Sunday, January 1, 2012

Zombies interviews, part two, Blunstone & Argent, 2004

Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent: Begin Again Here
Interview and photos by Daniel Coston
Originally published in the Big Takeover Magazine, summer 2004 issue

The Zombies. For many people, seeing this storied name on the marquee of theaters across the US has been surprising, and for some, nearly unbelievable. The Zombies, the English quintet that redefined pop harmonies and soaring melodies in the 1960s, and whom disbanded in 1968 before their last and greatest album, Odyssey and Oracle, was ever played live, playing here?

For Zombies vocalist Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent, this new edition is not a chance to capitalize on the accolades that their old band are now lauded with, but also create something new out of a partnership that now goes back over forty years. Aided on tour by Rod’s cousin (and former bandmate in Argent, Rod’s post-Zombies band) Jim Rodford on bass, Jim’s son Steve Rodford on drums, and guitarist Keith Airie, Blunstone and Argent have strived to not only do justice to their past, but also forge ahead with new music and keep sight of why they reunited in the first place.

After playing together again at the release party for the Zombie Heaven boxset in 1998, Blunstone and Argent began to plot a new course. After the release of their Out Of The Shadows album in 2000, the two began to take to the road, preferring to tour at first under their own names, despite pressure from promoters to use their old band’s name.

This year not only marks the first time that Blunstone and Argent have toured under the Zombies moniker, this year also sees the release of their new album, As Far As I Can See, a record that not only features the Zombies’ name (along with Blunstone and Argent’s), but also vocals from original bassist Chris White on three tracks. Argent and Blunstone also reunited again with the entire original Zombies lineup in January at a benefit in Los Angeles for guitarist Paul Atkinson, who is battling cancer.

Sharing a phone for this interview before their show in New York City on February 11 (Blunstone had to excuse himself before the interview’s end to tend to other business), the two are very happy to discuss the history of the Zombies, but have their eyes firmly set on their new album.

BT: Hello. Great to have you back in the States.

Argent: It’s great to be over here, actually. It’s great to be on the road again.

BT: I heard that you were rehearsing yesterday [for the NYC show] with a string quartet. How did that go?
Argent: It went fine. It’s something we do occasionally in England. And it’s not something we can do everywhere, because of space and cost, really. But it’s something we’d try for the first time in New York, just to see how it goes.

BT: Didn’t you do a show with the string quartet in a church in Greece?

Argent: No. You may be getting confused with, Colin and I did a voice and piano show. That was a church in Nijmegen, in Holland. And that was very interesting because we were asked to do this concert with just voice and piano, and we really didn’t know how to go about rehearsing it. So we didn’t rehearse it! (laughs) So we just went on stage and winged it, and we played for an hour. It was great, because we used the acoustics of this church. And I played a grand piano, which is very different than playing a keyboard on stage, so the minute that I played the first few notes, and you hear [the notes] swirling in the echo, and you adjust to that. And it changed the way we played, really.

BT: Would you like to do more shows like that, if you opportunity comes along?

Argent: Yeah, I wouldn’t like that to be our main thing, but I’m open to one or two. And it would have to have with an acoustic piano, and it would have to have a sort of church acoustic to make it work.

BT: Going back to the string quartet, what does that bring to the show, and how does that change the live sound for you?

Argent: At the moment, we’re going to be doing about five or six songs with the string quartet. So what it means that the three songs that we do from Colin’s solo career, which we do in the set, anyway, we do with the original string arrangements. So we do a couple of things with quartet from his One Year album, which are absolutely beautiful arrangements. Mystic Roses, and Say You Don’t Mind. Say You Don’t Mind was a big hit in Europe, top ten over there. So we do those in the original arrangements.

BT: Colin, I heard Misty Roses last night on the radio. "World Cafe" on NPR played it during the eight o’clock hour.

Blunstone: (surprised) Oh, really? We always play that song. When we don’t have the string quartet, we do a slightly different arrangement, but it still sounds really, really lovely.

Argent: Also, on our new album, which were manufactured literally one week ago, on seven of the tracks, we have a 21-piece string orchestra, that I’ve actually scored for, along with the band, of course. And it enables us to do one or two of those songs that will translate down from a 21-piece orchestra to a string quartet. So it’s a very nice edition.

BT: Since you mentioned it, let’s talk about the new record. What does it sound like?

Argent: Because nobody in the States has heard it yet, we’ve managed to bring them on tour with us. We’re actually selling them at the gigs, but we’ve haven’t even begun to try and get a record deal over here. It’s a chance to for us sell it at gigs as sort of a preview, if you like.
We think it sounds absolutely great. It’s very different than the last album, as it’s based very much around the band that we have, and has been touring now over the last three years, and has been getting tighter and tighter. So it’s very much a group-oriented album. Very much more organic, performance-orientated, than the last one [Out Of The Shadows] was.
Also, all of the songs were written absolutely with Colin in mind, just like in the old days. So it has very many resonances and echoes of the stuff that we were doing in the Zombies. Now I’m not pretending that it sounds exactly like a 1960s, 1965 Zombies album, mind you, but there’s a lot of resonances, and that’s the main reason we decided to use the name "Zombies" on this tour. Because we were playing back the mixes, and we just kept chuckling at the different bits and pieces, which just were very reminiscent.
We actually have Chris White on several tracks on the album, as well. That of course very much brings back a Zombies harmony sound. And it’s very organic in that there’s almost no overdubs, in the sense that the backing tracks were laid down live. Again, just like in the old days. The lead vocalist is overdubbed, and the harmonies are overdubbed. Again, that’s what we used to do in the old days. The only overdubs, really, are the strings, in the sense that they were put on afterwards, as instruments. But the way I’ve written the strings is almost like another instrument. They work off the voice, and I’ve always like Colin’s voice with strings, as well, and that was one definite reason for me using that on the album. So it’s a multi-faceted album.
There’s one or two tracks on it that sound like they could’ve come from the ‘60s, and this wasn’t contrived. It just turned out that way. There’s a rock-and-roll track on there, and a very simple melodic song on there. With more modern sound, but they absolutely sound like they could’ve come from the ‘60s. The first track on the album, to me, sounds like a cross between the Zombies and Argent.

BT: After all this time, do you find that you write differently with Colin’s voice in mind, as opposed to things that you were writing on your own, or with Argent?

Argent: Yes, I do. It’s not a conscious thing, it’s just that [Colin’s] voice is just there when I’m writing, and it affects what comes out. I think I’m just writing a song, but all the time I’m vaguely imaging Colin singing it. And of course that is the way that I learned to write, really. My very first compositions were Zombies compositions, and Colin and I started out when we were 15, 16 years old together. And that’s how we learned our trade, really, so I guess it’s inevitable that there is these resonances.
I should say, that is the reason it felt honest for the first time to actually include the name Zombies on the album, and on the tour posters, even though we still have our own names on the album, too. That’s always important, too, because it’s not just a retro thing.

BT: Was it easier to come to terms with going out as the Zombies on this tour, because I know that you’ve gone out before as Blunstone & Argent?

Argent: We’ve always resisted against going out as the Zombies. Quite deliberately, because it hasn’t felt honest. But this is the first time because the album and tour, but particularly the album, is so based around the band. The live band, and it has so much of a group feel. And because of that, and the genuine echoes that are there, it felt honest to me for the first time to call ourselves that. There was a lot of pressure on our last tour, and with our last album [Out Of The Shadows], to call ourselves the Zombies, but it didn’t sound like a Zombies album to me. And it didn’t feel like an honest thing to do, but this does.

BT: Colin, let’s talk about your impressions on the new album, and how it was, among other things, to work again with Chris White.

Blunstone: Well, it’s fantastic. I’m really, really pleased that we’re working together again. As Rod said, all of the songs were written specifically for me. I always find it very exciting to sing Rod’s songs. I like all of his songs, and many of them are quite challenging, as well. You really have to put some work into them. And of course it was great to work with Chris again. We have a very distinctive flavor to our harmonies when the three of us are singing.
And Rod didn’t mention this, but Paul Atkinson, our lead guitarist, although he’s been very, very ill recently, he was involved in helping us to get a deal with out first album, and he has been trying to get a deal for this album, although he’s so unwell, he’s not been able to do it. So indirectly, there are four members of the Zombies involved in this project.

BT: Looking back, do you think that this reunion came about at the right time for you and Rod? Did it almost take this long for you to go, "Okay, this can work, we can have fun?"

Blunstone: I think so, really. It just very natural for us. This is not a forced thing. This is not some kind of marketing ploy to have a Zombies album, and go out as the Zombies. It just was a very natural thing to do. I think at this time of our lives, neither Rod nor I are really too concerned about forcing some sort of promotion campaign and using the Zombies name incorrectly. We’re just not interested. We’re only doing it before it feels natural, and it feels fun.

BT: Do you think that the working relationship between the two of you has changed? Is it different now than it was forty years ago?

Blunstone: I think it’s remarkably similar. One of the reasons that we got back together that by a series of coincidences, we ended up on stage together, performing. And it felt as though we’d played the night before, or the week before, when it fact, there’d been a twenty year gap. It just feels very natural when we play together. Even when we started playing together again a couple of years ago, even then it felt we’d just picked up where we’d left off.

BT: Was that surprising for you when that happened?

Blunstone: It was, actually. (laughing) Surprising for both of us. But it was a very pleasant surprise.

BT: Tell me about the benefit that you played recently, where all of the Zombies reunited.

Blunstone: There was a benefit that was put on for Paul in Los Angeles, and a lot of artists who he’d been involved with were asked to play. And incidentally, I’ve been told that with all of the artists, they only had to make one phone call. They said, "There’s a benefit for Paul," and they said, "We’d love to do it." It included Brian Wilson, Richard Page from Mister Mister, Mickey Thomas from Starship, Michael Penn, Bruce Hornsby.
It was a wonderful evening. Really fabulous evening, and of course, Rod and I and all of the guys in the Zombies were very glad to do it. Personally, Rod and I had to nip over to Los Angeles and we were of two minds whether to stay in America because we were starting our tour over on the East Coast, but there were things we had to do in England, so we literally nipped over to Los Angeles, nipped back [to England], got a few things sorted out, picked up the rest of the band, and then nipped back to New York. So it was a very hectic few days, but it was very worthwhile. It was a very memorable evening.

Argent: It was very sad to be over there for the reason that we were, because Paul is so ill. And then, the fact that we were all there...and the fact that we all started out together in 1961 when we were 15, 16 years old and then here we were, all these years later, working to provide money for Paul’s medical treatment, et cetera, it was very sad.
But at the same time, there was a huge outpouring of affection and respect from the people that were there. There a lot of video tributes. All the people like Brian Wilson, and the other guys that Colin just mentioned. On one phone call, they all said, "Yeah, we’ll be there," and they all paid tribute to [Paul]. And it was absolutely lovely, and it must have been lovely for him and his family.
It’s just that the whole thing felt a bit surreal. And the fact that we were totally jet-lagged, because we were only there for three or four days, and there’s a eight-hour time difference from England. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and I’m proud to have been there, but I’d have to say emotionally, it was a very mixed thing for me.

Coston: Looking back, is getting back together with everyone something you really cherish?

Blunstone: I think it is, really. It did happen once before. Before though, it wasn’t planned at all. There was a launch party for the Zombies boxset at the Jazz Cafe, in London. I played there with a band I had at the time, and of course, all of the other guys were there. And so there were instruments on stage, and we all just kind of walked on stage. I did wonder what was going to happen. There was nothing planned, and there was nothing rehearsed. Now bear in mind that we hadn’t planned together in about thirty years. And they just started playing! (laughs) And we played "She’s Not There" and "Time Of The Season," and it sounded really, really good.
And I must that say, from my point of view, that it was the first time that I started to think about the possibilities of Rod and I playing together again. Because I’d just played these songs with a very, very fine band, whom have all gone to play with very major bands in the UK, because there was something very special about when the Zombies played these same tunes. Even though we hadn’t rehearsed, and we hadn’t played together in thirty years. There was something special, and there was just a seed in my mind. Then, I thought, "I wonder if we could we ever, in some form, get back together again?" And as it happened, it wasn’t the four of them and me, it was Rod and I. We got back together about four or five months later, and we’ve been playing together ever since.

BT: How is it to play these songs live now? I know that many of the Zombies songs were never played live....

Blunstone: Well, that’s the answer. A lot of the Zombies tunes that we play, we’ve never played before. Probably more than half of the Zombies songs we’re playing now, we’ve never played before. People ask us what’s it like to play these songs year in and year out, and we can truthfully say that they’re very fresh to us, before we’ve never played them. We have to sit down and learn them (laughs) and rehearse them, because obviously we recorded them thirty-something years ago, but we have to remind ourselves of what happens where. So they sound really fresh to us.
When the Zombies were together, we played "She’s Not There" and "Tell Her No," and most of the other songs I don’t think we ever played live. (To Argent) "Indication," did we play that live?

Argent: No.

Blunstone: I think those are the only two songs that we’re playing now, that we ever played live.

BT: What sort of set do you currently have with this tour? Is it fairly mixed between Zombies songs and new stuff, with some of your songs?

Blunstone: It was a wonderful surprise for us when we first came over how much interest there was in the Zombies catalogue, and in fact, we weren’t playing many Zombies tunes when we first came over. But we’ve increased that now, so there are plenty of Zombies songs. There are a smattering of Argent songs, some of my solo stuff, an Alan Parsons song, and then some new songs. One or two songs from Out Of The Shadows, and maybe four or five songs from the new album.
It differs from night to night. We’re in the fortunate position of having a vast catalog to choose from. But what I like to say is that there’s something for everybody.

BT: Is it still surprising for you, the outpouring of emotion that people have with Zombies songs, and songs from Odyssey and Oracle?

Argent: I find it quite extraordinary. When you think that Odyssey And Oracle came out and really wasn’t a hit anywhere. And then about 15 years later, it started to sell. And now it sells extremely healthy all over the world, and I quite don’t know why. As it wasn’t particularly a hit album in the first place. And the fact that with a lot of young bands today, barely a month goes by where we don’t read something in the newspaper that somebody [mentions us]. A couple of months ago, one of the guys in this band called Super Furry Animals said in an interview, "I always carry a copy of Odyssey And Oracle on the road, and I’m on my sixth copy now." And you keep coming across these things. And I’m very grateful, but I’m quite bewildered with these things. (laughs)

BT: Has Jim Rodford said anything about playing with you in the Zombies forty years he initially turned you down?
Argent: I’ve always had a close association with Jim. He did turn us down when he first formed the band, but when we did "She’s Not There," I played it for Jim. He was really the first person to hear it. So he’s always been intimately connected. And as you obviously know, he was a member with me in Argent. And people over here know him a bit because he was bassist in the Kinks for twenty years. So it feels like a natural thing. And it’s very much a family thing in that Jim is also my cousin, and his son is playing drums with us. Steve’s a great drummer, really, so it all feels a family thing. Both in the real way that people talk about family, and also the loose way that people talk about family. (laughs)

BT: Do you feel that the working relationship between you and Colin has changed?

Argent: Strangely, no. The first thing we did after the charity show we did was do a few gigs together, and that felt incredibly natural, and we just feel into working together. The next thing to try was to see whether we could work in the studio again, and I had a series of songs, which were already existing. And Colin knew them and liked them. Some of the backing vocals were already down, actually. And that became our first album [back together], Out Of The Shadows. But when we got into the studio to work on that, it was awesome. We just fell immediately into the old working relationship. It was quite extraordinary, actually. It’s a bit like riding a bike, they say, you never forget. But really, it honestly did feel as if we’d had a few weeks break [from the Zombies]. And that was one of the reasons why we’ve carried this forward. And then I got very excited about the thought of being able to write again. Because for ten years before that, I had done nothing but produce people. And while I was very grateful for all that, and it provided an extremely nice financial backbone to things, it was driving me mad, not concentrating on things that were central to me, creatively.
And just the way that things feel into place, it’s strange, because when the Zombies first formed, things just fell into place extraordinarily easy. I didn’t meet Colin until the first rehearsal, and most of the guys in the band hadn’t meant each other. And those guys became the band, apart from the bass player changing. And it was extraordinary that it should work, so that seemed to happen just magically easily (laughs), and the way this time ‘round, in this sort of second incarnation, it just felt natural. Everything about it has. I don’t think we would’ve done it otherwise.
To actually go out on the road, while playing live is a complete buzz and it’s extremely energizing, and that’s why we’re doing it, I love it, the actual tedium of arranging everything, and having to travel long distances, et cetera, et cetera, all of things that go with touring, is not something I relish. It wasn’t a breeze when we were 18, and it certainly isn’t now. So it takes something to entice us back, really, and it just feels like a complete buzz to be doing it.

BT: Do you think that the feel of these songs has changed live, even though many of these songs were never live at all?

Argent: No, it sounds remarkably similar, actually. And Steve is such a good drummer, that he clocks immediately into what should be there, and Jim, of course, has had this continuing history of hearing everything. He even demoed one or two things, you know, with me before [the Zombies] did them. So there’s very much a strong connection.

BT: During the Zombies era, who did you feel were your contemporaries? Was there anyone that you felt you shared similar ideas with? In many ways, the Zombies sounded so different to what else was out there at the time, and I curious if you felt there was anyone out there that you thought was on the same wavelength.

Argent: It’s funny for me, because rock music really wasn’t what I was in love with, it was particular artists, dotted about. For instance, I’ve always loved music, but I thought it was classical music that I loved until I was 11. In fact, Jim played me Elvis singing "Hound Dog," and that’s what really turned my head ‘round. And for six months, to my parents’ horror at the time, I didn’t want to hear anything except the rawest rock and roll I could lay my hands on.
And then I have to say that Jim, who was four years older than me, had a great local band in the area, and I used to go along when I was 11 and hear his band. And having heard Elvis, I then desperately wanted to be in the band at some point. I just really, really did. And then we formed a band to play rock and roll, and play whatever was going on.
The Beatles came out in 1961 in England, and I think we formed in about 1960, ‘cause we were certainly playing before I heard the Beatles. And very unlike all of the bands that I’d heard that were around, right from the beginning, we sang harmonies on stage. And one of the things that the Beatles revolutionized was that there was this big harmony thing going on. And I can honestly say that we were doing that before we heard the Beatles, but when we heard the Beatles, it seemed to me that we shared that in common. But they opened up to all of us the exposure to rhythm and blues. Because they were in Liverpool, and they got all of the imports. Things like Chuck Berry. But not only the urban blues, but also the country blues of John Lee Hooker, but also the more sophisticated pop rhythm blues of Smokey [Robinson] and the Miracles. And that was a whole thing that had a big affect on us, when we heard it.
But really, after the six months I listened to nothing but Elvis, I went back to listening to classical music. And then when I was 12 I discovered Miles Davis in his great 1956 band with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, and that was a huge influence, but it wasn’t something that I thought I brought to what we were doing at all. These things were just swimming around in the background. And they came through in a very indirect way, without us realizing it. So yeah, a bit of classical influence, a bit of Miles in there. But without us trying to put them in. And I guess that was happening with other bands, too, but not many.
I know that Manfred Mann listened to a lot of jazz, and a lot of blues, as well. And I remember the first television gig that we did, Ready Steady Go, and Manfred was on the same bill. And I remember wandering into his room because I heard a Miles Davis track playing. And we had a tiny chat. And he said, "Man, I love your record. But you’ve gotta change that [band] name." (laughs)

BT: At the time of the ‘60s, did you hear any of the American pop bands, such as the Beach Boys, Left Banke...

Argent: Oh yes, I always loved the Beach Boys. I have to say that. Yes, that was a band that I loved. Left Banke, I virtually heard the odd track, and that’s all. [It should be noted that when the interviewer asked Colin this same question two days later, he professed to being a fan of the Left Banke, and wished to send his regards to the band.]

BT: Going back to the Zombies, we talked about Paul. What are Chris White and [drummer] Hugh Grundy doing these days?

Argent: Chris is still involved in producing and writing music. He recently played me some beautiful tracks that he’s done with his wife which are very vocally-oriented. He played a couple of tracks that I thought were stunning, that was just a few weeks ago. Hugh is driving cars for the RAF now. That’s what he’s doing.
The Zombies albums, in all their different forms, sell about 100,000 albums a year around the world, and that provides a very nice little cushion of income for everybody. So even guys that didn’t write, they’re still seeing some results from those years.

BT: After all that’s been documented about the Zombies history, do you think that once this new record comes out, that there’ll be more to be written about all of this?

Argent: I really, really hope so. It’s very interesting that while this new record has only been manufactured for one week, we had one day of doing interviews before we came to the States, and these guys had just gotten the album. They’d just arrived that day, basically. And they had a fantastic reaction to it. And we think it’s a great album, and I hope that people get it, and see what we’re trying to do.

BT: Is it encouraging that people are keeping their ears open to not only the songs that you’ve done before, but also the new stuff?

Argent: It’s fantastically encouraging. And the fact is that we’ve been doing some of the songs on the album for a few months on tour, and the incredibly encouraging thing is that they’ve gone down as well as the old stuff. And that’s been lovely, because that wasn’t really true of the stuff that we did from Out Of The Shadows. So that’s been encouraging, yeah.

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