Interview by Tom Hilverkus – Pictures Adrian Hextall
50 years since their first US number 1 single “Time Of The Season”, The Zombies are going from strength to strength. Not only have they just released a new vinyl box set, working on a new album and are relentlessly touring the world but they have also just been inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.
Just a week before the ceremony, Colin and Rod played an unusual acoustic gig, showcasing a mix of Zombies hits, rare songs but also solo songs by both of them. The stripped down versions of songs together with several anecdotes Colin and Rod told the audience in between songs made this gig very intimate. One of these anecdotes were from the recent US tour, where a certain Dave Grohl came up to them after one gig to tell them how he’s been a super fan for many years.
Following MGM’s interview with Colin Blunstone last year (CLICK HERE), Adrian Hextall and Tom Hilverkus had the chance to speak to keyboardist Rod Argent in advance of the gig.
TH: Hi Rod, very glad you are taking the time speaking to us. I actually saw you guys play Berlin last Summer and…
RA: Oh yeah, I really enjoyed that concert. We didn’t know what to expect in Germany. Because in fact Germany is one of the few territories where we’ve hardly ever been. I know this is extraordinary for a UK band but that’s actually the case. Our original management company never seemed to be interested in getting us on ‘Beat Club’ which was the best TV programme in the world at that time, so we never did that. But I really enjoyed the Berlin concert!
TH: Yes, it was a great gig! The energy on stage ? from you and Colin ? was just incredible. So, we’re really looking forward to seeing you play live at a venue that is rather different, “Boisdale” at Canary Wharf .
Yes, this is very interesting. When Colin and I first did a little acoustic thing together it was completely by accident. Because we were on a tour in Holland and we were there for about 3 weeks and then on one of the days the guy said “oh, the gig this afternoon is just for you and Colin and it is in a church!” And we said “what do you mean?”, and he said “it is just two voices and piano. And it is a full church ? it is sold out!” And I said to Colin, “Oh my God, what are we gonna do?”
So, I said to Colin “well, look, if the acoustic is really good…” and when we got they were, they were lovely actually, so I said “well, look, let me explore the acoustics a bit, and I start off just improvising, and then I bring it round to the first song”. And this worried him a lot but I mean, it worked out fine! And it was something we really enjoyed!
We realised it brings a very different perspective to this song because you get this very stripped down, intimate version of the songs, taking it back to the bare bones and it was something we really enjoyed. And since that time we haven’t done it an awful lot but in America we have done it maybe 3 or 4 times. We’ve done it twice in the UK, that’s all before now. We’ve done it once at the Union Chapel which amazingly was a sold out thing and that was several years ago and we did one in St Albans Cathedral.
So it is something I am looking forward to!
But it is always a little bit flying by the seat of your pants! We tend to do a bit more of talking than we would normally do on a concert. But you get a different sort of a connection with the audience. It is something that ? to our amazement ? we really enjoyed doing.
AH: Presumably where you do have this sort of events and there is a little bit more chat, I would imagine your audiences lap it up because it is this sort of thing they don’t normally get to hear in an average concert performance.
Well, it has seem to have been the case. I mean before each one I think “oh my goodness, how are people going to react to this?” but certainly the last one we did was in America, in Arizona. People went mad there, it was lovely! So, it does seem to work although we can hardly believe it before each one. You do get to express yourself in a slightly different way, both verbally and musically.
TH: Trust we can expect a good mix of old and new Zombies songs, or will we also hear some Argent songs? Really appreciate you played “Hold Your Head Up” last year, it was great hearing that live!
RA: When we are with the full the band we always play “Hold Your Head Up” and it always goes down in storm! And we quite often play “God Gave Rock And Roll To You”.
Those two songs don’t really translate themselves to the piano and voice thing. What I sometimes do ? and I haven’t played it for so long ? is an Argent song that I am really fond of called “Rejoice”. We did it in St Alban’s Abbey and it went down beautifully. That’s from the “Rings of Hands” album which is one of my favourite Argent albums.
We may well do something from Argent but we’ll do old and new songs. It will probably cross the boundaries from all stuff we recorded but we sometimes when we play the acoustic thing we sometimes do a version of “Going Out Of My Head” which I quite enjoy when it is just the two of us. We recorded that once. Things like that, “I Want You Back Again”, early Zombies song, obviously the hits like “She’s Not There”, “Time of The Season” and “Tell Her No”. Also probably somethings from Colin’s solo career like “Say You Don’t Mind” but also something from the Alan Parsons Project song which he sang which is “Old And Wise”.
We probably do that – what else? Oh! We definitely do at least a couple of new tracks, maybe even three, from the last album “Still Got That Hunger” which I always like to remind people that to our astonishment when it came out in America made the Top 100 album sales in Billboard.
It will be a mix of all those things ? loads of things people will know but hopefully some things they won’t know so well and we really enjoy playing live.
TH: Fantastic, really looking forward to that. And then a week after that you are actually going to be in New York because… you have some very exciting news: The Zombies are to be inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.
RA: We’re absolutely thrilled and delighted, honestly! I mean it is fashionable for bands to say “oh, you know, it is for the fans really” but tell you what: in America ? I know people take notice over here ? but in America it is almost like an Oscar. It is really big news in America to do that. And we’re so, so thrilled to have that sort of validation! It is fantastic!
One thing that really knocks me out is the fact that even though we’ve been eligible since 1986 when Rock’n’Rock Hall of Fame had its first inductees is that we’ve been nominated 4 times in the last 5 years.
The band you saw in Berlin is the band that we tour with now, and we really build up a second incarnation that’s become very popular in America. We are very proud in this stage of our career that from almost nothing going over there in the early 2000s we built up to the point where we’re playing in front of big audiences now. And the fact that people have been knocked out with the live show I think – that attention and excitement – has really helped us to become nominated four times in the last five years.
And to actually finally get past the winning post and to get such a strong fan vote over there as well has been something that was unlooked for. We would have never believed that would have happened!
And also the date that we get inducted is 29 March 2019… and on 29 March 1996, in other words 50 years to the day, is when “Time of the Season” became number 1 in Cashbox. It is an extraordinary coincident!
TH: The interest in the Zombies is clearly very high and now you even have a coloured vinyl box set out, titled “In The Beginning”, compiling the early material such as the first two albums and A and B sides.
RA: It is stuff that has been released before, but this is the very time it is on a vinyl compilation. And I guess one of the things we found is nobody buys any products of anything these days, everybody streams everything ? except for vinyl. At our gigs when we sell records we sell tons of vinyl to a young audience. And I think it’s great that a young audience is discovering the pleasure we used to get out of buying albums on vinyl. It is a different experience! I am as bad as anybody else, I stream everything as well, but it is so easy when you stream to just have… you know stream something you wanna hear and then after one of the songs you think, “Oh I better just do these emails while I’m listening”. You get diverted and distracted!
When you’ve got an album in your hand, you’ve got that 12” piece of artwork which is big enough to look and feel really, really nice. And you have to take the album out, you have to set up the record player, put it on the record player and it tends to be much more an event and a way of listening to a whole album. You tend to sit down and listen to the album and at the same time keep your full attention to it but also read the liner notes and see who played on which track, see who wrote it. This is something that almost nobody does when they stream. I can never find out – when I stream things – who is playing on a particular track. It is just so hard to do.
So, they are rediscovering this pleasure of concentrating one’s attention onto an album from start to finish and getting the deeper satisfaction that you get out of that. So I’m really pleased that this stuff has come together.
TH: There were some very strong B sides like “Is This The Dream” or “She Does Everything For Me”. Was it fun looking back at this material again?
It is the early stuff up to and after “Odyssey and Oracle”. Well, we only ever made two albums. We made the first album which came on the back of “She’s Not There”. In those days that’s what albums were. This album was recorded and mixed in two days and some of it I’m happy with, and some of it makes me cringe. That’s how things were recorded in those days. You have one take and then the producer makes you move onto something else.
Then there was “Odyssey & Oracle”, the end of our professional first time round, which we were 100% happy with but then broke up because we thought nobody was listening it. And in-between on this box set you got a couple of albums that are made up of A sides and B sides, some of which works well and other we weren’t particular happy with. It is more of a historical document. And after “Odyssey & Oracle” I was already concentrating on Argent. Colin was concentrating on his solo career.
And the forces in America were saying “You just had a Number 1 single, you can’t leave it here. But it wasn’t that wholesome commitment we had when there was just one focal point on our horizon. So, it is very interesting to go back and listen to it and very nice to have to in a box set and have it on vinyl, but I see it more as a historic collection than albums we particular focused on and which have never been out for out.
It’s funny you mentioned “She Does Everything For Me”. I was really, really fond of this single, that one I think worked.
“Is This The Dream”, we always thought was a great tarck trying to get out but we felt we were unhappy with the production because we had a producer who was a very fine musician but very old school and it was one of the things that made Chris and I feel that we had to do “Odyssey & Oracle”. Because I said “we got to get our own ideas of how our songs sound onto record. We got to have something out in a way that we perceive it when we write our songs”. But I am fond of the song “Is This The Dream” but feel it could have been produced in a better way.
TH: Really looking forward to the box set. Hopefully some of these rarities will make it to the show last year!
RA: They probably will. Certainly we’ll do a version of “I Want You Back Again”. Colin is coming round on Thursday and we’re going to have a play through to define what we’re going to play.
TH: So what comes next for The Zombies?
RA: Well, I’ve started writing songs for our next album. And one we were rehearsing on stage in the American tour we just finished. And I was really heartened because we didn’t really get to the stage where Colin could remember all the words, because they are new songs, the words were on paper, and certainly the first song we were practising worked out in every detail, and when we were practising, the support back came up, saying what was the song you were just playing, hope you’re going to play it tonight. But we haven’t played it on stage yet. The first two songs I’ve written. And I’m really looking forward to writing and recording the next album.
zombies AH: And style wise, there was quite a difference between your debut album and “Odyssey & Oracle”, where are you finding yourself leaving towards to these days?
RA: I only know one way to write a song really and that is to get a musical idea, to get myself excited about it and feel like it is starting to work, to get together with Colin and see it come together and start to work between the two of us. And then when if it reaches this stage, take it to the band and rehearse it and it is a very exciting thing to see it come together. That is the only way.
No song is ever consciously styled as far as we are concerned. It is just that thing of trying to excite yourself and then making it work. And that’s how we’ve always written.
Of course between the 1st and 2nd album… as I said that 1st album was done in 2 days. “Odyssey & Oracle” was a product of where we were in that particular time and how we were feeling… but we weren’t consciously styling anything. It was the same old thing of writing to make it work. Look at the difference “From Me To You” and… I don’t know… “Sgt. Pepper” When you are musicians and in a band you evolve and you go through different processes. And an album is a snapshot of where you are at that particular time. It obviously has common elements because it is the same creative force going into it. But it has its same personality as well. So the answer is really… (laughing) I can’t tell you until it’s finished!
Like everything else… I can’t help what my influences are, as far as my songs are concerns, this tends to be my majority of what we record. It will have if you like jazz and classic influences but never trying to incorporate this consciously… it’s just what’s in my mind and what comes out subconsciously and feeling good and working out when you are in the writing process.
AH: We were talking about artist’s influences. I recently spoke to a musician called Reese Wynans [of Double Trouble and Captain Beyond], he’s been playing for six decades and we were talking about his influences and for someone having played with almost everybody, asking him who he would have most liked to play with. And the answer was you!
RA: Oh, I am so flattered, that’s lovely! This makes me feel so good!
You know, I found out a couple of things recently…
It was very sad that Keith Emerson died. And from the first time I heard him play “America” with The Nice which I thought was hugely exciting… I loved his playing, I loved the grit and excitement and his playing was fiery, but at the same time it was beautifully formed, musically, and strangely enough after he died I met someone who was really close to him and he said that Keith actually loved my playing and that just brought me up so much to hear that and that’s the first time I actually heard that.
And then I was listening to a radio programme, I think it was Johnnie Walker’s “Sound Of The 70s” over Christmas. And Rick Wakeman [of Yes] was on, choosing things and he choose “Hold Your Head Up” and he was saying the most ridiculously loving things about my playing. And he said “This is the best keyboard solo ever been on a record so please make sure you play the long version of ‘Hold Your Head Up’”. I was absolutely flabbergasted!
And when you hear the things from the guy you were talking about. It is such a lovely thing to hear in your later life (laughs). This is really so nice!
AH: Rod, thank you very much for your time, we’re really looking forward to the show..
RA: It’s been a pleasure!
The Vinyl Box Set contains the following tracks:
The Zombies, ‘The Complete Studio Recordings’ Track Listing
‘She’s Not There / Tell Her No’
1. She’s Not There
3. It’s Alright With Me
4. You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me / Bring It On Home to Me
1. Tell Her No
2. I Don’t Want to Know
3. Work ’n’ Play
4. Can’t Nobody Love You
5. What More Can I Do
6. Got My Mojo Working
‘I Love You’
1. The Way I Feel Inside
2. How We Were Before
3. Is This the Dream
4. Whenever You’re Ready
6. You Make Me Feel Good
1. Gotta Get a Hold Of Myself
3. Don’t Go Away
4. I Love You
5. Leave Me Be
6. She’s Not There
‘Odessey & Oracle’
1. Care of Cell 44
2. A Rose for Emily
3. Maybe After He’s Gone
4. Beechwood Park
5. Brief Candles
6. Hung Up On a Dream
2. I Want Her She Wants Me
3. This Will Be Our Year
4. Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)
5. Friends of Mine
6. Time of the Season
1. She Loves the Way
They Love Her
2. Imagine the Swan
3. Smokey Day
4. Girl Help Me
5. I Could Spend The Day
6. Conversation Off Floral Street
1. If It Don’t Work Out
2. I’ll Call You Mine
3. I’ll Keep Trying
4. I Know She Will
5. Don’t Cry For Me
6. Walking In the Sun
‘Oddities & Extras’
1. Kind Of Girl
2. She’s Coming Home
3. I Must Move
4. I Want You Back Again
5. I Can’t Make Up My Mind
6. I Remember When I Loved Her
7. I’m Going Home
1. Remember You
2. Just Out of Reach
3. Nothing’s Changed
4. Goin’ Out of My Head
5. She Does Everything For Me
6. A Love That Never Was