THE SIGNAL by David Katznelson
“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.”― Hart Crane
It probably has something to do with growing up in San Francisco and hanging at Haight Street as a teenager: Psychedelic music has been a significant part of the soundtrack to my life. In high school, my three favorite psych bands were: The 13th Floor Elevators, The Chocolate Watchband…and The Electric Prunes. To me, they were the gatekeepers to the red-purple paislied fantasy land that I missed out experiencing being born two years after the death of the hippie.
So it was a dream come true when the powers at Warner Bros. green lit my request to produce an Electric Prunes compilation. Within days of telling friends around the Ski Lodge that I was diving into the project, I got a call that someone at work knew the lead singer of the band, James Lowe, and could introduce me to him.
A week later, I was having lunch with James, with him not believing anyone from the label would care at all about the Prunes and me just staring at him in disbelief of his being real. And the rest of the ride is a total trip: my friend Geoffrey Weiss found some forgotten recordings in the WB vault as well as the multi-tracks to the records, and James and I went into the studio to do some mixing and re-mixing…touching the source of the sonic craziness he had masterminded for the Prunes signature sounds.
His son Cameron, who was with James at our first meeting, recently suggested that I should reach out to his Dad and talk about his time working behind a recording counsel with Sparks, a band that is having quite a moment in the sun right now with a new documentary and a feature film that they are somehow deeply woven into (I have not seen it) with Adam Driver. So I reached out to James and checked in with the master hep Prune…
5ish Questions for James Lowe
DAVID: James! Hello! Let’s start with the present: where are you hanging out right now?
JAMES: I have been in Santa Ynez, CA for about 6 months. I try to split my time with the Dominican Republic (too much sugar can be hard to take!) and the Pandemic threw all our plans on the fire!
DAVID: People know of you as an Electric Prune but many don’t know that you also did some amazing engineering and production work for other bands. Were you involved in those roles with the Prunes even though the credit went to David Hassinger and others?
JAMES: I always wanted to make records, even before the band. When I was a kid, I got 4 or 5 old hand-crank phonographs and would try to sync them up with the same record (78’s) on all of them to make a weird phasing effect in my backyard. Getting Dave involved was a special chance to see how the pros did things. Dave was very open at first about taking me around the studios and showing me some editing and basic track recording techniques. He showed me his rhythm set ups and I saw he did every record the same way. Bass, Drums, Guitars …. I learned a lot from him and we were friends … to a point. I would ask about phasing and backward effects (my passion) and I realized he didn’t do much of that stuff. Richie Podolor (owner of the American Recording Co. Studio) and Bill Cooper knew more about that. Dave was cool till the Underground album.
He went to San Francisco to record the Grateful Dead and we were left with Richie and Bill to record. This was refreshing since it gave us a chance to experiment a bit. Dave hated that album and told me I had ruined the image of the band. Maybe I did and many I didn’t? I was unsophisticated enough to believe him. The effects on the records were always at our insistence. I had envisioned us to be an effects band. We wanted to try new things. All of that said, I would offer that anyone who gives you a break or helps you when you need it is a special person and deserves your thanks.
DAVID: What was the first non-Prunes studio work you did? If one were to believe the discogs website it would be the Limelighters and the Nazz. How did you fall in with Todd Rundgren?
JAMES: When I quit the band, I went around to studios looking for work. I had been doing it for a while and I felt I might be able to get some work behind the glass. ID Sound offered me a job and I recorded spots and music and effects. I met Alex Hassilev there and did some work with the Limelighters and he offered me some side work in his home studio. This was a fruitful connection since he had studio players coming through all the time from Van Dyke Parks to Ry Cooder. There were just some cool cats to record! Alex helped me get some good projects and I always got paid!
I met Todd at ID Sound through his manager, John Kurland. He was looking for someone to do his new recording since he had already done the first Nazz record and there was some problems with the engineer falling asleep? We agreed to record some things and it turned into Nazz Nazz. I liked the guys very much.
We recorded so much material for Nazz Nazz, that we could only use half of it. So when Todd left the group after that record, Screen Gems (the label he left) asked me if I would put the other material in a format to release. I asked Todd and he didn’t care and told me go ahead. That became Nazz III. I continued to work with Todd on Runt (his first solo record) with the Sales Brothers, The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren, Something/Anything, as well as records for the James Cotton Blues Band, and the first Sparks album. He offered me the second Sparks album, “A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing” since he had other commitments. I did some recording with Foghat in New York after that.
DAVID: Sparks is having a big moment right now….with a new documentary (that I believe you are in) and a movie with big Hollywood stars. Did you meet the Mael brothers through Rundgren? What did you think of Sparks when you first heard them and what were they like to work with in their early days of recording?
JAMES: Todd’s girlfriend at the time, Miss Christine, had heard the band and encouraged them to send Todd a demo. Todd liked them and asked if I wanted to do the album with him. We went with Christine and my wife, Pamela to an Industrial park in the Valley…a place they called “The Doggie Bed Factory” which actually was a place where they made doggie beds by day and served as a rehearsal space for the band at night. The band was all set up and ran through 5 or 6 songs (these situations are always awkward … if you’re in a band, you know what I mean!) We left and everyone liked the “Half Nelson,” their name at that time. Pamela thought Russ was cute and fans would like them. I thought it was more novelty stuff…much like my band had tried to do, so I was impressed. At our first recording session we did “High C” and I was hooked! I didn’t see how they could follow this type of material up but I was not aware of how they could write songs like this so quickly … so the second album came around very fast. Albert Grossman would call me and ask me to put Russ’ voice up more in the mix. I promised to do so and came to the realization it was his phrasing that made it hard to understand some of the words. I did my best. I thought they were very talented, easy to work with, and I was happy to be recording them.
DAVID: The artists whose records you worked on were at the same time diverse and game changing: Ry Cooder, James Cotton, Todd Rundgren, Foghat, Sparks…who was the most inspirational to you?
JAMES: Each project gets you another feather and Todd had a work ethic and breadth to his musicianship I admired. I have learned something on every adventure I have encountered. Sparks, by all means, were an experience. They were different at that time and were actually trying to DO something different. I said if they didn’t get some recognition, I would not produce another record and thus I stopped making records for other people after that. I no longer felt I knew what anyone wanted, and that is what the producer is there to do.
DAVID: What is one of your craziest studio memories?
JAMES: I think one time at American Recording Co. we were trying to do vocals and there was this strange sound… like a humming. We tried to track it down and it turned out to be a beehive in the echo chamber. Every once in a while, they would buzz loudly when the echo was turned up. Someone came and got them. Not as crazy as naked girls, but we were in the San Fernando Valley!
DAVID: Do you have any good memories to share about working with James Cotton?
JAMES: James was a very nice guy. He just played and let us capture his magic. His rusty nail vocals matched his fantastic harp playing. I think we had Mike Bloomfield and Johnny Winter on that record too. It was like the best of West Coast Blues right there in ID Sound! I actually got to record Canned Heat there one night when their producer was out sick. I don’t remember which cut we did but it was on that record with "On The Road Again" and "Goin’ Up To The Country”. All I remember is I kept reminding myself, “just don’t forget to hit record!”
DAVID: I have never known you to be a person without a project in the making. Care to share what you are concocting?
JAMES: I am in a dry spell at the moment. My son, Cameron has come up with an interesting album, “Age of Reflection”.
He did this without my input and I will try to help him, I think? Always on the lookout for a project! (EDITORS NOTE: James: write your memoir!)