Chuck Prophet’s last name is appropriate these days. There’s a streak of the street preacher in the San Francisco rock 'n' roller, warning us of our sins on his newest album, Night Surfer. But that’s not to say this gravelly voiced San Franciscan has forgotten how to play a mean guitar.
I talked to Prophet earlier this week for The Do List about his new album, the influx of money in San Francisco, and the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones.
Your last album, 2012’s Temple Beautiful, celebrated the San Francisco of decades past. What has changed?
Temple Beautiful was kind of a love letter to SF and its people and history. And I just wandered off into a kind of dystopian theme, a sort of science fiction headspace about the future. And I kind of look around and, you know, I’m living in a city that’s in some ways under siege. And I imagine what’s it going to be like if I look into the future 20 years.
And I played with that idea, and I ended up doing this kind of glam-rock album called Night Surfer, which delivered some of the grandiosity that was probably missing from Temple Beautiful, because Temple Beautiful was basically a stripped-back record, with just two guitars, bass and drums. So on this record, we’ve got strings and horns and some kind of prog-rock and arena-rock guitars. So we just had fun with it.
How is it that San Francisco is becoming a dystopia?
I think the dystopia could be getting dragged into this big money trap, of cities like London, and Paris, and New York, where only the rich need apply. Lucky for me, we go out and tour the world, and we’ve been to Spain, where unemployment levels are just unthinkable, especially if you’re young. So I guess if you’re riding the gravy train, San Francisco’s problems are the problems to have.
It’s hard for me to just be a big crank about it. I’ve got all kinds of Apple products everywhere, and I even think I did the album cover with an iPhone photograph. We’re just living in an anxious time here in San Francisco, that’s all.
I didn’t hear any songs on the album where you’re singing “Down with Google buses.”
No, but I applaud anybody who’s creative enough to lay down in front of a Google bus. I think growth is normal, but when it’s unchecked it gets pretty dangerous. I live here in the Castro, lived here for 20 years or so in the same place, with my wife, for 20 years, and we do see the Castro being turned into a strip mall. And luckily we have a great neighborhood association, which got Chipotle out of the neighborhood.
Then again, it’s rock and roll. It’s not journalism. We don’t exactly have a fact-checker. But I think there’s an anxious spirit to it.
Some of your compatriots have moved to Los Angeles or Vallejo, where it’s cheaper.
How come you stick around?
Probably rent control. We live a very simple life, and I just love this city. It’s been an education for me. Because I grew up in a suburb of LA,, where on my grammar school field trip they took us to Richard Nixon’s first law office. And I grew up in a household where I begged for guitar lessons, and my dad, one Saturday, took me for golfing lessons.
Where did the new album title come from?
I had a song that got discarded called "Night Surfing," and someone in the studio just started referring to me as the Night Surfer. And actually, when I was growing up as a kid, I used to surf at Huntington Pier in Orange County at night. We had an older friend in the neighborhood who would drop me and some friends off at the Pier when we were 14, and we would just stay up all night, surfing the Huntington Pier. You know, there’s lights, so it’s not totally dangerous. But to think about it now and wonder, where were the parents? At a certain age, you feel immortal.
What happened to the song, why isn’t it on the new album?
Just one of those songs that didn’t behave, it didn’t assert itself. You know, you have to stand up for yourself if you want to make the cut on a Chuck Prophet record.
Tell me about the first song: “Countrified Inner-City Technological Man." Is that you?
Yeah, I always wanted one of those long titles. I was just walking around 16th and Mission, and I kind of wrote that in my head, and by the time I got to Market and Noe, I had the first and second verse, and got in the house and finished it. Yeah. It was a good day.
So Temple Beautiful was very stripped down. This new album has horns and strings. Why the change?
Every album is a reaction to the last one. This time around, we just wanted to glam it up a bit.
You finish with the song “Love is the Only Thing.” Why is that the last song on the album?
That song actually got left off Temple Beautiful, and it just got to that verse, “There's a rainbow in the gutter, dew drops on the shutters.” And it just felt like it was the final scene in the movie. Like when Charlton Heston was shaking his fist at the Statue of Liberty.
The title, “Love is the Only Thing,” sounds very Beatles, but the song sounds more Rolling Stones.