'I have a problem, Chuck.
"What's the problem, Eric?"
"Y'see, when you're a music writer, it's kind of mandatory to describe the music of the person you're writing about, so the reader will get a feel for it. Problem is, I can't really get a bead on your music. So maybe you can help me. How would you describe it?"
Chuck Prophet lets out a little chuckle. "I can't do your job for you, man."
Fair enough. But then Chuck Prophet tries. Sort of.
"I feel like, as a songwriter, I'm a traditionalist," he says gamely. "I'm always looking for new characters, and new ways to turn them inside out. It's American music, in the sense that it's not European music, that the music is not played as it's written on the page. The songs are living, breathing creatures."
Well, at least we've cast a wide enough net.
Back to me. Here goes: I put Prophet in an elite clan of artists —among them Joe Henry, Los Lobos and Alejandro Escovedo — who make quintessentially American music that involves so many influences that it's ultimately genre free. Prophet's latest album, last year's No Other Love (New West), mixes and matches dark pop, blues shuffles, stompin' rock 'n' roll, stately ballads, folk, Stonesy boogie, a whiff of country and way more, most of it filtered through a mood that's smoky and sardonic.
Prophet delivers these songs in a rumbling, cigarette-addled baritone that can be at turns tough and tender. It's a voice tailor-made for his songs, which are populated by colorful losers and freaks, rife with keen insight and hard-boiled narratives.
He's also an expert soundscapist. As his own producer, Prophet has a knack for picking instruments and sounds that enhance a song's character. No Other Love is decorated with Farfisa organ, vibes, Spaghetti Western guitar, quirky vocal samples, Middle Eastern strings, drum loops and other sonic filigree. "You do try to find ways to capture the right mood for a song," he says. "Sometimes it can be as simple as, 'I tell ya one thing; we're gonna need a pedal steel on this,' or, 'I'll tell ya one thing; we're gonna need a string quartet.' Other times it's more elusive. Great records are made up of things that add to the song. Try to imagine 'Good Vibrations' without the theremin. That's what you're looking for."
Because Prophet's music is naturally averse to category, it tends to lurk just outside the easy grasp of radio formats. That's why it came as something of a surprise last year when "Summertime Thing," which is about as warm and buoyant as a Prophet song gets, made it onto the upper reaches of the adult alternative charts. "It was just great," he says. "It had a profound effect on things here at Chuck Prophet Inc. It was cool to actually get our skinny foot in the door of pop culture for 10 minutes, to reach out and take some new prisoners."
Growing up in an area of Southern California where Los Angeles gives way to suburban Orange County, Prophet never set his sights on his 10 minutes of fame, let alone 15. "I think that I just grew up in a time where everyone's older sister had a folk guitar," says Prophet, who's in his late 30s. "It was before video games and things like that, so people played guitar. But I never looked at music, even when I was in punk bands in high school, as a vocation at all. Never thought of it that way. I was just putting off adulthood."
Prophet checked out Fear and Agent Orange and Dead Kennedys and saw Black Flag "when Henry Rollins was still working at Haagen Daz." He dug Mike Ness, from nearby Fullerton. "Once I'd played guitar a little while," he says, "the concept of getting a band together and making up songs and having this guerilla attack to gigs — in Orange County you put gigs on anywhere, in a laundromat, just take it over, there was no organized way to do it. That was completely inspiring to me."
Ultimately, Prophet was drawn to the rootsier side of the punk street, and ended up in the cult band Green on Red, a pioneering act in the alt-country movement. "We made a bunch of records and went around the world," Prophet says with a hint of weariness in his voice. "We learned how to drink lying down and sleep sitting up. We pretty much achieved all of our Route 66 fantasies around the globe. I figured being in a band was an adolescent thing, that you can only carry it so far into adulthood."
With Green on Red long gone, "I never thought about being in another band," he says. "I've had a revolving door of musicians working with me, and that's been difficult at times. But you can't break me up. I can't be broken up. I tried to break myself up, but I couldn't."
Chuck Prophet and his band will play the Cuban Club Patio at 10:40 p.m.