Interview: Chuck Prophet talks covering London Calling and meeting Joe Strummer
January 27, 2011
Written by Ben Van Houten
Photo by Charlie Homo
Joined by Chris von Sneidern and The Park, Chuck Prophet toured Spain recently, performing The Clash’s classic
second third album, London Calling, in its entirety as the band “Spanish Bombs.” For a guy known as a great singer-songwriter, a covers tour might be something of a surprise, until you consider the fact that Prophet’s undoubtedly going to offer his unique imprint on any piece of music he plays, regardless of who originally wrote it.
For those of us who missed the Spanish run, Prophet and the band are doing their take on London Calling locally for one night only at the Great American Music Hall on Saturday, January 29th (9pm, $17). Opening the show are The Titan Ups, who will be performing The Specials’ debut album. A portion of proceeds from the show will benefit Food Not Bombs.
Via e-mail, Chuck described his thoughts on London Calling and why, ultimately, he prefers myth over truth.
The Bay Bridged: What inspired you to tackle London Calling in its entirety?
Chuck Prophet: London Calling is inspired and inspiring. London Calling is where the Clash dove in and embraced all the music around them. It’s a roots rock record in many ways. World Music too, I suppose. They seemed to have one eye on the road ahead and one in the rear-view mirror for any meat disguised as road kill. London Calling is where The Clash dipped their buckets into the well. It was a deep well full of musical traditions (country and western, Jamaican, Glam Rock, Rockabilly, Ska, Blues, R n B, folk etc). They weren’t afraid to drink what they pulled up. We’re trying to do the same.
What is the most underrated song on London Calling and why?
That’s hard to say. Even the tossed off songs and covers all have their place. They parked their ride at the fucked-up intersection of unemployment, young adulthood, desperation and alcoholism. It was about survival. But I’d agree with anyone who says that every song on that record is underrated.
What song is the most fun to play live?
My favorite to play is usually the one I’m in the middle of.
Did you initially approach playing the album with a certain angle in mind?
We’ve added and taken away from the recipe for sure. It can’t be reproduced scientifically. We’ve changed the groove underneath some of the song’s feet. The essence of the song is what we’re after. We’re not afraid to bend them or break off a limb (or two) to fit into our body bags. We’re bringing Charlie back from Vietnam. They say Charlie can’t surf. We think he might have given the chance.
Did you see the Clash live?
I saw the Cut the Crap tour here in SF at the Bill Graham Civic. Not their finest hour. But I met Joe Strummer ’round that time at KUSF radio station. Me and some friends went over there and hung out one evening while Howie Klein was DJing and Joe was picking out records. I recall him pulling out Elvis’s Sun Sessions from the KUSF library. They let us hang around. Joe seemed to enjoy holding court for us. Now KUSF and so many stations around America have fallen prey to the corporate mentality. That precious bandwave is just worth so much stupid money now. It’s really heartbreaking to see these stations that united the community in diversity passed around like cheap whores sweating in church.
Could you offer some general sense of how your take on the album differs from The Clash’s?
Well, the reggae songs are difficult. Kind of. Most of the songs just play themselves. And if you take a look at the videos floating around out there I hope it’s obvious to see we were having so much fun. I’m not so sure they were having as much of a joy ride as we did.
How did the tour of Spain come about? How did Spaniards react to the show?
The invitation came from the Festival Actual promoter in Spain and I took the bait. Said, if Chris von Sneidern will do it, I’ll do it. CV was in. Next up we roped in The Park kids. (SF’s mercenaries-for-hire rhythm section). Dangerous young men.
The Spaniards love it. That national pride thing goes a long way. Spanish Bombs and Lorca and all the Spanish content in the lyrics. They love it. That turned out to just be dumb luck. Didn’t really see that coming.
Has this experience inspired you tackle other classic albums, or other albums by The Clash? Dare you tackle Sandinista! in its entirety?
Probably not. I’ve done Waylon Jennings and The Clash – I don’t think I’ll push my luck. Any other questions?
Yes, how much do you tip?
Oh, ah, I tip 20% and I always round up.
So this is your story and you’re sticking to it?
Art is the lie that always tells the truth. So Picasso said — his last words, they teach you in art school — and I’m in Spain so, that’s worth something, right? I’ll always take the myth over the truth. And a good myth will eventually be true. Everything is true eventually. And that. My man. That is advanced physics (or at least something like it).
Note: a few of the above questions were asked and answered by Mr. Prophet himself, but I’m certainly not going to challenge the man’s method.