The Zombies Return – Rod Argent Details Their New Chapter (INTERVIEW)

In retrospect, it seems somewhat astonishing that the Zombies, one of the most innovative outfits at the forefront of the ‘60s British invasion, only made one album during their actual tenure together. Nevertheless, with two massive worldwide hits that positioned them at the top of the charts — “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There” — as well as a unique style that encapsulated hints of jazz, blues, classical music and progressive pop, the Zombies created a sound that gained them enduring fame. By 1967, the band was no more, but they left in their wake a brilliant final opus, Odessey and Oracle, an album that sealed their legacy as a band that was suddenly on the same plateau as the Beatles and the Beach Boys in terms of their expansive imagination and creative expression. Indeed, Odessey and Oracle sits on the same pedestal as Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds as an example of the ‘60s true defining musical moments.

One further triumph was to follow in “Time of the Season,” the single that was culled from the album , but by the time of its release, the Zombies had moved on. Keyboardist/composer Rod Argent formed Argent, singer Colin Blunstone embarked on a solo career, bass player CHris White turned to songwriting, guitarist Paul Atkinson became an A&R man for COlumbia Records (he died from liver and kidney disease in 2004) while Grundy quit the music business all together to became a car salesman. However in 1999 Argent and Blunstone reconvened and eventually recorded an album entitled Out of the Shadows. It received mixed reviews but after opting to reclaim the name the Zombies, they recruited Argent bassist Jim Rodford, his son Steve Rodford on drums and guitarist Don Airey (later replaced by Tom Toomey) and once again made the band a full time occupation. That’s how we found them today when Glide connected with Rod Argent for a far reaching discussion encompassing yesterday, today and an aptly titled new album, Still Got That Hunger, their third effort since their reformation.

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So what prompted the decision to put the band back together so many years later?

It happened very naturally. Colin and I got back together purely to make music as a duo, and we had such a good time doing that that we gradually decided to do more and more gigs ,and the thing slowly gathered momentum. At that point two things happened. We found promoters billing us as the Zombies when we turned up for gigs. And secondly, we started to realize there was a whole stock of Zombies material that we never played the first time around, so it became a discovery experience to investigate these songs and play them for the first time. We really enjoyed that and it started to feel really natural. So it got to the point where we felt it was really right and natural to take on the mantle of the Zombies. Before it felt more like a way to rake over embers. For the first time it didn’t feel like that. It felt like what we were doing was real, and it gradually grew into what the current incarnation is today. We felt like we were taking the flag of the Zombies forward with the band that we had. We weren’t trying to recreate it in the sense of getting the original members back together and kind of capitalizing on it, but rather it was taking the philosophy of the Zombies forward. It was still me writing songs for Colin and that validated the whole experience. So it started to feel real and we came to that point, even though it wasn’t planned in the beginning.

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The new album sounds like an encapsulation of the best sounds you created throughout your career.

Thank you very much. That’s great to hear. I’m so pleased that it comes across like that because none of it is conscious in any way. There was no way we were attempting to copy things we had done in the past. But I think because we wanted to record the album in a very organic way and we wanted to go back to the idea of us all recording in a room together the way we used to — because we had no choice when we first started — we were able to capture a feeling and capture a performance. We really consciously set out to do that and we wrote the songs with that feeling in mind.The only consideration was just to make it work. When you’re working on a musical idea and you’ve got a fragment, and you’re able to develop it, that’s when it becomes exciting. That was the idea of playing it with a band. Let’s have everyone playing it together and we deliberately did that in a very organic way. Colin was singing guide vocals with us, which was very important, and the whole thing went so well that those guide vocals became almost completely the master vocals that we used. So where we thought we were going to replace them all a week later in an overdub, we didn’t. And that was the case with the solos as well. The whole thing worked out so well doing it that way that we didn’t return to redo those parts again. The whole thing felt so honest and natural because we replicated that early approach. So maybe there are resonances of that early sound. I’m really happy you hear that.

When you were writing the album, did you have the Zombies sound specifically in mind?

Not really. I always write with Colin’s voice in mind. I have to say that. So that much is true. Without trying to fit it into a formula, I try to develop things quite naturally where my musical imagination tells me they should go. I’ve always been influenced by some natural spheres of music — jazz voicings, classical music, etc. — although I never consciously try to put those things in. It’s always just there in the background, the way it was with the Zombies’ early material. With Colin singing live, everybody is modulating moment by moment with what they’re doing, which is what you do when you play live, because you’re listening very carefully to everybody else. So you’re adapting moment by moment to what everybody else is doing, which is really the essence of making music in a real way. And, Colin’s voice sounds so natural and fresh. It really sounds the way it did on those early Zombies recordings. It’s obvious he’s older now and his voice has changed to a certain extent, but in many ways, it’s for the better. You get those natural elements that reoccur and reoccur. When I wrote “She’s Not There,” I quite naturally put that piano solo in the middle and that technique is repeated on this album, because that always seemed the natural place to go. Because we did try to do this album in the most natural way possible, those elements naturally came to the surface. It what makes that connection with the early Zombies stuff and what makes it sound like a Zombies record. But it’s obviously of today as well.

Colin’s voice still sounds superb. It really helps make that connection between past and present.

He still has that same range that he had when he was younger, but he also has more power in his voice now. As we’ve gotten older, all of us in the band have tried to keep our chops together and tried to improve. But as you get older, you have to work at that because the voice is a muscle like anything else. Whereas when you’re 18, there are a lot of things you can get away with. We’ve tried to remain reasonably healthy and to focus on the things that are important to us. We are proud of this album and we are proud of the things we’ve managed to do in the last few years. But you have to work at it and Colin certainly does. When we’re on the road, Colin does 2 1/2 hour practice sessions before every gig, every day. That has the combined effect of giving him stamina, so when we’re doing five or six dates in a row, it means his voice doesn’t disappear, doesn’t go, because he’s made it strong. And it keeps his control and it keeps his range. There are many people who don’t do things in the original range, but we do, and that includes the harmonies. McCartney does, I know, but most people start taking the keys down. Colin’s voice still has the same character it did have. It’s changed a little — but it still absolutely does have the range.

So you write for his voice?

You asked if I still think of the Zombies. Well yeah, I’m thinking now of the third song on the album, “Edge of the Rainbow.” I deliberately started off as I used to in the early days thinking I’d love to write a Ray Charles song. So I started off with the construction of an early Ray Charles song and then I started to really enjoy what was coming out. Then I got a bit worried because I thought it was going to sound out of place on the album. But of course it isn’t ,because by the time it goes through the filter of your own self, and your own Englishness, and your own whatever, and Colin’s voice, it sounded like us. I deliberately wrote the section at the end of the song because I know Colin can sing higher, and really enjoys doing it, and hitting those sort of golden notes. So right at the end, I made it go up to a top B flat, which gave him a chance to really sing out. It was deliberate with his voice in mind that I thought of that climax at the end.

Even the casual observer might see some whiff of nostalgia here, even in the title of the album, Still Got That Hunger, as well as in the names of such songs as “Chasing the Past” and “New York,” which is a reflection of your early experiences on your 1964 tour when you first came to this country. Was that a deliberate attempt to recall the past in any way?

Not really, because we’re not chasing the past. What the song says is that there’s no point in that. “Yesterday is gone and that’s just as well. We’ll take tomorrow and give it hell.” It’s really looking forward. “New York “ certainly is nostalgic, however. One day in the car, I found myself thinking for some reason about the very first time we went to America and how dream-like that was. We were just 19 years old, and the person that turned me on to rock ‘n‘ roll completely, like many other people of my generation, was Elvis. When I first heard “Hound Dog,” it turned my world around. And I know that was true for John Lennon, and it was true for Keith Richards. That was true for many people. And that was the conduit that led to so many other kinds of music. It was the conduit that led to black music for me, because it was black music by proxy in terms of everything else that was around at the time, and that helped me discover blues singers, like Big Mama Thornton. It was very exciting. So I found myself in the car, thinking about what it was like going there, eight years after Elvis turned my world around. There we were, going over, about to play in a show with people that had been our heroes, like Ben E King and the Drifters, people like the Shirelles, Patti LaBelle…

So what was it like?

We were pretty scared and we were very apprehensive. But they took us to their hearts really, particularly Patti LaBelle. I remember the conversations we had with her, particularly where she said “You have to check out this fabulous new artist, Aretha Franklin.” And this was before Aretha had started her Atlantic years. She was actually doing cabaret. The other person she raved about was Nina Simone. So it really led us to those artists and it was just wonderful. I remember thinking about all of that in the car. I didn’t go to the piano to write the song, but it was there that a melody came to me, as well as the second verse, not the first verse which I wrote later. So that is pure nostalgia, but I’d say it’s the only one on the album that is.

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What was the inspiration for the other songs?

The others are talking about various emotions and things I felt in the recent past. Although having said that, the first two lines of “Moving On” were written after Elvis died in ’77. That was all I had written. I suddenly felt like I was without an anchor when Elvis died. I asked myself, where do I go from here? My life had suddenly been ripped away. It was the thing that was the anchor for all the music I’d written over all those years. But then I suddenly stowed it all away and never did anything with it. Ss we were writing this album, I suddenly remembered that fragment and started to develop it. It was no longer about Elvis dying, but being that that was the genesis that had started the song, it suddenly became about how you move beyond something so traumatic and you don’t let it define your life. You put it behind you. You say it’s not going to defeat me, hence the line, “What doesn’t kill me will fill me with life.” It became a much more general thing. So aside from the fact that it had its start in the ‘70s, it’s really very much about looking forward more than looking back. We never really wanted to look back and rake over the embers. It’s always been about the ability to still make music and to still be able to get excited about it.

It does seem ironic is that the original incarnation of the band really only made a single album — Begin Here — while that band was actually together. Your masterpiece Odessey and Oracle was released after the group had split up. So now you’ve had three albums released since the band’s reincarnation.

Well, we have. The thing is that I feel that this album sounds so tight — although people say we should be after being together so many years — but we’ve gotten so tight now after being on stage so often that we’ve managed to really capture that group feel and that group experience. I listened to the album and imagined myself sitting in front and just to the right of the drums in the way that I hear things onstage. Obviously it’s not quite that because it’s a more sophisticated sound when you produce an album, but at the same time it has captured that — that feeling, that freshness, that organic nature — which is really the essence of what listening to the group is all about for me. I feel that this album has captured that, and so we’re really pleased.

There has been talk of a Zombies tour with the original surviving members. Is that true? Perhaps a special 50th anniversary tour?

It’s very funny that you say that, because that’s exactly what we’re doing at the moment. The current American tour is going to be the current incarnation of the band in the first half where we’re going to do some of the new material as well as “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There.” In the second half of the show, we’re mounting the whole of Odessey and Oracle from start to finish with the surviving members and current members helping with the overdubs, and with Darian Sahanaja from the Brian Wilson Band doing the mellotron parts that I did originally and Chris White’s wife Viv, who’s a great singer, doing the high falsetto parts. That’s because I can obviously do only one part at time (chuckles). So we’re going to reproduce everything that was on the original album. We’ve even bought a  period pump organ so we can reproduce “Butcher’s Tale” with Chris singing it.

When Odessey and Oracle came out originally, the band had disbanded. But given its subsequent acclaim, was there ever any talk of reforming in order to capitalize on its success?

There was no going back. We always wanted to do things for the right reason and it was eighteen months after the album came out that “Time of the Season” was a hit. I’d already formed Argent and we were in the process of putting together Colin’s first solo album One Year, so we all decided we’re not going to get back together because someone’s offering us a load of money, and we’re not going to abort these other projects. We were well down the line on those other projects and we had gotten other people involved with them, so it wouldn’t have been fair to pull the rug on them. We were knocked out that “Time of the Season” became a number one hit because it helped the other projects we were doing at the time. It helped Chris White and me because we were forming a production company and we were in America at the time. It allowed us to go to the record company and encourage them to help with our production deal. From that came the first Argent album and Colin’s first solo album and they eventually produced hits of their own. I’ve never regretted anything really. It just seemed wonderful to have different paths opening up at different times and to spend my whole life making a living at what I would otherwise pay money myself to do. It’s a privileged position to be in.

 

 

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