Strawberry Alarm Clock, a quintessential Los Angeles psychedelic band, has released a new album “Wake Up Where You Are,” the band’s first record since 1969. Known for its #1 1967 hit “Incense and Peppermints,” the band’s history includes numerous members and configurations and several reunion performances. The current line-up recalls the band’s original membership: Steve Bartek (guitar and flute), George Bunnell (bass, vocals), Gene Gunnels (drums, vocals), Randy Seol (drums, vocals), and Mark Weitz (keyboard, vocals), who all participated in the recording of the album “Incense and Peppermints,” which peaked at #11 on the charts. The band has a fascinating history that includes guitarist and founding member Ed King, who would later join Lynyrd Skynyrd and write “Sweet Home Alabama,” and a teenage songwriter Steve Bartek, who would later join forces with Danny Elfman as a principal member of Oingo Boingo. The band was also featured in a couple of cult classic movies, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and “Psych-Out” with Jack Nicholson. With the addition of Howie Anderson (guitars), who has been with the band since 1986, Strawberry Alarm Clock is preparing for its July 19 performance at the Whisky A Go-Go in West Hollywood. Bartek invited the Los Angeles Beat into his home recording studio prior to a Strawberry Alarm Clock rehearsal to talk about the band’s history and its new album.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: I want to talk about the new album “Wake Up Where You Are.” There are a lot of good things happening throughout it. First, I have to say that the album deserves to be played loud. There are great dynamics, lush harmonies and many beautiful moments. There is some old material and new material. How did the band’s first album in more than 40 years come about?
STEVE BARTEK: When I got involved with the band again about six years ago, it was for a concert in Philadelphia with Deep Purple and Vanilla Fudge. We rehearsed, but the concert never happened. I was like, ok we have rehearsed, let’s keep going. Then SAC bassist George Bunnell got SAC keyboardist Mark Weitz involved. Mark was wary, however we had been invited to play this Roger Ebert film festival in Champaign, IL that that would be presenting “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” which Ebert wrote and Strawberry Alarm Clock appeared in. We had twelve members perform that day at the festival, including members from every configuration of Strawberry Alarm Clock. Ed King drove up from Nashville to play with us. It may have been the last time he performed. He has a bad heart. It was really fun. We had some gigs scheduled and we were rehearsing again. Then, Mark wanted to do new songs. We were concentrating on whether we could still play together. Finally, Lee Freeman, rhythm guitar and vocals, was too sick to rehearse and would only show up for gigs. This was a year or two before he died in 2010. I was like let’s record rehearsals and see how it goes. We’ll record old numbers in just two takes to see how it works. All of the older songs on the album were just that, taken in two takes to see how we worked together and to see if we remembered how to record.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: So some of the songs on the new album were rehearsal tapes?
STEVE BARTEK: No. Once we decided to record an album, we did it properly. We multi-tracked the vocals and keyboards. The guitars were live from the rehearsal tapes and I edited them. We were too scared to punch them in and lose the energy we had from the original recording. The guitar amps were isolated so we had good sounds. The keyboards and bass parts were direct to the mixer so we could change those or clean them up.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: There is something to be said for capturing a live sound and being spontaneous in a couple of takes.
STEVE BARTEK: I like that. And, after the guys felt confident, they each wanted to do a new song each, so we were going to start three new songs. At this same time we were commissioned to do a Fuzztone’s song, “Charlotte’s Remains,” for a tribute album. It was somebody else’s song done in the style of Strawberry Alarm Clock. This was the first new song we attempted, so we were like let’s arrange the song, record it and see what happens. The Fuzztones ended up not doing anything with the song and it was not released, which created the impetus for everyone to start writing songs and record them. So we recorded “Charlotte’s Remains,” the three new songs, and then “Mr. Farmer,” a song by The Seeds, that we recorded for a tribute album for the late Sky Saxon.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: “Wake Up” is a new song and a call to conscience that crosses generations.
STEVE BARTEK: That’s Howie’s song. You need to talk to him about that. We all had a good time because we all contributed to tearing it apart and putting it back together and putting a jam on the end of it.
HOWIE ANDERSON: Yes, this is a song for all generations that basically begs the listener to wake up where you are, to look around and see the world for what it is and ask Is this the world you want? I pictured a person from the 1960’s that was once in touch with nature and had the full awareness of the earth’s delicate balance and held strong the responsibility of maintaining that balance but through the passage of time had lost his or her way and had fallen asleep. One day this person does wake up and begins to question the current state of the planet/country/economic system, everything. To be able to contribute “Wake Up” to an album by such an iconic 60’s band was the opportunity of a lifetime, It just doesn’t get any better than that.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: It’s a rocker and right from the beginning it smacks you in the face with guitars. Everyone’s performances are strong and you sound like a band that has been playing together for 45 years, not one that has played sporadically over the last 25 years. Did you feel a sense of satisfaction with this recording that you were able to do things that you could not do on the original recordings in 1966/1967?
STEVE BARTEK: I was 14 then and had nothing to do with the original recording and knew nothing about recording. They pulled me into the Original Sound Studio on Sunset Blvd. where they did “oldies but goodies” and repackaged them. That was their big thing. Electric Prunes were recording there the day I was there. I sat there all day and had two shots at flute parts. They had a vocal coach, a manager and others that were running the whole process. I had bought a guitar from Ed King, but was just learning.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: So you kept up with your flute playing with the re-recording of “Sit With the Guru?”
STEVE BARTEK: That’s me playing. Afterwards I bought myself a new flute because the one I was using was the student model I used as a kid and I realized how awful sounding it was. No, I have not kept up on the flute. I can play in e minor and d minor. It was great to be able to play flute again because that’s what got me into music.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: You did go on the road with the Strawberry Alarm Clock?
STEVE BARTEK: No, my mom wouldn’t let me. The band came back from touring after a few years and joined my band Buffington Rhodes and we played local clubs. The highlight of this experience was playing gigs with Arthur Lee and Love. Buffington Rhodes and Sweetwater warmed up for Love and I got to join Love on stage and play flute. It was a big deal for me.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: Was Love the band that everyone was following?
STEVE BARTEK: Because of my age at the time, I don’t really know what bands people were following, however it was a huge deal to me and I had all of Love’s records. Love was my favorite band.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: Were The Doors part of the scene then?
STEVE BARTEK: They lifted out of the scene pretty quickly and I didn’t remember them being local any more. They had taken a national presence. I saw The Doors with the Buffalo Springfield at the Valley Music Theater. My mom let me go. They were impressive. They had the audacity to open the set with “This Is the End.” They were vamping for like 15 minutes before Morrison came out and delivered the opening lyric, “This is the end.” It was a great way to start. I later met Ray Manzarek when I was recording with Oingo Boingo at a studio on Fairfax north of Melrose. He was working with the band X at the time and was a real down to earth guy.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: What was it like being in Strawberry Alarm Clock in high school and having a # 1 hit? Were you treated like a celebrity?
STEVE BARTEK: Not so much. My friends knew. I didn’t broadcast it and pretty much kept it to myself.
Gene Gunnels enters the room.
STEVE BARTEK: Gene was the original drummer of Strawberry Alarm Clock, who recorded “Incense and Peppermints.”
LOS ANGELES BEAT: There is a great drum fill bridging the guitar solo of “Incense and Peppermints” and the third verse that goes like this…. (snare) “da-da-da-da-dat” rest (open high hat crashed and choked) “pish pish. “
STEVE BARTEK: That’s the guy, that one, the drum lick that has followed him his whole life. (laughing)
GENE GUNNELS: I have been thinking about making a 5-second Youtube video of me with a snare, kick and high hat just doing that drum fill.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: That would be hilarious. You should definitely do that. As a drummer, I find that short drum fill iconic on the same level of the “da da dat-dat-dat” drum fill on Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.” Was that drum fill created spontaneously or was it a deliberate hook suggested by your producer?
GENE GUNNELS: Everyone who knows that song, particularly drummers and musicians, air drum that lick when they meet me and learn that I was the guy who did it. I like it, it was my 15 or 20 minutes of fame. The lick was my idea. I was a fan of the Rolling Stones and the Music Machine, who both had great things going on within the band, not just vocally. I just thought to myself that would be a good place to put something, a drum fill.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: I was in a recording session once and the producer I was working with said that I was overplaying a particular drum fill. “Make it simple,” he said. We couldn’t see eye to eye and after like 12 takes he told me to just go “blap, blap,” rest “blapblap”. I learned so much from that. Sometimes simplicity is the best thing.
GENE GUNNELS: Well if you hear my drumming, that’s what you get simplicity. (laughs)
STEVE BARTEK: There is a dynamic there because there are two drummers in Strawberry Alarm Clock.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: Are you both playing on the record?
GENE GUNNELS: I recorded “Incense and Peppermints” and then quit before the record came out. Randy Seol then took over on drums. When he left the band in 1969, I rejoined the band until we broke up in 1971 around the time of the Sylmar earthquake.
STEVE BARTEK: The dynamic of the band right now is simplicity versus…
GENE GUNNELS: Mad man. (laughs)
LOS ANGELES BEAT: So you were not doing the subtle double bass parts found throughout the new record?
GENE GUNNELS: I have a double bass pedal, but I’m not that kind of guy.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: I thought it was really well done. A lot of great drummers never used double bass. John Bonham and Buddy Rich could do it with one foot. If double bass is not overdone, it can really add a subtle crescendo type element. I thought it was done beautifully.
GENE GUNNELS: I like space in music. John Bonham was so good he didn’t have to do anything else (drum fills).
LOS ANGELES BEAT: It is assumed that Bonham hit the drums really hard. I’m not sure if he did. I think he had a great technique. There is a website that has isolated drum tracks of Bonham from Led Zeppelin recording sessions. Even as low bit-rate .mp3 files, his drums sound massive. I got goose pimples listening to it. I think you can hear him growling on a few of the tracks.
STEVE BARTEK: The guitar movie “It May Get Loud” showed that Bonham knew how to get that big sound. He knew places to record to get that big sound, like the atrium in his castle home.
GENE GUNNELS: I think that was where the drum parts for “When the Levy Breaks” were recorded. You hear that and think “wow!” I’m a firm believer that just because there is a hole in a piece of music, you don’t have to fill it. And, that goes for any instrument.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: My benchmark for tasteful playing is Booker T. and the MGs. There is a real beauty in the simplicity of everyone’s parts.
STEVE BARTEK: Oh yes. Along those lines, I have to apologize for Howie and I playing way too many notes on most of the old songs on the new album. We were just having a really good time. (laughs)
LOS ANGELES BEAT: Listening to the new record, it’s obvious that you love your craft. As I said before, the new album sounds great played loud. I didn’t detect the “brick wall” dynamic compression common to so many new records that makes them so loud at a low volume that you can’t turn it up without the sound being fatiguing.
STEVE BARTEK: I have to thank Dennis Dragon, the guy who mastered the record, for that. I had too much compression on some of the songs and he made me take it off. Sure enough they sounded way better without it.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: Steve, back to when you were in high school, your mom would not let you tour with the Strawberry Alarm Clock. The band toured with the Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield and maybe performed some shows with Jimi Hendrix and The Who, artists that now share “rock god” status. Do you ever rouse your mom about rock star fame and fortune not realized: “Mom, things could have been a lot different with my career if you had let me tour with the band and I was on the stage with Brian Wilson!” (laughs all around)
STEVE BARTEK: No. Things may have been different, but I don’t know that they would have been better. I feel very lucky in the life and the opportunities that I have had. I’m glad that she made me get an education. I used every single moment of my college education working on composition, which gave me the opportunity to be in a band like Oingo Boingo as an arranger and then the film and tv sound track work I have done since. I probably was too young to handle touring with a rock band. I know that I never would have made it to college. I never berate my mom for that, but I joke about it with her some times.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: So before you were the Strawberry Alarm Clock you were called Thee Sixpence, which I assume was a tribute to all things British at the time.
GENE GUNNELS: We jumped on the bandwagon like everyone else at that time following the success of the Beatles and Stones. Before that we were the Quaker Oats, but knew that name would not work. My big influences were Hal Blaine (the most recorded studio drummer in history) and Sandy Nelson. I would wear head phones and listen to a stack of 45s and learn every lick.
STEVE BARTEK: Yes, Sandy Nelson and his album “Let There Be Drums.”
LOS ANGELES BEAT: Do you remember the clubs that you played in on the Sunset Strip in its heyday?
GENE GUNNELS: I quit the Strawberry Alarm Clock before it found its real success so I didn’t get to play those gigs. I was pretty depressed, not because the band was successful, but because my girlfriend made me quit.
STEVE BARTEK: The same thing happened with John Hernandez of Oingo Boingo.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: I was born in Ohio in 1967 so my image of the Sunset Strip in that era is somewhat framed by sensationalist portrayals on the tv show Dragnet, with Friday busting acid and pot parties that had really colorful characters flying their freak flag. What was it really like?
GENE GUNNELS: It was just really crowded with hippies wearing their hair bands and flowers, more or less behaving. There was a place called Pandora’s Box that was featured in the movie “Riot on Sunset Strip” that attracted me to the area. It attracted a lot of young people which upset business owners and drew the police. I really liked the band The Music Machine. I remember every musician in the band wore one glove. That was their thing. After Strawberry Alarm Clock broke up in 1971, I joined The Everly Brothers band, with Warren Zevon and Waddy Wachtel (a well-known guitarist, session man, composer and producer). Warren was the arranger and hired Waddy and myself to go on tour.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: When did you rejoin the Strawberry Alarm Clock?
GENE GUNNELS: It was 1969. We did some three-month tours, including one in the south. That’s where we met Lynyrd Skynyrd.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: What an interesting story.
GENE GUNNELS: Yes it is. They were a bar band at that point. The Strawberry Alarm Clock was at bottom at that time, and the guys from Lynyrd Skynyrd said “we want to be just like you guys” and I thought to myself “no you don’t.” We wanted to be like Lynyrd Skynyrd. They were playing originals in bars and that’s why people didn’t like them. If you were playing bars, people wanted to hear cover songs.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: Did you like their music?
GENE GUNNELS: Yeah, I loved their music. They were only a two guitar band at the point. In 1971, when the earthquake hit Los Angeles, Ed King and I lived across the hall from each other in the same apartment building. We were like “we need to get the heck out of here,” so we drove to Las Vegas. Our route took us through Sylmar, the epicenter of the earthquake. Everything there was devastated. We turned around and took another route. After a few days in Vegas, Ed decided to move to Jacksonville, Florida with the idea of joining Lynyrd Skynyrd. I think he already had some seeds planted there. He went with them as a bass player. My understanding was that Ronnie Van Zant told Ed that he sucked at playing bass. I loved his bass playing. He and I were a marriage playing bass and drums. They moved him over to guitar and then became the three guitar band.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: Ed struck lightening twice with “Incense and Peppermints,” which hit #1, and then joining Skynyrd and writing “Sweet Home Alabama.” That kind of success is unusual.
GENE GUNNELS: I’m really glad it happened to him and I am really proud that it happened to him. There was a point that he asked me to move to Florida because Skynyrd was getting rid of its drummer (before Artimus Pyle). I declined because I didn’t want to quit The Everly Brothers. I don’t know if that was a good decision or not because of Skynyrd’s plane crash. I was such good friends with the Ed that had I joined the band, I probably would have left the band for the same reasons he did before the plane crash.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: You did not play drums for a long time. How does it feel to be back with Strawberry Alarm Clock 45 years later and having this new album?
GENE GUNNELS: I love it! It’s like being reborn. This particular configuration of Strawberry Alarm Clock is what brought me back. With original members Steve Bartek and Mark Weitz involved, it made sense for me to come back as well. They talked it over with Randy and he was cool with having a two-drummer band. With the new album, we were able to experiment with the old material and change things up. It has been great.
Bassist George Bunnell enters the room
GEORGE BUNNELL: (Pointing to Gene and laughing) This is the drummer on “Incense and Peppermints” that went “pish pish” in that break.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: I thought I was so clever when I thought of that question. I had no idea that wherever Gene goes people air-drum that lick for him.
GENE GUNNELS: I was out of music for quite a few years so I was really glad to come back to it in the 2000s. I got divorced, got some drums and was able to become my own person again.
Keyboardist Mark Weitz enters the room
MARK WEITZ: The recording has been one big experiment. We have all been through life’s experiences and maybe that shows in the recording. When we got together, we were on a tight time schedule. This was not a lazy process. We were always under the pressure of the clock like we were in a for-pay recording studio. We rehearsed as much as we could so we would be prepared in the studio. Most of the recordings were done live, with everyone playing together, which is unusual. We did have the luxury of Steve providing his studio. Steve is the main reason for getting the CD of the ground. This would not have happened without Steve. We had to relearn how to sing harmonies again. Steve really helped with the harmonies, making sure we had the right notes. We’re all in our 60s now and our bodies and voices have changed. Being able to put an album out that is worth listening to is quite an accomplishment. It was gratifying. This was an experimental album to see if we could record again.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: You are playing your first gig ever at the Whisky next week. It’s unfathomable to me that you never played there.
MARK WEITZ: I think we had a gig there scheduled once, but had to cancel because of another show we were playing. We were on the east side of the Sunset Strip. We were typically at the Hullabaloo Club (now Nickelodeon TV studios) near Sunset and Vine. It was a major club in the 1940s and 1950s, where they had big acts…Frank Sinatra-type artists. They converted it to a rock & roll club and it had a circular stage that rotated with a curtain across it. One band would set up while another would perform. At the end of a performance, the stage would rotate to present the other act. It had orchestra seats that went way back. It was huge and they had after hours shows that would start at midnight. Those were my most memorable moments of the Sunset Strip.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: You did some big tours.
MARK WEITZ: Because of our #1 hit, were asked to join Buffalo Springfield and the Beach Boys on a national tour. Here we were on the Beach Boys’ private plane, sitting with all of the Beach Boys, minus Brian Wilson, and the Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young, Jimmy Messina, Richie Furay and Bruce Palmer. It was incredible.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: Were there spontaneous jam sessions?
MARK WEITZ: Once in New Orleans in a hotel room. Daryl Dragon from Captain & Tenille was on piano and Neil Young and Stephen Stills were there. It was amazing. I threw my hands up and thought I can’t jam with these guys. I was in way over my head. You never admit that, but I was humbled and had newfound respect for Daryl Dragon. When I heard him play, I decided to be a spectator and enjoy it. I am not a piano player per se that can play standards. I play our stuff and other 60s bands. I like to play the stuff I grew up, doo wop, Everly Brothers and Elvis.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: Is Billy Corgan a fan of Strawberry Alarm Clock?
MARK WEITZ: In a nutshell, the late Mark Tulin of Electric Prunes was helping Billy demo songs for a new album. Smashing Pumpkins had broken up and Billy needed a bass player to work on new material. One day Billy asked Mark if he knew the keyboard player of Strawberry Alarm Clock. Mark told him that he played with Strawberry Alarm Clock recently at a psych fest in Portland, Oregon. Billy then asked him to invite me over. We went to the Coldwater Studios with Kerry Brown, a good friend of Billy’s and engineer who worked on Smashing Pumpkins early albums. Kerry played drums, Billy played guitar, Mark on bass, there were two girl singers and me on keyboards. We played for about an hour and went outside and talked. Billy gave a huge compliment to me and I will never forget this. He said, “Strawberry Alarm Clock is the quintessential psychedelic band of the 60s. You were doing what everyone else was trying to do.” I thought to myself “ok, thank you very much for that one.” That was tremendous. I respect Billy. He has always respected us, the band, me. He has always been a kind person. I have nothing but good things to say about him. He is a dedicated songwriter and commits almost 100% of his time to his art.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: Is there a continuing relationship with Billy?
MARK WEITZ: At the time he was going to start a record label with Kerry. We did some demos and then he got involved with Smashing Pumpkins again and put together a new band and before you know it they were engaged full time with the Pumpkins shortly after the Sky Saxon tour. I played at the Echoplex with Mark Tulin for a memorial for Sky Saxon of The Seeds. Billy was trying to record with Sky and produce an album that turned unmanageable. Right now, we are not in touch. Billy is way too busy. It was a very cool thing.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: Was this an important event toward bringing the Strawberry Alarm Clock back together and completing “Wake Up Where You Are?”
MARK WEITZ: It helped me realize the potential I had in getting back into music. Unlike, some of the other guys in Strawberry Alarm Clock, I do not make a living playing music. I’m in the retail business.
LOS ANGELES BEAT: What’s next for Strawberry Alarm Clock?
MARK WEITZ: What we are really looking forward to is the next record. John Lennon once offered advice on songwriting to a musician. He said “finish the song.” And, that’s what I want to do. Work on and finish an album of all new material.
Strawberry Alarm Clock performs at the Whisky A Go-Go on Thursday, July 19. The Whisky is located at 8901 West Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, CA 90069
For more information about Strawberry Alarm Clock: www.strawberryalarmclock.com
“Wake Up Where You Are” is available for purchase (CD and mp3) from Amazon.com