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The first thing you notice talking to Chuck Prophet, naturally, is his voice. Not so much the way it sounds -- a raspy, unfettered bark -- but the attitude it projects. His is the tone of a polite cynic -- filled with gallows humor, self-deprecation and a world-weary indifference. The kind that seems logical given a lifetime of cult success and junkie excess.
The L.A.-born Prophet spent nearly a decade with '80s psychedelic cowboys turned roots avatars Green on Red, most of it riding shotgun with partner/singer Dan Stuart. By the time the group ground to a halt some nine years and 10 albums after it had begun, GOR had yielded a rabid underground following (especially in the U.K.), a vaunted critical legacy and little in terms of tangible success.
Meanwhile, Prophet had become the victim of the clichéd rock 'n' roll existence, plunged into the depths of a herculean heroin habit that left him at death's door.
But by the mid-'90s, life found Prophet clean, married and in the throes of a fruitful, if overlooked, solo career.
Terminally deadpan, the lanky guitarist brightens when discussing the genesis of his fifth and latest album, The Hurting Business -- a radical and triumphant departure from the journeyman country-rock of his past.
The idea for the record was hatched after Prophet returned home from a lengthy tour in support of 1997's Homemade Blood. In his mind, he had already conceived a loose-knit concept album which would take an aural shift away from the innately folkish charm and Exile-era Stones aphorisms that had marked his previous work.
"I had a sound in my head," recalls Prophet. "And I wanted to take a cinematic approach with it."
Prophet's primary influence in creating The Hurting Business wasn't musical, but rather inspired by Danish director Lars Von Trier's "Dogma 95" film movement. Stylistically rooted in naturalism and realism, Von Trier's pictures (most notably Breaking the Waves) focus on the vagaries of contemporary life, filmed without effects, using natural lighting and jarring movements provided by hand-held cameras.
To help him achieve a similarly original and vertiginous feel on wax, Prophet hooked up with Jacquire King, an engineer and desktop recording wizard who helped shape Tom Waits' grim-and-grand weeper Mule Variations.
"Part of working with him was a desire to get out of the normal staid studio recording process. We just kind of took my original four-track sketches of the songs and loaded them into the computer and were able to go in and add and cut stuff wherever we wanted."
Prophet also strove to match the organic feel of the Dogma style by capturing a natural ambiance on his vocal tracks, recording them everywhere from the front seat of his car to a bathroom stall. "I've never been one to require mood lighting or candles when I sing," he notes with a chuckle. "But sometimes you do feel the need to extend the mike cable a little bit so you can get that same feeling you get when you're sitting there singing by yourself."
To complete his vision, Prophet decided he needed something more than the jagged guitar chords he'd long relied on. He found what he sought in the lexicon of electronic music -- the stutters and starts of turntables and elasticized grooves of machine-made beats.
"It's at the point where people are taking traditional songwriting or traditional structures and figuring out ways to twist and turn them sideways. That's always the fun part -- kicking the song around and wrestling with it. Seeing how much you can beat it up beyond recognition before it gets worse."
Much of Business is augmented by loops, scratching and the occasional sample -- the bulk of them provided by prominent Bay Area turntablist DJ Rise. The album's cut-and-paste fusion teems with an overall quality that mimics the laid-back jazz cool and foreboding sonic textures of Portishead and the Sneaker Pimps.
While the move may smack of an aging roots-rocker's bid for postmodern relevancy, Prophet incorporates the subtle electronic touches so deftly, they seem less an intrusion or distraction than just another instrument at his disposal.
If anything, the songs lend themselves to such tinkering as Prophet's effort comes off more memorably than Joe Strummer's Rock, Art and the X-Ray Style, and more genuine than the Stones' Bridges to Babylonflirtations with the Dust Brothers -- both forays by traditional rockers into similar loop-and-sample territory.
But beyond modern accouterments, the foundation of The Hurting Business is rooted in a bedrock of deep soul sounds -- black and white, North and South. Songs that draw on greasy R&B, from Muscle Shoals to Harlem, and a strain of late '60s country/pop that Prophet calls "housewife goth." "Bobbie Gentry, Tom T. Hall, Dusty Springfield, Jimmy Webb -- all the great story songs from that era."
Consequently, there is a heavy emphasis on craft. Half the album's 12 songs clock in at three minutes or less, a structure that Prophet regards as vital to the essence of his work.