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Jeff Moehlis: Billy Corgan Brings Spirits in the Sky to Santa Barbara

Electric Tunes bassist Mark Tulin talks with Noozhawk about the upcoming, intimate show

If you’re lucky, you got a ticket for Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Billy Corgan’s show this Thursday at tiny Muddy Waters Coffee House in Santa Barbara with the band The Spirits in the Sky, part of a six-show Southern California mini-tour.

This multi-generational super group will include Corgan and Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction on guitar, Mark Tulin of The Electric Prunes on bass guitar, Mark Weitz of Strawberry Alarm Clock on keyboards, plus Linda Strawberry on keyboards, and Kerry Brown and Mike Byrne on drums, the latter a 19-year-old recently announced as the new drummer for Smashing Pumpkins.

The band’s musicians have quite a pedigree. Smashing Pumpkins and Jane’s Addiction fired some of the first (and best) shots of the alternative rock revolution in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In my opinion, Jane’s Addiction’s album “Nothing’s Shocking” and Smashing Pumpkins’ album “Siamese Dream” are among the best albums from any decade.

Tulin’s band, The Electric Prunes, is best known for 1966’s psychedelic garage-rock classic single “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night),” the lead track on the highly regarded Nuggets collection compiled in 1972 by Lenny Kaye. The Prunes’ original lineup also released 1968’s psych obscurity “Mass in F Minor,” a Catholic mass sung in Latin, composed by music producer/arranger/composer David Axelrod. The track “Kyrie Eleison” from this album was on the soundtrack for the generation-defining movie Easy Rider.

Strawberry Alarm Clock is best known for another psychedelic classic, the 1967 hit “Incense and Peppermints,” which features some of the trippiest organ ever committed to tape.

The Spirits in the Sky, sans Navarro, has performed only one show to date, at a tribute concert in July for Sky Saxon, the frontman of the 1960s proto-punk garage-rock band The Seeds. (Corgan and Saxon collaborated on some new songs in 2008.)

In a bizarre cosmic coincidence, Saxon, who also was affiliated with the ultimate cult band YaHoWha 13, died the same day as Michael Jackson. Of course, coverage of Jackson’s death overwhelmed coverage of Saxon’s death — and coverage of just about everything else happening in the world, for that matter.

Over lunch in Woodland Hills, I spoke to Tulin about working with Corgan and the upcoming show. The following is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation.

Jeff Moehlis: How did this mini-tour come about?

Mark Tulin: The big purpose of this is two-fold, as I understand it. Billy’s working up new material. He likes to demo all of his new songs rather than just playing them to himself and then going into the studio. The other reason is to have a good time, have some friends get together and play music.

JM: Where does the band name The Spirits in the Sky come from?

MT: It came from Sky Saxon’s memorial, inadvertently by the way. Billy wanted to do something with a couple of guys playing behind him, where he wasn’t doing Smashing Pumpkins songs. He said, we’ll do a Sky (Saxon) song, maybe we’ll do a cover song. I love (Norman Greenbaum’s song) “Spirit in the Sky,” so I said, let’s do that. And that’s where the name came from. It didn’t start with Sky (Saxon), but it just worked out perfectly.

JM: Which songs are you going to play?

MT: I can’t tell you what it is, because it should be a surprise. But I know on his Web site Billy said we are not doing any Smashing Pumpkins songs. So as much as I would like to play some of them, just for the adventure of playing them, we’re not. There will be some covers of other people’s stuff.

JM: Anything by The Electric Prunes?

MT: No.

JM: By The Seeds?

MT: Maybe. No Strawberry Alarm Clock stuff, and no Jane’s Addiction. This is Billy’s, and I think what it does really well is present him as an artist that maybe people haven’t seen him as.

JM: Would you describe the new songs as psychedelic?

MT: Some of it is definitively psychedelic, and some of it may be psychedelic in that it’s spiritually expanding. Maybe not mind-trippy — you may not hear a lot of distortion and feedback and all that — but it’s spiritually expanding because there’s a lot of heart in what’s going on.

For me, one of the nicest parts of all this is that I had a completely wrong impression of alternative guitar players. I got them very confused with guys that just thrash away on a guitar. Billy’s really good! So is Dave. And together — marvelous!  They’re taking it. I just have to go for the ride with them. I’m very impressed with their musicality.

I think it’s really a cool thing to hear songs in their simpler manner, before you hear them in their produced Pumpkins style. So this is an opportunity to hear the songs themselves, and that’s what stands out — the individual writer, performer and song, not the production.

JM: What is it like working with Billy?

MT: Working with Billy, for me, has been a joy. He is demanding, but in a very positive way. You realize early on that he’s more demanding of himself than he is of you. So I’ll go home, and he’ll stay up working on the middle eight of a song, and make it right for the next day.

I think he’s gotten a really, really bad rap as to who he is. People mistake integrity and discipline for arrogance. He has shown me that he is nothing but fair, very scrupulous and has strong, strong integrity. I’m a fan of the Smashing Pumpkins, but I’m a huge fan of Billy Corgan. Sometimes it sounds like I’m gushing, but I’m that impressed by him. When you get to see him perform intimately, like you will at the show, you’ll see that person.

I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s taught me how to play grunge/alternative bass, that I never knew how to do. And I’m getting pretty good at looking at my shoes while I play [laughs]. I’m going to miss him when he goes back to Chicago. I’ve just loved every moment of it.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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