James Lowe of Electric Prunes talks about the 60's, the Blues, Bo Diddley & the Psychedelic Area

"Every day is a new adventure, a new dream"  James Lowe

The Electric Prunes: Our brand was blues based

The Electric Prunes are a psychedelic rock band which formed in 1965 in Los Angeles. The group started in the San Fernando Valley in L. A, though during the group’s long disbandment, rumors circulated that they were from Seattle, probably because their records were very popular in that city. The first members, James Lowe (lead vocal), Ken Williams (guitar), Michael Weakley (drums) and Mark Tulin (bass) called themselves The Sanctions, and later, Jim and the Lords.

Soon, Dick Hargrave joined on organ, but shortly thereafter left to pursue graphic arts. Their lineup changed many times, including one lineup with Kenny Loggins.  and are best known for two US Top 40 hits from 1966 - “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)” (#11) and “Get Me To The World On Time” (#27) - and the song “Kyrie Eleison” from their 1968 album “Mass in F Minor” which also appears in the 1969 movie “Easy Rider”.

The band broke up 1970 but would reunite in 2001. The band’s best known lineup consists of Jim Lowe (vocals), Mark Tulin (bass), James Spagnola (guitar), Ken Williams (guitar) and Preston Ritter (drums). The Electric Prunes are a rock band who first achieved international attention as an experimental psychedelic group in the late 1960s

Interview by Michael Limnios

Mr. Lowe, when was your first desire to become involved in the music & who were your first idols?

I was born and raised in Southern California. When I was younger I lived in Los Angeles and I was influenced by the Latin music that had become the "Rock n Roll" of that area. Bands had horn sections then and if you went to a wedding or christening there was always a full group playing "All Night Long" in their own special way. Later we moved to the suburbs and people were playing folk guitars, I thought I would try my hand at it when I heard a guy who played the blues and sang. He would show me the tricks he knew and I thought music was pretty cool. I liked Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Les Paul and Mary Ford. The real gold were the blues artists but they were seen as “old hat” in the early 60’s;  probably what let the psych crazies in the back door?

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?

First Gig: Louis Prima & Keely Smith in Vegas - Songs: Don’t Fence Me In”, Salty Dog Blues

What does “the Old Good Rock n Roll” mean to you & what does music offered you?

I am not a purist. You know rock when you hear it and it thumps you in the hips. We came from a time when Petula Clark could be playing on the radio right after Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan. I have a pretty broad sense of what rock is. The crazier the better for me, I have offbeat taste. The “Good Old Rock and Roll” album recorded under my group’s name without any of us playing on it offends me and I have never even listened to it? I have thick skin, not much offends me anymore.

Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?

I haven’t been able to divide them up? I think it comes from a place where you already know the song in a way, you are just trying to find your way back to it. I know the feeling is “all over” when you finish one. It is a rush; and then no one likes it! Ha ha

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

THAT is the best time. If you can get a pulse going with it live … then it starts to breathe and rumble under the surface and breaks through at just the right moment. I saw a naked guy dancing in front of us at a concert one night and it just seemed normal and like a good way to respond. No one else seemed to mind; but I have never tried that? In short, Live is kinda scary; but really fun!

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Best: Getting my first royalty check ……. Worst:  Having it bounce. 

(really) The worst was losing my writing partner/bassist, Mark Tulin this year. He was so alive and we had some more songs to write. It is hard to believe he is gone. A good reason for pushing the pedal down a bit, you only do this once.

Tell me about the beginning of the Electric Prunes. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

San Fernando Valley, LA. We were a garage band just working on trying to get a record deal. We had been calling ourselves "Jim and the Lords" and we knew we did not want that name on a record. We got a deal with Reprise and the production company gave us one weekend before "Ain't It Hard" was going to be released to come up with a name for the Reprise label. Electric Prunes started out as a joke (what's purple and goes buzz buzz ... an electric prune), it was a joke at the time ...  I know , I know; but the more we said it the more "out there" it became to us. We could just not forget it and it was certainly absurd enough for us to like it. Remember, this came at  a time when people were still saying..."what does BEATLES mean?" In short, we chose Electric Prunes because it was electric, absurd and meant nothing and was hard to forget once you heard it. I still can’t forget it. We were the first «Electric» anything.

What characterize the philosophy & the sound of the Electric Prunes?

Absurd wiggly fuzzing with tremolo shock chords in shards of glass and a guy yelling in echo in the background. I would say a concoction of buzzing garage/surf/blues/space with some darkly sprinkled lyrical satire. None of the songs mean anything so it is not heavy on your mind and with its fresh mint taste it fits neatly in the handy CD carrying case.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gigs with the Prunes?

We were never very amusing. Dragging around the world can make you un-amusing and actually makes you want to fight. I’m surprised we didn’t kill each other. When we got to the UK in 1967 Jimi Hendrix called us when we arrived and invited us over for some home movies. That was pretty amusing.

Do you remember any interesting from the recording time?

On our  1967 appearance on the Smothers Brothers TV Show which was very big in America: They (Smothers Brothers) were very nice to us. The censors were watching them very closely as they were considered very "politically active" at the time. Hard to imagine now? We rehearsed "Get Me To The World on Time" for the cameras and a woman came up to me with a clipboard and said…"you can't say [you put me through the change].....? Why not.....she said it referred to the change of life and that they were censoring it? What, that's crazy! What am I supposed to say? She said it didn't matter... just don't say "change". So Mark says how about... [you tie me up in chains?] She said that would be ok, we couldn't stop laughing.. ....during the taping of the actual show I forgot about censorship, reverted to the lyric I knew and was familiar with, and sure enough, the censors deleted the show performance in favor of the rehearsal version which has that odd "chains" line in it.  (sorry how the fuck did I get on that long story?)

What are some of the memorable stories from Prunes, you've had?

I remember touring and flying and having all these crazy music people "take over" the aircraft. Mark Volman (Turtles) would be going up and down the aisles faking throwing up on people with a cup full of confetti. He and Howard Kaylan also did some great landing instructions on the PA system. I always felt sorry for the other people on the plane; it was like the inmates had taken over the asylum. Howard and Mark became "Flourescent Leech and Eddy" so I guess there is some justice. Driving was another story. You play, then load up and try and make the next town in time (if the promoter had been thoughtful enough to schedule gigs in the same state!). We had a few car crashes trying to rush to the next gig and it is amazing we weren't road killed or left with a Super Beatle permanently planted in our collective anatomy.

Which artists have you worked with & which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best friend?

Never thought much about it? Our EP thing is pretty internal. I have produced and worked with other artists outside of the band, Nazz, Van Dyke Parks, Ry Cooder, Todd Rundgren, Sparks. Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins and Peter Lewis from Moby Grape have sat in on live shows and recording with EP; but our stuff is usually pretty personal. I have found friends come and go, cherish them whilst you can.

Are there any memories from, The Sanctions, and, Jim and the Lords which you’d like to share with us?

This was us trying to learn how to play and write and how to be a band. You have to wade through all the people that really WANT this thing and the people who are willing to WORK for this thing. We had cool guys that were willing to give up time to rehearse. It ended up being worth it. I can remember distinctly trying to avoid blues riffs and such to be more appealing to record labels. The blues was considered finished by then.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music?

My mom. She taught me how to play the harmonica and lit the fire of music in my heart.

Which memory from psychedelic time makes you smile?

I guess one that springs to mind was in the ‘60s and we were playing a big international event in Texas (something like hemisphere 1967); it was akin to a mini-world’s fair.  We were playing this large venue but the promoter didn’t tell anyone.  So we walk out on stage in this very elaborate theatre to find something like 8 people in the audience (how those 8 got there remains a miracle).    Band and crew outnumbered the audience.  We gave tambourines and other percussion gear to the 8 and had them join us for a jam session.

How did you first meet David Axelrod? Tell me a few things about your experience with Mr. Axelrod.

David was managed by our manager, Lenny Poncher at the time. They came to the band with the concept of the Mass in F Minor. We thought it sounded interesting. It was to be done in Latin, which I liked. David Axelrod composed it and there was not much room in there for expression from the band. Maybe this was good? Maybe, bad? I liked David. He was a real “cool cat” and knew his music. I wish we had been better players; but we were fresh out of the Garage...

Tell me a few things about the Greek Orthodox psalm “Kyrie Eleison”, how that came about?

It is a movement in the ceremony of the Catholic Mass. The only part that is not in latin in the original form. It came out pretty well on the Mass album, I think. It is supposed to be joyus and it sounds like it. You could not do a “Mass” without this movement. When we came to Greece people knew this song and we were very surprised.

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?

I pretty much live life with the accelerator down and don’t apply the brakes too much, so I would not change many things. Maybe I would be a little nicer at times? Naw, I like it all the way it has been and it has been more than I could have expected. Music is a connector to the pulse of life, how could that change?

Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new, what was the last record you bought?

Lightning Hopkins,  Little Willie John, Muddy Waters, Captain Beefheart, James Cotton Blues Band, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Les Paul and Mary Ford.  Last record bought: Gomez Live

From the musical point of view is there any difference between music today & the music of 60s?

Yeah. A lot of choices today yet the music sounds kind of stagnant, somehow? I like real drums and acoustic recording techniques. Everything today sounds amazing but there are not many mistakes that make it through to the final product. I like the mistakes they make it real.

How has the blues business changed over the years since you first started in music?

There is a lot more material available but it usually ends up the same, it is still hard to collect your money and people tell you anything to get it done, whether it is true or false. Music is still hard to make a living at unless you are willing to forget creature comforts. In the 60’s you could walk right in to most record companies and get a listen. I don’t know if you could do that today?

Some music styles can be fads but the acid rock is always with us. Why do think that is?

The music is visceral. There has to be a place for your pistol and the sharp edge. I think rock in many forms allows that. Angst just makes some interesting music, man. There is no doubt about that. And it is noisy enough to make people say, “turn it down”… what else could you want?

Which of historical personalities would you like to meet? Give one wish for the music

I met Jimi and Bo Diddley already ….and Bruce Springsteen and Captain Sensible.  My list is finished. We shared the bill with Bo in Hollywood at the Troubador for a week in 1965, it was our first gig as the Electric Prunes. We got to play with him again at Randals Island in 2004 thanks to Steven Van Zandt. We played with the Doors once and I didn’t even go out and see the show, I just stayed backstage. I wish I had watched them now. Oh well.

Who are your favorite bands from ‘60s & of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?

Last concert:  Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, Steven Van Zandt, Peter Lewis, Captain Sensible, Blues Magoos, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Sparks, Todd Rundgren, Left Banke

Any comments about your experiences from psychedelic area?

I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked me “what it is? What was so different about this music? It was freedom to me … a way out without taking the regular off-ramp. There seemed to be room in there to do what you wanted and as long as no one got hurt in the feedback loop? A little abuse …who cares? You’ll probably wake up with a big hangover but the ride will have been worth it and you will promise never to do that again! Till tomorrow.

How is your relationship today with the other bands and musicians of ‘60s?

Most of us have been through the war together, so we can relate to each other pretty easily. Most of the 60’s guys are cool. The UK players like the Damned are extra cool, Sky Saxon and I got to laugh a bit before he left for the clouds. All the petty jealousies are out the window after all these years. We are the last standing and are not competing with each other for attention.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Today – every day is a new adventure, a new dream. After 38 years, following a New Year’s reunion we (EP) decided to record together again; to create enjoyable memories in place of  some of our prior experiences.  Turned out to be fun and, to our surprise, there are people out there still interested in hearing music played by guys who started it all.  As a result we’ve recorded three CDs – “Artifact”, “California” and “Feedback”  and have played select shows throughout the U.S. and Europe. The current band sounds better than ever and, after the loss of Mark Tulin, bassist we have decided that as long as we have the passion and the energy, we’ll continue on.

What is the “think” you miss most of the ‘60s?

The 62 Corvette, cute little girls twirling with flowers in their hair on grassy knolls and wildly colorful clothing…. It is like they are trying today but it seems a copy?

Were there any places where you did especially well from ‘60?

We didn’t even get much airplay here in LA back then. It was like they didn’t want to claim us? We kept getting invited to play in Seattle, Washington and we played there so much people wrote that we were from there. We never denied it and didn’t care. If LA didn’t want us Washington was OK.

What do you think of PSYCHEDELIC music & how close are to BLUES?

Our brand was blues based. The San Francisco brand was more “Folk/Country” based. The Southern California stuff was more blues and surf music combined. We were twangy … they were folksy! Hard to play the Blues today with all these iPods and Kindles around … we all have too much money!!!

Come see us on www.electricprunes.net ... you may be surprised.

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