George Bunnell on Strawberry Alarm Clock’s return: ‘Always looking for cool sounds’

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Though they’re best known for “Incense and Peppermints,” a No. 1 hit from the fall of 1967, Strawberry Alarm Clock hasn’t gone the way of most oldies acts: In fact, they have vital new music out, with more on the way, according to longtime member George Bunnell.

Of course, a career this lengthy has seen a lot of change, particularly lately in the music business. “Record stores have been quickly and quietly going out of business — the end of an era, I’m afraid!,” Bunnell says. In keeping, Strawberry Alarm Clock has joined the digital revolution, with their newly released album Wake Up Where You Are available through Amazon, iTunes and other digital outlets.

Bunnell takes us inside the sessions for what became the band’s initial studio effort since 1971, a terrific effort that clocks in (pun intended!) at some 80 minutes and includes a handful of new songs with some interesting reworkings on their classic songs. He also talks about the roots of psychedelic music, and his favorite new covers of Strawberry Alarm Clock …

BEVERLY PATERSON: Well, first of all, I want to say congratulations on your excellent new album, which has deservedly been getting rave reviews left and right! But what a lot of people don’t realize is that the Strawberry Alarm Clock never really went away. You’ve been playing live regularly for ages. What prompted you decide to record new material after all this time?
GEORGE BUNNELL: Thanks, Beverly. The album was a fun process — not what we had intended to do, in as far as releasing the older songs along with the new and also the covers of “Mr. Farmer” and “Charlotte’s Remains.” We only recorded the old songs as an experiment. We were curious as to how we sounded doing them now as compared to back in the day. We actually recorded 12 of the old songs but only finished the ones on the new album. Lee Freeman had been playing with us during all of 2007, but was getting progressively worse health wise and was unable to participate once the recording began in 2008. He died of cancer on February 14, 2010. “Farmer” and “Charlotte” were both recorded for other albums, the Sky Saxon tribute album and the Fuzztones’ album with authentic 1960s artists doing Fuzztones songs … in both cases, the songs were chosen for us. The new songs were started after we finished with the old songs and “Charlotte.” We recorded “Drifting Away,” “World Citizen” and “Wake Up” then then, Steve Bartek (our producer, guitarist, flautist and co writer) got too busy with his film score work and a couple of other band projects to continue with us as a full member. It was at this point that the “Farmer” request came up, and Steve agreed to produce again. He was able to finish mixing what we had and suggested we use the best of the old songs along with “Charlotte,” “Farmer” and the three new tracks and release it as an album. We really wanted to do all new songs but figured this would validate what we were then and now.

BEVERLY PATERSON: How did you go about shopping your record around and how did you finally hook up with Global Recording Artists?
GEORGE BUNNELL: Global Recording Artists are the ones releasing the Sky Saxon tribute album. After we finished our recording of “Mr. Farmer,” we sent it to them. Karl Anderson, the company president, called me and said he really liked it and wanted to hear the rest of our album. He liked what he heard and asked if we would be interested in having them package and release the CD. We came to an agreement with an understanding that we were already involved in another recording project. We had been working with Billy Corgan and Kerry Brown at this point. They had a new record company called Startone. That project came about as a result of the relationship between our keyboardist Mark Weitz and the Electric Prunes bassist, Mark Tulin. The idea was for both bands to record new songs that would be on either side of a vinyl single or EP. Although both of our bands recorded the new songs, the project was left unfinished, as Mark Tulin had suddenly died of a massive heart attack. Something may still happen there, only time will tell. I guess the answer is, we didn’t really shop for a deal. We just have been doing what feels right to us.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Parked between the Doors’ freaky frequencies and the Association’s beautiful vocal pop, Strawberry Alarm Clock’s ‘Incense and Peppermints’ is a stunning album.]

BEVERLY PATERSON: What’s especially impressive about Wake Up Where You Are is that the band stuck to their original sound and style. In this day and age of supernatural technology, I would think that would not be such an easy thing to do, but you guys pulled it off splendidly. What was the environment like while recording the album and was it a conscious decision to stay true to your original vision?
GEORGE BUNNELL: Good question. It was a conscious decision, in as much as we were trying to be somewhat true to ourselves. We worked hard at doing our original harmonies in the original keys. We also paid close attention to detail in the music and harmony. At the same time, we wanted to expand on the original tracks and let them breathe. We were also readying the old songs for live performance. When we recorded the new songs, we kept that vibe going. We recorded the entire CD at Steve Bartek’s home studio. It’s a converted 1929 garage, but it was rebuilt from the ground up as a state of the art recording studio. Still, it’s very homey. We basically were in a circle — two drummers, two guitarists, keyboards and bass. The basic tracks of the old songs were recorded live, including guitar solos. We recorded those songs, at least a dozen, one after another. Steve’s production and his son Christopher’s engineering got us the sound you hear. I think that because the drums had overhead mics, and we all used real amps and some vintage instruments, the result was much like the way it was in the 60s. Kind of low tech. We had all the modern technology at our fingertips, but Steve has a way of working around it without you noticing. He knows how to both use it, and not use it.

BEVERLY PATERSON: The Strawberry Alarm Clock is obviously classified as a psychedelic rock band, but psychedelic music takes on a lot of different forms. What is your personal description of psychedelic music? And what is it about psychedelic music that you like so much?
GEORGE BUNNELL: I think you get labeled “psychedelic” when you are genre bending. For us, originally, we had no name for our brand of music. The first reviews that came in said we mixed raga, jazz, classical and rock with lush harmonies and improvisation. We had fun in the studio, experimenting. This was mostly true during the sessions for our second album, Wake Up It’s Tomorrow. We all had a love for the freedom that you can find in music. Jamming is a big part of it — letting the music take you somewhere seemingly new, finding sounds and discovering different voicings of the same old chords, new drum sounds and beats, new keyboard sounds. When I hear people say “there’s nothing new under the sun,” well, they haven’t listened with an open mind.

BEVERLY PATERSON: The new original material on Wake Up Where You Are is simply outstanding, with “World Citizen” being my favorite song of the bunch. What is the story behind this great song?
GEORGE BUNNELL: “World Citizen” is the brainchild of Randy Seol. He was approached by some documentary film makers to write a theme song for a short film they were making about the life of “world citizen” Garry Davis. They and Randy set out writing the lyrics. They wanted Garry Davis’ message to come through: One world. Randy had a vision in his mind’s eye of our world being as one, under one sky and being watched and visited by extra terrestrials. Randy brought this concept to the band and had a pretty definite beat in mind. We started with that and added bass. Then Mark had a keyboard thing he wanted to incorperate and Howie Anderson came up with a cool counter part for rhythm. We all started adding chords to follow Randy’s melodic ideas, and pretty soon we had a completed song. That film won the New York Film Festival for documentary shorts.

BEVERLY PATERSON: What is the most interesting version of a Strawberry Alarm Clock song you have ever heard?
GEORGE BUNNELL: I love Shinowa’s cover of “Sit With The Guru.” It kills me, especially the guitar buzzing like bees at the end. The video of “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow” by the Spanish group Stay is quite hilarious. “Incense and Peppermints” done with cellos arranged by Barry Phillips — very nice. There’s a version out there of “Birds in My Tree” in Spanish that’s pretty cool. We’ve thought about doing a version of “Tomorrow” in Spanish — “Manana”!

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The Strawberry Alarm Clock’s 2012 comeback album ‘Wake Up Where You Are’ duplicates and expands on the brand of psychedelic zest they are defined by.]

BEVERLY PATERSON: Aside from the band’s incredible music, the story of the Strawberry Alarm Clock is an intriguing one. Have you ever thought about writing your biography or have you ever been approached about making a movie of the band’s history?
GEORGE BUNNELL: Ed King actually wrote a journal while we were on tour, some 250 pages. He tried to get it published, to no avail. One time, someone I ran into who was a fledgling screenwriter, and he actually attempted a synopsis about us. He wasn’t able to make it concise enough for public consumption: There was just too much to sift through. I imagine there’s a way to tell the whole story. There are just too many little side stories. At this time, the story has even gotten longer. It would take a pro to do it right, and they would have to limit it to a couple of key aspects. I’m always writing our biography when I do these interviews!

BEVERLY PATERSON: Are there any plans for a full-blown Strawberry Alarm Clock tour in the near future?
GEORGE BUNNELL: No big plans at this time. We want to keep recording and playing whatever shows pop up.

BEVERLY PATERSON: I know you are working on a new album. When do you expect it to be released and what can you tell me about the record?
GEORGE BUNNELL: We’re still writing songs. We keep getting side tracked for one reason or another. That’s one reason for not going on a full blown tour. We need to have another album’s worth of tunes under our belt and on the market. A lot of bands play the same kind of music you do, but there’s no doubt the Strawberry Alarm Clock is unique. What do you think makes the band stand apart from the many other bands of your stripe? Much of what we do comes about for some reason or other. Then we take a step back and let the music do what it wants. We try not to get in the way. We also allow ourselves to put each of our personalities into the arrangements. It doesn’t hurt to have five or six people with creative ideas to bounce off one another. We try to keep our music colorful and full of life. We love to play and we love to let the music go where it will. There is also a chemistry that happens between Randy, Gene and Mark making sure the beats and arrangements are accessible and even danceable. Then you have Steve and I making sure things are wacky and clever with weird changes, accents and time signatures – and Howie adding the rock sensibility and soaring guitar acrobatics that we all love to set him up for. Together we look for cool changes and color-filled voicings. We’re always looking for cool sounds. These things are what makes being in a band fun. It also gives us our individuality.

Beverly Paterson

Beverly Paterson

Beverly Paterson was born the day Ben E. King hit No. 4 with "Stand By Me" -- which is actually one of her favorite songs, especially John Lennon's version. She's contributed to Lance Monthly and Amplifier, and served as Rock Beat International's associate editor. Paterson has also published Inside Out, and Twist & Shake. Contact Something Else! at
Beverly Paterson

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