Sunday, May 6, 2018

Interview -- James Lowe (The Electric Prunes)

"I'm not ready to face the light.
I had too much to dream..."
~ The Electric Prunes ~

The Electric Prunes were a successful mid-'60s psych-rock band.  They gave themselves an intentionally ridiculous name, but that's just part of the charm.  Like Strawberry Alarm Clock or Chocolate Watchband...their name was a pretty accurate snapshot of those crazy psychedelic times.

Led by singer James Lowe...The Electric Prunes had a garage sound filled with plenty of tasty psychedelic bends.  From psych-pop loaded with blistering fuzz guitars to psyched-out Mass incantations that created a hallucinating mind-blow...that was The Electric Prunes.

Psych Rock was beginning to grow some fast legs and was becoming quite the cash cow and everybody wanted to pull on the teats.   Many were successful.  Many more, though, were in and out of the business before the ink had dried.

The Electric Prunes, however, were one of the good ones and their first three albums are a must for any psych-rock collection.  Go get you some.

James Lowe Interview -- May 2018
James Lowe

Casey Chambers:  The Electric Prunes will forever be identified as early pioneers of what would become known as psych rock.  The band's signature song...."I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)" was a great introduction to the possibilities.  Tell us about the song.

James Lowe:  We were given a demo from Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz.  They were friends of ours and they gave us a demo of the record.  Our producer, Dave Hassinger hadn't even heard it yet, but he really liked the title of the song.  So we took it and listened to it...but the song sounded a little too country lounge for us.

We were struggling to put the song out in some kind of younger...genre.  So we put in all the breaks and added the weird effects on the whole record.  And I think because of the 'dream' aspect and the overall effects...the song became sort of abstract. And that's what we were looking for...and that's what we got.   I guess some people would call it a psychedelic record.

Casey Chambers:  The song opens with what sounds like a swarm of angry bees.  Just killer.  Whose idea was it to bring that into the mix?

"The Electric Prunes" (1967)

James Lowe:  We had been recording up at Leon Russell's house doing some practice recording with Dave.  I don't know if you can follow this, but we were recording on 4-track.  And we would just play and they would just let the 4-track tape run until it ran off the spool.  Then they'd flip the tape over and run it back the other way.  So, we'd be erasing everything we did, but it would be backward.

Anyway, our guitar player (Ken Williams) had been fooling around with this Bigsby and fuzztone making different sounds with it and stuff.  And in the control room, they forgot to push record when they flipped the tape over...and this enormous sound came out over the studio.  It was right at the beginning of "...Too Much To Dream."  Their hats were off, so I went in and told'em that that sound was too good a sound to lose. When we went back to record the song, we kept that little 4-track spool at the beginning to get your attention. That was the idea.  It was to wake you up. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Definitely.  It woke up the cool heads and shook up the stiffs.  And many didn't know what to make of it.  It was a great recipe.

James Lowe:  Yeah, it's funny, when we did that record, everyone said, 'You must have known something.'  But we didn't know anything.  We held on to it for quite awhile.  People would hear it and they'd say, 'Well, it's good, but who in the world is going to play something like that?'  Because radio was looking for Petula Clark.  They said it was just too weird and no one's gonna play something like that.  But a few people did.  Not all of them...but a few.

Casey Chambers:  Yeah, because that song tripped its way up the charts anyway.  There were ears wanting to hear that kind of shit.  When the song started to get legs, The Electric Prunes started to get invites from a variety of TV shows.  There's a great clip of you guys on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand."  Good experience?

"I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)" - The Electric Prunes / "The Electric Prunes" (American Bandstand 1967)

James Lowe:  Well, Dick Clark was probably one of the nicest people around.  He came and talked to us before we did the show.  And then when he came out to talk with us on the show, he would go into everything exactly like we had discussed with him.  He didn't have any notes or anything like that.  He was a genuinely nice guy.  I liked him a lot.

One day you're watching someone on TV, and the next day, you're on TV with that same person. (laughs)  That's the strangest part of it.  Everything changes once you get something happening for ya.  Everybody treats ya a little bit different.

Casey Chambers:  That was just one of many great songs.  But like you wasn't gonna mistake you guys for Petula Clark.  There's a fantastic compilation of early psych rock from the 60's called "Nuggets" that re-introduced your band, The Electric Prunes to a new generation of rock fans.  Ones who might have missed hearing you guys the first time around.  And it made a lot of fans want to dig deeper into your catalog.  I know I did.  What did you think about the song's inclusion on that comp?

"Nuggets: Original Artyfacts
from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968"

James Lowe:  Well, that's funny because it was my son who told me that "I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)" was included on another record.  Do you know when that "Nuggets" collection was released?

Casey Chambers:  I believe it originally came out in '72.

James Lowe:  Yeah, I think my son told me about it around 1975.  I had never heard about it.  When I finally listened to that record, I liked where they put our song.  Lenny Kaye used it as the very first song on the album.  And we were very happy to be on there, of course.

Casey Chambers:  Lenny Kaye also wrote the liner notes, which were pretty cool.  Of course, he also went on to play guitar for Patti Smith.

James Lowe:  Yeah, and we actually met him in New York in 2000.  It was when we were playing at Cavestomp.  And it was really nice to meet the guy who put all that stuff together.

Casey Chambers:  Who were some of the artists that made you want to rock?

James Lowe:  I would say probably Link WrayGene Vincent...the "Be-Bop A Lula" guy.  Of course Elvis.  Bo Diddley.  I was really into R&B so I listened to a lot of Little Richard.  And  I can't forget Les Paul and Mary Ford.  They were just doing some incredible recordings.  Les Paul invented multi-track recording so he really knew how to handle it.  I always thought their records sounded like space records.

Casey Chambers:  I know Les Paul, but haven't tasted any of his music.  But I gotta say, you had me with space records. (laughs)

James Lowe:  They played standard songs, but they treated them completely different with all these delays.  And Mary Ford...Les would take her voice and process it and do stuff with it.  And to me, that was the best part of the record.  The best part of hearing a record is when it can almost put you in another place.  And their records always did that.

"The Great Banana Hoax" - The Electric Prunes / "Underground" (1967)

Casey Chambers:  The Electric Prunes' second album, "Underground" (1967) has always been my favorite.  And it leads off with the gem..."The Great Banana Hoax." It's like...just when you think you know what's going on, you guys rip into another fuzz burn.  Just some great garage psych.

James Lowe:  Our producer, Dave Hassinger...every song we presented to him that we wrote...he would just say, 'No. No. No.'  So what we started doing was putting other people's names on the songs before we took them to him.  We'd tell him some friend of ours wrote it or something.  And then it would all be okay.  All those songs.  And until we got it fully recorded, we didn't let him know that we had written them.

And, of course, he asked us what it was about.  And we didn't know what it was about.  Even though it came out of our mouths, we didn't know.  And it's recorded in a couple of layers.  We used to do that because we recorded on 4-track.  We would put down a basic layer and then layer over the top of that.  I don't know what I can tell you about that one.  It's just a bunch of drums and shakers.  (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  So while your songwriting ploy was working, the Prunes had the freedom to try new things in the studio.  Experiment a bit.

James Lowe:  We did.  Because we just had a hit with "Too Much To Dream,"...Warner Brothers gave Dave the Grateful Dead to produce.  So we got to sort of do that one on our own.  He didn't get in the way as much when we were recording.  It's really hard to record something when you know the guy sitting behind the glass doesn't like what you're doing.  So it was, in a way, an easier record to make because we just got to do what we wanted.

"Underground" (1967)

Casey Chambers:  That's cool.  Were you guys allowed the same kind of freedom in designing the "Underground" album cover?

James Lowe:  That was my idea.  I wanted a picture of the band running.  I thought that us running would have some kind of instant reaction.  So we took the picture of all of us jumping from something and running.  And the photographer, Tommy Tucker said, 'What is this gonna go over?'  And I looked down in the trashcan and saw a crumpled up picture of a girl with emulsion coming off of it and everything.  So I picked it out of the trashcan and said, 'Can we put it over this?' (laughs)  So that's what we did.  That's where that girl came from in the upper corner.  We had sort of been discovered by a girl, so we thought it was fitting.

Casey Chambers:  Okay, now I'm going to have to pull my copy and look it over again. (laughs)  Good stuff.  You were playing an autoharp in a lot of your early performances. Not all that common for a rock and roll frontman.

"Mass In F Minor" (1968)

James Lowe:  We had used it on a number of recordings, so it wasn't a stretch to do it.  John Sebastian was playing autoharp with The Lovin' Spoonful...and playing it much better than I did. (laughs)  Management came to me and said I shouldn't be playing guitar...but I shouldn't just be standing there either.  So we thought the autoharp kind of gave us an ethereal touch.  It seemed like a good idea at the time. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  What was it like for a psych band on the road in the '60s?  Who were you touring with in those days?

James Lowe:  We played with a lot of good people.  We did shows with CreamSteppenwolf.  We'd fly.  Or drive station wagons if the gigs were in or near California.  That was the hardest part.  After we did a record, we found out it wasn't just enough to do the record.  We had to go out and play all these live gigs and that really took us by surprise.  We were not prepared for that.  We didn't realize all that was gonna happen.

Touring is a grind.  I mean, it wears a band down.  And we had money problems like everybody else did...with the management and other things.  So when you're not getting paid, and you're driving a lot, and you're putting in long's easy to have dissension come up and that's what happened to us.

"Kyrie Eleison" - The Electric Prunes / "Mass In F Minor" (1968) 
(also featured in film..."Easy Rider" 1969)

Casey Chambers:  It's almost like one of those rock dreams everyone fantasizes about as a kid...until they find themselves smack in the middle of it.  Was touring overseas any different from playing in the States back then?

James Lowe:  Well at that time, if we wanted to go over to England to play, a group from England had to come over to the United States.  You had to trade with another group.  And we traded with Donovan.  Our manager managed Donovan in America.  And Nems...The Beatles' company, brought us over there.  And I was amazed at how different it was there.

The music business was very organized.  They made sure all of the equipment showed up.  They had people to set it up.  It was just very, very professional.  Whereas, in America, we were sometimes playing through our own amp...on our own PA the sound was never that predictable.  Over there, they seemed to have all of that stuff worked out.

They really respected the music over there, because The Beatles had brought so much money to the U.K. that it was a respected business.  It wasn't so looked down on.  And that was the feeling we got touring in America.  I mean, everywhere we went down South, it was like...I don't know...'What are you long haired guys doing here?' (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Yeah, in the '60s, I don't think I'd wanna 'cut a rug at The Jug' either. (laughs)  Speaking of playing on the road, your live album, "Stockholm '67" (1997) is almost a lost gem of the Electric Prunes.  All Music Guide says it "...maybe the best live album of the psychedelic era."  Could you talk a little bit about that album?

James Lowe:  That one we didn't know anything about. (laughs)  When we went to play that night in Stockholm...Swedish broadcasting asked if they could record us during the set.  And for some reason, I was mad about something and I said, 'No, we don't want it recorded.'  And years later, someone came up to me and said, 'I really liked your live album.'  I said, 'We never did a live album.'  And he said, 'Oh yes, you did.'  And that album popped up.  And then a guy named Simon Edwards of Heartbeat Records in Bristol asked us for permission to put it out on a regulation release rather than a bootleg.  And so we did.  And he did a beautiful job of putting out a gatefold album.  And I get a big kick out of listening to it now.  It was so long ago.  Everything's changed. (laughs)

"You Never Had It Better" &  "Captain Glory" - The Electric Prunes / French TV show (1968)

Casey Chambers:  You guys gave them a good show.  What was your first rock concert?

James Lowe:  I guess if you wanna say rock was the Ike & Tina Turner Revue.  They were playing upstairs at the Cogan Bowl. (laughs)  That was my first experience seeing a full-fledged rock and roll band cut loose.  And they were fantastic.  Ike Turner just had the band in such control.  Man, that band was so tight.  I ended up recording with him in later years.  And he was definitely that kind of guy.  Tina and the girls were just...they were rockin'.  I love their music and they've done some live recordings that are good too.

There were not that many big concert things happening in Southern California at that time.  That came just a little bit later.  Everybody thinks that the stadium rock stuff was around, but it really wasn't.  Not in the way that it is now.

The last concert I went to was Sparks here in Los Angeles.  They were fantastic, too.  I produced an album for them called, "A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing." (1972)  And I also worked with Todd Rundgren on Sparks first album.

Casey Chambers:  Oh man, that's a nice feather.  I'll have to keep an eye out.

James Lowe:  Yeah!  So after all these years later, I got the chance to go see them and they just knocked my socks off.  They're so good.

Casey Chambers:  Now I have another reason to catch one of their shows.  Well, this has been a real treat talking with you. And I only scratched the surface.  Thanks so much for hangin' out this morning.

James Lowe:  Thank you very much.  It's nice of you to remember the obscure...and something from left field, which we certainly are. (laughs)  Rock on, Casey.

(Music & T-shirts are available at Official Website)

The Electric Prunes Official Website 
The Electric Prunes Facebook

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers

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