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Friday, July 27, 2012

A conversation with Rod Argent of the Zombies

Rod Argent (organ, piano, vocals) and Colin Blunstone (vocals) of British invasion-era melody makers the Zombies are on the road on the road again, and playing the Zombies' classics. As the voices that drove such sixties hits as “She's Not There,” “Tell Her No,” “Time of the Season” and more, Argent and Blunstone gave the Beatles and the Beach Boys a run for their money. To this day, they're still churning out good songs, and before making their way to Southern Ground Amphitheater in Fayetteville, GA (just South of Atlanta), Argent took a few minutes to talk about the Zombies' history, their latest album, Breathe Out, Breathe In, and the mysterious allure of music.

$30 (reserved seat), $20 (lawn), $250-$400 (tables for 8). 7 p.m. Southern Ground Amphitheater. 770-719-4173.

Chad Radford: This year marks the Zombies' 51st anniversary, correct?

Rod Argent: Yeah ... The first time we met and had our first rehearsal was 51 years ago. It was Easter, 1961.

When you guys decided on the name, did you know that zombies were scary undead ghoulish things, or did it mean something different back then?

The thing you have to remember is that there were no living dead films yet, no zombie films at all, really. We vaguely knew they were exotic and had some sort of occult things going on but that was all we knew. It’s so hard to find an original name, and for about a week we were the Sundowners along with about 35 other bands in England. I can’t remember what the other names were, but they were pretty terrible. Paul Arnold, our original bass player, said “what about the Zombies?” I loved it immediately. Colin hated it, but what’s important about a name is that it’s unusual and catches attention. It certainly did that, and if you’re lucky enough to get a little bit of success people will forget what the word means. They’ll associate it with the guys in the band: When you think “the Beatles,” you think John, Paul, George, and Ringo. You don’t think of insects scurrying around, and for those reasons, I thought it was brilliant.

I remember the first television we ever did was called Ready, Steady, Go in 1964 when “She’s Not There” just came out. I was wandering down a corridor and one of my great loves at the time was the Miles Davis Band of around 1958, ’59, ’60... I was walking down the corridor and I heard a Miles Davis record playing and I wandered into the dressing room, and there was Manfred Mann. I asked, “Was that Miles Davis playing?” He said, “Yeah, yeah. You’re from the Zombies aren’t you?” I said, “yeah,” and he said, “Oh man, I love your record, but you have to change that name!” That was the first response we got from it, but we never changed it.

Rod Argent (top) and Colin Blunstone
I've often flippantly said things like, “the Zombies gave the Beatles and the Beach Boys a run for their money,” as far as the harmonies go. But what’s striking to me is that in 2011-2012, I’m not sure that any of the living Beatles or the Beach Boys could turn out a song that's as solid as “Breathe Out, Breath In." I don’t necessarily want to say the Zombies have eclipsed those groups, but ...

Oh, I’ll gratefully accept it [laughs]! We had some stunning reactions to the album, in fact, we’re friends with Darian Sahanaja, who works with Brian Wilson, and he e-mailed me a few months ago to say, “I’ve got to tell you, you’re new album is fantastic! We’re playing it on the bus constantly.” I thought, “wow ... ” It made me feel so good. Because I must admit, we had a few things in our mind when we were making this album.

I think it was 2009 when we did a live premiere of Odessey and Oracle because we realized it had been 40 years since the album was released, but we never played it because we broke up just after it came out. We started experimenting, and overdubbing one or two extra harmonies, which gave us a little more leeway. Some of the songs, like “Hung Up on a Dream” and “Brief Candles,” really depended on people hearing every single part, otherwise it didn’t work. So we got Darian over to do some extra harmonies, and we got the original bass player who hadn’t played in 40 years, and we got the original drummer and we supplemented them with the guys we normally play with and reproduced every single note on the album. It was a real blast, but, the actual joy of doing some of those songs made me think that when we do this album, which we’d been planning to do, we have to go back and explore harmonies again, the way that we always loved doing them.

I’ve done production work over the years, and I’m okay with layering and using a million tracks, but I thought, “I’m going to do this the way we used to record,” in the sense that everybody is playing at the same time. What we would do, typically, even though it was done over a period of years, was record pretty quickly, then I’d go over it with the guys, and then we’d do the track in maybe three hours. Then we’d fine-tune it a bit and that would be a day.

Sometimes it would be only one take. We would never drop in on the vocal and do it halfway through. They were always complete performances, and we wanted to capture that spark and energy that we always used to get because of the way we recorded before. Then we'd pick another day and I’d really work on the harmony with the guys — each track was typically three days from start to finish.

Strong performances like that were business as usual for bands in the’60s, but it’s rare for younger bands to record that way, mostly because of the technology that's available now.

I have been through many projects where I looked at one part of a song at a time, in minute detail, and you can certainly make some good records that way. But there is something about the interaction that you get on-stage. We have such a great band in the sense that there’s so much energy happening when we play, and we wanted that on the record. I’m not pretending the whole process is exactly like it was in the ’60’s because it isn’t. I remember McCartney tried to do that once, but you can’t go back. You can keep the center of the idea and embrace those concepts, though.

How do you challenge yourself to keep writing vital music at a time when a lot of your peers are retiring — if they haven’t retired already?

It’s a privilege to be this age, and at this stage in my career, and still feel that doors are opening up. As long as we feel inspired, and we certainly do at the moment, we can continue self-generating new material, and exploring things that give us energy. It’s sort of a self-perpetuating process, but it’s always a bit mysterious. I never know what I’m going to do when I start writing a song. I’ll never look at song and think, "I’ve got to get to that hook at 30 seconds. I’ve got to think about this.” When you look at a song like “She’s Not There,” it’s a pretty funny construction, really. But if I can find a germ of an idea that excites me, I’ll follow it through into something that works.

If you can get that excitement on the record, you stand a chance of transmitting some of it to the listener, which is always difficult, but your chances are greater if you can excite yourself in the first place. The whole thing about music is a bit odd, really. If you think of a note as a series of sound vibrations, which is what it is, you can have a phrase and you can alter one note and it can be pretty boring or you can have another note in that place and it can move people to tears. It’s a very odd thing, really — sort of a subconscious thing as well, and I’m not saying you don’t use things you’ve learned, of course you do. But it’s a subconscious evaluation in the end, and its all very mysterious.

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