Monday, May 26, 2014

Sparks (and Electric Prunes) Project: James Lowe!

It's fun being able to do this stuff. That's the message.

James Lowe is the founder – and one of the key driving creative forces behind – the Electric Prunes. The Electric Prunes’ unique and immediately identifiable style of music – heavy emphasis on production values, grounded in but not beholden only to psychedelic-rock, and fastidious musical craftsmanship – reflect Lowe’s vision. The Prunes have been around in various incarnations since 1967; the critical constant throughout this history is James Lowe.

The Prunes have just released a fantastic new record entitled Was.  The CD, which can be purchased here, has no less than 15 songs, with no loss of vision, power, energy, or musical direction.

James Lowe is an affable man, appreciative of life's opportunities (he lives half a year in the Dominican Republic), and proud of his work with both the Electric Prunes and Sparks.  We talked about the new Electric Prunes’ CD, as well as Lowe’s experience as the engineer on the 1971 eponymous debut album by Sparks, and as the producer of that album's follow up, 1972's A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing.

I hope you enjoy reading this interview with James, who was so generous with his time – for which I am greatly appreciative.

Electric Prunes - WaS album coverMonte: Can you talk a bit about the new CD?

James: This CD, with Mark Tulin and myself, was probably going to be the last studio CD that we’d do. We started collecting material for it about four years ago. Some things were left off of other albums; some things we’d partially started and didn't finish, and then Mark died three years ago. So for three years I've had this thing on my back – I wanted to finish it because it’s what we had talked about and were going to do. It’s been kind of nagging.

I’ve wondered, “am I going to finish it or am I going to die myself and it’s not going to happen?”  So I decided at one point that I had to finish it, no matter what. And thankfully my guitar player Steve Kara and the other guys in the band were willing, so I was able to put together the pieces over about three months.

We’ve been together about ten years. This band is very tight, we’re all friends, and they get the music, which is the most important thing. They are not the original members of the Electric Prunes, there have been different members, but the band was always about an idea, rather than anybody. It was about trying to do things a little differently. That’s what we tried to bring to this CD, and that’s what we've always been about.

Monte: There is a continuity of sound. It doesn't sound exactly like the Electric Prunes 40 years ago, but it sounds like a natural evolution of the Electric Prunes sound and style.

James: I believe that.

Monte: Well, you’re the thread that has kept this all together. Your love of working in the studio and as you said, your commitment to creating an idea is the continuity.

James: That’s right. My interest was always the studio. After we did a record they’d say “you have to go play it,” I’d say “you’re kidding.” I never was that interested in that part of it, it was always the production – making it sound a little different. Kind of a mystery. You create a mystery.

Well, I knew Frank Zappa, and I knew that the guys that played with him always had to play something they hadn’t played before. I had that philosophy for us. We didn't listen to other bands together, we didn't hang out, we kept to ourselves, and it kept everything more pure. To me, that’s making it, when you can just be yourself. That’s the fun.

Monte: The CD is obviously very studio savvy. But at the same time it’s not a synthesizer approach, it’s obviously a band playing.

James: That’s the idea. The idea of the Electric Prunes was that it was supposed to be electronic, even for back then, and the Prunes was the absurdity. So it was supposed to be kind of silly. Probably too silly – probably knocked us out of a lot of jobs with that crazy name. But, the idea was for it to be wacky and homemade – fuzz tones made through the amplifier with a foot pedal, not created on a mixing board.

Monte: It was fun for me to listen to this album with fresh ears. I wasn’t listening to it and comparing it to the old stuff, I was just enjoying this as a new album. I found it great.

James: That’s the idea – most people know the name but they don’t really know anything by us. They remember “oh, they had that hit about dreaming too much” (I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night) and you live with that the rest of the life. It’s really hard to get out from beneath that, and you don’t really want to get out from underneath it. We’re proud of anything we've done. And anyone we've been associated with has only helped us move along this…tunnel of dreams.

File:The Electric Prunes.jpgWe were looking at the album just last night and (my wife) Pamela pointed out to me that between the first song – Smokestack Lightning – and the second song – Tokyo – it’s 14 years. Smokestack Lighting was when we got into the studio 14 years ago and were goofing around, and Tokyo was just written before we put this record out. Some of the other stuff we intended to put on other records, and this was the perfect opportunity to expose some things and get them out there. We had so much stuff, an abundance of material.

Monte: Some of the songs have a sort of innocence…

James: There is innocence. Sometimes there’s a nasty thing and sometimes there’s an innocent one. If you don’t have the two of those you’re too up against a wall with either one.

Monte: What’s next for you guys? Do you want to tour it?

James: We would like to. It’s hard getting booked for a vintage band. If you've got a hit record you’ll have a good management company and stuff. We don’t have one. We were able to go to Japan and play, and the band loves playing. You have to string three or four dates together, make it so things work.

The one song on there – It Ain't Easy – it’s not. It’s one thing when you’re backed by a big record company but this is homemade stuff. This is the band playing because they love playing. But to me, getting to play music you like, and recording it so people can hear it – to me, that’s absolutely amazing.

Monte: When you think of these songs, what do they mean to you personally?

James: One of the greatest things is that Mark and I would go back and forth, recording voices, and most of the times I would end up singing the songs. But this time I left a lot of his vocals on there so it’s cool to me that Mark got his chance to be front and center. I think it’s fantastic. That’s the thing I hear. I hear his voice and it’s like he’s still here. I think he’d like it.

Monte: How did this band come together?

James: Mark and I had been playing…people had been coming and going…we tried to keep everybody within the framework of what we’re doing, so they understand that. These guys appeared about ten years ago, and they got it. Steve Kara is an amazing guitar player with probably about 80 foot pedals and the guy knows every single one of them. I've never seen a guy so technically adept. The same with our other guitar player, Jay Dean, an amazing voice, the drummer is good….Walter Garces is drumming with us now. He’s a Latin guy with a great sense of rhythm.

It’s fun being able to do this stuff. That’s the message.

Monte: From the technical side as the producer, how gratifying is it to do some of the things you love to do? It seems that’s a big part of what you love.

James: I worked a lot with Todd Rundgren. He used to say we “mangled” things! I thought that was about it. We took things and just squashed the living crap out of them until what came out was not what went in. And that’s the most fun part of all this – to make something that you know no one else would make it that way. With THIS record, the biggest challenge was that things came from everywhere – it was MP3s, tapping on the phone, all these weird things. So to try to take all that and put it in an order was definitely the most difficult thing. 

That was always what the band was about. When we heard our first album and some of the things they did, we thought, “hold on, we can do better that this,” and that’s why from then on it was just us. We could do it ourselves. I had engineered records for other people, why couldn't I do it for myself?

Monte: I think that’s also a realization that (Sparks leaders) Ron and Russell Mael made in the late 1980s or so, that to really get their vision across as it was evolving, they had to take control of the production.

James: Absolutely. Particularly with their kind of thing. It’s so creative, it’s so special, they’re the only ones who know.


Monte: How did you get started with Todd Rundgren (who produced the first Sparks album)?

James: I had been doing some recording in Los Angeles and Todd came to look at the studio. Someone there introduced us, and he said he was looking for someone who would stay awake at night, who wanted to do some crazy recording, and was willing to put in a lot of time. I was more than willing to do that, so we started recording together and it lasted a long time. I went from two Nazz albums, to Runt, then Something/Anything…we did James Cotton Blues Band together. We did a lot of recordings.

We were doing the same things. I was trying to make something a little weird, a little different, and he was trying to do the same thing, except that he was a great musician and writer, all that stuff. I was just tinkering around at it.  I showed him some tricks and he liked tricks a lot…

Monte: The legend of course is that his girlfriend at the time, Miss Christine, is the one that turned him on to Sparks, and that led to your involvement.

James: Yes, he asked me if I’d be interested in doing another record together, so we went out and listened to them as I recall. I had just come off from working with the Electric Prunes so I listened to them and I thought, “damn, this isn’t at all what I expected to hear, this is oddball stuff.” It’s almost like what I was trying to do, something different, so I was attracted to it. My wife went with me, she thought Russell was cute, and it looked like they could make it.

Monte: Roger was the first song that you heard, right?

James: It was. I think they were playing on all the stuff from the kitchen or something!

The stuff was crazy, but it was so infectious.  The first song we did together (for the first album) was High C, which is an incredible song. When I was trying to get the sounds on everything, I was asking, “what is this about?” “It’s about someone listening to opera or something.” “Really? Wow!” That’s how that stuff was, it was just so damned interesting.

They weren't resistant to trying to make the music better. That was the coolest thing about Sparks. I thought on the second album, the one I did with them, they were just open to making the thing work.

Sparks Bearsville records - Sparks first Lp albumRon and Russ were their own little entity, like they are now. They all seemed to get along. Everybody seemed to come up with their own parts, and (at that point) Ron and Russ, if they didn't like something, they’d have a tough time telling you they didn't like it. That’s how I perceived it. They are gentlemanly.

Each guy was who he was. Earle (Mankey, guitarist), who became an engineer, I could spot that early because that’s what he was interested in. Earle and I used to always get into it about his guitar. It was always too trashy sounding to me, I liked a little more purity in the guitar. But part of it was to make the thing abrasive and irritating. I was fretting over nothing.

(Bassist) Jim Mankey was really a shy quite type until he picked up his ax.  The songs were so structured and arranged that each guy had to be on mark with his part. I can't remember ever having to stop tape for Jim.  He was always on it. Quietly.

Harley had a sort of independent looseness in his playing. It is kind of like the thing could get out of control at certain points but he rescues it and takes us along with him.  When the Electric Prunes did Circus Freak and Hello Out There on the Feedback album he was the first person I thought of. It is kind of a swampy style in a way. I guess it is where he finds the urgency for the fills that is interesting.

Sparks - A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing BearsvilleThe drums figured heavily in the two Sparks albums that I did. I love drums and I recorded Harley on 6 or 7 tracks which was unheard of back then. Even slower numbers like Slowboat or The Louvre had cool drum changes. I get tired of the "beat"...I like press rolls and a little paradiddle now and again. Harley made it a surprise many times.   

On the second album, A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing, my attempt was to try to make them sound more like a band. I thought that the first album sounded like Spike Jones. They played goofy stuff and everything but it didn't sound like it had the glue of the band. But the second album to me sounded more like a band. Our first recording on that was Girl From Germany, and I remember thinking, “wow, this sounds like a group playing together.”

Monte: It's interesting that you thought a song dealing with Nazi storm-troopers would be the hit single.

James: Yeah, about a Jewish family that couldn't take the girlfriend because she was German. But all of their songs were strange. I mean, (in Saccharin and the War) a bunch of women in town decide they’re going to lose weight or something, and put their fat on a cross, it’s the craziest stuff, but you eventually find yourself tapping your toes to it, you get sucked into it. I mean, “were I she, I’d set my sights much lower than I sing, Fa La Fa Lee…” I can’t get it out of my head!

Monte: And in the midst of all that is this beautiful ballad, Slowboat. When I listen to that I wonder, where did this come from? It’s so different than anything else.

James: Right…that’s the charm of them. You've got to listen.

Monte: I really feel like you took it to another level, as good as the first album is. For example, the cymbals on the first album don’t have a good resonant sound. But on the second one the cymbals, the whole thing just resonates and I think you really captured something special for them.

James: They were willing to try things. We brought a lot of people to the studio to record some vocal parts. I heard cohesiveness there, like a band more. I could see them on stage doing some of these songs. And that’s a big part of it – can you see that or can’t you?

At the end of Woofer, we did a commercial for it and Batteries Not Included was the theme of it. Somebody said, wouldn't it be nice if we had a kid who could do the line? So Earle ran out into the street in Hollywood and five minutes later Earle came back with a kid and his mother. The kid read the line absolutely perfectly, like he came from Central Casting. We gave him a hundred dollars and he left.

I remember playing Nothing Is Sacred for Todd and he said “Oh my God, how did you get so much bass on that?" I felt good about it. I felt that the music needed a little meat.

We recorded the first piece at Wally Heider's. We did a cut together to see if we’d want to continue. That was Girl From Germany. The assistant engineers at Wally Heider's thought Russell was a copy of Mark Bolan because of the way he looked and the way he sang. I ended up getting shit from this guy and we ended up cutting the rest of the album at ID Sound and coming back to Wally Heider's to mix it.

Monte: You've said that this album had a significant impact on your career.

James: I made a promise to my wife. I said, “I think this album has got to be accepted by people, these guys have got to get something going, I’m betting on them.  But if they don’t, I’m going to change careers. I don’t know what I’m doing.” As it turned out, it didn't work out commercially. Everybody liked it, but it wasn't successful commercially. So I went into television directing and producing.

They asked me, what do I think the next album should be about? I said “how about love? Everybody can relate to love!” and I got a (pretty stony) response. So I knew I wasn't going to be doing the next album!

They did what they had to do for their band. I don’t think anybody that’s played with them resents them or has ill feeling toward them. 

They moved the band along the way they needed to. This is crazy stuff – their stuff takes intense learning.  
You've got to become the parts.  That’s the way their material is. And that’s a heavy burden. Every time you change a guy, you’re changing all the parts. Each person has to learn all the material. When I saw them (at Royce Hall in 2009), I was amazed. They were incredible. The show was interesting and funny. Everything worked.

Monte: I was there too. I took my daughter and some family members. It was one of the best shows I've ever seen in my life. 

James: I went there with Harley. It was quite a night.

Monte: You've said that Ron and Russell “dance to a drum we can’t even hear and then bring it back around to give us a treat.” That’s an incredible way of describing them.

James: That’s how I feel about them. And good guys to boot. You know, I've always stood in awe of those kinds of people. They are geniuses and they are nice. That’s what they are, they are nice guys.

Monte: Do you stay in touch with them much?

James: Not much, though I've called them on the phone a couple times and it’s just like it was yesterday. Good guys. I am sure they are hopping around somewhere.

Monte: You know they never go back, but if they did there’s just an incredible amount of creative people – like you – that they could work with.

James: They have to follow their star. Most people don’t even know where their star is!

I was lucky. I thought (Ron and Russ) were creative with bright, fresh ideas, and I thought I was lucky that I got to spend that time with them. The same way I feel about Todd. I woke up every morning saying, “this is cool.” I still do today. I wake up every morning and say, “this is cool.”

Summing Up

Monte: It seems to me like you’re really living the life you want to be living right now.

James: That’s absolutely true. I meet so many people that say to me, I wish I could do exactly what you’re doing. You come to a point where you say, “yeah, money is terrific, but there’s a certain point where you want to be able to sit around and do what you want to be doing.”

Life has been a dream.

SPECIAL BLOG EXCLUSIVE: Additional comments from James Lowe's friend and sometime musical collaborator - and - one-time Sparks drummer - Harley Feinstein!

James is one of those fascinating people that you could write a biography about. He comes from a long line of revolutionarily thinking people. For example, one of his ancestors, Thaddeus C. Lowe, started the United States Air force.

Back in the early 1960s James was hanging around the North Shore of Oahu, surfing Sunset, crewing yachts and modeling. Not sufficiently satisfied by this lifestyle, he and his buddies started a rock band, which became “The Electric Prunes.” They would have psychedelic hits, tour the world.  One can only imagine the experiences of a former Hawaii beach dude model turned front man rock star on world tour. After doing the Electric Prunes thing for a few years he teamed up with Todd Rundgren to be half of his production team. Those early hits like “Hello It’s Me?” That was James helping to make those sounds happen.

I met James when the Rundgren/Lowe production team was hired to produce sparks. After the first album it became clear that what we needed was James Lowe more than Todd Rundgren. Fortunately James agreed to do the second album (A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing) without Todd. Many people still appreciate that album 40 years later. After that James lost interest in producing other people’s music and became a successful television producer for many years. In the early 1970s James and the love of his life Pamela, bought what was then beautiful but untouched land north of Santa Barbara. He, himself, built a magnificent Puerto Vallarta beach house and recording studio on top of a mountain. Over the years the Stars began buying up land and building homes in the surrounding area. Eventually you could hear the train whistle from Michael Jackson’s Neverland.

Lucky me, I was invited to come and stay at the mountaintop hideaway and record on the album “Feedback.” Half a dozen movie star neighbors later James decided to sell and build an amazing beach house on the sand on the island of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. He is a legend in many parts of the world. I am truly honored to be his friend.

Learn more about the great and storied history of the Electric Prunes here - at their official website

Interested in early Electric Prunes? There's a goldmine of material to enjoy, including a recent collection.  Check it out.

And they are in fact quite an excellent live band!

And more recently: 

Some pictures are from Xavier Lorente-Darracq's tremendous Graphikdesigns website, and are used by permission. If you want to learn the early history of Sparks, this is the first place to go.


  1. WaS is an amazing CD! A must for Electric Prunes fans...

  2. live next to this guy and his wife very rude people
    no respect for other folks property or privacy
    We moved can't believe they are still both alive with thee way they abused themselves

    1. I cannot agree with this comment. I have been purchasing Electric Prunes CDs through this website and Mr Lowe is an exceedingly friendly and professional gentleman, who has been a pleasure to deal with. I hope both he and his wife remain happy, fulfilled and joyous in their life together and in the music and art they create.

  3. Very enlightening article will now purchase the new cd to add to my very extensive Electric Prunes collection.

  4. Just received the CD WaS. Listened. Love it. Thank you for all the extras too.