Strawberry Alarm Clock - interview with bassist George Bunnell

 

album cover, from left : Ed King, Lee Freeman (sunglasses, brown kurta), Randy Seol, George Bunnell (standing) Mark Weitz (on wicker chair), Gary Lovetro (with fan)

Strawberry Alarm Clock, from Los Angeles, had a #1 hit in 1967 with "Incense and Peppermints," one of the best and best-remembered psychedelic songs, and had four more charting singles 1967-’69 : "Tomorrow," "Sit With the Guru," "Barefoot in Baltimore," and "Good Morning Starshine." An earlier incarnation of the band, called Thee Sixpence, had four singles that are now prized by collectors of garage music. Strawberry Alarm Clock performed in the 1968 movie Psych-Out (starring, among others, Jack Nicholson), and the band had songs on the soundtrack. Official band website here. Fan site here.

8/10/96 lineup
- Howard Anderson - lead guitar, vocals
- George Bunnell - bass
- Lee Freeman – vocals, guitar
- Bruce Hubbard – drums, percussion
- Randy Seol - drums, vocals

set list (showing sources)
- 1. Decadance (Strawberry Alarm Clock, recent)
- 2. Crazy (Strawberry Alarm Clock, recent)
- 3. Eat Till You’re Done (Strawberry Alarm Clock, recent)
- 4. I Want To Be The One (Strawberry Alarm Clock, recent)
- 5. Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow (Strawberry Alarm Clock, 1967)
- 6. Incense and Peppermints (Strawberry Alarm Clock, 1967)
- 7. Little Games (Yardbirds, 1967)
- 8. Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix, 1967)
- 9. Manic Depression (Jimi Hendrix, 1967)
- 10. Day Tripper (Beatles, 1965)


add Spencer Davis
- 11. Keep On Running (Spencer Davis Group, 1966)
- 12. Somebody Help Me (Spencer Davis Group, 1967)
- 13. Don’t Want You No More (Spencer Davis Group, 1967)
- 14. Trouble In Mind (blues classic by Richard M. Jones, 1924)
- 15. I’m A Man (Spencer Davis Group, 1967)
- 16. Gimme Some Lovin’ (Spencer Davis Group, 1966)

interviewed August 10, 1996 at the Pocono’s Musical Gathering on the Mountain fesitval, Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, in the performer’s lounge after the band’s set

Craig Morrison : I was excited to see your band on the list of festival performers, and was delighted with your show today. I’d never seen the band. I’ve got the Strawberries Mean Love compilation CD, and of course knew your hit records from the good old days.

George Bunnell : From the radio.

CM : Yes. I’m interested in how styles evolve. What is the genesis of the Strawberry Alarm Clock sound ?


GB : That’s a great question. The influences were coming from three or four different angles. Randy Seol, the drummer, was very jazz trained, on vibes, marimbas, and drums, and had taken lessons from people like [jazz drummer] Louie Bellson and [jazz vibraphonist] Lionel Hampton, and listened to different jazz drummers and vibists, Terry Gibbs and all those people. He was also in a couple of show bands, one called the Goldtones, a Las Vegas show group with all the glitter and gold. So he had all this training, and he brought structure and jazz influence and well-trained harmony singing and professionalism to the group. The rest of us absolutely didn’t have any of that. We were the other way. Lee [Freeman] and Ed [King] were from rock, straight ahead rock and roll blues roots.

CM : Which one is Lee ?

GB : Lee is the lead singer, that guy right over there. Ed King is in Lynyrd Skynyrd, he was our original lead guitar player. Howie Anderson is now the guitar player, for the past 10 years. Bruce Hubbard plays drums with the band too, and Bruce also played in high school with us, and with Randy Seol in the high school band. They both have that jazz thing. Randy is the blond guy, he’s the original drummer.

CM : There’s a little gang of you still from the high school days.

GB : We’re all high school buddies, well, actually from two high schools : Burbank High and Taft High [William Howard Taft High School]. They were in Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley. We’re all from the San Fernando Valley. There were two rival bands. I was in a band with Randy Seol and also Steve Bartek, who was responsible for the flute parts on the first album and he also wrote a lot of the songs on the first album with me. He left the band and joined Oingo Boingo as their lead guitar player, arranger and producer. They’ve disbanded. He is an orchestrator and a film composer and he does all the orchestrations for Danny Elfman’s compositions. He’s still with us. He produces us too.

CM : The guy that sang on the original “Incense and Peppermints” is not with you now, is he ? He just sang that one song I heard.

GB : That’s Greg Munford. He never, ever was in the band.

CM : Are you making recordings these days ?

GB : Yeah, we record. Steve goes in the studio with us, and we have Oingo Boingo horn parts and different things. When the Alarm Clock broke up, Lee and Ed both went over to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

CM : When did you guys break up ?

GB : In 1972. I had left the band prior to it. Randy and I both left the band in 1968, way back in the beginning. We did the first three albums and then left, and then they did Good Morning Starshine after. We were fortunately gone by that time [laughs]. Then Randy and I went off into another band, with Steve Bartek, and Lee and Ed went off to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Randy ended up going to Hawaii, so he was out of the picture for several years.

Anyway, back to the influences. Bartek is another jazz guy. He and I sat and wrote songs together. We were living next door to each other from when he was 11 and I was 14. We were writing every day, all day when we weren’t in school. Steve’s influences were really great : [jazz guitarists] Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and that kind of thing. My influences were contemporary : the Who and the Yardbirds were all I really cared about. That’s why we still do Yardbirds songs. We have several of them that we can pull out. My influence was really rock, and I was being taught more music through Steve. I was always with the bass and he was always with the flute and the guitar and we would experiment with music and come up with all kinds of weird stuff. We still do the same thing.

CM : Is that your arrangement of “Day Tripper” as an instrumental ? It’s pretty weird. I was trying to count the time signature.

GB : Yeah. I was goofing one day with the George Harrison lick on the bass, and I was wondering what it would be like if they were all eighth notes. Instead of syncopating the lick, give everything equal value. Then I realized that there were 11 notes in the riff, so it’s 11/8. You can break it up as 4, 4, and 3. But I don’t think Bruce does that. He does it in a different way. [turns around to speak] Bruce : how do you subdivide in the 11 part in “Day Tripper” ?

Bruce Hubbard : 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4

GB : Right, there’s a three in the middle, as long as you put the three in the middle you’re fine.

CM : That’s cool. I once heard a band cut the riff in half and play the first bar twice and then did the second bar twice. [sings]

GB : That would work. The first time that I decided that we could do this as an instrumental, we had the whole thing in 11. That was fine with me. I can play that in 11 all day, but the drummers were having a fit, so then we just added two E’s.

CM : So all these influences came into the band, with the writing and the jazz.

GB : When you take what me and Steve we’re doing, and what Randy Seol was doing, and combine it with Lee and Ed and their root rock, and there was another factor : Mark Weitz the keyboard player. He was classically trained and almost unable to function as a rock musician.

CM : “Where’s the chart ?”

GB : Yeah. When we said “take a solo here” it was like “huh ?” But he knew music so he could function eventually and he was really good at memorizing Ray Manzarek’s keyboard parts [in The Doors]. That was another influence, because Ed and Mark were fanatics of The Doors, and Eric Clapton in Cream. They knew all their licks. So the influences of all those kinds of things came in, with Randy’s jazz and my weirdness.

CM : How would you describe the style of the band, either then or now ?

GB : Eclectic, that’s all it is. Anything can happen, since we’re not locked into any particular genre. It’s a whole lot of fun to play blues, but you don’t have to play it all night, and it’s then really fun to do the wacky stuff of course, and then it’s fun to try to do anything. At any given moment, we could come up with something. We choose songs that we like and choose our own way of doing them.

CM : Would you say that you fit into any kind of L.A. sound or a West Coast sound ?

GB : No.

CM : So you weren’t affected by what, say, the Leaves, or Love, or the Peanut Butter Conspiracy were doing ? Did you associate with any of those bands ?

GB : No, we were on our own. We knew them all, but we weren’t influenced by any of them. They were doing their own thing. We would go to their rehearsals and knew not what they were up to [laughs].We had our own thing. We were separate, but the British invasion, of course, influenced us, to this day, because the British bands really were hipper. We do have Spencer Davis [joining us today] in the band, you know.

CM : That’s a great connection.

GB : We’re really good friends. We do this a lot ; we’ve done it for years. We just like it. We’re not having a band ego. We can be whatever we need to be.

CM : But I would say there is a West Coast sound, or at least a West Coast sensibility because I’m from there [Victoria B.C.], and when I lead my band [in Montreal], I have to train the guys to loosen up enough to go somewhere where we don’t know where we’re going. I say, “Okay, let’s go to California.”

GB : Right. What happened today, they have everything timed. They didn’t have our two drum sets on the stage. We had to wait for a band on the other stage to finish using the drums and they brought it over. This was supposed to be done ahead of time, but somebody flubbed up with the second drum set, and so we started 15 or 20 minutes late. So we took out the stretching that we do, because we do a lot more than we did. We take the songs apart and dissect them and go off into new zones that we don’t do the same, ever.

CM : I recognized the well-known songs, Hendrix and all that [see set list]. How much of your repertoire, either what you did on stage today or generally speaking, is your older stuff reworked or newer stuff ?

GB : The very first things we were playing were new songs. “Decadance” is new, not brand new. That’s something that we recorded in the studio with Oingo Boingo, a combination of the two groups.

CM : I really liked that.

GB : Thanks, I wrote it. It’s either a love or hate thing.

CM : So you’re still writing and mixing the new and the old.

GB : Yeah, and I still write with Bartek, and Lee occasionally still writes with Ed King. He talked to Ed last week, and Ed’s on tour with Skynyrd. He wants to do a 30 year reunion tour with us next year, it’s our 30th year, 1997.

CM : I heard a story that a club owner wanted to book you guys but couldn’t find anybody so he put on the marquee : “Appearing Soon - Strawberry Alarm Clock,” and somebody in the band called and said “Hey, what are you doing ?”

GB : It is true. It was a club called the Music Machine, in 1982. In the calendar section of the paper, the Los Angeles Times, it said “Coming Soon : The Strawberry Alarm Clock.” Lee and I called up the guy and said, “What goes ?” He said, “I knew I’d get you guys. I was trying to find you and I figured if I put it in the paper ‘coming soon,’ somebody in the original band would call, because I wanted the original band.” Lee and I and Mark Weitz, the original keyboard player, had already started rehearsing, thinking about doing it, just starting to put it all together. We figured, “I guess he’s legit.” So that was our first [reunion] gig.

Left to right : Mark Weitz, Randy Seol, Gene Gunnels, George Bunnell, Howie Anderson. Photo by Robert Jacobs. photo source

CM : Do you play on the festival circuit quite a bit now ?

GB : Yeah, we do these things, they’re great, and then we have several things that we do back on the West Coast. Next Saturday we’re doing the celebrity kick-off for the Harley-Davidson Love Ride [a charity motorcycle ride in Southern California]. Jay Leno will be the MC.

CM : So you have a rich past and a rosy future.

GB : Yeah. [laughs]


comments or questions ? email me

Comments from readers.

Hi Craig. Thanks so much. Been a long long time. Looks great though. Cheers, George Bunnell - August 2014

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