The Electric Prunes were one of the great rock bands to come from the West Coast during the back half of the 1960s. Their first two albums, I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) and Underground, both come highly recommended for their trailblazing sense of psychedelic experimentation which they layered on top of well-crafted pop songs. There’s also the archival live album, Stockholm ‘67, which showed a much tougher side of the band’s sound and is one of the better quality live recordings to come from that era. Buy them all. Now. After a long hiatus, the band reconvened in 1999 and have been releasing new music and playing shows ever since.
I recently interviewed their lead singer James Lowe via email…enjoy:
Midnight To Six: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
James Lowe: Everything from Perez Prado to Jerry Lee Lewis. Little Richard, Nervous Norvus, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, Gene Vincent and Gene Krupa. My parents liked music and on Friday nights we would go to the record store and each pick something.
MTS: How did you come to play the autoharp? Did the rest of the band have any apprehensions about using it in a rock context?
JL: I played it in school a little like most young kids. We (The Electric Prunes) decided to add it to a few songs. John Sebastian (The Lovin’ Spoonful) played it as well, so it wasn’t totally alien to rock. We were looking for something different and used to tremolo it through an amp. I wasn’t that good at it.
MTS: What kind of music were you playing when the band first got together and was called The Sanctions and then Jim and The Lords? Were there any songs from that era that made it into The Electric Prunes?
JL: There is a CD (called And Then Came The Electric Prunes). First came The Sanctions, then Jim and the Lords, then The Electric Prunes. It is a direct to disc recording of us struggling to learn how to play in 1965. It tells it all. We just wanted to try something of our own instead of bar fare. “Little Olive” came out of this period and was the B-side of “Ain’t It Hard?”
MTS: When Stones engineer David Hassinger decided to take the band under his wing did you guys think “This is it…we’re gonna be huge”? Did he have any interesting stories about working with The Rolling Stones?
JL: Not exactly. Dave was kind of a wet blanket so he could easily kill any enthusiasm you had. I liked him. He made us learn everyone else’s material and didn’t smile much. We played a party at Annette Tucker’s house and he came and said we could meet at Leon Russell’s house to do some test recording together. He was the guy who supposedly knew how to make a hit so we trusted him. He had us down to RCA when “the boys” came in to record a couple of times. He gave us equipment they would leave when they finished recording at RCA. I remember a nice Firebird and some old amps. It was cool.
MTS: The Electric Prunes rarely played in your hometown of Los Angeles. Even if you weren’t playing there, did you spend a lot of time taking in the Sunset Strip scene? Were you close with any of the local bands?
JL: Not much. We purposely avoided most of that. We wanted to try and come up with a different approach and the more you hang out, the more you rip each other off. None of us had been in other bands. We would go see Love at Bido Lido’s sometimes. We knew other bands we just didn’t hang down there much.
MTS: Instead of battling it out on the L.A. club scene you had a slot on a national tour with The Beach Boys during the period between Pet Sounds and Smile. Were they playing a lot of their newer stuff at these shows, or was the set still heavily dominated by the surf-era hits?
JL: We had “Too Much To Dream” on the charts, they had “Good Vibrations“. Their show was based on their history ( “Little Surfer Girl“, “In My Room“, “Sloop John B“…etc.) and all their hits. I would bet no one in the audience heard of Pet Sounds or Smile then. That tour seemed to be focused on chart hits. All the acts were radio play bands.
MTS: Did it seem like there was a lot of interpersonal tension in their band at the time?
JL: No. Brian (Wilson) wasn’t there, and Bruce (Johnston) was still being introduced into the live thing. We had some laughs. I thought it was funny that everyone calmed down when the wives came to some out-of-town gigs.
MTS: I read somewhere that you played a week of shows with Bo Diddley at one point. What do you remember about Bo’s live show at the time?
JL: It was at the Troubador in LA. Bo is Bo and always has been. He was my favorite from “Say Man”. They just shook it up. He was very kind to us. It was out first gig after signing with a manager to earn us some money and we played under the name Glass Menagerie to back up Dick Glass on a live recording there. The carrot was that we got to play with Bo!
MTS: I was reading through the liner notes of the Stockholm ’67 CD, which detail the events of the band’s 1967 European tour. It sounds like you guys had a ton of fun there, and were treated better than at home. Did you have any thoughts of relocating, or at least touring more heavily there?
JL: They had experience with treating rock as a business. In America it was still a fad and there was no real “scene”. You got shit in the South for your hair, no one listened to lyrics or knew anything about the bands. In Europe they knew everything about you and there were these big guys to load the equipment. Since our sound was California-based there were no ideas of relocating even though it was a very cool place with music oozing out of every portal.
MTS: How exactly did you lose control of the Electric Prunes during the two albums that were made with David Axelrod and then the album by The New Improved Electric Prunes which featured no actual Electric Prunes? Have you ever met any of the guys who played in The New Improved Electric Prunes?
JL: I quit the band after the Mass (album) and all the promises faded and we were being shoved around like meat. The rest of the band quit a few months later, I think. We had an agreement that Dave could use the name to finish things off with Reprise. We knew they (Reprise) had acted in good faith and he maintained they needed to get their money back on the act. I didn’t know about the records you mention; but I did get a note from Dave’s wife saying they would be continuing using the name, as agreed. I don’t know if I met those guys. I went down and saw Mark and the guys after I quit when Kenny Loggins joined the band at a presentation at PJ’s.
MTS: After The Electric Prunes disbanded, you began to get involved in production work. Were you still playing in bands at that time?
JL: No. I never played in bands anyway. I was interested in engineering and producing. Bands seemed like having to please too many people and incorporate too many personalities into the mix. I much preferred the solo feel of the studio.
MTS: You were an Associate Producer on Ananda Shankar’s debut album. Was he reluctant to take on popular songs like “Jumping Jack Flash” or “Light My Fire”? I actually really like his version of “Jumping Jack Flash” from that album.
JL: No. Ananda liked it. Actually, I can’t imagine him being reluctant about anything. He was a cool guy. Paul Lewinson and Alex Hassilev actually walked Ananda into it with arrangements that suited the sitar. I even got Mark Tulin to play bass on that record. There is something magnetic about it. Simple and pulsing. And you could dance to it!
MTS: When punk rock arrived in the mid-70s were you drawn to it at all?
JL: I liked Iggy Pop and the peanut butter slathering. I thought rock could use some real theater at that point. I was working with Sparks and Todd Rundgren around that time so I went the other way.
MTS: What were you doing during the 1980s and 1990s before resuming Electric Prunes activity in 1999?
JL: I had a TV commercial production company and made small commercials and corporate films. I also wrote, produced and directed a series of children’s shows, The Cliffwood Ave. Kids and Tony the Pony. I also directed a few Winnie the Pooh shows for Disney. I enjoyed working with kids. TV was honest and kinder than rock (and you got paid).
MTS: I saw The Electric Prunes play at Little Steven’s Underground Garage Festival at Randall’s Island, NY in 2004. What do you remember about that day? Was the scene backstage really chaotic once the rotating stage broke down and everyone had to shorten their set?
JL: I had used rotating platforms for car commercials and warned them they liked to go on the fritz a lot before we ever got to NY. I was ignored and it didn’t last but a few acts. It was chaos because the hurricane was coming and they were afraid if it hit when people were there it could be a disaster. We were supposed to do 20 minutes, then 10, then 5, then just as we were taking the stage they said, “two songs, no more or we pull the plug, we are behind …”. I actually liked the urgency. I liked seeing all the acts together and Bruce Springsteen came up and said hello so it was worth the trip east!
(Jay Dean and Mark Tullin onstage at Little Steven’s Underground Garage Festival 2004)
MTS: You covered Love’s “7 and 7 Is” on 2001’s comeback album Artifact. Were they friends back in the 1960s?
JL: We did that song for a “Get Arthur out of jail” concert that never happened. They asked us to do a Love song live. We had recorded learning the song for the concert so we thought we might as well use it, and it ended up on Artifact. I had met Arthur at Bido’s a few times but I knew Brian (MacLean) better. We ended up together at a festival in Canterbury Kent, UK after they released Arthur a year later.
MTS: You just released Return To Stockholm, a live album recorded back in 2004. Have you gotten more interested in playing live since the band got back together in 1999 or do you still favor the recording studio like you did in the 1960s?
JL: There is something about live performance that is scary. You never know what it will be like. I just happened to stumble on the Return To Stockholm gig after Kevin Wallbank the tour manager suggested I listen to it. It was kind of garage-y aggressive sounding. Now that it’s in the box and out there I am glad I did. It is good to hear Mark (Tulin – recently deceased) sing “Rosy“. I still love recording and Mark and I were planning one more studio album. We have all the tracks I just haven’t wanted to do much with them yet. It is kind of like admitting it is over if I finish it.
MTS: I was sorry to hear about Mark Tullin’s passing in 2011. It sounds like you’re planning to continue on as a band. What’s the plan going forward?
JL: We do want to play some more live gigs. This version of band has been playing together for a few years. Steve Kara (lead guitar), Jay Dean (2nd lead), Walter Garces (drums). We are ready. With an obscure band like ours you have to go where you can get someone to come to the gigs. That is pretty hard at times, what with all the soft sofas available. We still dream …. many from our era have lost that capacity. Mark and I had done some studio recordings with Billy Corgan and I think a couple of those cuts will come out at some point? We will also finish up this last studio album when the time is right.
MTS: What do the recordings you made with Billy Corgan sound like?
JL: I think people would hear the cuts and know it’s us. Billy played some guitar on a version of “Pushin’ Too Hard” we did for Sky Saxon’s memorial album and I thought he was right in sync. He listens, and that is the key. Billy also played with us in Hollywood live for Sky’s memorial.
MTS: Finally, how much did you have to dream last night?
JL: More than my share. I have been very lucky in life; varied experiences, chances beyond chances, reuniting an obscure entity and getting to make some more music, hell it is a dream! Love and conflict; but what’s a good dream without a few nightmares?