An Interview with drummer Gene Gunnels of Strawberry Alarm Clock: Live life to the fullest without regrets

"The Blues usually has a story behind it that everyone feels."

Gene Gunnels: Strawberry Friends Forever

Gene Gunnels was born in Anderson, S.C. on July 4, 1949. He is the drummer of the 1960s psychedelic rock group of Strawberry Alarm Clock. Gene picked up coronet in junior high. But when he watched his brother’s surf band in the early ’60s rehearse he was intrigued by his drummer, and said “I can do that! That’s what I want to do!”

Gene's dad bought a set of Gretsch drums for Gene's birthday. After school he would sit at the drums with a stack of 45rpm records on the player, and learn all the drum parts of all the popular songs of that time. For a while, Ken and Gene had a band called the Ravens. Then he joined a country & western band, Lonnie and the Legends.

He recorded (played drums, cowbell and cymbal bell on) the basic track of, what was to become Incense and Peppermints, Gene left the band, then rejoined. Gene's timeline is as follows: 1964-1967 / Playing in various bands. The Ravans, Lonnie and the Legends, then the bands: The Quaker Oats/Thee Sixpence. 1967 / Left the band after recording but before the song was finished. Randy Seol (drummer) replaced him. Being sad that he left the band after the song became a hit, he joined a band called “Hunger” until his reuniting with The Strawberry Alarm Clock.

1969 / Randy Seol left the band, he rejoined. 1971 / The band breaks up. 1971-1973 / Gene's played with Don and Phil Everly, aka: The Everly Brothers. 1975-1980 / Various bands including Barry McGuire, The Second Chapter of Acts (Gospel) and local clubs. 1980-2007 / Not much in regards to music. 2007 / The band reunites with both drummers, Randy Seol and Gene, as well as Mark Weitz, George Bunnell, Howie Anderson and Steve Bartek (BoingoBoingo).

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photo Credits © by Robert Jacobs, Janet Anderson and Whats MacMac Doing

When was your first desire to become involved in the music and what does Psychedelic culture offered you?

In the early 60’s I played Coronet in school in Glendale, California.  My brother, Ken, had a band. I watched them rehearse and I watched the drummer. I said to myself “I’d like to do that”. So the drummer gave me a few pointers and I “self taught” myself,  listening and playing drums to old 45 rpm records such as the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, The Safaris, Hal Blaine, etc. Do you remember a song called “Surfer Joe”? Great drums!  It was the flip side of Wipe Out by the Surfaris.

The Psychedelic culture was primarily in the late 60’s.  Thee Sixpence  (formally The Quaker Oats) formed mid 60’s during the time of the English Invasion with groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dave Clark Five, The Animals, The Yardbirds, etc.. We were a rock n roll garage ”cover” band. We had a few original songs but our catalog was mostly covering songs of the popular groups at the time. The term “Psychedelic”, to me, was a term used to describe “experimental” in regards to lifestyle and music. I did not experiment much with drugs but I did experiment a lot with musical ideas. The style of music that is termed “Psychedelic” was music going through growing pains, evolving because musicians were “inventing” and paving the road for music as we hear it today. Musicians sang about things that the rest of us (audience)  wanted to say but never had the vehicle to express it. New ideas, new emotions, new ways of saying things. Musicians “experimented” by taking the chance to say “new” things though music and create new sounds.  That was never done before.

How do you describe Gene Gunnels sound and progress, what characterize Strawberry Alarm Clock philosophy?

I’m a basic, straight ahead, rock drummer. Simple. I drummed more lick Ringo Star rather than Keith Moon. I loved simple, straight ahead beat with a strong back beat (snare). My all time favorite was John Bahnam of Led Zeppelin. He had such a powerful touch between the bass drum and snare that made the music groove and the feel of the rocking motion of 1, 2, 3 and 4 beats were tremendous. Then, when he “pulled a fill” out of his back pocket (so to speak), it was well planted and solid and wonderful to hear.  And, during the time that I stepped away from music, I became the audience.  I was able to hear what moved me with such groups like Fleetwood Mac. I learned that staying simple was the best groove possible.  I’m still that guy.  I let Randy (the other drummer in our group) do all the fills and solos.  I keep the “solid” part of the beat going. I try to stay consistant.

The Strawberry Alarm clock philosophy…hmmmm… What is our philosophy? Lol. In regards to making music, we love to experiment, just like we did in the 60’s. Music has come a long way since then and our approach is somewhat different. We simply put our collective ideas to a song and run with it.

How did you first meet Thee Sixpence? What are some of the most memorable tales with pre-Strawberries era?

Thee Sixpence was a local Glendale/Burbank California band.  We were originally called The Quaker Oats.  Then changed our name for fear of name infringements  (Quaker Oats cereal) and also due to the British Music Invasion. We went to the same high schools. Most of us went to Hoover High in Glendale, California.  Lee Freeman went to Burbank High in Burbank, California.  Burbank and Glendale are neighboring cities.

I was the band leader of The Quaker Oats at one time.  At one point, Ed King wanted to leave the band.  So, the rest of us talked and decided to offer Ed to be the leader. He decided to stay. Looking back on that, it was “history in the making”. As you may well know, Ed King was a co-writer of Incense and Peppermints (along with Mark Weitz) and joined Lynyrd Skynyrd after the Alarm Clock broke up. 

Memorable tales…We played a LOT in Santa Barbara, California. We would play in a pizza joint to attract customers. We would set up in the front window, facing OUTSIDE toward the parking lot. That was extremely unusual and funny.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Most interesting… I’m not sure. My whole life has been interesting.  I was a rock musician when I was in my teens, I became a Christian and played Christian music  during my 20’s, I left music and became an “event decorator” in my 30’s and 40’s. After 2 marriages and divorces and 4 children, I moved from Burbank, California to Las Vegas, Nevada in 2000. I went to Burningman in 2001 while I was 50 years old.  I met Sharon, my “partner in crime” girlfriend, in 2001 and started living life to the fullest.

The worst years of my life began with the recession in 2007. My “other job”, a company that I owned doing event decoration went from being a very successful company to being non existent in a matter of months. My girlfriend and I lost our home and that strained our relationship. That remains in place until today, with slight recovery. On the other side of the coin, it was also in 2007 that The Strawberry alarm Clock re-united. So these past few years have given me some enjoyment by going “in full circle” to my “first love” job…music.

In your opinion what was the reasons that made West Coast to be the center of Music experiments?

In the 60’s, music seemed to relocate itself geographically. There was the British music invasion. The audience seemed to insist on listening to music from England. Then, due to creative/inventive musicians (and bands) such as Jefferson Airplane, The Loving Spoonfull, The Doors, The Grass Roots, The Music Machine, Lee Michaels, Jimmy Hendrix and others, the west coast became the “new” music. California was probably the leader (geographically) with experimenting with LSD and other drugs and being the hippie capital of the world. As the music materialized from those drugs and ideas, I believe that the rest of the country, if not the world, became interested and possibly envious of that creativity. Then, the 70’s presented “southern rock” with such groups as The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and so on.

Why did you think that the 60s music culture continues to generate such a devoted following?

The 50’s were a time of Rock n’ Roll formation.  We had Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Bill Haley and the Comets and so on.  But the 60’s was a time of overwhelming musical growth and experiments.  I remember as a kid that the Beatles were SAYING what I could not say myself.  They were an emotional release with all the ooooooo’s , ahhhhhhh’s and yeah, yeah, yeah’s, that the youth related to because they were “saying it” for us. That time of music and lifestyle liberated the population into becoming free thinking and free in our lifestyles. I believe we have the 60’s to thank for all the free thinkers in technology as well as moving the human race forward in all phases of life.

Are there any memories from Strawberry Alarm Clock which you’d like to share with us?

They say....”If you can remember the 60’s, you weren’t there” (I thank Ed King for that one). There were lots of memories, and I have to remove some of the cobwebs to remember them all. But I would say that performing at Love Ins with groups like Stepenwolf, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots, Lee Michaels, and others, that was priceless.

Do you remember anything funny from the recording and show time Strawberry Alarm Clock?

Before we broke up in 1971, Our last 2 tours were though the South. Lynyrd Skynyrd was our opening band for many of our concerts. They played bars and wondered why no one liked their music. I told them that people just want to hear songs that were popular, not originals. Wow, did they (Lynyrd Skynyrd) have the last laugh? I’d say so!

Another one is, our last tour was done in a station wagon pulling a trailer through the South. The station wagon had a Sun Roof, a window on the roof that gave you the ability to see the sky from the back seat. It quickly became known as “the food tray”. We would eat a lot of fast food while driving, and what we had left over, whether it was a burger, fries, hot dog or whatever, we would smash the left overs on top of the sun roof. The food baked on to the glass for most of our tour.  As I look back, it was quite disgusting, but it was pretty funny at that time.

Why did you think that Strawberry Alarm Clock continued to generate such a devoted following?

There has never been a time in history where children grew up listening to their parent’s music…and liking it. Of course, we had the 50’s music with Elvis that my generation hung on to. But the music of the 60’s was so liberating, our children thought it was pretty cool as well.  Kids thought their parents were pretty cool since they smoked pot or “made love, not war”. I think kids relate to their parents more because of this.  So the kids didn’t mind listening to “their parents’ music. So, hence, the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s audience, as well as some other group’s audience, has sustained.

What are some of the most memorable tales from the famous West coast clubs Whiskey A Go Go and more?

The Strawberry Alarm Clock performed at the Whiskey A GO-GO twice. Once in the 60’s and once recently in 2013. The 60’s performance took place while I was not in the group. My replacement, Randy Seol, was fortunate enough to have that honor.  Our recent performance was magnificent.

I personally did play The Whiskey A GO-GO in 1968 with a band called Hunger. We performed a great show, and then after that show our equipment got stolen along with the truck that carrying our equipment. The group managed to stay together for a year with hopes to sign to a record label and get new equipment. That never happened.  Then Ed King asked if I would rejoin The Strawberry Alarm Clock. I did.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The best jam…hmmmm…. I personally don’t like jams.  I like to perform “formatted” songs.  I prefer to know where the song is going with a beginning, middle and end, with well placed riffs and hooks.

Regarding memorable gigs, in the late 60’s we did a lot of Love In’s.  Love In’s were basically outdoor festivals.  In those days, the festivals were not huge like they are today.  Anyway, we did one; I think it was in Pheonix. The Grass Roots were there, Lee Michaels, Creedence Clearwater Revival were also there. I was surprised to see The Grass Roots have very small amps but miced them through the sound system. First I thought that was lame. But then I went out front to listen to them and it sounded great. But the most memorable thing about that gig was Lee Michaels. There were 2 people in the band.  Lee Michaels and his drummer Frosty. That’s it!  Lee had a Hammond B3 and a couple of stacks to Leslies (speakers that had a whirling action). Frosty had an average 5 piece set of drums. I thought, how could this possibly sound good. So, again, I went out front to listen, and BLAM!!! Lee hit the first cord on his Hammond B3 along with Frosty, and music was being made, in a HUGE way.  I nearly fell over with AWE. That performance effected me more than any performance I ever heard.  Thank you, Lee!

Another one, we did a Love In in lower New York. We were asked by our tour promoters to do this “festival” in upper New York.  We asked “how much will we be paid”.  Their answer was typical for the time,, “nothing, but it would be great publicity”. We declined.  You never know, beforehand,  that a gig like Woodstock  would be such a huge success. The next week, in Chicago, John Foggerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival was doing the same Love In that we were doing.  John knocked on our hotel room door. He came in and told us that he was thinking of firing his manager and manage the group himself.  Our suggestion was “don’t”. But rather concentrate on the music and let someone else take care of the business. We were wrong again.  John did begin to manage the group himself and the group became a phenomenon.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

I would say the best meeting I’ve ever had, musically, was meeting up with these guys in high school. By that, I mean meeting Ed King, Lee Freeman, Steve Rabe, Mike Lucianno and, of course, Gary Lovetro. This combination of guys led to become Thee Sixpence and onward to The Strawberry Alarm clock.

The best advice I ever had, I did not use. It was from Waddy Wachtell, guitar player for the Everly Brothers at the time. He said, “Gene, learn to read music”. I told him that “music on paper has no feeling or emotions”. Waddy said “I take those DOTS on that paper and bring them to life”. I ignored his advice. That was not a great choice.

From the musical point of view what are the differences between: Strawberry Alarm Clock with the others 60s bands?

I hate to compare bands in a sense.  We all were experimenting with sounds, backward lead guitar solos, feedback, cow bells, tambourines, cymbal bells, a lot of things.  I guess The Strawberry Alarm Clock attempted to create hooks in melody lines as well as on our instruments, including drums.  And our harmonies were unique from other groups.

What do you miss most nowadays from the 60s Acid era? What characterized the philosophy of Acid Pop Rock?

Lol.  I guess the thing I miss most about the 60’s is age. Then, I had hair long enough to touch my mid back. I put on my ruffled shirt, skin tight bell bottom pants, platform shoes, then go down to the Sunset Strip and mingle with the hippies. I would observe what other people liked as far as style of clothing, music, and the “make love, not war” lifestyle. I still have that “freedom” lifestyle today... I’m just older and not as cute. Lol.

Acid Pop Rock….I was always one to dislike categorizing music.  To be frank, I don’t know what categorized Acid Rock. Acid, I guess.  Lol. But all through the years, I have been one to like songs that “are good”, period. Songs with hooks and memorable guitar riffs and tasty drums.  It doesn’t matter what category the music might be.  Blues, Motown, Country (Shania Twain, I love you), Folk, whatever.  If the song has memorable and tasty parts to it, I like it.  If it doesn’t, I don’t.  It’s that simple.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues n’ Roll with Beatles music continues to psychedelic and beyond?

That’s the first time I ever heard of the term “Blues n’ Roll”. I like it.  Well, the connection is Sex and unusual sexual attraction for the most part.  Elvis had it, The Beatles had it, Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane) had it, Jimmy Hendrix overflowed with it, Heart has it, U2 has it, and I could go on and on. Did we have it?  My lips are sealed.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

The Blues usually has a story behind it that everyone feels.  I’m blue, my wife left me for another man, I gotta get out of this place (The Animals), She/he don’t love me no more,  Blues songs ring true in most everyone’s lives.  We all can feel what the songwriter / singer is singing because we have been there or felt what they sing about.  The blues sort of validates our loneliness and heartbreak.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music? 

Hopes for music?  One thing is that music never gives up the musician. Electronic music is great, but it seems to be, of course, electronically created. There are great sounds that come from DJs and I truly respect that, and dance A LOT to it. But when I hear songs like “When the Levy Breaks” or Black Dog” by led Zeppelin”, or “Honky Tonk Woman” by The Rolling Stones or songs by U2, I can almost see the performers playing and singing, putting their emotions, movement  and soul into the musical performance.

Future of music? I have to turn the table slightly on that one and say, I would hope that we (the audience) can have the liberty to like the music we like, without ridicule from others. Don’t judge a person’s preference of music. For example, I don’t particularly like Rap music. Disco music was not one of my favorites. But I respect the music. I don’t have to like it in order to respect it. But, if the person standing next to me likes it, then “go for it”. That gives me the freedom to like what I like without judgment from others.  In a sense, musicians can be “unleashed” to create great memorable music if their opponents leave them alone. If people that hate country music would simply respect the music and let it be, then country musicians have the freedom to create music for it’s own audience, etc... Does that make sense?

What turns you on? 

I have lots of ‘turn ons”. I have a saying that goes like this…”I may be 63 but my energy thinks it’s still 16”. So, I have the same turn ons that people younger than me have. Successful work is a huge turn on. Watching people smile and dance while I am playing music is a huge turn on. Being a part of creativity is a turn on, whether it’s music or not. And, of course, and attractive woman that is attracted to me is a huge turn on. Enough said.

Happiness is………

Live life to the fullest without regrets. I know that sounds dorky and that’s what we say when we get older, but it’s true. “Dance to the music” that has been presented to you in life.  Personally, I look back and want to regret leaving The Strawberry alarm Clock before Incense and Peppermints became a hit and regretting turning down Ed King’s offer to join Lynyrd Skynyrd when I was with The Everly Brother, before Lynyrd Skynyrd became famous. But reality is, how would my future have presented itself?  Would I have died in the plane crash of Lynyrd Skynyrd? Would I have had the wonderful children that I have?  Would I have “started living” at 50 years old if I had not met my “partner in crime” girlfriend in Las Vegas in 2001?  Who knows? Then, reuniting with The Strawberry Alarm clock in 2007 has made me very happy. But I do know that, aside from the economic situation of the past few years, I have been the happiest that I can remember.

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