Electric Prunes: As It Was, And Is Again
Interview and introduction by Daniel Coston
originally published in the winter 2014 print edition of the Big Takeover Magazine
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: Let's go back to the start. What got you into playing music?
James 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: You often played an autoharp on the albums, and on stage. How did pick up the autoharp, and did you have trouble having the autoharp heard onstage?
Lowe: We used the autoharp on the records for shimmer, and I was given a Summit stereo autoharp by that company that plugged into the amps. So I was able to use effects on it, as well. The guitars were usually very loud so I didn't make a blazing impression with it, but it did sound dreamy at times, and it looked kinda cool. I was originally a guitar player in the band, but the management thought it was better to use the autoharp. They must have heard me play the guitar!
Coston: What kind of effects pedals, or amps did the Prunes use onstage back then?
Lowe: Homemade things, in some cases, but we did manage to get the first Wa Wa and Fuzztone units to try. We also used a VOX organ guitar on a few things. We leaned on the vibrato and tremolo mostl,y since we wanted it to sound spacy and a bit time delayed. Mmost of the amps had different versions of these same effects. The Magnatone amp had a watery tremolo, where the Fenders were a little more sawtooth sounding. I would sing into the drum of a Leslie cabinet from time to time. I like that sound a lot. We also had some watery sounding foot pedals Ken's dad made us.
Coston: Talk about some of the bands you toured with, and your favorites to tour with?
Lowe: We played with Cream, Who, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, Steppenwolf, Turtles, Question Mark, Soft Machine, Kula Shakur, Sunshine Company, Box Tops, Seeds, Beach Boys, Left Banke, Lovin' Spoonfull, Chocolate Watchband, Strawberry Alarm Clock, LOVE, Blues Magoos, Arthur Brown, Pierre Ubu, Damned. People think because you play with someone you become friends, actually many times you don't even speak or get to hear their set. You are preparing for your set as they play and the same holds for them. We have found most of the acts we have shared the stage with have been nice guys. I think the American bands have less attitude than the Euro's but that's just part of their charm. Everyone is in the same boat with you, so any attitudes fade in time.
Coston: Talk a little bit about touring with the Beach Boys.
Lowe: We liked touring with them. They were about the business more than most. Quick set ups and tear downs. It was funny to watch the thing tighten up when the wives showed up at a gig. Throw on the brakes! We just played and slept on that one. We wanted to avoid the party if we could. The other band's were cool, all trying to make a mark. Question Mark, Keith, Left Banke. It was a good time.
Coston: How did the Prunes write songs back then? On the road? At home? Do you write songs any differently now?
Lowe: You never had much time in LA to write, so you were forced to lay down ideas on the road, and then try to remember what you meant when you got home to record. We usually took a few days between Mark and I to order and reorder our new things just before we came home. Some things had no lyrics or titles until we put down the basic tracks.
Today we would do the same on the road in a van, but the computer is the way we send ideas back and forth in LA. Mark would add a line, I would add a line, or we would suggest an idea of what the song was about if it had been musically realized first. This led to "what 's this going to be about?" many times. Sometimes we would have a title and a few lines or a very strong idea, like "African Bees" "they peer in your windows and pee in your trees" and then we would come up with some music after the poem was written.
Coston: The Stockholm 1967 recording is a remarkable document of the Prunes at that time. What do you remember from that show, and that tour?
Lowe: We didn't know about the recording for years. They (Swedish Broadcast Network) had asked before the show if they could record it and I said NO. Somehow they pushed the button and red light went on? I found out about it from my son, years later. Simon Edwards championed the record on his Heartbeat label around 2000. The Nice were with us on the bill. Nice guys! It was a beautiful formal venue with red seats and good sound. This was the last night we played in Europe. I remember we didn't have an encore because we NEVER had an encore. We didn't do them. You can hear the audience clapping but we went home. On the WaS album the live cut of "Bullet Thru The Backseat" from 2001 is the first encore we ever did. When we came back from the dead we decided to play them because everyone else was. This would be no excuse for my mom. If they jumped off a bridge, would you?
Coston: During the Stockholm show, you apologized for what the US government was doing in Vietnam. Was it strange to be an American overseas during that time, while being against what was going on in the US?
Lowe: We ran into a very hostile audience in Amsterdam before this so we were a bit prepared. They stole our fuzztone unit (a cool guy got ahold of me in 2001 and admitted his friend had done it). I flipped them off because they were actin' so crazy and we walked off. We were never a political band and didn't even pay attention to those things to be honest. We were not sure of what was even going on but there was no doubt we were not for war. I felt after Amsterdam I should at least address it. I remember wondering if I would get a visit from the MAN after saying that. I never did.
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: The Nuggets compilation put "Too Much To Dream" as song number one of the collection, and introduced a lot of people to the Prunes. When did you first hear the Nuggets collection, and what did you think of it?
Lowe: Years after it was out. My son, again. I never told people I was in the band after we split so no one knew to tell me, I guess? When friends found out they told me about Nuggets, but I dismissed it as probably not true. I was happy when I actually heard it, and got to thank Lenny Kaye in person in NY.
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: I saw and photographed you at Garagefest at Randall's Island, NY in 2004. You guys only got to play two songs, but you were amazing. Bruce Springsteen cut in front of me to say hello to you! What do you remember about that show?
Lowe: Bruce Springsteen coming up to me afterward. I remember looking at his goetee and wondering who the hell he was? My wife was with me and clued me in. Mark was so pissed that he was not with me after the show, as he was a big Springsteen fan. PS, this guy stopped everything so Pamela could take a few pictures of us. First class person! I wished we could have played more that day. We WaS ready.
Coston: How did this new record come together?
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.
Mark had been playing with Billy Corgan and he wrote us a couple of songs that we recorded. I asked Billy if we could include them here but he never got back to me as I assembled the CD so they didn't make it on there. Too bad cuz they are cool songs.
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: Is it unfair to categorize the garage rock and psychedelic era of Rock & Roll? Looking back, it was a brief, yet fertile and diverse era of music. Did you even think of it as a genre?
Lowe: No. I thought we were playing Rock and Roll. It was what we grew up on and thought it was the music of freedom and you could say or play it any way you wanted. People were trying to hang a name on it to make it seem fresh but it was just Rock to us. Maybe we were wrong?
Coston: There are now multiple generations of Prunes fans. What is that like?
Lowe: Nothing is cooler than a dad bringing his son to a concert, or a letter from a young kid playing the guitar who wants to know about it all. Or getting input from people on the social media networks. I never expected anyone to even remember this stuff, so it has been my wonderful surprise from the past. We got a shot, that is what counts. I am happy I was in the band. Some good, some bad, like LIFE. Lemons or lemonade, what you make of it!
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.