’s that work?
I’m not quite sure. Many of my heroes are film makers like John Sayles. People that have been able to make stuff with their skinny foot in the door of the mainstream but at the same time they’ve been able to work outside it. A lot of it is just getting the money together. Those are the guys that I follow.
The first thing you do is get a batch of songs together and if you’re lucky enough to collect what I call “go to the head of the class” songs then you’ve got your script and at a certain point you’ve got to figure out how to do it. There’s a lot of ways to the waterfall. I met with the YepRoc guys last March and told them I want to put a record out in the fall and they said we need a record six months in advance in order to really give it the best shot. Yeah, I know but I need this to come out in September because I want to tour in the fall. And they said we don’t really base our releases around your tour dates. That’s cool, it’s kind of the tail wagging the dog thing. They’re running a company and they only have so many open spots in their release schedule. I understand but there are some things more important than campaigns for records. For me, this is who I am and maybe it is not the smartest thing but I need to be out there in the fall playing and we need to figure out a way to do it and YepRoc said we understand that too. My attitude is, I got to go out and play these songs because if I wait until the spring I don’t know if I’m even gonna like these songs. I need to look after me and that helps me make sense of my life and make sense of the dumb decisions I’ve made and they said, “Okay, we’ll help you do it”. They understood that it’s not just about being successful. There’s this thing where people assume records are dead and you should just put out one song and to be successful these are the things you need to do. I just tune out because I’m not really in it to be successful. I’m in it to make sense of things. I somehow think if I could make a classic, a real classic record then everything would come together in my life and that’s probably a lie. But in terms of the lies we tell ourselves it’s not the worst.
The first time I heard any of the new songs was a solo set at the Mystery Brewing Public House in Hillsborough, NC and then later I heard the full band versions on the record and you’re going to tour with a full band. So whatever the situation is is good?
I’d like to tell you there’s more of a plan than all that but yeah whatever the situation is.
If they’re good songs they’re going to hold up solo.
You hope. You hope they can stand up by themselves. I honestly don’t know. At Mystery Brewing. I didn’t now. I didn’t know how people were going to react. I’m desperate. I was just a desperate little man up there. The guy with a guitar and that’s it. There’s nothing to hide behind.
The record kicks off with “Countrified Inner City Technological Man”. It reminds me of the Stones around Beggars Banquet. It feels like a real rock album.
I was really into Beggars Banquet but also into Muswell Hillbillies. Ray Davies has always been a source of inspiration. Muswell Hillbillies has this almost retro-nuevo thing thematically but one of the things I noticed about “20th Century Man” is that it is driven by the rhythm guitar and it’s acoustic. If I was to be honest it’s Ray Davies, Bowie’s Hunky Dory, it’s Beggars Banquet. All these influences fighting it out. When you bring the acoustic up loud and make that the driving guitar then people are gonna come up to me and say it reminds them of the Stones. And I’ll just go “Yeah, that’s about right”.
There’s just something really odd and goofy and likable about the character in “Wish Me Luck” when he says “Wish me luck, even if you don’t mean it” and “Wish me luck, even though I don’t need it”.
I wrote that with my friend Kurt and we kind of had the first line and then it just exploded. I hit that E minor chord and started screaming “Wish me luck even if you don’t mean it…….It’s not like I need it!” And we just tapped into this boasting sort of Kenny Powers narcissistic guy that’s also very lovable and it just turned into Sideways the movie. And that was fun. You know the guy at the party that’s bragging about his adventures and holding forth and at that point it wrote itself. We had a specific guy in mind too but…
That’s probably better off left unsaid.
“They Don’t Know About Me And You” is this dark song but the couple still finds hope and it’s more defiance than desperation. “You could be my savior and I could be yours too”. Things are really bad but we can do this. It’s just such a great song.
Well thanks. Yeah, that’s the Night Surfer there. That’s the heart of it.
Something about that song reminded me of Tonio K. Are you familiar with him at all?
Sure. I’ve written with Tony before. I can’t say we got anything great but I enjoyed his company.
There’s some angst and darkness on the record but there’s also quite a bit of hope and optimism.
I was just talking to somebody before you called and he said it sounds like you’re really pissed off on this record. You’re angry about technology and life in Startup City USA. I’m not angry. I’m anxious. I’m definitely anxious but I don’t dig stuff that’s angry. I don’t dig stuff that’s a bummer. I don’t really listen to stuff that’s just a downer. There’s always hope and that’s sort of the secret of Gospel music. When it it’s good. Rev. Julius Cheeks. It’s church, man. I love it. It doesn’t work for me to be a downer.
I loved Temple Beautiful but that felt like a standalone record. Some of the songs from Night Surfer sound like they continue the narrative of Let Freedom Ring.
The thing that makes these last two records unique is that I wrote the bulk of them with my friend Kurt Lipschutz. I had a great experience writing Real Animal with Alejandro and the thing that made that a cool record was that the first day that Alejandro and I got together we wrote a song and at the end of the day Alejandro said, “I think we should just write this whole album together”. So we never really wrote separately. We wrote when we were in the room together. It wasn’t like come doctor this for me. We just sat in the room together and wrote that album and it took us a year to do it. When I wrote Temple Beautiful with Kurt we’d written a few songs and we were hanging out and we tapped into that San Francisco theme and I said, “Let’s just write this whole album together” and a lot of that is built into this record too although we didn’t write the whole record together.
“Daddy’s got a string quartet” is a line from “Little Girl, Little Boy” on Temple Beautiful. So does Ian Hunter and he just released a live album with his band and a string quartet. Do you have any plans to release a live recording of Temple Beautiful with Strings?
We made a film at the Great American Music Hall with the hometown crowd, capacity audience and four cameras or maybe more. Temple Beautiful live with the Octet, a little bit of a documentary on the making of it, and behind the scenes at the rehearsal. A really beautiful movie. We initially thought about releasing it as a DVD or deluxe package but in the end we decided maybe we’ll take it around to some film festivals and do some theatrical events. That’s the thinking at the moment. Maybe we’ll debut it at SXSW this year. The thing about that concert is it was filmed the week after that story that went national where people were lying down in front of the Google bus. All in the wake of the Occupy movement and the tension here between Startup City USA and the other San Francisco. I felt like it was filmed right at the peak of a lot of that and those feelings. Certainly if you took the pulse of the nation there were so many San Francisco think-pieces in journalism. It’s kind of weird reading about your neighborhood in the New Yorker. Now that film is like a snapshot of that time for me and maybe we will take it around to film festivals or try to find a new way to get it out there. Maybe we’ll stream it.
I know you don’t record many covers. Ezra Furman’s “If I Was a Baby” is a pretty obscure nugget that you discovered and covered. It fit right into the album and if I hadn’t read about it I wouldn’t have known it was a cover.
Yeah, there’s a couple songwriters I really love. I really love Eddie Argos, the singer for Art Brute. And I heard Ezra on KEXP singing a song called “Take Off Your Sunglasses” years ago and since then I’ve seen Ezra several times and keep up with his records. I’m just a fan. What happened was I taught myself that song on piano. My wife and I just bought an upright piano after all these years and it was in my notebook. There was one night when the drummer had to go early and we were in the studio and I just started opening my notebook. I was sitting at the piano and I started playing it and James was playing electric guitar and he asked “What do you think I should play?” I was at the piano looking straight at the wall and there was a banjo hanging on the wall. “Well, you’re going to need to play banjo on this!” It was one of those nights where ten minutes later you have this track that just kind of asserted itself.
It forced its way onto the record.
Exactly. I felt like it really belonged on the record, the sequence and everything.
“Love Is The Only Thing” starts out with these crashing drums and cymbals and morphs into a Gary Glitter stomp and then turns into this guitar and strings, heart on a sleeve, rock song which is nice way to end the disc.
Absolutely. At one point I was telling everybody we were making a dystopian glam-rock album. Like Diamond Dogs by Bowie. That’s what I was telling the musicians. Of course it ended up turning into something else but sometimes that’s half the fun.
You’re not a musician who is easy to pigeon-hole. A friend asked me what I would call your music and it kind of stumped me but to me that makes you a perfect fit for NoDepression.
I love the whole NoDepression scene and I love what it’s done. And I like looking backwards for any roadkill in the rearview mirror that might be edible. I know Ryan Adams has been complaining about country music, that he doesn’t own any country music, he’s not into it, and it’s just the suit that he wore that was convenient at the time. I think that’s all bullshit. If you dig around NoDepression you’ve got a place where Townes Van Zandt, Jeff Tweedy, Gram Parsons, Bert Jansch and The Stanley Brothers can all be comfortable.
It’s a big tent.
The thing about country music is as much as I’ve rejected it and turned away from it doesn’t mean that I won’t return to it. A couple years ago I recreated that Waylon Jennings record from scratch. Looking at that album cover of Dreaming My Dreams I realized that this cover looks just like my first album (Brother Aldo). The sepia tone. That’s what I was trying to do back them. I’ll return to it.
“Ford Econoline”. Another hook filled rocker and you’ve got Peter Buck on guitar.
I think Peter plays on eight songs on the record.
I love the line “Memories like dirty plates stacked up in the sink of time. Ford Econoline”
Yeah, I don’t know. It just comes out of your mouth. That song, it’s also phonetic. It’s that thing. It’s that “Great God almighty be bop a lula ……..spodie odie”. It just feels good in the mouth.
Who put the bomp in the bomp-shooby-dooby-bomp?
Yeah, exactly. Sometimes it’s just the thing that gets you in the door.
Circling back to the “Countrified Inner City Technological Man”. Everybody uses technology but a lot of people have this love/hate relationship with it. The NSA monitoring phone calls and emails. But we’re talking on cell phones and I assume you use some when you’re making music.
Absolutely. I wrote all these songs and stored my initial version of them in GarageBand and I can refer to them. And yeah, we’re talking on cell phones. And you know honestly it’s helped me run a business. You used to have to have a whole office. It’s cool. We’re running this mom and pop business now in a way I don’t know we could have ever done before. I’m cool with all of it.
Thanks for your time Chuck. Best of luck with the new record and I hope to see you back in North Carolina. We’re not on the tour yet but I’ve got my fingers crossed.
We’ll get there brother.
Dedicated to the late Guy Neal Williams who introduced me to Chuck the man. I already knew the music.