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Interview: The Electric Prunes’ James Lowe Discusses What May Be the Prunes’ Final Flight Into Psychedelic Rock

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Back in the days of black light posters, bead curtains, and sifting out sticks and stems on album covers, the original Electric Prunes briefly benefited from their association with producer David Hassinger, then fresh off his engineering work with the Rolling Stones. For one matter, Hassinger found the Prunes songs from the team of Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz. The pair were responsible for most of the material on the Prunes’ 1967 debut, I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night), including the album’s title hit. The band’s third single from the same album, “Get Me to the World on Time,” also has its share of admirers, but it never reached the popularity of “…Dream.”

Then, the Prunes’ personnel underwent a number of changes, including a short stint with Kenny Loggins in 1968. By that point, the Prunes had little to say about product bearing their name. The 1968 Mass in F Minor, for example, was essentially a project by David Axelrod with most of the players being session musicians. “Kyrie Eleison,” one track culled from that album, was included on the Easy Rider soundtrack, but was the Prunes in brand name only. Finally, Hassinger trotted out an ensemble called the “New Improved Electric Prunes” that were far from improved with not one legitimate Prune in sight. Thereafter, the Prunes were largely remembered as a one hit wonder immortalized by “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night).”

The Electric Prunes - Complete Reprise SinglesThirty years later, three of the old and definitely improved originals, James Lowe (vocals), Ken Williams (guitars), and Mark Tulin (bass) reunited and launched the longest and most musically successful era for the Prunes. For example, in 2001, appropriately, the Prunes backed former Moby Grape guitarist Peter Lewis on a single, “Hollywood Halloween,” which brought together the two California groups named after the once popular grape jokes. (What’s purple and goes buzz, buzz, buzz? An electric prune. What’s purple and swims in the ocean? Moby grape.) New releases included Artifact (2002), Rewired (DVD, 2002), the woefully under-appreciated Feedback (2007), and the live Return to Stockholm (2012, a concert recorded in 2004).

Then, after the group recorded a psychedelic remake of the then-recently deceased Sky Saxon’s “Pushin’ Too Hard,” tragic irony struck when Tulin died on February 26, 2011, while assisting at the Avalon Underwater Clean-Up.

Flash forward to 2014, and the Prunes have returned with a new album, WaS. If you’re into ’60s psychedelia, WaS is definitely a nugget for you. And it might be the last time. Why? To find out, I lit some incense, dug up some old striped bell-bottoms, and asked singer James Lowe about the inside story of what WaS is. Here’s what he had to say:

It’s been a long time since Feedback and “Pushin’ Too Hard.” Obviously, Mark’s death in 2011 changed everything for you. How has the band recovered to produce WaS?

I have had this project hanging in the air since Mark left the ball. We had been planning to compile a last vinyl effort to close the story, at least in the studio. The vinyl proved to be a more complicated thing than we could afford to go through at the time. A CD is legit, I guess, and you get more songs.

We had been collecting lists of things we had not used. Some songs were incomplete; others had more meat on them. So the task for me was to try and make it say something as a piece. It was made like an old album, to be listened to in the order it was recorded. I know this is a bit and byte world and people just rip what they want but they will miss the point with that attitude.

Mark appears on two tracks, with a very strong presence on “Smokestack Lightning” recorded live in 2000 which you say was the reunion that was the band’s “call to arms.” Are these the last tracks we’ll ever hear with him?

I still have some things in the can. Mark was a great player so I keep coming across little gems. Mark had been working with Billy Corgan [Smashing Pumpkins] and Billy wrote a couple of cool songs for us. We were going to do a project together. We recorded them but couldn’t make contact with Billy to get him on board to put them on this recording. They would have made a nice addition but I think it works as it is. Those may come out at some point.

The live version of “Bullet Thru the Backseat” [from a night in Bristol, England] was something I ran across by accident and I think Mark’s playing on that is superb.

What energized you to write new songs?

We played a couple of gigs in Japan this year and that did something to the band. A few new songs evolved. “Tokyo” was actually about our gigs there and we decided to do a video for it after we recorded it. When we got home I decided to dedicate the time to finish what Mark and I had wanted to release.

Steve Kara [guitarist since 2003] was essential to this album in many ways but his “can do” attitude, great playing with his collection of vintage gear and engineering helped inspired me. Ken Eros at Eros Creative also was a great help. I already had the title WaS but it was going to be “That Was the Electric Prunes.” Too long I think. WaS was easier.

Many of the new songs sound like they were discovered in the vaults from a session in 1967. Were songs like “Beauty Queen” and “The Girl Who Crashed My Dream” intentionally crafted to sound like early Prunes?

We usually would tend to see things a certain way and that is why some of these things sound like the past. We use the same tremolo and feedback effects. We can only do it one way, actually! I hear the band in there and that is all I need to qualify the songs or treatment. “Beauty Queen” makes me think of ’66-’67 … that raga style was the Nehru collar of music. We had “The Girl Who Crashed My Dream” for Feedback but it didn’t seem to fit in there as well as it does here.

Speaking of, how does WaS compare with Feedback?

Feedback is an all-white CD and WaS is a blazing eight-fold Eye Candy package. WaS just looks like the circus leaked or something. I think there is a flow to this CD that is kind of spiritual. I put the cuts on my iPod and walked in the mornings for a month with different sequencing of the songs. I think Mark helped me order this thing.

Underground [1967] felt like this CD in a way. There was a certain aggressive nature to some of it. Feedback is a little more pushy and funny. WaS is like an answer of some kind and yet “Oh My My” asks the final question, “Where are we going?” Where are we going? Hell, I don’t know.

“Between the Cracks” and “Blue Sky/Red Dress” sound like they were heavily influenced by Neil Young. Is that a fair inference and was that intentional?

To be honest, I don’t know much about his material. We recorded “Between the Cracks” four times with four different arrangements and me singing lead on the most formal ones. I chose Mark’s vocal from a time we just sat down and played it because it sold the idea of the song better. “Blue Sky/Red Dress” was going to be our “Louie, Louie” with lyrics that meant nonsense and a chance to see some chicas dancing to our music. A lot of our stuff has breaks in it; on this we decided
to let it go. No breaks! Did Neil do something like this?

While the sound is retro, do any of the lyrics reflect your more current interests?

Yes, sure. “Frozen Winter” is about love lost. “Love Fade Away” is about love lost, “The Girl Who Crashed My Dream” is about love lost, “Adoration Stuck” is about being stalked, [and] “Beauty Queen” is about a stalker … are you starting to get the picture?

We even threw in a live cut about a bullet so we are pretty hip with the gun control issue. As we say in “Oh My My,” “The transformation from favored nation/Shotgun sedation changed the tune” is about as current as we can get! “Circles” is about a round thing.

Publicity for the album suggests the Prunes, at least as a live act, are winding down. Is WaS intended to be your recording finale?

It very well could be. We would like to go out and play live some of the songs we have recorded. You can’t just keep making these things to listen to on the iPod. You don’t let the horse run a bit. Try some things out. If you don’t have the chance to embarrass yourself in front of a crowd, life is pretty dull. So we will be trying to get some gigs somewhere, here on earth, I hope. You play in a town and everyone stays home on the computer or sofa for a brew. Then they are AMAZED you were in town!

Except for Europe I don’t see much chance here in the USA. We have moved on to apathy and the next “NEW” thing. I think WaS, was.

 

Wes Britton’s review of the Electric Prunes’ Complete Reprise Singles is available at:
blogcritics.org/music/article/music-review-the-electric-prunes-the

Wes Britton’s 2012 review of the Prunes’ Return to Stockholm is posted at:
blogcritics.org/music-review-the-electric-prunes-return

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