Electric Prunes: As It Was, And Is Again
Interview and introduction by Daniel Coston
Of all the Garage Rock/Psychedelic bands of the 1960s that pushed the sonic envelope, few traveled more terrain than the Electric Prunes. Founded in California in 1965, their 1966 smash “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” was a call to arms of the new sonic wave to come. When the storied Garage/Psychedelic compilation Nuggets was released in 1972, “Too Much To Dream” opened the album, confirming its importance amongst fans and record collectors.
In 2010, Electric Prunes founding members James Lowe (vocals) and Mark Tulin (bass) began work on one more Electric Prunes album, simply entitled WaS. This collection of live and studio tracks was nearly derailed in 2011 when Tulin died while assisting in the Avalon Underwater Clean-Up in his native California. However, time and inspiration gave Lowe the chance to finish up WaS, and prepare himself and the Prunes for whatever comes next.
My thanks to James for this interview, which was done via email.
Daniel Coston: How did this new record come together?
James Lowe: Mark Tulin and I were working on collecting some things out of the past recordings, and finishing up things we had started for what WaS to be our last studio effort. His untimely death stopped me in my tracks on this project. I thought it might never be finished up. Then [the Prunes] went to play in Japan and I got inspired to [finish the album] since I knew I would be in LA for a month or so. I went through all the correspondence between Mark and I and found the interesting cuts to finish up. In some cases I left Mark's voice on the demos, I usually replaced him once we had decided on the lyrics. I thought it was more interesting to sing along in some cases and let him have the solo spot. We liked hearing our voices together on cuts so this seemed a natural extension. The order was the hardest part and a lot of early morning walks with the iPod and shuffling the order took place. Mark and I had done two songs Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins had written for us, but I could not get ahold of him in time to include them here. They are good cuts but I like what I ended up with. Steve Kara, our lead guitar player offered to help get this thing in the barn and he was invaluable with his studio and musical talent. Also Ken Eros, a cool engineer/guitarist would lend the special spice to master, play some e-bow and mix the last bit of this with me. Friends make life easier!
Coston: How much did Mark Tulin's death affect the overall sound, and feel of this record?
Lowe: Mark would let me do most of the decision work on the records, so it was not that different, except if you can't ask your partner how it is going you have to have the guts to push down the accelerator. I knew the cuts he liked and I stuck to the lyrics we had come up with for the demos. Sometimes he would get testy when I changed a favorite word or something, so I left it pretty much as we practiced and started the basic tracks. The hardest was selecting the things we both liked and having to leave some behind. It is always that way.
Coston: Talk about the partnership between you and Mark?
Lowe: We could finish each other's sentences, actually after all these years. Mark was the only other member that wanted to write songs so it was pretty easy to stay tight. Sometimes the song would start with me, sometimes mark. Sometimes just a title would spark it. Then we would get together a few weeks later and combine our ideas. I might say African Bees, then call him up and say, "they peer in your windows and pee in your trees". Mark would laugh and a few day later a line would come back at me. A cool way to work.
Coston: What were the inspirations (lyrical, and musically) for this new album?
Lowe: We always are aware of what our sound issues are so it is natural to play it as we always have musically. The band has always tried to take a side track to this stuff and we like it if you know it is us by the sound. The stories are as they have been, little pictures of things. If you don't get an image listening we have not done something right. I think we have some nice cuts on here.
Coston: What's next for you and the band?
Lowe: Probably playing some of this live would be in order if anyone will have us.
Coston: What are the differences between touring now, and in the 1960s?
Lowe: Nothing. You STILL get screwed out of the money. I would have thought this would have ended but it is still the norm.
Coston: Let's go back to the start. What got you into playing music?
Lowe: A friend played blues and folk music in Hawaii. I found it fascinating that you could move people with a guitar or banjo. I became hooked playing a few little clubs with him before the idea of a band ever came up.
Coston: How did the Prunes originally come together?
Lowe: I was looking to form a band and got Mark and Ken Williams right in high school. We rehearsed for a year on our own stuff and tried to get a record deal.
Coston: What were your happiest days with the band?
Lowe: When the single "I Had Too Much To Dream" came out and there was all this buzzzz. And you heard it in the radio. That was cool.
Coston: The Prunes' records sounded like a band that was pushing the envelope. How did you translate those sounds into a live setting?
Lowe: We knew we wanted to sound different. We tried overpowering with a lot of amps but came around to trying to get the sound with smaller stuff and pedals (that had started coming out at that time). Wah Wah.
Coston: What would you say are the definitive documents of what the Prunes sounded like?
Lowe: A garage band, I would say? We spent a lot of time in the garage. I think the style and sensibility has stayed he same across all our albums. Even this one. “Lost Dream”, “Too Much To Dream”, “Morphine Drip”, “Frozen Winter”, “Circus Freak”, “Tidal Wave”.
Coston: Was there a point in working with Dave Hassinger that you realized that he was taking over the band? [Hassinger used session musicians on Mass In F Minor and Release Of An Oath].
Lowe: Dave did the first album. If you notice we did the arrangements which in some cases WAS the production. He was distracted with Grateful Dead and we did Underground on our own, though he got producer credit. The Mass was David Axelrod's composition, so the arrangements were the key issue there again. Dave never owned the name, and never took over our sound. We had the ideas and I always ask why he couldn't do it with another group after us if he was that on?
Coston: Post-Prunes, you did a lot of studio engineering. What did you learn about music from those experiences?
Lowe: Yes. I did albums with Nazz, Todd Rundgren, Sparks, Amanda Shankar, James Cotton, Grapefruit, Limelighters. I learned I loved music from the studio perspective. It was construction and that is always fun. I learned also that the music can be splitting your ears and no one in the band can hear their instruments. Can you bring up the guitar??? Ha ha.
Coston: At what point did you say, "I want to be in the Electric Prunes again?"
Lowe: Mark and I mixed the Lost Dreams collection for David Katznelson and we liked the sound of the old tapes. I had a studio in my guesthouse so we decided to play a little again. That was 1999. We got kind of hung up. Ha
Coston: Looking back, what is the legacy of the band?
Lowe: Noise is OK. That's it! Come on by electricprunes67.com and give the new WaS CD a listen. You might be surprised at how little things have changed.