The Electric Prunes - interview with Mark Tulin part 1

 

The Electric Prunes are a legendary band beloved of fans and collectors of garage and psychedelic music. They had two big hits : "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)" in late 1966 and "Get Me To the World On Time" in the spring of 1967. Another of their recordings appears on the soundtrack of the 1969 movie Easy Rider. I recommend two websites : the band’s official website and a fan site : electricprunes.com.

The interview took place on November 2, 2001, in his hotel room in New York City the day before their show at Cavestomp.

EARLY DAYS

<photo, from left : Ken Williams (guitar), Mark Tulin (bass, keyboards), James Lowe (vocals, guitar), Mike Weakley also known as Quint (drums) - source

Craig Morrison : You’re a bass player who also plays keyboards : piano and organ.

Mark Tulin : And some guitar.

CM : I remember hearing that the band came from Seattle.

MT : Wrong.

CM : Three guys are from California, one is from Cleveland, and one from Philadelphia. So why Seattle ?

MT : The band itself is actually from the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. The reason for Seattle was that our record—“I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)”—broke [first became a hit] in the Northwest, and it seemed for a while that we were the house band for the Pacific Northwest. We were up there a lot and people assumed that’s where we were from.

CM : Nobody lived there, nobody’s from there, nobody recorded there ?

MT : Nobody worked for Boeing. Nothing. We’ve seen reports of us being from there. We’ve seen reports of us being from San Francisco. We were just up in Seattle a lot.

CM : I grew up in that part of the world. I’m from Victoria, and at that time Victoria had no rock radio stations, so we were listening to stations in Vancouver and Seattle. Where did you play in Seattle ?

MT : By the time we went up there “Too Much to Dream” was already charting, so we started off playing the Coliseum. It was a big place. Most of the time we’d go up there and do bigger concerts, and all the time with local bands, like Don and the Goodtimes, Merilee Rush and the Turnabouts, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. We would go up there periodically, do a fair amount of radio with Pat O’Day [the major disc jockey on KJR in Seattle]. We’d tour, a whole northwestern tour, because once you hit Seattle, there’s Spokane and Oregon and all that.

CM : Did you play in Canada ?

MT : We played a little in Canada. We never played the West Coast. We always played Toronto, Montreal, those places.

CM : Hit Parader magazine [June 1967] quoted you : “The band declares ‘We are not psychedelic.’” Several other groups around that time also said they did not want to be under that label.

MT : The problem at the time was that by being labeled psychedelic, not in our minds because we were just doing whatever we did, but in other people’s minds, you suddenly fit into a category, which is ironic when you consider that psychedelic should have no category. It should transcend that. If you’re really going to be psychedelic there is no box for you to fit into. It was more that we were attempting not to be designated as being ‘X’ when we didn’t feel that. “Too Much to Dream” was, if not the first, one of the first [so called] “psychedelic” hit records. We weren’t psychedelic when we did it. In other words, when we were cutting the record, there wasn’t really psychedelia, so nobody came up and said, “This sounds like a psychedelic record.” To become something after you already are it, is what we were reacting to. They said, “You are.” We said, “No we’re not.” Because we were before it.

CM : Was there a category that you were comfortable with ?

MT : Just us.

CM : Or were you like a lot of bands : “Don’t tell us what we are. We’re going to do whatever we want to do” ?

MT : To understand where we were at, at that point, if you listened to radio, there was no R&B station, no hip hop station…

CM : It was all together.

MT : Yes, so there was no need to categorize. Billboard [magazine] didn’t break its charts down into the 42 different categories with a minor that they have now. So [on the radio] you would go from a folk song to a rock song to a psychedelic song to a jazz song to a pure pop song. We didn’t have any real category for us. It was just what we did.

CM : There are a lot of fascinating things going on in your music. There’s a Bo Diddley influence. Can you tell me a little bit about that ?

MT : It seemed that you either came up through folk music or up through blues in rock and roll, Eddie Cochran and those guys. Nobody escaped them. Still there was another root beneath that. When we would play for fun we did old Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf tunes and all that. I don’t know anything that feels as good as Bo Diddley. When he locks into it, it’s perfect. We used to play Bo Diddley stuff for fun. “Get Me to the World on Time” was the one with the real Bo Diddley influence, where it really kicks in.

CM : You even have maracas on that.

MT : Yeah. Love maracas. We’re going to play them tomorrow night too. Holdover from Buddy Holly and real Bo Diddley stuff. Before “Too Much to Dream” broke, we actually played with Bo Diddley, not as his band, but we backed somebody else at a club in LA called The Troubadour and Bo Diddley played. It was this three or four piece fricking band that he had, like nothing, but boy !

CM : What I know of the Electric Prunes on record is not covers, it’s originals or songs from other people, but for those we don’t have another version that we’re already familiar with. What other covers did you do ?

MT : When we started out as a band, we started out to make records. We didn’t start out to play parties or clubs, where most bands did a lot of covers and could sit down and play whatever.

CM : Because they had to.

MT : They had to. We never did that. We decided that we needed to be recorded. The studio was more home to us ultimately. We still would rather just be in the studio. When we played, most of the time we were interested in developing our own stuff, not in covers. The only cover versions we ever really did were the prerequisite rock and roll, nothing very strange. We could do some things : “Mojo,” “Smokestack Lightning,” some Chuck Berry, because I think all guitar players learn to play by playing “Johnny Be Goode.” That’s required playing. We didn’t do them real well.

CM : I’m curious how a band would not have come up from playing in the teen scene.

MT : A lot of the credit for that, because we didn’t get distracted very early on, came from James. There are several factors if I think about it. One is, I was like 16, so I still had school.

CM : Can you slip in a birth date here ?

MT : I was born in November 21, 1948, in Philadelphia. I lived in Virginia until I was eight, and then we moved to LA, so I’ve been out there since I was eight years old. We were in high school when the band started forming.

CM : Were you all guys in the same high school ?

MT : No. Ken Williams and I went to junior high school and high school together. We played in the grade 9 talent shows. In our first band we played four surf songs, and then they wanted an encore. We had to play one of the songs again because we only knew four. We played “Miserlou,” “Surf Beat” [both by Dick Dale], “Pipeline” [by the Chantays], and something else.

CM : What was the band called ?

MT : God, what did we call ourselves ? I don’t remember. Four guitars and no drums, very unusual. Whoever had a guitar. I was playing guitar. I didn’t play bass until the band. James is a couple of years older and he was the one who had the focus to say, “Listen, there’s a billion bands playing clubs. I don’t think that’s the way to get where we want to get unless you just want to play clubs.” Instead of playing the club circuit and working up a lot of other people’s songs, we practiced seven days a week. James at the time worked the graveyard shift at one of the places that builds rockets or something. We would practice until he had to go to work at like eleven. When I’d get up and go to school, he’d go to sleep. Then we’d get together. From the get go, we were very focused on what we wanted to do, which was cut records. So we didn’t do a lot of the stuff that other bands did.

CM : What inspired him or all of you to say, “We’re going for the records” ?

MT : I read something the other day about that celebrity or fame usually doesn’t come accidentally. Without sounding egotistical—I mean we had a hit record, it’s not the same as, say, Mother Teresa—but you need to want it. We loved the music but we didn’t want to just play clubs. We wanted to play to larger arena.

CM : I’m curious about the source of that vision. Did you know of someone who lived nearby who did it and it made you think “We can do like him" ?

MT : No. We had no reference point. I just think James has always had a focus.

CM : He had that as a goal.

MT : Yeah. He was the one to say, “Listen, this is what we’re going to do.” We didn’t get as many girls as other bands did early on but it was okay.

CM : So when you were rehearsing, you were rehearsing up for the possibility of making records.

MT : Yes. We rehearsed at my house in the garage. Hence, the garage band, I guess. Which is another title that we don’t really know that we belong in, but we played in a garage so I guess we’re a garage band. Recording was a lot different then, four tracks, massive studios. We would go in periodically to some places in Hollywood and go direct to acetate. We didn’t get tape out of it, we got acetate. The music business was more available to you if you had a product. At least you got listened to. You normally got turned down but at least you got heard. It wasn’t getting blocked at the front door, and you didn’t need 42 million dollars to get through. We were in LA, and I think that had a lot to do with the process. I don’t know that we would have done the same thing if we had not been in Southern California near Hollywood where all the labels were anyway, so we had direct access to it. We practiced our stuff and worked it up and cut some acetates. The difference was that we believed we could do it. I mean, fully. There was never any wavering.

CM : That’s fantastic

MT : Somebody would say, “I hate what you do,” and we’d think they were full of crap. It’s not that we were wrong, it’s just that they didn’t have any taste.

CM : You guys knew each other quite well, from putting in all this time together.

MT : We ended up knowing each other quite well. It was a good blending of people who were willing to do that, and I don’t know how that happened. If I could, I’d do it again with other facets of my life but it doesn’t seem to work. I can’t give James enough credit for it. If you look at the band, I’ve always been a little more musical than he is, and he’s always been the one with the heart of it.


album review by Craig Morrison : Early efforts of the band can be heard on a CD by The Sanctions/ Jim and the Lords, called Then Came The Electric Prunes. It contains acetates, as the liner notes state, “recorded live direct-to-disc by Russ Bottomley, at his place, Woodland Hills CA.” These recordings were never intended for release. The CD is a real period piece, fascinating for what it reveals but as a listening experience it’s of the for-fans-only variety. The Sanctions session, recorded March 27, 1965, shows their lack of experience but also their dedication. Drummer Mike “Quint” Weakley’s beat is solid and steady with lots of tom tom and cymbal work yet the overall rhythmic feel is stiff. There is no bass guitar, but Mark Tulin on rhythm guitar provides a lot of steady strumming, nothing else. Lead guitarist Ken Williams has ideas and technique, however too much reverb places them in the distance. The lead vocals by James Lowe are confident but hoarse, usually shouted, though he shows creativity and attitude by throwing in some new, sometimes sly, lyrics. The background vocals are enthusiastic yet loose and out of tune, and the echoey sound and overly prominent drumming underline that it’s a demo.

The dozen tunes, all covers except perhaps for one (a blues called “Chicago”), are among the simplest available yet well rehearsed. The repertoire ranges from the typical to the less common. As could be expected, there are American songs by black singers learned from British Invasion bands : “Boys,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Money” were done by the Beatles, and “Love Potion #9” was a hit for the Searchers. The anthem of the Pacific Northwest, “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, was ubiquitous (though few knew it originated with Richard Berry, a black rhythm and blues singer from Los Angeles). Gary US Bonds’ “New Orleans” was also popular for young bands. There are two guitar instrumentals : Link Wray’s “Jack the Ripper” and the Gamblers’ “Moon Dog,” an early surf tune with some “aahs” and howls which was a local hit for Los Angeles session players. In addition, we hear early soul from Ray Charles (the often-covered “What’d I Say”) and Etta James (the gospel-like “Something’s Got A Hold On Me”), and a blues by Jimmy Reed (“Help Yourself,” an album track, not one of his 12 hits that made the pop charts, not even a B-side).

At their next session, recorded six months later, on September 29, 1965, the band, now called Jim and the Lords, shows much improvement. The recording is more balanced, so even the engineer has advanced. Besides a general increase in confidence and skill, the repertoire of four songs shows how the group, and rock and roll itself, was evolving. The band is still doing songs they learned from British invasion bands, however, these songs are not covers of American records but originals (Lennon-McCartney’s storming rocker “I’m Down,” Jagger-Richard’s folk rocking “I’m Free”). Their awareness of Los Angeles as a movie city is evidenced by the new band name, derived from Lord Jim, the Joseph Conrad story made into a Hollywood film by Columbia Pictures, released earlier that year. They cover another local hit by a local band : the Leaves’ hypnotic garage-y folk rock “Too Many People.” The creativity that James Lowe exhibited by throwing in some new verses in the cover songs has blossomed into songwriting. His “Little Olive,” about a girl who wears bell-bottom trousers, scented rings and veils, and who wants a guy to save her soul but the boys shy away from her love (“you lose your mind and then go blind/ how could a woman be so cold”), is also hypnotic garage-y folk rock. They will re-record it for their first single. It’s a plodding yet catchy minor-key song with a four-bar motive formed by “aahs” that are sung in unison with the guitar part—one held note and three shorter ones—making a rising line against the insistent one-bar-three-note bass riff.

sepia tone picture source

There is a wider range of sounds : Mark is now playing bass, they have added a keyboard player (Dick Hargrove), and we hear tambourine on a couple and harmonica on three of the four songs. In “I’m Free,” James’s lead vocal is doubled an octave higher by one of the others singing in falsetto, just like on the Stones recording. As the liner notes say, “those tracks must be pretty close to what was happening in the Tulin family garage early in 1966 the day Barbara Harris walked by, liked what she heard, and started the chain of events that led to the band being signed, changing their name, developing further, and becoming The Electric Prunes.”

see part 2

see part 3

comments or questions ? email me


I have posted interviews with members of the Doors, Electric Prunes, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Music Machine, Quickislver Messenger Service, and Strawbery Alarm Clock. To go to the index page, click here.

you may be interested to read Psychedelic Music in San Francisco : Style, Context, and Evolution by Craig Morrison, available as a download from lulu.com for less than $5

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006