Interview with George Bunnell
Conducted May 12, 2004
SteveBartek.com catches up with Steve’s first writing partner, lifelong friend and Best Man, George Bunnell. Steve and George have collaborated in many bands and projects over the years, including the great Strawberry Alarm Clock (though Steve was only eleven at the time). Let’s catch up with George and find out more about their musical beginnings and the many bands they have shared, including Buffington Rhodes, Little Red Rocket and Speed Bumps.
Let’s start at the beginning. You started playing with Steve when you were fourteen or so?
Yes, I was fourteen, and he was...less! [laughs] He was about eleven.
How did you two start writing together?
Before we starting writing music, we just played together. It was 1963 when we first moved next door to each other in Woodland Hills, California. Steve’s brother Jim played guitar, and another neighbor/friend of ours played drums. Steve played flute and harmonica; he didn’t play guitar yet; and I played bass. Jim was a great guitar player; he was taking jazz guitar lessons. Steve started very early on with the flute, when he was five or six years old. By the time I met him when he was eleven, he was already an accomplished flute player. He could read [music] and play anything that was put in front of him. He had the perfect tone and everything; he was really good. When we first started playing, we were learning the songs we were being taught in music lessons; jazz music and jazz [arrangements] of songs like “Taste of Honey;” all the basic songs you learn first. We were kind of faking it and having fun... I’d do walking bass parts where I really didn’t know where I was, but it sounded good [laughs]. Pretty soon we were playing by ear, and we went beyond the things we were taught, which led to songwriting.
Steve eventually started playing guitar, and I’ll never forget the first time his brother and I saw how good he was... Steve said “I want to show you guys something.” Without us knowing, he had been coming up with an arrangement for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He came out and played it for us, and it was unbelievable. He had chord arrangements with the melody traveling through it; it was just beautiful. I was totally blown away. His brother was sick because he had been taking guitar lessons and was trying to get really good, and here Steve did it self-taught [laughs]. Right away we knew he was destined for greatness with the instrument.
At the time, he was also playing a Chromatica harmonica. He was great on that too; he was way ahead of us musically. We really didn’t want him playing flute in the band, which is why the harmonica was there. We were learning all this jazz stuff, but the records we were listening to were from the English invasion bands at the time, like the Yardbirds, The Who and The Animals. That is what we were really wanting to emulate.
With Steve and I, our writing process was very funny. We’d sit and face each other with the guitars... Usually, I’d start off with something. I usually had an idea or two chords that went together well. We kept finding chords, which was basically how we wrote the songs. Then we’d write the words by bouncing lines off each other; maybe change a word or two in each other’s line... The words were usually about nothing, we were just making up things and following the pattern... We’d be relentless though. We would stay there until it was done, and writing it down the whole time. We ended up playing some of the songs [in Strawberry Alarm Clock], which I never thought would be the case... “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow” is a really good one. It means nothing, but it is fun to play.
Anyway, I was in high school with his brother at the time and we met a drummer and another guitar player... With Steve, this became the band The Public Bubble, (originally called Waterford Train). Later, the drummer and I went into Strawberry Alarm Clock.
And because of his age, Steve could not join Strawberry Alarm clock full time?
Yes. Like you have on your website, that’s true [laughs]. His mom said no; and it was a big no. He was fourteen or fifteen by the time that was all happening, and I was eighteen. My mom said no too, but I said “I’m going, see ya!” [laughs]. This was the summer after high school, and I had graduated. I was supposed to go to college. Steve’s brother [went to college], but I was fighting it... Pretty soon the band [Strawberry Alarm Clock] and the record started to look very real... My first relative to call from back east said “I saw Georgie on TV!” Then my parents were were okay after that [laughs].
But Steve was stuck, he was too young. It paid off for him, actually, as he received his education. The same thing happened again later on with Buffington Rhodes; his mom said “No, you’re going to college,” so he still wasn’t out of the woods yet; which ended up being a great thing for him, because his musical education got him where he is now. His studies were in world music, which opened up the knowledge of all these instruments, plus knowing how to write for them; which is perfect for what he does now.
Were there any early score influences that may have helped him into composing now?
We always used to sit around and watch movies for their scores when we were little kids, that was happening very early on. And cartoons... We used to watch and listen to the music, and we used to have that influence in our band. We used to do a lot of stuff that came off kind of Circus-ish, and a lot of it was based off stuff like P.T. Barnum. Steve and I and a couple friends of ours spent about a year writing and recording a musical about P.T. Barnum (entitled “Barnum”). The recordings we had were like home recordings, on cassette players, not like home recordings now. [The recordings] were primitive on cassettes... This band I’m referring to was called Little Red Rocket, around 1973 or 1974, around there... We used to do a lot of instrumentals. One of them was called “Mighty Mouse” which is very cartoonish, of course. It was done in a really fun jazz/rock way, more like what they call Alternajazz now.
Between Strawberry Alarm Clock and Little Red Rocket, there was Buffington Rhodes. This seemed to be the start a high profile group, yet information on the band is nearly impossible to find...
Yes, and there was even some recordings, but they were either lost or stolen. It was all studio stuff, a very high profile situation. All that stuff is gone... We never even heard the recording back then... Nobody knows where the tapes are. The music was really great; there was a lot of rehearsing that went into it, about a year, and a few primo gigs with Procol Harum, Love, Chicago and Ten Years After... It was really going to be something, but the band broke up. First, Steve got very sick. Then the other guitar player got into a very bad accident with our equipment van. We tried to continue with him in a wheelchair and Steve sick, but we just couldn’t. We had to cancel a bunch of stuff. Then our keyboard player got into a big argument with our drummer, who then jumped into his Porsche a speeds off... We didn’t see him again for five years! We were recording in the studio at the time... The whole thing just dissolved, and the recording was lost. I quit. Then Steve was out, he quit.
Calamity and Little Red Rocket
After Buffington Rhodes dissolved, I moved back next door to Steve we went back to writing. We started a new band called Calamity, around 1969 or 1970. We wrote a lot of songs and recorded them with Dennis Dragon (who was later in the Surf Punks), who played drums. Calamity recorded at Dragon’s own studio and a couple big Hollywood studios, but we couldn’t get ourselves a record deal.
I ended up moving to San Diego, playing with some lounge acts, and Steve was doing the same while he went to UCLA. That’s the time when Little Red Rocket and the P.T. Barnum musical started. Steve started coming down [to San Diego] and staying with us and writing, rehearsing and recording.
We did a few things where we decided to use the name Strawberry Alarm Clock again, around 1974. We were working with a guy named Ben Balloon, who had a hot air balloon... He had his own songs, and we had our own songs; our usual thing was avant garde instrumentals. We ended up doing the California Jam, playing with Deep Purple and ELP. We were [sort of billed as] Strawberry Alarm Clock, but we ended up hiding behind the hot air balloon [laughs]. The balloon became ABC’s “In Concert” logo, which was a show they would air every week. We recorded an instrumental which became the theme for the “In Concert” show. California Jam was huge; about 200,000 people. We were like the only unknown band, because we weren’t using the name Strawberry Alarm Clock, exactly... People knew we were, but we were just the ABC “In Concert” band.
We did a few things with Little Red Rocket besides just recording and writing P.T. Barnum. That band was so weird, but really fun and really good. We loved it, but it just wasn’t going to make it. We used the Strawberry Alarm Clock name to get gigs; it just made it easier. When you’re doing your own stuff, no one wants to hear it. People only want to hear Top 40, and we’re no good at that... So we would use the name and do our own original music, and do a couple old songs because we had to represent it properly. But we would only do two songs [laughs], the rest would be our avant garde music. But it was misrepresenting the [Strawberry Alarm Clock] band, and we got flack for it. But in 1982, I regrouped with the other guys from the band; myself, the guitar player and drummer. Then the keyboard player and original singer grouped back in with us... Steve did some things with us too. We were in the studio and he did horn work. We did several sessions together, even as recent as 1999 or 2000, where Steve played guitar. We did a few shows together as Strawberry Alarm Clock; we just did one in October 2003 [Strawberry Alarm Clock played at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, California for the DVD release of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”], and Steve played flute.
Little Red Rocket was really in with Capitol Records at one point, but it never got signed. So in 1976, I moved back from San Diego and Steve and I got a house together. That’s when the [Mystic Knights of the] Oingo Boingo thing popped up for Steve, and I started playing rockabilly stuff with Wayne Colt. Steve played with him too [laughs], we played with a million people together...
Speed Bumps vs. Oingo Boingo
Speed Bumps started in 1979, and Steve joined in 1980. That was really an amazing project, and I really thought we were going to make it this time. One of the reasons it fell apart was we [Speed Bumps and Oingo Boingo] were both with A&M at the time [Speed Bumps was being groomed by A&M]. We were really hot and heavy in the studio. I don’t know how many songs we recorded; it was in the range of fifty songs. A&M was in the studio with us, and we were rehearsing at SIR five days a week; we had a working budget for three or four years. The singer [Bascha] was writing all the songs, and Steve and I were doing the arrangements. We were also writing and coming up with sections of the songs, so it was a really good thing for us, and we were having a lot of fun. Steve really wanted to do it, but Boingo was further along, and it was a better move for him. The whole [Boingo] operation was cleaner. So Steve left, then I left, and the band broke up. The first major blow was that Steve had to quit [to do Oingo Boingo]. Speed Bumps was getting to be too popular, and Danny [Elfman] was very aware of this. It became a problem because he was afraid of losing Steve. Steve was everything to Danny and to their sound. When they were the Mystic Knights [of the Oingo Boingo], there was no chance of them turning into a rock band without Steve. Danny became a very good rock writer, but it was Steve who was able to direct the band in that [rock] direction.
It was a very interesting thing, the way Oingo Boingo came about, if you’ve seen it from the beginning... [Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo] was not a rock band. They were the furthest thing from it. Then no one would accept them as a rock band when they finally became Oingo Boingo. The record companies were still thinking of them as a theater troupe; more comical, and not taking them seriously. I think that's what kept them from worldwide stardom... Had they been able to tour around the world and be as big as they were in Los Angeles, they’d be multimillionaires [laughs]. They’d be The Police of L.A.
Was it difficult for you and Steve when Speed Bumps went south? You seemed to be so close to making it so many times...
Yes. It was even more difficult for me when Buffington Rhodes split; that was very disheartening. The same thing even happened with Wayne Colt; we did an album in 1978; it was a great album. We went in to ABC Dunhill, and they signed us. Two weeks later, they called us back and said “we have some bad news;” they had just filed for bankruptcy, and the company was no longer [laughs]. That was it, end of career. Talk about a let down...
Steve is still the most fun to play with; he’s such a musician... When we write together, he takes it into musicianship [laughs]. All of the sudden I can’t just play, I have to study to figure out how to play it... It is a crash course in advanced music [laughs]. It is awesome though, because he pushes you further [musically]. Not in a hard way; more encouraging. It is a lot of fun to play with him.
A new Bunnell/Bartek/Seol composition “Worlds Apart”, was written and recorded in the first week of August 2004. From George Bunnell: “Here’s how it came about... Randy [Seol] had this white light vision after his dad, Dick passed away (maybe I shouldn't explain all this?). Anyway, he asked me to write some verses, which I did...then [Randy] fit them into his scheme of things.... All fine with me.... Then Steve put some chords to the melody that Randy was singing... Then Randy had this vision of the music moving from a slow start to a more energetic feel...then back to the egg. Steve and I built on the central riff until it became what you here...I’m using it in the begining playing it in 4/4 over a 6/4 pattern. Sorry, I had to do it. We had a ball doing this...all we need are the rest of the SAC alum to join in! It can be done...and this was just to expose ourselves for what we are...which is what SAC was always about.”
George Bunnell is currently recording a second album with his latest project Greydog. Many thanks to George for his time and insight...
Greydog at CDBaby.com
Strawberry Alarm Clock Official Site
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