Chuck Prophet found songs and swine flu in Mexico
Outside the domain of ethnocentrism, and beyond the lull of patriotic fervor, lives Bay Area singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet. His songs present an America that is full of fatherless sons, wayward youth and love just around the next corner. With a baritone voice that is overly compared to Tom Petty, Prophet inhabits a unique California sound that is one part Woody Guthrie and the rest rock ’n’ roll.
The Telecaster-clutching songster is bringing his powerhouse band to his first performance at Moe’s Alley on Thursday, June 17. With his wife, Stephanie Finch, on keys and vocals, adding to the traditional two guitars, bass and drums, he guarantees, “We’ll have a good time.”
The sandy-haired rocker’s latest testimony to the fading echo of the American Dream, Let Freedom Ring, is a spectrum of moods and melodies—from Wilco-like ballads immersed in the rhythms of Americana to anthems that have somehow eluded mainstream radio. Recorded in the heart of Mexico City during the swine flu outbreak of 2009, Prophet and his band felt like they’d ended up in a Cormac McCarthy novel.
“We would go around at night in our blue masks and T-shirts knocking on doors of restaurants that had closed due to the swine flu pandemic,” the frontman recalls. “All public places were supposed to be closed down. We’d knock gently, and somebody would stick their head out and say, ‘C’mon in.’ That’s how we were getting dinner at nights. Everyone got edgy if somebody wasn’t wearing a mask.” He reenacts, “‘Can you tell that fucking busboy to put a mask on? I don’t want to die down here, I got kids.’ It was extreme.”
The idea to record in Mexico was because Prophet yearned for the feeling that some of his earlier punk rock recordings yielded. “When I started thinking about studios here in the States I was reminded how content the process of recording has become,” he begins. “Technology has become available to so many more people that there’s complacency.”
What the band found in Mexico City was a state-of-the-art studio circa 1972, complete with rolling blackouts every few hours. It seemed Prophet got what he’d asked for, and it wasn’t easy. “You need the recording gods to be smiling on you,” he says. “You need luck. As a result of all this tension, we really bonded together as a band, sounding great together as a band. On the record you’re listening to takes that were followed by people putting their fists in the air in triumph.”
Kicking around the streets of Mexico also caused Prophet to witness the widespread power of the Internet—which allows the youth there to tap into the power of all forms of music. During the 1980s and ’90s kids in Mexico City might have been limited to Eminem or Rage Against The Machine through MTV—but now they’re hearing all the middle-class music Americans took for granted.
“Kids are now walking around looking like Morrissey and Death Cab for Cutie,” the cultural ambassador observes. “I’ve seen rockabilly kids, punk rock bands and speed metal kids. They’re exposed to all that and just going nuts. Mexico City is a very energized place, once you step on the sidewalk you can feel it humming.”
With a career that has found Prophet sharing writing credits with Warren Zevon, Jonathan Richmond and Alejandro Escovedo, it’s obvious he’s enjoying life in the troubadour lane. Hope may not spring eternal, but, according to Prophet, the well has certainly not dried up:
“You know if Hendrix was still around he would love Pro Tools and probably have a Casio guitar—sampling god knows what, nature sounds. It’s important for people to have a good time—whatever keeps you interested in what you’re doing is worth it.”
Chuck Prophet performs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, June 17, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. For more information, call 479-1854.