Chuck Prophet Says 'People Are Exhausted by Pop Culture -- But I'm Not,' Plus Exclusive 'Your Skin' Video Premiere

Karen Doolittle
Chuck Prophet

"If anything weird happens, call me back," says Chuck Prophet.

The 53-year-old California singer/songwriter is behind the wheel of a Ford Econoline van laden with his band Mission Express' equipment, en route from San Francisco to Austin, Texas, where on March 10 and 11, they'll play The Continental Club, the first of a 21-date U.S. tour. "It's just your basic 25-hour commute," Prophet tells Billboard. "I drew the short straw. Everybody else is flying."

He's not complaining. The self-described "man out of time" is touring behind what is at least his 13th solo album, Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins, which has racked up the highest first-week sales numbers of a decades-long career that began with Paisley Underground rule-breakers Green on Red. The album debuted at No. 6 on the Heatseekers Albums chart (dated March 4). Over the years, Prophet has developed a sui generis California rock sound that crackles around bone-dry American Gothic lyrics and wit. Prophet likes it when weird happens, and his appreciation of independent film and true-crime stories also have translated to some bizarre and --as a result -- riveting music videos, such as his latest, "Your Skin," which premieres here. (See below.)

As he drove south to Texas, Prophet talked to Billboard about his fascination with Fuller, the Buddy Holly-worshipping rocker, who died mysteriously in 1966, within months of his band's biggest hit, a cover of The Crickets' "I Fought The Law" that hit No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. (The Clash also covered the song in 1979.) Prophet also discussed how actress Connie Britton of Nashville and Friday Night Lights fame -- and Alex Nieto, whose death, in a barrage of police gunfire, sparked outrage in San Francisco -- came to inspire songs on the album.  

In the wake of a brutal and bruising presidential campaign and election, Prophet says there's a "cultural exhaustion" in America, but, he adds, his love of rock-and-roll and performing live keeps him inoculated against such spiritual maladies. "I still get excited about guitar music," he says. And performing live. "The Mission Express is playing so great it's just a joyride to be out there every night. If you've lost your faith in rock and roll and want to get it back, give us a shot." 

In the past you’ve said that, for you, an album starts with three or four songs in your head, and then it becomes a journey. How did you arrive at Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins?

Well, I co-wrote that with Kurt Lipschutz. Bobby Fuller was on the turntable and I picked up the guitar and played those kind of Buddy Holly chords. (He recites the lyrics:) ‘I hear the record crackle/The needle skips and jumps’ And Kurt said, “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins.” And that was the way to go. You get something going and you bounce some chords off the wall. It intersects with other ideas – and then you end up wrestling it to the ground. Initially, we kind of threw it in a pile of songs. It really didn’t mean anything. And somehow it asserted itself and became the song that cracked the record open.

There are a lot of theories about how Fuller died. Is that something that you’ve delved into at all?

I’m a true-crime aficionado. I grew up in a family of true crime people. When we were growing up we had Helter Skelter, Alive –any kind of true-crime book, we had it in the house. My sister is a mild person --she's an accountant, but she's also the kind of person who, over the holidays gave me this book about the Jonestown massacre. She said, “Chuck, you’re going to love it. It’s easily within the top five of all the Jonestown massacre books. [Laughs] I don’t know what that says about me but yeah, Bobby Fuller loomed over the record for a lot of reasons. 

Tell me some of them.

He was an auteur. He made his own records. He invented himself. He and his brother were so obsessed with Buddy Holly that after Buddy Holly died they got in the car and drove from El Paso to Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where Holly recorded. Petty gave them a tour. He also gave them a lecture about the perils of the music business and encouraged them to get an education or whatever. And when they got in the car Bobby turned to his brother Randy and he said, “Okay, we’re going to need two Neumann microphones. We’re going to need some cement and we’re going to need some corrugated tin. They ended up building a reverb chamber in their parents’ backyard in El Paso and recording records in their parents’ living room. 

That is obsession.

I relate to him on so many levels, including that he was hopelessly out of time. By the time the Bobby Fuller Four made it out to California, to chase the Golden Dream, they were ‘50s greasers in a world of Beach Boys bangs, Beatle boots -- and the Byrds. And that’s just the B’s. I also find him interesting because he’s the classic rock and roll Babylon feel-bad story. You know, did he have it going on with the wrong cigarette girl or the wrong club…?

There’s even a theory that the Manson Family killed Fuller.

All I know is that he was killed under mysterious circumstances, and it’s really California noir. I recently dug up a quote by the great crime-novel writer Jim Thompson. He would write those books two at a time, and someone asked him how did you write so many of these. He said, “Well, there’s a million stories to tell but there’s only ever one plot: that people and things are never what they seem.” And that’s what I consider the essence of California noir. People come out here chasing one thing, and the reality they find is totally out of joint with the dream. The other thing that really pushed the record along is that we live in a time of cultural exhaustion. People are exhausted by pop culture –but I’m not. I can still get excited listening to a Bobby Fuller record, and I’m still working with basically the same ingredients: Two guitars, bass, drums. We recorded the album in a studio that was totally state of the art --in 1972. And I’m not exhausted. I still get excited about guitar music. And that’s enough for me.

Do you feel that you are a man out of time?

Oh absolutely, yeah. I had record deals in the '90s, and I heard a lot of, “What is this sh--?” I was signed by Derek Green. He signed the Sex Pistols, and, I think, Squeeze and The Police. He was an old-school British record man and kind of a gangster. He signed me to China Records after I was in Green on Red, and I delivered an album in 1991 or ‘92. It was acoustic guitars and influenced by a lot of folk music and Neil Young. It was a very quiet record. I wasn’t an angry young man in a time of grunge music -- and I remember, when I turned it in, the label told me, “Chuck, we want you to make the kind of record that people who have CD players in their cars buy.” I don’t even know what that meant. I have always felt out of time. And I embrace it now.

In addition to “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins,” you have tracks that mention David Bowie and Suicide’s Alan Vega, who both died last year, and a song about Alex Nieto, who was killed by San Francisco police in 2014. There’s also “If I Was Connie Britton,” whose character was killed off in Nashville….

Yeah, I don’t think they could afford her.

There is a theme of loss that runs through the album.

Certainly for rock and roll, yeah. People can take whatever they want from the music, but, in many ways, the election year of 2016 is really in the DNA of the whole record. It’s about anybody who struggles with losing faith in a year of Brexit and the heartbreak nation that we live in. It’s losing faith in rock and roll, and it’s about getting it back, you know. It’s all those things. I don’t know that rock and roll records begin to make us nicer to each other but I’m lucky that I don’t have a megaphone the size of somebody like Green Day or Bruce Springsteen to tell people how to vote or how to think. At best, I’m kind of a photographer really.

If you did have that megaphone, what would say?

Listen to your heart and your heroes are full of shit at least a third of the time.

Do you think that rock and roll has become less relevant culturally?

Well, maybe, but maybe there’s stuff going on that we don’t know about. Rock and roll for me, whether it was Springsteen or The Clash, has been my education about class and the sexes and politics. So when Springsteen put out Nebraska, somebody told me well, you know, he’s been listening to a lot of Jimmie Rodgers. I was like, "Who’s Jimmie Rodgers?" So I dug backwards and found Jimmie Rodgers and, through him, discovered a lot of country music that I love. The beautiful thing is that if the body of work is out there people are going to tap into it. Look at Big Star. People can’t get enough of them now, but when Green on Red was recording at Ardent Studios -- where Big Star recorded -- there was no trace of them. The studio had their Amy Grant and ZZ Top records on the walls, because it was feng shui -- you put your successful stuff up there so that it perpetuates success. Big Star had this aura of failure around it because they never broke, so they didn’t really talk about Big Star at Ardent. But that’s all changed.

“If I was Connie Britton” is an interesting song. What inspired you to write that one?

It’s not so much that I’m a Friday Night Lights fan or anything. I saw her one night on a late-night talk show, and she was flinging her hair around. And I thought, you know, she seems like the kind of person that if she got pulled over for a speeding ticket she could just fling her hair around. [Laughs]

You’ve described the track “Alex Nieto” as your first protest song. Did you know him?

No. I didn’t really even know the circumstances around his death until the civil trial brought it back into the public consciousness. And that was when I got pretty wound up. A jury of non-San Franciscans decided that 59 shots by four policemen was not excessive force, which asks the question: Exactly how many bullets would it have taken for it to be excessive force? And there’s a larger story: you could look at Alex Nieto’s death as the direct result of gentrification in San Francisco.

Can you elaborate on that?

You’ve got Alex Nieto, a 28-year-old practicing Buddhist who was walking through Bernal Heights Park -- the neighborhood that he grew up in -- eating a burrito. And a young techie who lives in the neighborhood was walking his dog without a leash and there was some kind of altercation. The techie felt threatened because Alex Nieto was wearing a taser on his belt –he was a bouncer at a nightclub and was on his way to work. The techie went down the hill and texted his friend that there’s a guy up there acting really weird; he’s got a gun and he’s in a gang. People who are new to the city can be insensitive and entitled. They’re paying so much for their studio apartments that they feel the park is their park. One thing leads to another; the cops show up --he didn’t deserve to die. It’s about cultures, and it’s about people being insensitive

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You’re a film enthusiast, who makes his own videos. What’s in your pantheon?

I’m lucky to have grown up in the '70s, the great era of Scorsese and other auteurs, and I was also around in the '80s and '90s for the kind of rise of the post-Sundance independent movie scene. I like to find obscure movies that people haven’t seen like Out of the Blue was a great Dennis Hopper film that I encourage people to seek out, as is The Object of Beauty. That’s kind of what I’m best at.

Is there anything you’ve really liked in the last year?

I thought that Moonlight was really moving and it sort of restored my faith that you could tell original stories about people that aren’t skinny and white and straight. It was a very interesting story told in an incredibly original way. 

The music videos you make are fascinating. Ever since I saw the video for “You Did,” I’ve wanted to ask whether you regularly creep around in a balaclava and a headlamp?

[Laughs] Oh no. I’m a big fan of the show Chopped -- actually, [host] Ted Allen and I have gotten to know each other a little bit. These videos I make are like an episode of Chopped. It’s like, "Hey, man, I got a hotel room, a camera and I’ve got this spacesuit that I got from a prop store." We try to figure things out cinematic things we can do based on things that are just laying around. It’s definitely Roger Corman school. They’re not so much low-budget videos as no budget videos.

The video for “Your Skin” is like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom meets Office Space meets Rosemary’s Baby.

I worked with a director named Nesto on that one. I actually don’t know what his real name is, but I think he likes to protect himself from the fact that he has like a real job. I was going to L.A. for a day, and there are these sets in Burbank that you can rent. They’ve got a hospital room, and a bar, and we were like, “We could do something with the office space. And so the video was shot in an office space with a handful of acting hopefuls that we got off Craigslist

Is there any chance that Green on Red might get together again for a tour?

There’s always talk about getting together. For me, it’s never say never, although I would love to have a new batch of songs that we were excited about. I was really blown away by the quality of the New York Dolls records that they made after their reunion. Look, we’re still out there. We’re close like estranged brothers are.

Will your live shows address the political turmoil we’re living through right now, or are you going onstage to help people forget the crazy world in which we now live?

I would say that if the songwriter is doing his job, his point of view is going to be somewhere in those songs. But I’m not preaching to anybody, and I’m not there to bum anybody out. I’m not really a political person. We definitely are excited about these tour dates and the band is playing so great it’s just a joyride to be out there with the Mission Express every night. If you think you lost your faith in rock and roll and you want to get it back give us a shot.