Dick Prall – The Sound of Integrity

I met Dick Prall a few minutes before his show at Schubas Tavern in Chicago, and even before listening to his set I already knew that I wanted to interview him. See, Prall comes from a very special breed of musicians who manage to remain true to their trade no matter what life throws at them. As a career musician, he has lived through the good, the bad and the ugly side of the music industry and somehow has managed to come out better for it all. Equipped with musical pheromones, his charm and hooky porch-pop melodies are nothing short of intoxicating. All told, his career is a testament to the notion that the time and energy spent following a passion can be rewarded by the simple silent satisfaction of being personally fulfilled.

In his latest self-produced EP, Inc., Prall shows us once again that he is able to deftly switch gears at no cost to his integrity. For the naive ear, Inc. will probably sound like one of Prall's more aggressive creations. The EP definitely has a certain amount of cockiness, clear from the opening track "Feeler" as Prall writes, "I'm a great feeler/ a medical prize find/ unlimited insight/ I know what's better for you." But Inc. is not about Prall giving the finger to the world, and other songs like "Saline" and “Little Holes" set a refreshing and flowing tempo to the record that help to balance some of the intensity of the content. The EP really culminates in the ginger-glazed melody of "The Last One" which is reminiscent of a Morrissey-like wittiness where incongruent rhythm and lyrics tell us separate stories. Inc. is a clever and candid album where frustration and anger with the shady and phony side of the industry are channeled into a cohesive and remarkably pleasant set of songs.

Photo by Amanda Farah

I caught up with Prall a few days after his concert at Schubas to talk about his new EP. We also talked about life on the road, his ongoing house tour and the departure from the band of his good friend and guitarist Aaron Bakker.

You did a lot of things in life before you became a musician. In fact, you learned to play the guitar late into your twenties. When did you realize you wanted to focus on music?

Prall: Where I grew up [in Sheffield, Iowa] there was no real outlet for music, or at least I didn't know anyone who played guitar or drums to any caliber that would really influence you or get you excited about it. When I moved out to Denver, Colorado in my early twenties I started singing in some bands and that's where I pretty much got the bug. I sang in a couple of bands but it was nothing super serious. When I moved back home to Iowa in ‘93, I was living in Cedar Rapids just a few kilometers from Iowa City where the University is located and where all kinds of bands were passing through. I got exposed to a lot of new music, and this is where I got my footing and things really started to happen. I was about twenty-six when I bought my first guitar and taught myself how to play. Soon after I started playing and singing in different bands, and in ‘98 I put out my first record.

How important was it for you to release this first album? How did things change after that?

Prall: The first record I really did to the extent that it was possible... I mean while keeping a job and paying my bills and all that stuff. But the more I got into writing, performing and recording, the harder it started to hit me that music was something I really wanted to do for the rest of my life. Still... there were lots of other things going on. I got married around the same time of the release but my wife and I ended up splitting when my daughter was about one year old. I guess that for a while I just continued to play and put out albums. As momentum sort of picked up from about 2005 onwards, I realized that if I wanted to stick with music then I should make a leap and do it full time. This is pretty much where I am at the moment. I try to write and play as much as I can, and whenever I have the chance I record some of it. Nowadays, I know I want to make a living making music and thankfully I am able to do it. I got married again a couple of years ago and my wife and family are extremely supportive. This is what allows me to keep going.

What were some of your first influences?

Prall: There is nothing real concrete. I always listened to the radio and to what we now call "independent music," but back then we just called modern rock or college rock. I actually taught myself to play and very early on I was encouraged to follow my own style both in terms of playing and writing. Don't get me wrong - you definitely have your influences. Early in my career when I was writing I remember thinking, "What would Matthew Sweet, Buddy Holly or the Jayhawks do here?” but in time you kind of develop your own style. I think that pretty much my entire career has developed this way, with me doing whatever felt good at the moment. Not to sound cliché, but I was never too worried about what other people were thinking, or if something is "technically" correct. This is not about being careless but about doing something that feels good on a personal level, and not worrying too much about how it will be accepted.

When I met you at Schubas it was your last concert playing with guitar prodigy Aaron Bakker. I have to admit that it was quite amazing to watch the two of you performing together. You guys definitely had some chemistry but beyond that it really looked like you were having fun. What do you do now that he is leaving? Do you have any plans in terms of finding a replacement?

Prall: It is tough... in a way I'm still shocked that he is leaving, so I haven't really been trying to replace him. Aaron is just one of these guys who is very versatile and my music can also be quite diverse, so it was really a prize to have him on board. He could play any style and, more importantly, he was open to new things. As a player I learned quite a lot from him. To tell you the truth... at this moment I don't know what I'm gonna do. I might try to find a replacement later on, but right now I'm still kind of in the "postmortem" stage of his departure. One thing I know for sure is that I probably won't try to replace him in the sense of emulating what he brought to my music. I don't think I can do that. This is good in the sense that it puts me in the spot where I can take my future projects in a new direction. If one day his position gets filled, I want it to be as organic as possible. I definitely don't want to sit down and audition a bunch of people. That is just a drag. I met Aaron through friends and our friendship was a very organic thing, and that for me is a critical component when you're playing in a band.

Why he is leaving? Where is he going?

Prall: He is smart and he is actually going to Los Angeles to do some soundtrack and studio work. He is so talented that I actually see him touring with some heavy hitting artists, and he definitely has a long and successful future ahead of him. I think that he made a very good decision to go and I encourage him and want the best for him.

After your concert at Schubas I was able to pick up a copy of your new EP Inc. The EP definitely feels like a Dick Prall creation, but I also feel that the sound and the general intention behind the music is very different from your previous work on Weightless. There is some cynicism and a general blasé attitude that is mixed in with a sense of pride... all of which becomes more and more apparent as you progress through the songs. How is this record different from Weightless?

Prall: Weightless was a record that almost didn't happen. At that time, I was in a spot where I really didn’t know what was going on... I definitely didn’t have all the money to put on an independent release and then Authentic Records came along and wanted to do something and it just sort of happened. It was interesting because I did a lot of the writing for that record in the studio and this was something new to me. Usually I go to the studio with a good idea of what I want my songs to sound like, but at that time I had about half of the songs written when we started and finished the other half in the studio. It was a great process in that sense because Weightless became kind of an experiment for me. Usually when I write, I tend to do it from my point of view, but I found that as I was putting Weightless together it was becoming more and more about looking outside and finding things that did not directly have to do with my life and experiences. Weightless was definitely more of an "observational" record.

How is this different from Inc.? What was your mood or inspiration when writing and arranging for Inc.?

Prall: Truth be told there is probably some anger in the new EP, but I see it more like disappointment and not just with the music industry but with some people I came across over the last couple of years working as a musician. I kind of just wanted to speak to that with this EP and use it in a way that would purge all this negative energy with a specific type of sound.

One of my favorite songs in the EP is "The Last One." The song has this The Smiths "Girlfriend in a Coma" vibe where you have this great little happy melody that is completely at odds with what you are actually singing. What's "The Last One" really about?

Prall: Yeah, musically I wanted to create this kind of pleasant melody but the song is really about me being aware of people that you come across in the music industry who are, for the lack of a better word, full of shit. I mean... if you're gonna give me some bad news, I'd rather you be honest and direct about it rather than tell me lies so I could feel good and keep my spirits up. I value honesty and transparency, and the double-sidedness of that song is kind of speaking to that. You know, "don't tell me you're my friend while you're clearly stabbing me in the back." That is what the "Hammer and a heart held in both hands" reference in the song is about. It is about people who pretty much have your livelihood in their hands and kind of don't handle it in the right way. I definitely don't want this record to make me come out as whiny about everything that has happened, but it is certainly a reaction to a couple of things that happened in the past.

So, what’s up with the cover for Inc.?

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Prall: I'm delicate about this because I don't really want to offend anybody... but it is really a tongue-in-cheek slam on the whole hipster indie scene. I’ve kind of reached this stage where I know that no matter what I’ll keep doing what I love.

If I understand correctly, Inc. is the first of two EPs. Do these recordings share anything in common? How come you decided to go for two EPs instead of a full studio album?

Prall: This was my first time taking on all the production duties not just only for the sake of saving money and time, but also as an experience. It was my crack at doing something like that and I was curious to know how it was going to come out. I feel that as a musician you need to try and figure out some of these things. If the EP totally sucked or people did not like it then it would be a sign that maybe I should not be producing - it's just as simple as that. But I wanted to try, and to tell you the truth I'm happy with it. As someone who has been writing and playing this was something new. I certainly have lots to learn, but you have to start somewhere and an EP is just an easier way to sample this.

So what are your plans for the next EP? Do you have a date in mind for the release?

Prall: I'm not sure yet. I have a habit of shifting artistic gears on folks from record to record and I'm not sure if it's a good or a bad thing. At the moment I have some ideas but you never know how these things will change. I don't have a date yet... I'm hoping to get it out before the end of the summer but we'll have to wait and see how things go.

You attract a pretty diverse crowd to your concerts, and your music certainly appeals to people of different ages. Is this something you have in mind when writing or is it just a consequence of your musical ADHD and your tendency to shift styles between albums?

Prall: I think it's kind of natural thing. You know, my listening is diverse and I'm influenced by a bunch of things. I love The Smiths and I also love The Cult. There are days I listen to Elliot Smith and Verbena and other days I'm into other stuff. What I'm trying to say is that I get bored very easy if I find myself writing stuff that sounds like something I've done in the past. In the end, I think that most people’s interests are very diverse and that's why the crowds at my concerts can vary. I think that if I had developed an image that was much more "surgical" than you would see a kind of more general audience. But for me this is not what music is about. I'm not trying to create something specific because then I wouldn't be true to myself. It just isn't me. If all my records sound the same, then what's the point?

Just to get back to influences on your work - one the first songs that caught my attention in your Weightless album was "Halfway to Hollywood" and right away I thought this guy has a nice Elvis Costello thing going on. What kind of music attracts you now? What are you listening to at the moment that really captivates you?

Prall: To tell you the truth, lately I've been mainly feeding off what other people play to me. I really like the new Freelance Whales record. It is very clever, very pop and just an overall great record. I'm also into the White Rabbits and Spoon - these are just awesome bands. Spoon in particular; I really admire how their songs are arranged. Their songs just tend to mesh so well and sometimes I find myself thinking that maybe I shouldn't overcomplicate my own stuff. I'm not calling them simplistic in any way, but what I get from bands like them is that maybe sometimes it's good to scale songs down to simpler and more coherent pieces.

This summer you're embarking once again into the intimate world of "house tours." I know you've done this before and you had some incredible experiences but what exactly is a Dick Prall house gig? How did this idea come about?

Prall: A few years ago my old manager came up to me and said, "Someone wants you to play a house concert" and I was like, "I have no idea what a house concert is... sounds a little creepy." Basically, somebody invites you to their home to play an intimate private show for them and a couple of friends, and you get to hang out and meet new people. Really, that's pretty much it. I did the first one and it was fantastic. I got to meet a lot of new people and fans in a different context - away from that venue vibe that can sometimes be a little alienating. Last year when I did not have a new record out and did not want to do a full venue tour, I got a bunch of requests and ended up spending a couple of months just doing house tours. These were in all sorts of places from living rooms to backyards, garages and even alleys depending on the location and the size of the crowd. It’s a lot of fun and people are always really sweet and accommodating.

This sounds like a really cool idea, but also something that can go awfully wrong. I say this because fans can definitely get weird. Have you had any awkward experiences playing and staying at a complete stranger’s house?

Prall: Like any other thing in the beginning it can get a little awkward. You show up by yourself to a new place and you don't really know anyone and it’s a little weird because you become the focal point. But once you sit down and start chatting it kind of goes away. So far it has been a lot of fun and very different from my venue tours and I've really not had any weird experiences.

I usually ask this question to most of the artists I interview, but I think that given your different experiences with the music industry you're one of the better candidates to answer. MadeLoud is an indie music website that is always looking to help up-and-coming artists, and I'm just wondering what is the best piece of advice you have for them?

Prall: I think it’s important to figure out pretty early on what you want to achieve or gain on a personal level out of your music. I think you have to be realistic about this when starting up. Visions of rock star fame and playing on national TV and all that stuff are appealing and if it happens, then great, but it should also be clear right from the start that the focus is the music and the craft of songwriting. Nowadays, record labels are kind of dying so it's also important to try and establish partnerships with people that support you and allow you to develop. The beauty about today is that you're no longer so dependent on labels. You can record from home with really minimal equipment and put it on a CD or share it on the web. Distribution, which was somewhat important before, is really no longer an issue. Once you have a product then it is up to you to go out there and tour your ass off. I think this is the key. Unless you're writing songs that will get licensed and thrown into movies and commercials, it comes down to being a trooper and going out there and playing, getting feedback, and making fans and friends. The bottom line for anybody doing this is to do it because you love it and not because there is a chance you will make money or because you need some type of personal accolade. It is a personal mission and it is up to you to make the best out of it. You'll definitely have fun but also know what you're getting into and that there will be times when things are going to get really hard, and when that happens you just have to push on. I envy people that can do music for a while, they play in bands for a few years and then they get off the train and go live their lives in a different way. I tried that and I was unhappy. I was earning more money and I was more settled and comfortable on the outside... inside, however, I was unhappy because I wasn't playing and writing.

As a father I suspect that it is very important for you to find this balance between being a touring musician and spending time with your daughter. I recently read an article on Daytrotter where you mentioned your relationship with her and how this has matured over the years. She is clearly a significant part of your life and something that you’re always careful to mention during your interviews. How important is it for you as a "career" musician to receive her support?

Prall: I mean... family and close friends are the people who’ll be around for the rest of my life, and their influence and their point of view are absolutely precious to me. This is particularly the case with my daughter. It is a tough situation when you want to be an artist and you also want to be successful to the point where you can provide things for the people you love. I don't necessarily mean showering them with gifts but providing them with the basics and making them happy. With my daughter it is tough because I can't give her everything that I want, but thankfully her mother, my ex-wife, is able to complement it. This doesn't make me envious... I actually think it is fantastic and I’m very happy for both of them. These are the types of things that certainly allow me to continue doing music to the extent that I'm doing it now. That said, it does wear on me sometimes. But when I was thinking of ending my career as a musician, my daughter - who at the time was eight - called me out on it! She told me, "Dad, I know this is who you are. I know that sometimes we don't see each other because you're on the road... but that's who you are!" I was happy that she understood that aspect of my life. I don't want to get philosophical here, but there are many people I know who live comfortable lives but are not really fulfilled or happy because they are not doing what they love. So yes, it was important for me to hear that kind of support and also important for her to understand early on in her life that it actually matters to be true to yourself. If you're not happy, you can't make the people around you happy. It's just that simple.

Make sure you tune in on September 3rd when Dick Prall, like a good Midwestern boy, will be singing the national anthem for the Cubs at Wrigley field.


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