Archive for the ‘garage’ Category

Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part Two)

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In 2012 I wrote a blog entry in which I suggested that Syd Barrett may have – consciously or otherwise – nicked the intro of “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” for Pink Floyd‘s “Astronomy Dominé.” The two are too similar for it to be coincidence, I think. And it’s well established that Barrett was listening to a lot of American music, having admitted to being inspired by the riff of Love‘s version of “My Little Red Book” when he wrote “Interstellar Overdrive.” So although the Electric Prunes weren’t active for a very long period back in the 60s, the band’s influence outpaced its record sales. Do you hear the sound and approach of the Prunes in bands that would come after?

James Lowe: I think what it probably was, most of all, was is that “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” was a really weird sounding record. So I think that we got thrown in the weirdo category when we were actually pretty normal. I can see why the music of that time became a sort of turning point, because things were going electronic. And with stuff going backwards and sliding around, maybe that was there at the right time. I like that record. A lot of people don’t like their hit records; I love it.

BK: Also in 2012, Real Gone Music put together a complete singles collection of the band’s Reprise releases, The Complete Reprise Singles. The thing that made it special was hearing the mono versions of all of those songs. On the first couple of albums, what degree of input did the band have regarding things like arrangements, mixes and so forth?

JL: We did all the arrangements. And I did the mixes with Dave Hassinger, mostly. People have asked that before, about mono versus stereo. The first mix was always the mono mix. Because some people had stereo; some didn’t. So you’d sort of be making a stereo mix for a few people. But the mono mix was the thing that went on the radio. At American studios, we’d make a mix of something, and then we’d go out, transfer it to the car, and sit in the car and listen to it on the radio. Mono was very important. I know why a lot of people collect it, because it does sound different.

BK: It’s much punchier; if it sounds good through a crappy little car speaker over AM radio, it sounds good.

JL: Amen!

BK: That said, the stereo effects are cool. But I still prefer those mono mixes.

The songs on WaS: were they written expressly for an album or is the album a sort of collection of material you had floating around, and you just decided that now was the time to put something together?

JL: We had some things floating around. This was the album Mark and I were putting together before he died. There were some things that we had already recorded, and some things that were partially finished. And there were other things that we had sketched out, that hadn’t been completed yet. So WaS is sort of a compilation of all those things. And I think it represents what Mark and I would have done for the final album if he hadn’t checked out.

BK: I’m impressed by just how – dare I say – authentic sounding the new album is. In the age of ProTools and digital recording, it’s paradoxically, I think, more difficult to make an album that has that particular sonic quality of the mid to late 60s. I think you succeeded. What did you do special to make that happen?

JL: I think that a lot of the things that make it sonically the way that it is have to do with this: we always did everything through the amplifiers. On our recordings, when we wanted to get an effect, we’d get it with the amplifier. Rarely did we really use the studio devices to create an effect. So a lot of the stuff on disc is just the way we really did, trying to – for example – take a Fender Reverb amp and do something weird with it. And I think that makes a difference; there’s a certain kind of warmth to my ears. I like digital stuff, but this is kind of a combination of those things.

BK: I would think also that if you’re achieving the sounds that way in the studio, it’s going to be that much easier to recreate those sounds live onstage.

JL: It does, yeah. It at least gives you a handle to hang the stage act upon. So there’s nothing so abstract that you could never play it.

BK: What’s coming up as far as live dates in the near future for the Electric Prunes?

JL: I don’t know; I was hoping that you were going to tell me! We’re hoping to go to Europe. We keep getting these adventures offered to us, but the hardest part is to get people off the couch and to come out to a show and see the band. People always tell us, “Hey, I had no idea you were in town!” And I think, “Why not? Why wouldn’t you know?” It seems that people would rather hang and watch Netflix than they would go down to some place and see an old band play.

More information about the band and their new album can be found at http://www.electricprunes67.com/

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Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part One)

Monday, August 25th, 2014

In that heady summer of 1967, one of the songs that captured and embodied the zeitgeist was “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” a fuzzed-out psychedelic miniature masterpiece by the trendily-named Electric Prunes. While the original group managed only to squeeze out two albums – the debut LP titled after the hit single, and Underground (both released in 1967) – before surrendering to their producer’s vision, an approach in which their participation was minimal to nonexistent, they left behind a number of excellent tunes.

Serious fans of the band often dismiss Mass in F Minor and the two albums that followed it as not being part of the band’s true canon. But those early tracks, including numbers like “Get Me to the World On Time” and “The Great Banana Hoax” displayed a vibe that was as at times as dark as The Doors, but yet seemingly also possessing of a more good-timing disposition.

Bassist Mark Tulin and guitarist/vocalist James Lowe were the prime movers in that original lineup, and after a decades-long hiatus, the pair reactivated the Electric Prunes for the 21st century. A pair of studio albums – California (2004) and Feedback (2006) – showed that the group had new material in the vein of their 60s work, and their live shows displayed their onstage fire to a new generation.

Tulin passed away in early 2011, but by the time of his death, a new Electric Prunes album had already gotten started. Lowe and the rest of the band finished the material, released in 2014 as WaS. Recently, I spent some time in conversation with Lowe, discussing the new material, the old songs, and the forces that have helped the music of The Electric Prunes to endure for so many years. – bk

Bill Kopp: When Lenny Kaye‘s original and influential 2LP Nuggets compilation first came out on Elektra in the early 70s, how aware were you of it and the fact that “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” was on it?

James Lowe: I wasn’t aware [of it] at all. I didn’t know; I had no idea. In fact my son told me about it…I don’t know what year it was; years later. He said, “Do you know you’re on Nuggets?” And I said, “What’s that?” Here’s the thing: I didn’t tell anyone I had been in that band. I was doing commercials and films and stuff, and nobody knew me as the guy in The Electric Prunes. So nobody would bother to mention it to me.

BK: The first time I recall seeing your name was on liner notes for Todd Rundgren‘s Runt album; you engineered it, right?

JL: I engineered Nazz, Nazz Nazz, Nazz III, Runt, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Someting/Anything…we did a bunch of albums together.

BK: So in the period during which the Electric Prunes essentially went inactive, and up until when you reactivated the group around 2000, what were you doing musically?

JL: I had a commercial production company, so I was doing corporate image films and stuff like that. Other than underscoring those things, I wasn’t doing any music projects.

BK: When you did reunite around the turn of the century, what was it about that particular time that made it right?

JL: A guy named David Katznelson from Warner Brothers wanted to release an album of our stuff from the 60s. And we couldn’t figure out why he did; we didn’t think anyone would want to buy it. He seemed so knowledgeable and involved, that we just sort of surrendered ourselves to him. So we made a compilation called Lost Dreams. And that reinstilled my interest in music. I had gotten Mark Tulin on board when they called me to do it. And with both of us sitting there listening to these old tracks after all those years, we thought that we didn’t sound that bad! I gotta be honest: it wasn’t bad.

BK: The liner notes the new album, WaS, are sort of cagey about whether this is the end: “Maybe the last we will ask you to support.” With Mark having passed, are you keeping your options open, or is this really the end?

JL: Well, to be honest with you, the band – the guys we’ve been playing with for the last seven or eight years – these guys really like playing, and they’re interested in still performing. So…I”m not sure if we’ll do any more records; we’ve got some stuff in the can, enough to do some more records. But these guys wanna play. And I wanna play, too. I’ve been playing this stuff for the last year, year and half while we recorded it. But it’s also a lot of fun to go out and play it for people.

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EP Review: The Fauntleroys — Below the Pink Pony

Friday, August 1st, 2014

I can’t find the specific quote I’m looking for at the moment, but there’s an entry in Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia (the original 1969 edition, not the lousy and lifeless early 70s update edited by Ed Naha) in which the author predicts the rise of one-off collaborations between established music. Again, I can only paraphrase, but Lillian Roxon cites the artistic freedom inherent in such temporary musical unions.

The whole concept didn’t catch on in rock to quite the degree Roxon predicted (though it was and remains a fundamental principle in jazz, where “groups” often assemble for a single project and then dissolve and move on). But when it does happen, the results can be impressive, and do fall in line with Roxon’s predictions.

The Fauntleroys are the latest example of an ad-hoc group made up of established artists. This alt-rock supergroup (there, I’ve said it) features Alejandro Escovedo (The Nuns, Rank and File, substantial solo work), Ivan Julian (Richard Hell and the Voidoids, excellent solo work, and production for such greats as Richard Barone and The Fleshtones), Linda Pitmon (Miracle 3, The Baseball Project) and Nicholas Tremulis* (Candy Golde, and yet more stellar solo work), all coming together to record and release the six-song EP Below the Pink Pony.

Each of the quartet’s straightforward melodies comes wrapped inside a slashing, barbed-wire arrangement that conveys danger, and a sort of elegant scuzziness, a streetwise beauty that will feel familiar to fans of these players’ back catalogs. Their collaborative approach to songwriting – working from snippets and building the tracks in Julian’s NYC studio – means that the songs have the fingerprints of all four members on them, rather than sounding like the work of one member backed by three others. Below the Pink Pony is, then, the antithesis of something like The Beatles’ white album.

That said, Tremulis’ powerful and commanding lead vocals gives him what sounds like a slightly larger role in the finished product. Pitmon’s backing vocal on “(This Can’t Be) Julie’s Song” and others balances things out a bit, though. Julian’s snaky guitar slashes and Escovedo’s distorted, buzzing guitar work mesh together to convey a sense of peril, even when the lyrics lean (slightly) toward the positive and uplifting.

The production finish on the album is spiky and rough, and one senses that’s exactly as the four musicians hoped it would be. The balance between studio polish and first-take vitality is perfect. And the best news about The Fauntleroys is that – unlike what Roxon described in 1969 – the group has plans to tour and release a full-length album. I’ll be keeping an eye and ear out for that one, as should you.

* I’m still waiting for Tremulis to paint my house as promised (inside joke).

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Album Review: The Roaring 420s – What is Psych?

Friday, July 11th, 2014

There’s a bubbling-under sort of cottage industry in sixties revivalism. And it’s been around for at least a couple of decades now, occasionally popping into the mainstream consciousness to enjoy a charting single or album. Of course Oasis raised the practice to fetishism in the 1990s, shifting millions of units for their trouble. And the (admittedly more modest) success of Rhino’s Children of Nuggets box set proved that, for many, the sounds and aural aesthetic of the 1960s have never really gone away.

Today we have Elephant Stone, The Allah-Las, The Black Angels and many others. Each has their own style based in whole or part on what was happening in the second half of the 1960s, but each, too, has their own identity. And the similarly-named (yet quite distinct from one another) bands The Fuzztones and The Fleshtones have been keepers of the flame for the more garage-y end of 60s style.

Paradoxically perhaps, it requires more than a modicum of originality to earn success in 2014 while reaching back half a century for one’s musical touchstones. The Orgone Box is one act (based in the UK) whose music somehow builds upon the sounds of old while transcending the eras to create something fresh and lasting; look for my review of their Centaur album soon in this space.

Another group of note with a similar level of quality is The Roaring 420s.

Okay, now that you’ve had a second or so to chuckle at the group’s name and get it out of your system, you’re ready to digest (or, ingest) their music. Yes, this is a case of band name as truth-in-advertising, though the music of this German-based group often suggests the intake of something stronger than a bit of weed.

Judging solely by the music, there’s little or nothing to suggest that The Roaring 420s are from Germany. In fact their sound is firmly rooted in mid 1960s Los Angeles: you’ll hear strong hints of The Music Machine, The Electric Prunes, and even (shudder) The Doors. The group has a real knack of combining the vibe of yesteryear with something far more important: a hook. Every track on What is Psych? is loaded with at least one – sometimes two, occasionally three – killer riffs or hooks.

The Roaring 420s come blasting out of the gate with “Bury My Burden” sounding for all the world like a much more pop-leaning Black Angels. Fuzzy guitars and a heavier bass than is usually the case in sixties garage stomp forward, aided by some especially tasty combo organ work. And it’s the keyboards that push the music on What is Psych? past the very-good mark toward something really special. The band’s call-and-response vocal approach (employed on some but certainly not all tracks) pulls the listener in, if they weren’t already all-in.

Typically, songs of the type one will find on What is Psych? are of the three-minutes-and-out variety. It’s a testament to the strength of the band’s songwriting and arranging that many of the cuts on What is Psych? extend well beyond that mark. Catchy soloing that actually goes somewhere is backed by hypnotic backing; even at seven-plus minutes, a tune like “Bury My Burden” never so much as threatens to wear out its welcome.

The band cleverly builds its arrangements in a way that means sometimes one member is turning out a memorable solo, while the rest are providing sympathetic support. But then, perhaps, the bass and guitar will engage in lockstep riffing. Then it’s Florian Hohmann‘s combo organ and Timo Elmert‘s guitar in octave-apart unison. Then, maybe Martin Zerrenner‘s bass and Hohmann’s keys. And it all works, anchored by Luisa Mühl‘s solid drumming.

In places (as on “Blue Jay,”) The Roaring 420s sound like early Velvet Underground supercharged with the sort of pop sensibility the VU wouldn’t display until Loaded. (And the 420s are not nearly as dark as the Velvets; they seem to be having a good time.)

Like Elephant Stone (who, at will, they they can sound like) the 420s make intelligent use of sitar, as on “These Woods of Stone.” But their shimmering, riff-based pop tunes – exemplified by “Another Chance (to Blow)” are where they truly shine. The Roaring 420s have figured out to just what degree they can employ repetition: more and it would be overkill, less and they’d be leaving riffs on the table (so to speak).

Mid-album (especially on “Hey Hey Rider”), the group seems to take a brief detour into a slightly different style, one that suggests a Blonde on Blonde era Dylan crossed with, I dunno, The Fugs. Hohmann does his best Dylan but ends up sounding more like Lou Reed. But on “Yes I Am” the quartet make it clear that they won’t be pigeonholed on every tune. The bright piano work that forms the track’s basis illustrates that there’s still room for expanding the parameters of what-is-psych, Sixties style.

It’s Blues Magoos time on “You Had to Learn it the Hard Way,” taking a familiar blues lick and building a track around it. The result threatens to yield a less notable tune, but the “ba-ba-ba” vocals suggest what might’ve happened if The Mamas and the Papas dropped by a Magoos recording date.

Thick fuzz riffage against a piano backing makes “Saturday Night” alright for this album, though here the lead vocals sound curiously like Tom Verlaine. The folky strains of “Pill Hill” suggest the Velvets’ more gentle, contemplative moments. Rhyming “jello” and “pillow” is a bit dodgy, but the Al Kooper-style organ work means they earn a pass.

The Roaring 420s save the best for next-to-last: the slow chugging vibe of “Tourist” crosses a Neil Young and Crazy Horse approach with (again) Television, and the result feel like epic storytelling, whether it is or not. After several guitar solos – none of which feels excessive – an extended (and finely textured) keyboard solo conjured pleasant memories of the late Ray Manzarek. Even at eight minutes, not a second of “Tourist” feels gratuitous or wasted.

The fuzzed-out, low-key “You Will Never Be the Same” ends the album on a blurry note, providing a calming chill-out to send listeners home after this trip through the past. But not too calming: in spots, the tune feels like C.A. Quintet‘s dark classic “A Trip Thru Hell.”

For those who dig the psychedelic vibe of the 60s but want strong melodic underpinning, but who insist upon something they haven’t heard before, The Roaring 420s’s What is Psych? may be just what the doctor ordered.

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Album Review: Sun Ra — A Space Odyssey

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

As Kris Needs notes in his excellent and detailed liner notes for A Space Odyssey: From Birmingham to the Big Apple – The Quest Begins, Sun Ra was a practitioner of “garage jazz.”

Today (May 22 2014) would have been the 100th birthday of the man born Herman Blount, though once he rechristened himself Sun Ra he also claimed to be a visitor from outer space. And when he began releasing music under his own name (beginning with 1956′s “Saturn,” credited to Le Sun Ra & His Arkistra), many listeners would be inclined to agree. Sun Ra’s closest antecedent wold have been Thelonious Monk; both men shared a love of dissonance and odd meters. But where Monk worked on (acoustic) piano and generally within a small combo, Sun Ra often worked with large ensembles and – in later years – made full use of electronics. A staggeringly prolific artist, he released more than 100 albums, many of which are quite rare today. His influence is wide: Parliament/Funkadelic owe much to him both musically and in their visual approach, and in my interviews, some surprising artists – XTC‘s Andy Partridge and New Jersey powerpoppers The Grip Weeds – have expressed their deep admiration for his work.

The new 3CD set from Fantastic Voyage focuses on the earliest part of Sun Ra’s recorded career. The first disc (subtitled “Pre-flight”) kicks off with the aforementioned “Saturn” and then quickly moves on to a survey of the session work Blount/Sun Ra did for other artists (plus some early solo/Arkistra sides). The earliest track dates from 1933, with the pianist as part of Clarence Williams & His Orchestra on the Sun Ra original “Chocolate Avenue.”

Most r&b fans will be surprised to learn that Sun Ra played on a number of tracks by well-known artists of that era: Wynonie Harris and Red Saunders’ Orchestra are just two of these. The “Pre-flight disc is packed with 28 tracks overall, about a third of which are Arkistra tracks from the tail-end of the 1950s.

Disc Two (“Lift-off”) features seventeen tracks, all Sun Ra originals, and all credited to various aggregations of his. He changes the spelling of Arkistra to Arkestra, sometimes appending the prefix “His” or “The” and other times adding “Solar” before “Arkestra.” But it’s the music that matters. Whacked-out big band music that surely seemed bizarre then (these tracks are assorted randomly from the period 1956-1968), and while they feel a bit more melodic in the context of the 21st century, they’re still pretty out-there. “Sunology” from 1957′s Super Sonic Jazz is a relatively straightforward number, but some electric piano takes it outside the safe zone. The electric piano runs on “Springtime in Chicago” seem processed somehow, perhaps through a ring modulator. But that’s a nonsensical observation: ring modulators weren’t available in 1956. Nonetheless, Sun Ra did some sort of processing – however primitive – to alter the tone of the instrument. “Sun Song” from 1957 features some otherworldly percussion, slightly off-kilter piano glissandi and weird, gurgling Hammond organ, all (perversely) applied to a relatively accessible melody. The brief solo piece “Advice to the Medics” is built around Sun Ra’s electric piano work, again with a strange, likely intentionally overdriven tone.

All of which leads to an important point. Long before the phrase DIY became a watchword in music, Sun Ra was doing it himself. Most of his recordings are relatively low-budget affairs, many released on his own El Saturn label. It’s unlikely that a relatively straight label such as Riverside or Blue Note would have wanted to release the seemingly unending stream of weirdo jazz that Sun Ra & His Arkestra churned out. And long before the era of the “merch table,” El Saturn releases were normally pressed in exceedingly small quantities (often less than a hundred copies) and sold at live Arkestra shows.

Despite its subtitle, disc three (“Future Shock”) isn’t all that weird, at least not in its first half. Fifteen tracks focusing tightly in on the period 1958-1961 (a time during which he released eleven albums!), these actually represent a sampling of the most accessible music Sun Ra produced. In some ways, Sun Ra’s music here has hints of exotica practitioners Esquivel and Martin Denny, albeit filtered through a jazz/r&b sensibility neither of those men possessed to any great degree. Even a straightforward blues arrangement on “Great Balls of Fire” (decidedly not the Jerry Lee Lewis standard from a year earlier) has atonal horn bursts peppered throughout its run time. “Velvet” is a big band number led by Sun Ra’s Monk-like piano runs; it swings hard and gives solo time to members of the Arkestra. Many of the tracks here are built upon a blues foundation, and seem designed for dancing. “Blues at Midnight” does engage in some thrilling bass and saxophone runs that lean toward hard bop, and “Ancient Aiethopia” is cinematic in its scope. “Space Loneliness” (a single from 1960) is evocative of its title, and features some excellent, dissonant piano soloing from Sun Ra. The disc tosses in a doo-wop oddity: “Teenager’s Letter of Promises” from 1959 by Juanita Rogers & Lynn Hollings backed by Sun Ra’s Arkestra masquerading as Mr. V’s Five Joys. It’s otherworldly and banal all at once, and has to be heard to be believed.

“Bassism” is just what its title suggests: a tune built around upright bass. But fluttering flutes and skittering piano take it in an uncharted direction. The Arkestra continues on its trajectory spaceward with 1961′s “Where is Tomorrow” and follows with three more tasty, edgy cuts from that year’s album The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra. The percussion-centric “The Beginning” feels like what Edgard Varèse might have done had he been backed with the Arkestra. The set wraps with 1961′s “Message to Earthman,” on which the Arkestra is led by a speaking (and shouting! And wailing!) Sun Ra, declaiming his intergalactic message.

Since the subtitle of this 3CD’s set includes the phrase “The Quest Begins,” one can only hope that Fantastic Voyage will grace modern music listeners with another Kris Needs-curated collection of Sun Ra music in the near future.

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Album Review: Night Beats — Sonic Bloom

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Modern perspectives on 60s garage rock have littered the musical landscape in the 21st century. But I’m reminded of an oft-repeated response to all that by a friend of mine. Upon hearing the latest band claiming to faithfully re-create the garage rock vibe of 1965-68, he often remarks upon the result, saying something like, “Aww…that’s not garage.” Clearly, to him, these young whippersnappers took the wrong cues from the era; perhaps the focused more upon sartorial concerns than musical ones.

And the sixties identikit isn’t enough. Nor is it enough to simply outfit a band with Rickenbacker guitars, fuzztone pedals and some Vox amps. While it may or not require consumption of drugs, there’s little doubt that an understanding of the musical goals of the sixties antecedents is the foundational prerequisite to getting it right.

Some do succeed. Austin’s Black Angels (on tour this coming spring with no less a psychedelic light than Roky Erickson) understand the vibe; their albums are awash in the fuzz-and-feedback aesthetic, and they get the tmepose right. But beyond that, they understand what it takes to put together a good song. Because one of the foundations of that sixties garage stuff was songcraft: you had to be able to dance to it, and (with some exceptions) the song had to make its musical mark quickly.

Another band that “gets it” is Night Beats. I reviewed their self-titled debut in Summer 2011, and I’m happy to report that on Sonic Bloom, their 2013 followup, they deliver more of the same quality.

Lee Blackwell still sounds like Sky Saxon. His guitars consistently reverb, feed back and fuzz out. There’s a pleasingly nodded-out vibe on groovy tunes like “Playing Dead.” And some tasty Farfisa enlivens “Outta Mind.” Throughout Sonic Bloom, the vocals and guitar – and to a lesser extent, everything else – are treated with sheets of reverb, phase and other sonic trickery of the late 60s. But it’s all done lovingly, and with an understanding – once again – that the basic song has to be there for it all to work. No, you probably won’t find yourself singing along to “Real Change.” Bonus points to you if you can even decipher what Blackwell’s singing about. But that’s not the point; the sound of the vocal – and the sound of that keening, squealing lead guitar break – is what’s important here.

“Satisfy Your Mind” is a Dylanesque jugband romp filtered through a fuzztone. Elsewhere, the band’s musical time machine goes back to the past to invent proto-shoegaze. “The Seven Poison Wonders” sounds like it could fit nicely into the “dance club” scene in the soundtrack of a Roger Corman film from way back when. And the album’s closer, “The New World” folds in some jazzy elements, suggesting that should Night Beats wish to expand their sonic horizons, they could do so effectively. (Here’s betting they won’t.)

Sonic Bloom represents a small step forward from the band’s debut, but since they started from such a solid place, little movement is needed. They haven’t yet said all they have to say where they are.

Sonic Bloom is a prime contender for Top Ten albums of the year, if the year is 1966. And from where I stand, that’s high praise indeed.

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It’s a Mondo Zombie Boogaloo!

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

It’s one thing to make good music. A challenging thing, not to be taken for granted, but as far as live performance goes, ultimately it’s only one part of the mix. Another thing is to put on a good show. Some artists do that without getting the first part of the equation (Gene Simmons, I’m lookin’ at you). Precious few can muster both, and do it reliably, consistently.

So what, dear reader, might be the odds that an evening’s entertainment might include three such acts? In my experience – and I’ve been to a lot of shows in my time – it’s a pretty damn unlikely proposition. But the exception that proves the rule is the current – as in, right this moment as I write these words – tour billed as “Mondo Zombie Boogaloo.” Featuring three bands who have long been performing at the top of their respective games, the tour makes its final three stops tonight (Halloween) in Carrboro NC, tomorrow (11/1) in Asheville NC, and then wraps up at Atlanta’s Masquerade (in the “Hell” room, natch) on November 2. I spoke with key members of all three bands – The Fleshtones, Los Straitjackets, and Southern Culture on the Skids – about the tour, and the new Mondo Zombie Boogaloo: 100 Years of Roc album that features all three acts.

Two of the bands (Los Straitjackets and The Fleshtones) are signed to Yep Roc for their album releases, and SCOTS (who are on Kudzu) have allowed their tunes to be included on the North Carolina label’s Boogaloo disc. And while each of the bands has their own unique approach to music, they share much in common; they’re friends, and musically kindred spirits. All three are “strongly rooted in the past,” asserts Peter Zaremba (keys and vocals, The Fleshtones). “But not for the past’s sake. And without reverence for that past. It’s not like we dig up this stuff and treat it like museum pieces. We treat it as a living organism that’s still developing and changing. Mutating, even!”

“And we all enjoy being onstage,” Zaremba adds. “A lot more than the average band. There may be things in our lives that are sources of anguish, like anybody else. But playing rock’n'roll is not one of those sources of anguish for us.” He feels that inflicting anguish upon an audience is not part of the Fleshtones’ brief, either. If, like his band, “you have to have a good time to be spiritually and emotionally liberated, then so be it.” Enthusiastically concurring with the argument that live rock’n'roll does not (and should not) have to be a zero sum game, Zaremba says that at a Fleshtones show, “everybody wins.”

“I think we all bring a sense of fun to rock’n'roll,” says Eddie Angel (guitar, Los Straitjackets). He agrees with Zaremba about the bands’ “love and respect for traditional rock’n'roll,” and compares it to the approach found in many bluegrass and blues bands. “They know where the music came from. In this day and age, that’s sometimes lost in rock’n'roll.” Rick Miller of SCOTS sums it up: “We all like to have fun, and music is our vehicle.” He adds one more thing all three bands have in common: “We’re all old as dust!”

That collective experience is the foundation of the new albums’ “100 Years of Roc” subtitle; SCOTS celebrate their thirtieth year together this year. Add the other two bands’ tenure to that and you come up with the 100-year figure. All three bands played together at 2012′s Yep Roc 15 celebration in Chapel Hill, and that show’s success gave rise to the idea for them to tour together. The bands have all shared bills before, two at a time, but this tour marks the first time all three groups have taken to the road en masse. And since Los Straitjackets had already recorded five Halloween-themed tunes (including a rocking reinvention of the “Theme From Halloween” soundtrack tune), SCOTS and The Fleshtones decided to add songs of their own that fit the theme, and then build the brief tour around showcasing those numbers.

At the time of our conversations, the tour hadn’t yet started – it kicked off on October 17 in Illinois, and SCOTS joined the tour five days later – so the performance order hadn’t yet been sorted out. But that didn’t seem to matter much to Peter Zaremba. “We’re all bands that enjoy watching each other play. I’d actually go see these guys,” he says. “And they would do the same.” Asked if audiences can expect an all-star end-of-show number featuring all bands at once, all three men interviewed are circumspect. But Zaremba allows that “there are definitely opportunities for us to play together.” Mondo Zombie Boogaloo includes a few tunes on which SCOTS’ Mary Huff joins The Fleshtones. “So,” chuckles Zaremba, “if she’s done taking care of her makeup and whatnot, we’d certainly like her to come out and sing one or two of those songs with us.”

Peter handles the lead vocal on the new record’s “Que Monstruos Son,” a Spanish-language reinvention of Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” a tune that does in fact feature all three bands. So what may happen onstage remains to be seen and heard. “I’d be more than honored to come onstage and sing that,” Zaremba says. “Anything can happen. Mostly, I think we’re gonna wing it.” He pithily characterizes the upcoming show as “the closest to nonstop excitement that you’re gonna see live onstage, anywhere. We’ll take care of everything; all you have to do is show up.”

Believe it. The Fleshtones, Los Straitjackets, and Southern Culture on the Skids will be at Asheville’s Grey Eagle on Friday, November 1. Show time is 9pm. Don’t miss it.

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Album Review: Various — In Fuzz We Trust

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

The premise alone is enough to set your head a-spinning. First, start with a bunch of sixties garage bands, the kind immortalized on the legendary Lenny Kaye-curated Nuggets album. Now flash forward to the 1980s and beyond, when a second wave of bands spring up in tribute to the garage/psych sound of yesteryear. Now flash forward again to the 21st century, and have a number of those original 60s acts get back together to pay tribute to arguably the finest of those second-wave bands. Got it?

Well, get it. Because that’s the thinking that led to the new compilation In Fuzz We Trust: 60s Garage Legends Salute the Fuzztones. Rudi Protrudi‘s group existed and exists to re-create (with original-ish tunes) the sound and style of bands like Gonn and The Music Machine, so even though they’re from different eras, their spirits are decidedly kindred.

Now, I’ll bet you didn’t know that some of those old bands were still around. And as it happens, some of ‘em actually aren’t, now. In fact several of the artists featured on In Fuzz We Trust have, sadly, passed from this dimension. Sean Bonniwell (Music Machine) and Arthur Lee (Love) are featured with The Electric Prunes and The Pretty Things(!) on a cover of The Fuzztones‘ “All the King’s Horses,” even though Bonniwell passed in 2011, and Lee even earlier in 2006. The SeedsSky Saxon (“Get Naked”) died in 2009, and Electric Prunes bassist Mark Tulin passed away in 2011. So clearly this project has been in development for awhile.

And it’s been worth the wait. Over the last several years, the American expat band – now based in Berlin – has mounted any number of theme-based albums: Horny as Hell employed brass and Hammond(!) organ; Illegitimate Spawn collected younger bands influenced by The Fuzztones, and the recent Snake Oil rounded up a bunch of groovy Fuzztones rarities and odds and ends. So in some ways, In Fuzz We Trust is just the latest theme package.

But it’s much more. It’s thrilling to hear some of those 60s bands (some of whom remain pretty obscure) crank it up and attack Fuzztones songs. Soundtrack heroes Davie Allan and the Arrows blast things off in style with “Avalanche,” and things keep rolling from there. Shadows of Knight fold some, er, familiar riffs into a cover of “I Never Knew,” and elsewhere everybody’s favorite tonsured rockers The Monks take on “Hurt on Hold.”

Question Mark and the Mysterians – one of the best live bands around today, no kidding – are a perfect fit for “Actions Speak Louder Than Words,” and Gonn tear into “Hallucination Generation.” And while some of these vintage bands don’t include all of the original members (c’mon now; what did you expect in 2013?), Strawberry Alarm Clock core members Mark Weitz and Randy Seol turn in a nice reading of “Charlotte’s Remains” (also found on SAC’s latest album, 2012′s Wake Up Where You Are. Long Island legends The Vagrants might not have Leslie West in the band these days, but their version of Rudi’s “Nine Months Later” still rocks pretty hard. And Vanilla Fudge‘s rhythm section (Bassist Tim Bogert and drummer-to-the-stars Carmine Appice) make “mincemeat” (according to Protrudi’s liner notes) out of The Fuzztones’ “Black Box.”

The “cool ghoul” Zacherley joins the Pretty Things for a monologue on “Ward 81,” and while the remaining acts are perhaps less well known than the aforementioned ones, the whole thing is a lot of fun. It works surprisingly well; if you don’t mind as bit of conceptual tail-chasing, In Fuzz We Trust is a thrilling eighteen-track journey through the past, into the present, and back into the past again.

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Fuzzy Memories: A Conversation with The Fuzztones’ Rudi Protrudi, Part Three

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Continued from Part Two

Rudi Protrudi: We did a single in 1972 and our singer was very into Jethro Tull , and we did “Locomotive Breath” along with a lot of other stuff. He played flute, and he had the Ian Anderson thing down.

Yeah, I like the song. And so when we started writing our own stuff, I just remembered that riff. I thought, “If that was a little punkier, and if we changed the minor chord to a major, that could be a pretty rockin’, garage-sounding chord sequence.” So yeah, I stole it. But I changed it.

It’s funny that you mention it, too. Because this tribute album we have coming out ( In Fuzz We Trust ) is a celebrity compilation. Eighteen tracks, fifteen bands from the sixties that influenced The Fuzztones . I actually tried to contact Ian Anderson to see if he’d cover “Bad News Travels Fast.”

Bill Kopp: That would have been great…

RP: Wouldn’t it? With a flute solo in the middle…

But I couldn’t reach him. So we had to stay with sixties guys. ‘Cause I was gonna throw a couple seventies guys in. Black Oak Arkansas was another one that influenced me. See, that’s the other thing: a lot of 80s and 90s garage revivalists – and now – if they’re gonna take something from somebody, they’re gonna take form such obvious sources. If you’re a garage fan – or worse, a purist [laughs], or a record collector – you’re gonna recognize that riff immediately. You’ll say, “Hey, they stole this from here and there.” So if I was ever gonna be influenced by anybody that it was obvious it would never be form a 60s garage band, I’d take a riff from somewhere where they’d never look!

BK: Like a Yes album or something…

RP: Yeah, something like that. And then I’d make it sound “garage.” Again, I think there’s a skill to that as well. I mean, how many people can make Jethro Tull sound like the Fuzztones?

In our career The Fuzztones have covered Bobby Darin , Black Oak Arkanasas, Bo Diddley …and in my country career I’ve covered Pat Boone …in another project I covered Tchaikovsky and the David Rose Orchestra . I never stick to garage. Because in all honesty, anything that we play is gonna sound like us. If you listen to the greats – Chuck Berry , Jerry Lee Lewis , Bo Diddley – they would cover some pretty strange things sometimes. And they’d make it sound like them . Jerry Lee did “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Chuck Berry did some calypso stuff by Harry Belafonte . Bo did “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford .

If you’re willing to experiment and go out on a limb, you’ll get a lot father than if you stay in safe territory. I always like to challenge myself a little, and see if I can take it a step farther than other bands that are in our ilk.

BK: On Snake Oil, you present some tracks on which The Fuzztones join some 60s legends – Sean Bonniwell, Mark Lindsay, etc. – reminding me of what The Smithereens did on their conceptually similar Attack of the Smithereens album. Some of these artists – like the late Bonniwell – didn’t really have a whole lot of commercial/financial success back in the 60s, but they get a sort of hero worship from us garage fanatics. What was the experience like for you, meeting and playing with these guys?

RP: As a fan, it was very rewarding. I was a huge Music Machine fan since they came out. I bought “Talk Talk” the day I first heard it on the radio. I saw them on TV many times; they influenced The Fuzztones very much in our style of presenting visually. We’ve been accused of imitating them, but I think that’s an absurd notion. Just because we have black hair we’re imitating them? Does that mean that every band with brown hair is imitating every other band with brown hair?

I actually had to tell Sean Bonniwell this: when Sean told me that he started the black hair and black leather glove thing, I had to tell him: “ Wrong , Sean. You were imitating Gene Vincent !” If he wasn’t imitating Gene Vincent, then why are we imitating The Music Machine? Maybe we’re imitating Gene Vincent!

But then, was Gene Vincent imitating Elvis? Or…was Elvis imitating Gene Vincent? Because, look at the ’68 special. Elvis came out dressed in all black leather.

All this is so silly. It goes around; everybody influences everybody. As well it should be. If it wasn’t for The Beatles , there wouldn’t even be garage. All that matters to me is, is this stuff great, or is it not? Listen to The Beatles and you’ll hear some Chuck Berry.

BK: It’s all about taking the influences and filtering them through your own personality, your own sensibility. And if you’re nay good, it’ll come out as something that’s original, but informed by those other things.

RP: Look at The Rolling Stones , for instance. First album they did, they had one original song on it. Which, I believe, was an instrumental with four chords. So it can’t really be called an original. Yet, did they have their own sound? Hell, yeah. The Rolling Stones probably spawned more garage bands than anyone else.

BK: Tell me about this documentary film that’s underway.

RP: We had many false starts. We started making a documentary maybe ten years ago. We had a woman filmmaker in Greece that was working on a documentary for several years. And then she basically got too busy, and couldn’t do it any more. So we inherited a lot of footage from her.

And then I had a couple other people get interested, start up, and then lose interest. And just this year I met a German filmmaker who’s very interested, and we started it up again.

We collected all the footage that we’d already gotten from the other filmmakers. And I’ve been collecting footage of my own career since 1976, and I have a huge collection. I have a big collection of scrapbooks with almost every article and review that I’ve ever gotten.

We just started going through all of it, scanning all the articles and photos. Then we started interviewing people; right now we’ve already interviewed about fourteen people…some very big names. And we have a lot more scheduled, people committed to be interviewed.

We think that we can finish it in a bout a two-year time frame. It’s basically a documentary on me; The Fuzztones are a very, very big part of it. But it’s about me and my life, because I’ve done quite a lot more than just The Fuzztones. And a lot of it’s stuff that people don’t know.

The plan is to get it on TV, and into the Cannes Film Festival. And then to release it on DVD.

BK: Will we ever see The Fuzztones onstage back here in the USA?

RP: Well, we really had no intention of ever coming back. And about four years ago, I believe, we were offered an American tour. And [heavy sigh] the promoter made it sound very inviting. And it turned out that if we had done it, we would have ended up at least $3000 in debt. He successfully booked the east and west coasts, but we were going to have to travel by van from one coast to the other.

And in the interim, no one in the Midwest had verified any of the shows. We ran out of time; we needed confirmation, and we couldn’t get it. So we were forced to cancel the tour. And you can hear on Snake Oil , there’s a sound bit of Question Mark on the radio, excitedly telling everyone that The Fuzztones were coming to town. And we weren’t; sadly enough, we weren’t able to do it.

We wanted to do it, because The Fuzztones never toured America. Isn’t that strange? So here’s our chance, and we never ended up getting to do it. But it was all based on a festival we were supposed to play with The Sonics . So the festival people paid our way to come, and paid us quite handsomely to do this one show. So we came over, did this one show for the Ink and Iron Festival in Orange County, California. And you know, no one knew who we were, or who The Sonics were. And no one gave a shit. And it made me think, why bother. I don’t think America is were it’s at.

So unless someone would come up with something to make me think otherwise, I can’t see how it’s really beneficial for us in any way.

BK: What led you to relocate to Germany?

RP: Part of it was a career move. Part of it was that I didn’t want to be in America any more because I don’t like the political climate. I was never able to make a living playing music in America; even at our peak I wasn’t able to. And I had met a gal here, who turns out to be our keyboard player [Lana Loveland]. We had a hot romance on the road, and it turned into more. And so I dropped everything and moved here.

I moved from Pennsylvania to New York for music, and from New York to Los Angeles for music, then I moved from L.A. To Berlin. I think there could be a lot more success for bands if they weren’t afraid to leave their turf and pursue things. But it;’s human nature to stay where it’s safe. And [laughs] I try to avoid human nature.

BK: You bring up an interesting point, one that I often think about. Whether it’s rock’n'roll or jazz or blues, there’s long been examples of artists who play American music having to go to Europe to survive, to get the respect they deserve. Why do you think that is?

RP: The grass is greener. Look at [American pop culture]. American went nuts over The Beatles, and later on David Bowie. I think that the “exotic factor” appeals to everyone. That accent that you’re not used to hearing. Or the moptops, Beatle boots and collarless jackets that we weren’t used to seeing.

And – hilariously enough – the musical influences that The Beatles and the Stones brought to America…

BK: …were all American!

RP: We went nuts over ‘em, and they were all American influences. But, I mean, how would a teenage have known that? How many teenagers listened to Howlin’ Wolf? So thank god for the Stones; I know that’s how I got into the blues.

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Fuzzy Memories: A Conversation with The Fuzztones’ Rudi Protrudi, Part Two

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: Throughout The Fuzztones‘ history, you’ve again and again managed the tricky feat of writing new, original songs that fit the aesthetic of stuff from 1965-66. Is it a conscious effort to do that, or by now are you so immersed in the style that it just happens that way?

Rudi Protrudi: Both, actually. Sometimes something just pops out. It’s almost as if I am not even writing it, but it is almost like I have antennas, and it just picks up something. And then other times I have to really concentrate on how to put something together that will fit a certain sound that I have in my head. I have different ways of writing material to trick myself into doing it, because I am not really what you would call a prolific writer. I don’t write a lot. Maybe I will write one or two songs a year on average. Up until the point where we did Preaching to the Perverted,at that point I had a whole lot on my mind and I was turning out songs left and right. And that was the only time I ever did that in my whole life, which is interesting because I did it way later in my career.

Sometimes I will have an idea for a song; maybe it’s just a title, maybe it’s a whole line or even an entire verse. And then I’ll think, “Ok…what kind of music will fit this?” And then I’ll trick myself into thinking, “Ok…what if the Electric Prunes did this song? How would they approach it?” Then I would work with a chord sequence that sounds like the Electric Prunes. Then once I have the melody, I would say, “Ok, now that’s how the Prunes would write it, but now, how would, say for instance, The Seeds play it? And maybe I would add some guitar licks that are based on a Seeds sort of feel. And then I’ll say, “Ok, the drumming could be a lot more like…”

BK: The Music Machine.

RP: Yeah! I will just put things together so there are elements from different bands that I like. To me, there is a certain skill in trying to cop people’s styles without using their licks.

BK: That is perfectly put. That is exactly right.

RP: And then you mix them together and you put your lyrics with your personality over top of it and, I believe I also have my own guitar style. I think that some members of the band have a very distinctive style, too. And then we put that together and the finished product always ends up sounding like the Fuzztones. We have our own specific sound, that I think if you turn on the radio, if you know who the Fuzztones are, if you are familiar with us, and you turn on the radio and hear a new song, I am positive you could tell it is the Fuzztones within the first verse.

BK: I would agree with that. Talking about your signature sound, the Fuzztones have found interesting ways to keep things fresh while remaining true to that aesthetic. Horny as Hell was a good example: putting some horns on it and using some Hammond-type organ sounds on there as opposed to the Vox and Farfisa and whatnot. When you change it up like that, is it to keep yourself amused and interested or to offer something different for the fans, or both?

RP: Well, it’s both, but it starts off as amusing myself. When we started in 1980, I can guarantee you nobody wanted to hear garage music. And we were not popular, whatsoever. Tinapeel was quite popular and we had steady gigs and made a lot of money. We played at a lot of very big venues, and it was a conscience decision to break that band up and start the Fuzztones. So we went from $1,000 a night in 1980 to $10…and that is not $10 each! And we did that for two years, with a lineup that no one had ever heard because no one paid any attention to us. The lineup that everyone thinks is the original Fuzztones is not. That’s the second lineup; the [one people know] is the second lineup. We started off as a four piece for two years and we played some dumps that I cannot even remember. The Great Gildersleeve [radio program] played us some in DC, but we were not popular. We did not do well until about 1983 when we switched bass players and added a guitar player, and all of the sudden it was like “Whoa!”

It wasn’t just because of that, because actually no one knew who we were were or anything. Our music got fuller but it wasn’t all that different. I think what changed is just that the climate was right. It was time for that kind of music. There were a couple of different bands that were playing the same sort of stuff in other areas of the country, like The Unclaimed in L.A. and The Lyres in Boston, The Chesterfield Kings in Rochester. And I don’t think that any of us even knew about each other; we just pretty much started at the same time. There was something in the air that it was time for this stuff to return.

BK: I know there are only so many notes to work with, as they say, so this could be a coincidence, but one day it hit me: the central riff on “Bad News Travels Fast” is the same lick as Jethro Tull‘s “Locomotive Breath.”

RP: That’s right.

BK: Coincidence, sly inside joke, or something else?

RP: It’s no coincidence. I was in a cover band in 1972. It wasn’t entirely a cover, we actually did a record, an original 45 with two songs in 1972. The band was called Springhead Motorshark, and funny enough, by the way, there is a band called Britny Fox, and they ripped off the name. They had a 2003 album called that, and no one can tell me they thought of that name.

 continued

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