One of the big changes on Homemade Blood is the fact that Prophet had a steady band to set up with in the first place. While keyboardist/vocalist Stephanie Finch has been a constant, and sometimes equal presence, in Prophet’s musical life (the two also share a personal life), the rest of Prophet’s collaborators have varied. Bassist Rolly Salley used to be an integral propheteer, but these days he’s too busy with his other job, playing with Chris Isaak. The producers of Balinese Dancer and Feast of Hearts brought in a group of people ranging from Greg Leisz, Don Heffington and David Immergluck to David Grisman, Al Kooper and Davey Faragher. But somewhere between Feast of Hearts and the new one, an actual Chuck Prophet band coalesced, featuring bassist Anders Rundblad (formerly of Wire Train), drummer Paul Rivelli and guitarist Max Butler. The consistency is doubly advantageous: Having shared the stage together, the group is well-drilled, and because of that, they’re able to let it hang out when they want to.
Butler, who has played with Tommy Stinson, is the most significant addition. Prophet has welcomed plenty of stringed players into his band — Immergluck was around for a while, and Austin wizard Rich Brotherton (currently in Robert Earl Keen’s band) was part of a memorable acoustic SXSW showcase long long ago — but he’s never really worked with another guitarist full-time. There’s one simple reason for this.
“I don’t like guitar players,” Prophet says, laughing. “Anybody will tell you that. I always wanted the two-guitar thing, but only if I couldn’t hear it. I don’t play rhythm or lead, I don’t play in a traditional way, so I don’t want people stepping on me. You get shocked like a monkey when you go up the neck and somebody’s sitting there. You gotta develop that telepathy, and Max is very good at that.” Indeed, onstage Butler’s frequent slides and grimey response are a welcome counterpoint to Prophet’s voodoo tone, which ranges from incandescent blues runs to more traditional garage twang.
It was Prophet’s prowess with the axe that gave him his start. He was a 17 year-old living in San Francisco, with several bands to his credit (one, Wild Game, made a record), when he got a gig opening for Green on Red. “I went down there and my first impression was that they looked like guys who should be operating the rides at a carnival,” he recalls. “But they played, and I thought it was really great: chaotic, entertaining, musical, funny and sad.” He joined them onstage that night; a few months later in Los Angeles, he called to get on the guest list, and they told him to bring his guitar instead. By 1987, after the band had a stint on Mercury Records, Stuart and Prophet were the only members left. They would continue on, with a mix of good and bad in both the actual music and the career trajectory. The combined efforts of Prophet, Stuart and producer Jim Dickinson created the searing 1989 masterpiece Here Come the Snakes; after that came the European era.
Brother Aldo, Prophet’s debut record, was germinating around the same time as Snakes. Prophet was playing around town, writing and demoing songs, and a friend who worked for Fire urged him to release it. Reluctantly, Prophet agreed. “I’m not a great fan of people that were in bands who ‘went solo’,” he says. “If you look at other people’s work, it seems like they just get worse.” But Prophet has fared well. Right from the start, he was a fully formed solo artist, a distinctive voice (in both his throat and his art) who mines a lot of territory: blues, country, cajun, swing, R&B. “When you take traditional forms and bend it slightly, it’s a whole different genre,” he says. “You just try to stay off the known roads.”
On Homemade Blood, Prophet actually sought out familiar pathways. The album is a semi-concept record inspired by his upbringing in Alhabra, California, “a nowhere place between Whittier and the Orange Curtain,” he says. Songs like “K-Mart Family Portrait”, “Ooh Wee” and “You Been Gone” are rife with tarnished icons like Ritalin kids and halfway houses that used to be Dairy Queens. “About a year and a half ago, certain events forced me to go back to my parents’ house and I started bumping into ghosts,” he remembers. “I’d forgotten how creepy it was.”
Yes, you can go home again. Though songs such as “22 Fillmore” and “Inside Track” are sweaty, savage and rockin’, the overall tone of Homemade Blood tone is subdued, as evidenced by gorgeously uncertain songs such as “New Year’s Day” and the title track, which starts off as sinister romanticism, Prophet’s voice all low growl, and grows into a gospel-tinged celebration, without losing the darker undertones. And, we might add, it sounds nothing like Tom Petty, which only bears mentioning because Prophet gets compared to the lank, blonde AOR hero rather often. Physically, at least, Prophet doesn’t consider it a compliment. “I’ve made peace with the comparison,” he says. “I just don’t want people to imply that I look like a victim of Florida incest.” Ouch.
If you haven’t noticed by now, Prophet’s German interviewer wasn’t entirely off the mark when she brought up all that “loneliness and desperation” stuff. But, Prophet claims, outside the work, “musicians are not nearly as morose as you might think. They’ve got this overdeveloped sense of humor from riding in the back of a Ford Econoline for 3000 miles.” Fair enough — but the example Prophet chooses to illuminate this assertion may be the loneliest, most desperate bit of black humor this side of…well reruns of “Good Times” (or at least “What’s Happening”.) Especially since it can be taken as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of life spent in rock ‘n’ roll and the music biz. If you relate to it, you might be an artist!
The joke Prophet tells me is this:
Q: “What does the cadaver say while getting fucked by necrophiliacs?”
A: “It never ends!”
Jason Cohen actually worked for Fire Records back in 1990, when he was too young to know better. He lives in Austin. Mostly.