Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Rod Argent, founding member, keyboard player, singer and writer with his band The Zombies. Along with Colin Blunstone, Chris White and Hugh Grundy, he had massive hits like, ‘She’s Not There’, as well as releasing an album considered by many to be one of the greatest ever made, ‘Odessey and Oracle’, spelt wrongly because of a mistake by the sleeve designer, and including the huge hit ‘Time of the Season’. Rod went on to sing with his band Argent as well as make music for television, produce other artists and have a successful solo career. Nowadays, after reforming in 2000 with Colin Blunstone and a new line up, The Zombies have released a new album, ‘Still Got That Hunger’, last year which garnered critical acclaim as well as putting the Zombies back in the album charts for the first time in 50 years. This week The Zombies will start a UK tour that opens with what should be an incredible show at the Cathedral in St Albans. This was the conversation I had with one of our most iconic musicians.
EP: Hi Rod, thank you for giving me the opportunity to ask you a few question. It’s great to be able to chat to one of the founding members of such an iconic band. My first question is what made you call the band The Zombies: it seems an unusual choice for the sixties in that it predates many of the movies about them?
RA: Well I didn’t know the existence of any zombie movies, I’ve since found out there was one in 1932, Boris Karloff did something which was about zombies or had zombies in the title but certainly the one that most people remember is ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ in 1967, and we started in 1961. The thing is that at the time it was just so hard to get a name that was unusual that people would remember and after a couple of weeks we were The Sundowners and I’m sure there were about 20 other bands in the country called The Sundowners; a lot of people took their name from cowboy movies like The Searchers, the John Wayne movie, The Sundowners was that sort of thing. I can’t remember the other names that we were. When our bass player, our original bass player, who left the band before we turned professional, came up with the name The Zombies, I loved it because I thought it was very unusual, I thought that certainly no one else would have it, and it had a vaguely exotic ring to it. I mean, I vaguely knew what a zombie was, I knew it was something to do with Haiti and people being dragooned into slave forces by using dead people and reviving their spirits but I don’t think anyone else in the band even knew what a zombie was, Colin certainly didn’t but I loved it because of that and also because I thought that if you were lucky enough to make any sort of impression then people very soon associate the name just with the people in the band. When you think of the Beatles, most people don’t think of insects or a play on the word beat, they just think of John, Paul, George and Ringo, that’s what I figured really. I remember the very first TV show we ever did, it was ‘Ready Steady Go’ and we were on with Manfred Mann who had a record called ‘5,4,3,2,1’. Well, apart from loving very raw Rock and Roll which I certainly did, I loved jazz as well, and I was wandering around the corridor in between rehearsal and the live show when I heard a record of Miles Davis playing and I knocked on the door and Manfred answered so I went in and said “Excuse me is that Miles playing there?” and he said “yeah, yeah…you’re Rod Argent aren’t you?”, so I said “yeah” and he said “Oh man I love your record but you have to change that name!” but we never did.
EP: I think it’s a great name. It really sticks in the mind doesn’t it, I’m with you, and it’s a cool name. So you have an exciting winter tour ahead of you?
RA: We are just touring intensively these days. We’ve done three American tours this year. We’ve done a bit of touring in the UK already but we’ve just come back recently from a West Coast tour of America and we did some festivals in the summer in the UK but we’ve got some gigs coming up, as you quite rightly say, in the UK now and are really looking forward to playing the UK again actually, I have to say.
EP: I guess the St Albans Cathedral gig coming up is going to be fantastic for you?
RA: I hope so; it’s really out of our normal idiom. I know I’m going to feel a bit apprehensive, it’s just something so out of the usual for us. We have done one or two before and they’ve been very enjoyable I have to say. We did one in the Union Chapel Islington, but it’s very rare. The idea is that I actually open up the whole thing on the Abbey organ, the mighty Abbey organ, which is a fantastic instrument. I’ll only be playing a 45 second thing but it will be the beginning of an Argent song called ‘Rejoice’, which had an organ intro anyway then I’ll get my way down as soon as possible and carry on with the song on the piano and that’s how we are going to open it; that’s going to be a bit of an adventure! It will be just piano and voice but there’s one section where we’ll use a string quartet and we’ll be doing at least one song where the arrangement has just been written so we won’t be able to rehearse it until the afternoon of the show.
EP: Will it be just you and Colin?
RA: It’s just me and Colin and the string quartet so that’s it. We have done one or two before but that’s all so it’s a rude departure from our normal rock and roll group gig. It really has its own character and gives us the chance to stretch out a little bit and play with the acoustics. The Abbey acoustics in the Cathedral, I hope, are going to make the piano sound beautiful and I’ll no doubt do a little bit of improvisation with some of the songs. I’ll make sure I come back to something that Colin recognises, he gets really worried about that but I will make sure he knows where we are. It makes it really nice to be able to explore the acoustics of the Abbey a little bit and play with the sound in there!
EP: So, given the fact that you guys all come from the St Albans area…?
RA: Well I grew up in St Albans, born there and grew up there. Colin grew up in Hatfield, and he went to St Albans Grammar School so he had a lot of his young life there and we certainly grew up together in St Albans. We met on our very first rehearsal, Colin and me, but we’ve been friends for the whole of our lives actually, so that’s been good. It will be a real homecoming because as a young boy I was in the choir of St Albans Abbey so it will be full circle in a way.
EP: What a lovely story, does that add pressure to the gig for you or does it just increase the enjoyment?
RA: In a way it adds pressure but also it should add to the enjoyment as well because it feels like full circle. I never thought 55 years ago that I’d be singing ‘She’s Not There’ in that same area where I sang all those years ago. It was the most wonderful, immersive musical education, in a great choir. The organist, Peter Hurford, who was only 26 at the time when I was an eleven year old boy, had just come to the Abbey and he’s one of the world’s best Bach organists so it was fantastic hearing him playing and the sort of music he introduced; he was a revelation to me. The thing is I did love very raw rock and roll but I also loved classical music too. I loved Jazz, I had my mind open to all sorts of music and that’s remained with me my whole life really. I have to pay tribute to the education I got there really.
EP: I’d like to come back to your interest in so many genres of music if I may later, but staying with St Albans, I guess most of your contemporary bands at that time were Northern bands who came down to London and lived there to be close to the music scene. Did it make it more difficult as I guess you guys stayed in St Albans, performed in London and then went home? Is that how it worked?
RA: It was very much how it worked. The funny thing is we have got to know the bands that were our contemporaries then much better these days at some of our shows and in America. We did meet our contemporaries then but we didn’t hang out with them as a general rule because they were coming down from Manchester, from Liverpool and because everything was happening in London they had digs in London so would stay there and hang out at places like The Bag of Nails or The Cromwellian. Some of these places we occasionally went to, but they weren’t nightly haunts for us, that wasn’t our social scene.
EP: I guess a lot of the other bands then would wind down in London, have a kind of after party and maybe play on a bit.
RA: Yeah we didn’t do that so a lot of the social scene passed us by a bit. It’s funny, now, for instance, we do a cruise with The Moody Blues and it’s a huge tour and we meet up with them afterwards. We did meet bands in the early days, we sort of knew The Who a bit, but you are quite right, I think that thing of living near London meant we were a little divorced from the social scene there.
EP: Maybe that was a good thing, your music stands alone really. So maybe you weren’t influenced so much by what bands were doing around you and that made what you were writing more unique.
RA: Well you might be right. I listened to stuff at the time and at the time we thought we were just being a band just like everyone else and we were in love with the same sort of things that we were hearing for the first time whether that was the Beatles or early Ray Charles or whether it was being turned on to Nina Simone. Whatever it was we thought we were being influenced by the same sort of thing but when I look back at our early stuff it doesn’t sound like anybody else.
EP: I agree. Going back to what you were saying before about loving Jazz and all sorts of music genres. I think there is a real timeless quality about your stuff. I put it on my sound system at home alongside contemporary bands and it sits very comfortably here in 2016.
RA: Thank you. That’s great to hear and I know that for some reason or other, and it’s been an unlooked for thing but particularly in America, we do often have a sizeable young component to our audiences. We play to all ages and that’s fantastic. All the young bands there are getting us now and coming back and saying hello and that feels fantastic actually.
EP: I bet, so do you think the fact that your music is so timeless is down to the way you write music and all the different influences you had, the jazz, the classical music, music that never grows old? Or do you think that maybe you were just a little ahead of your time?
RA: I wasn’t alone in not only listening to Rock and Roll. I remember John Steele from the Animals, the drummer, saying to me not that long ago that when he was playing ‘House of the Rising Sun’, he was imagining he was playing the drum part to Jimmy Smith’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. People were listening to jazz, particularly the rhythm and blues area of jazz. We only thought of ourselves as going out there and doing the same thing as the Beatles. We weren’t copying the Beatles but we saw ourselves as a beat group being turned on by the same things as everybody else. I also remember meeting Pat Metheny for the first time and he said how much he loved ‘She’s Not There’. He said it was the song that made him think that there was a way ahead for him blending jazz and rock music and he said to me: “…all that modal stuff” and I thought there’s no modal stuff on ‘She’s Not There’ – but when I went back in my head and played what I did which is two very ordinary sort of chords A minor seventh and D at the beginning of ‘She’s Not There’ I wasn’t just playing that. Without even thinking about it and without having analysed it, after all I’m self taught, I wasn’t taught all these things, I was playing a little modal fragment over those opening chords without even thinking about it. I didn’t in any way think I had to introduce some of the feeling that I had for Miles, or anything else. I wasn’t even thinking about that but indirectly those things did have an influence and found their way into my music, in a very indirect way but in a very natural way because we weren’t self consciously trying to incorporate them at all.
EP: I think that’s why when I put your music on at home it goes down well. I have to an 18 year old and a 21 year old son and I’ll stick your music in amongst James Bay and Hozier and stuff and they will ask “Wow who’s this?”, thinking it’s a new band they haven’t heard.
RA: Really? That’s fantastic!
EP: It is timeless, which leads me on to probably my favourite Zombies song which is ‘Time of the Season’. I was really surprised to discover when I was doing research for our interview that the band had split up before that topped the charts all over the world.
RA: We certainly had. We wanted to produce a record ourselves before we might have finished. We didn’t know if we were finished or not but we definitely wanted to produce a record ourselves and we made ‘Odessey and Oracle’ because we wanted to get our own ideas of how the songs should sound on tape. ‘Time of the Season’ was the last track on the album. The album came out, got great reviews but didn’t sell at all so we split up then about 18 months later in a very slow way it broke out in America, became number 1 and in fact topped the charts in most countries in the world and the UK is one of the few countries where it didn’t become a huge hit.
EP: Its funny isn’t it and yet ‘Time of the Season’ still crops up in American TV a lot!
RA: It does and it’s one of the most played English songs on American radio ever. It beats some unbelievable Beatles songs, things like ‘Hard Day’s Night’, I can’t remember the ones it beats but it’s in that top 40 of all time of English songs played in America. It’s certainly had a life that’s much longer than I ever dreamed.
EP: Going on from how your music is used in TV and film, ‘She’s Not There’ was also used in the Chanel campaign with Keira Knightly.
RA: Yes it was. There’s a funny thing with ‘She’s Not There’; it was recorded in 1964 and we recorded it on four tracks and then those four tracks were mixed down to mono, to one track. If you wanted to add an extra little overdub you would do it as the four tracks you had recorded were mixed down on the mix, when the four tracks became one. So any overdub that you did at that moment only ever existed on the mix because it doesn’t exist on the original four tracks, it’s added as the thing was being mixed. You were playing live and so we added a drum part. Now because in those days the singles were just mixed in mono, the original hit of ‘She’s Not There’ has an extra drum part on it which I think really adds to the song and is not on all the subsequent mixes of that, which is almost everything you ever hear now, including the Chanel advert. Every time you hear it now it was just a staff engineer years later who did a stereo mix of the four tracks of ‘She’s Not There’ but that’s without the drum part that was added on at the reduction, when it was all mixed down to one track. So whenever you hear ‘She’s Not There’ these days it’s almost never the hit single and mostly it’s got this drum part missing which I think adds a little more groove, a funk to it that is never there now.
EP: That must be odd for you when you hear it now. With those adverts do Chanel, for instance, approach the band and ask permission to use your music?
RA: They don’t approach the band they approach the publisher of our early stuff who also collates the synchs that are used on TV shows or adverts or whatever…
EP: Do you see an increase in downloads of your back catalogue when they are used on TV or in movies?
RA: Yes, it does actually get downloaded quite a lot. I mean the whole industry is so different now, you can have a million downloads and you get three and fourpence in old money (laughs). It’s not properly paid now. With the whole download thing there are one or two billionaires rattling about the world who got the whole streaming thing together and the downloading thing together because most of the money is not coming to the people who make the music. In the old days when you sold a record obviously you got a fixed proportion for writing it, for being an artist on it. Nowadays it’s a tiny percentage of that which is a great shame. But it’s not all bad news because it is a great way to promote music. Digital media and social media have certainly helped us because it shows people that our present band is a great band and it makes people come and see us because they have seen us uploaded on Facebook or somewhere and it shows that we can play and so they come along anyway so it’s been a promotional tool as well as something that gives a huge amount of income.
EP: I suppose you have to see social media as an access point and bands make the money more from touring and being on the road, which is great for me as I love live music…
RA: Yes, but the world is very different now. Unless you are Adele selling 21 million albums or whatever she sells. Maybe a quarter of a percent of musicians in the world are still selling huge amounts of albums but for the rest sales have really dived. Things have just changed, the whole landscape has changed and it’s just a different world but I guess that’s what happens.
EP: After the band split up, it must have been strange as there was still a lot of interest in your music off the back of ‘Odessey and Oracle’ and the success of ‘Time Of The Season’ around the world. You and Colin had moved on to start doing solo stuff and it wasn’t until 2000 that you and Colin put the band back together with a new line up. Was there never a temptation in those 35 years between breaking and reforming to get back together sooner off the back of the continued interest?
RA: No. In fact in a way it was the opposite pull always. We were always naturally very forward looking people and we never wanted to rake over the embers, we always wanted to get excited about what our new project was. After The Zombies split we obviously had that number one record in America and we were offered a million pounds at the time to reform and go on tour and we turned that down because I’d already started Argent, I’d already started to help to get together Colin’s solo album which Chris and I produced which he had a huge hit from in ‘Say You Don’t Mind’ and it felt wrong, it didn’t feel like the right thing to do to just get back for the money. And in fact we always walked away from any thought of that, particularly I did, and when Colin and I got back for what I thought was half a dozen gigs just for fun, we deliberately didn’t play any Zombies stuff at those gigs at all because we didn’t want to be accused of doing anything cynically. It felt so lovely to play together again and, in a very slow way, the wheels started turning and I think for the first 2 or 3 years we hardly played any Zombies stuff and then suddenly we’d say to each other “You know that song whatever, we never played that live you know, why don’t we play it live? It could be good fun!” So, we started doing it for honest reasons, not to cynically play what we thought they wanted but just to investigate this song or explore that song because we never played it. So we started doing that and we got more and more excited and involved in a whole series of stuff that we realised we’d never played and we were just exploring it ourselves and it suddenly started to feel much more honest and real and the band got tighter and tighter that we’d put together and it suddenly felt that, quite naturally, we were on the same path that we’d been on all those years ago. For the first time it felt honest to think we were espousing the same philosophy that the original Zombies had, so why don’t we just embrace the name again and see where it goes and it resulted in doing new stuff which is extremely important to us. We did an album last year called ‘Still Got That Hunger’ and it was released in October when we were touring America and we had a call from Billboard magazine that said “we just wanted to tell you that for the first time in 50 years you’ve charted with your new album going into the top 100 album sales 50 years after your last entry”. We were so knocked out with that because we are not doing anything to try and relive faded old glories. We love playing the old stuff. It’s great but always within the context of creating new things and getting excited about it.
EP: Indeed and as the band split before ‘Odessey and Oracle’ became an album that is regularly listed as one of the greatest albums of all time, I guess you hadn’t had much of a chance to play that stuff live?
RA: We had never played any ‘Odessey and Oracle’ live. That was the first thing we realised and we tried everything. With just the five members in the band that we’ve got now about half of it sounded great. With the other half of it, we realised that when we recorded it we were overdubbing maybe two different keyboard parts and one or two extra harmonies, and it needed all those elements on some of the songs from ‘Odessey and Oracle’ to really work. So when we did it again in 2008 we did it from start to finish and played it all the way through and we got Chris White and Hugh Grundy, the original bass player and drummer, along with our current musicians so that we could reproduce every single overdub and every note that was on the original album and then those few songs that hadn’t worked with just five people really flowered and it was great playing the whole thing through.
EP: Why do you think that album still resonates today and so often crops up on the greatest album of all time lists of magazines like Rolling Stone and Billboard?
RA: Well it’s made quite a few charts of that sort around the world and even over here in England, NME had it in their top 30 at one point I think, certainly top 50…the answer really of course is I don’t know except I would say that we never ever put together songs with a real eye to the fashion of the time. So something like ‘Time of the Season’ didn’t have any of the elements in it that virtually everything else had. Maybe that was one of the reasons it was so hard to get some of the singles away in those days but in the long term I think it means the honesty of the approach, in that we were just trying to make it work for ourselves and get excited about something and making it work, in the end has made it much more timeless than some of the other things that were contemporary to us at the time. I mean not everything dates, it sounds of its period to me, everything ,but at the same time you’ve been kind enough to say that it stands up against contemporary stuff and in its own way I think it does and maybe the reason for the albums great reviews is that it was created honestly with real enthusiasm for what was going on with the grooves of that time. We wanted to make it work for ourselves with the philosophy that if we could get excited about it then maybe it would be worth someone else parting with their hard earned money to buy our singles.
EP: I think it’s an incredible album and in importance stands with the ground breaking stuff the Beach Boys did with ‘Pet Sounds’.
RA: I think that Brian, particularly on ‘Pet Sounds’, created something so wonderfully structured. In a similar way, although it’s a very different album to ‘Odessey and Oracle’, it had its own character and it wasn’t trying to be anything else.
EP: You guys were at the forefront of the so called British Invasion when British music took off in the States in the sixties. The Zombies were front and centre of that, so having rubbed shoulders with people like the Stones and the Beatles, how do you rank today’s crop of artists and do you have any particular favourites?
RA: I’m very bad at listening to what’s going on now. I often wonder why I’m so bad but think it’s an age thing to some degree but it’s also a thing of lifestyle. When you are 18 years old you are in a social scene all the time where you are quite naturally hearing anything that anyone’s getting excited about and then you hear it every day whereas when you are in a much older social situation you tend not to. I still get excited about the same sort of things, in a very catholic way listening to lots of different things, things that I was excited about all those years ago. Last night for instance I dialled up a Duke Ellington concert from 1958 on Sky Arts, it was a vintage performance, and it was fabulous, it was absolutely fabulous and I might just as easily put on an early Ray Charles album. I do like things with an informed rhythm and blues feeling or an informed jazz feeling. I still like very much those areas but there’s so much modern music I haven’t heard. The general feeling I get from music today is that it feels a little bit less creative from a harmonic point of view, from the point of view of how it’s structured with chords. I don’t know if that’s got something to do with the fact that it very easy now to get a great sounding drum loop and you can just put that down and you’ve almost got a record before you start whereas in the old days the only way to make something satisfying was to really get the structure right and make it work from scratch. But then again I’m only saying that from a pretty uninformed point of view, there’s probably loads of stuff out there that I would think is wonderful if I heard the right things. I’m just bad at listening to it really and I’m sorry about that but I think it’s an age thing.
EP: Given that you met so many British legends, and out of personal curiosity, did you ever meet Elvis? I’m a big fan!
RA: Let me tell you about Elvis. Elvis was the guy who turned my world around. I didn’t like pop music till I heard ‘Hound Dog’; then I just wanted to hear the rawest Rock and Roll I could hear for about 6 months and nothing else. I was eleven years old at that time and he seemed like a being from another planet playing fantastically exciting black music and by proxy that was certainly my way into hearing black music, rhythm and blues informed music, by hearing Elvis’ early records. On my juke box I’ve still got his early stuff like ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ and ‘Mystery Train’. For me it’s only the first three years that really turned me on but I still think he sounds like nobody else on earth in that first three years. I thought he was wonderful. So he was like this amazingly untouchable being when I was eleven. Eight years later when I was 19 I found myself having written a song, ‘She’s Not There’, that was number 1 in the American charts and we went over and played. The very first live show we played was with Patti La Belle, Be E King, The Drifters, The Shirelles, Dionne Warwick…some of our real heroes and we were really scared but they were great to us, they really took to us which was wonderful and a year later we toured with the Dick Clark tour and were in Memphis and I said to Colin, “why don’t we go and knock on Elvis’ door?”, and we walked up his drive because there was no security in those days, it wasn’t like the big thing it is now and we walked up the drive, no one there to challenge us, and we knocked on the door and this guy came to the door who I later realised was Vernon, Elvis’ father, and we said “Hello we are the Zombies from England. Is Elvis in?” and he was very sweet and said “Elvis is away filming at the moment but he’d be really sorry to have missed you guys, he loves you guys!” and I thought well he doesn’t know who the hell we are but that’s a really nice thing to say and then in a very timid way we had a little look around Graceland as Vernon wanted us to look around the house and grounds but we felt so embarrassed that we had a tiny look inside the house and a little wander around the grounds and went. I was telling this story to a DJ in Ireland about 30 years later and the DJ stopped me and said “I’m an absolute Elvis freak, I can’t believe you didn’t know but Elvis had three of your songs on his jukebox”. I just couldn’t believe it. I never met him but he had my songs on his jukebox.
EP: He returned the compliment of you having his songs. What a great story!
RA: Well (laughs) I returned the compliment absolutely!
EP: Well moving on to the current tour, I see there’s a date for March 1st pencilled in for Jamaica next year?
RA: Yes that’s inked in, it’s a definite, we are starting in Jamaica and then we are doing the last ever series of concerts in America of ‘Odessey and Oracle’ with the original and extended line up because its 50 years since it was recorded. That will be the last time that we perform that live and that will be a two month tour. It will be drawing a line under that particular album with a bang!
EP: So when you tour the States do you stick to just Zombies stuff these days?
RA: No we will be playing the things that you would imagine like ‘She’s Not There’, ‘Time Of The Season’ and ‘Tell Her No’, which were all huge hits in America. We will do some really rare Zombies cuts from the first album as well as some of the early single B-sides , we’ll also do ‘Hold Your Head Up’, the Argent song, we always do that; we’ll probably do ‘Say You Don’t Mind’, Colin’s big hit and ‘What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted’. We might even do ‘Old And Wise’, the song Colin sang with the Alan Parsons Project. We’ll also do probably 5 songs from our new album, ‘Still Got That Hunger’, as that’s very important to us too. And the new songs go down 100 percent as well as anything else on the bill.
EP: ‘Still Got That Hunger’ got fantastic critical acclaim and has toured well…
RA: It got fantastic reviews. It was very encouraging that it was so well received and, in terms of what records sell these days which is a fraction of what they used to, it sold very well so we are proud of that.
EP: So any plans for new music?
RA: Well, people are talking to me already about the fact I should be writing again. It’s definitely something we want to do, we want to keep writing and recording.
EP: Fantastic! Finally, how do you look after your voices these days?
RA: I think our chops, if you’d like call them that are better than they have ever been. I think Colin is singing better than he’s ever sung. His voice is slightly different to what it was when he was very young but that’s quite natural but in many ways it’s stronger. We do everything in the original keys, nothing is taken down. When we are touring, Colin will do, apart from the gig, an hour and a quarter’s vocal exercises every day and that’s how he keeps his voice in shape. Because I’m only doing a couple of lead vocals, or maybe only one, I’ll generally skip a lot of that but I’ll keep it in shape to some degree with vocal exercises leading up to a tour just to keep the muscle in shape. I’ve always played every day of my life really so that’s not a problem for me. I practice and play all the time.
EP: Well long may you continue! It’s been an absolute pleasure to talk with you and I feel like I could chat for hours but appreciate your time is valuable. All the very best of luck with the tour and particularly with the opening show in St Alban’s Cathedral.
RA: Thanks, it’s been a pleasure!