The Zombies’ Rod Argent Talks New Album, Tour, Classic Hits, Keith Moon Adventures and More (Q&A)


Ken SharpCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

Landing on U.S shores in the mid ‘60s, The Zombies’ run on the charts was relatively short — and by the turn of the ‘60s they were long gone. Or so some thought.

A little over 20 years ago, the English band proved it had much more to say in its musical life, initiating a welcome return to touring and recording new material. Not only did the musicians’ original legion of followers come back to support them, but an entire new generation of music fans was turned on to the majesty of their wonderful music. With a new album in the can and a U.S. tour pending, we spoke with band leader, keyboardist and chief songwriter Rod Argent to get filled in about all things Zombies. 

Rock Cellar: Tell us about the new Zombies record. 

Rod Argent: It’s an album of 10 songs. I’ve written nine of them. The initial music industry reaction from America is absolutely terrific, with several people saying they think it’s the best thing we’ve done since Odessey and Oracle, which is high praise indeed. So I’m very excited about that album and I’m very pleased to have been able to finish it.

We wanted to record it live in the sense that in the old days, that was the only way you could record, with everyone in the studio at the same time. Just before the pandemic started, I’d written the first two tracks for the album. We got everybody over to my studio, which was a new studio. It’s small but it was big enough to get everybody in and it has a live room for the drums. We could all listen to each other while we were playing. Colin [Blunstone] could hear as he was putting down a guide vocal, and we could respond to Colin’s guide vocals as well.

The idea was always that we would redo Colin’s vocal, but most of the time we didn’t have to. We just made it up out of what we did live. Most of the tracks — and this was recorded over two and a half years ago because of the pandemic — most of the basic tracks were recorded in about three to five hours at most, and then we would do a little bit of overdubs afterwards.

Rock Cellar: In terms of the direction and sound of the material, is there a common thread throughout?

Rod ArgentWell, I only ever write songs in one way, that’s what I’ve always done. I get excited about an idea myself and if I get excited, I’ll give Colin a call. Colin will come over, we’ll work on it together. It’s something that we’ve done for many years, and I tend to know Colin’s voice very well in the sense that I’ll go, “I think Colin will sound great singing this phrase because it’s right in the sweet spot of his high voice,” for instance, or he’ll get a lovely little bit of roughness on this phrase because I know how his voice is projected at that point.

I think the material has a lot of the same characteristics of Odessey and Oracle. It hasn’t got such a psychedelic feeling about it because everyone that was recording at that time of Odessey and Oracle was influenced by the general sort of zeitgeist of what was going on. You couldn’t help not to be, and I include the Beatles in that and I include Stevie Winwood, all those sort of things. Obviously it’s not quite the same as that now, because the times are different.

But our approach to writing and the reality of what we’re trying to do is exactly the same. What I wanted to do just before the pandemic was to record a couple of tracks and immediately get them mastered, even though they were just two tracks. Get them mastered by a mastering engineer who I love in America and then have them sent back to me and I will get a local radio station to play them, just those two tracks, but make sure that the DJ spoke over the beginning and the end so nobody could record it.

I wanted to hear how it sounded on the radio with radio compression, because that was important. I just wanted to make sure that recording this way in my new studio, which, incidentally, acoustically, was designed by the same guy who did all the Abbey Road control rooms. That was wonderful. I never thought I’d be able to afford him, but I was told that if he wants to do it, he’ll do it. He only takes on a few projects now, but he was really interested in doing it and he did it.

Anyway, we got the two tracks to a local radio station and it sounded great on the radio, so I thought, great, this is a way ahead of doing this. And then, of course, the pandemic hit and it meant that it was so hard just to get together. But on the other side of things, it gave me time to really have time to work on songs and to take my time. And if I got too close to something, I could leave it and then come back a couple of weeks later because the studios was just set up for us. So it was a perfect little cottage industry set up. In some ways it worked beautifully and on other ways, it was hugely frustrating. On a couple of tracks, we had to do it pretty much remotely, particularly from the bass player’s point of view, because he comes from Denmark and couldn’t get over. But largely we recorded everything pretty much live, and I think it’s turned out absolutely beautifully.

Rock Cellar: I think it’s what separates the Zombies from a lot of your contemporaries that go out and tour and kind of trade on nostalgia is you and Colin agree that while you’re very proud of what you did in the past, you’re still forging out new territory with our new music. 

Rod Argent: You’re 100% right. I wouldn’t do it otherwise; I wouldn’t be interested. We’ve never done anything just purely to try and rake over the coals and make a buck. I mean, of course it’s wonderful to make a buck, I’m not putting it down at all, but at the same time, we do it for one reason.

You’ve got one life and you have to put your heart and soul into it and you have to do it for real. I mean, that’s the phrase that I always think of, and talk to Colin about what we’re doing. We do it for real and we do it to make the music work and it has the effect of really translating on stage to people as well. There’s one track on the new album called “Merry Go Round,” and we’ve recently been doing it live after “Time of the Season” and you know how well “Time of the Season” will go down on stage.

We often have a young component in the audience as well as people of all ages, but there’s almost always a young component in the audience and young indie bands come around. So when we played “Time of the Season,” we follow it with this track “Merry Go Round,” which is a real groove and people go mad. They love it, absolutely love it. 

Rock Cellar: There was a long period after [your solo project] Argent was over that you were not on the road, you were producing. One of the joys I have from seeing the Zombies is feeding off the happiness you exude onstage performing. What was that like to reconnect with that part of you?

Rod Argent: Well, when Argent finished, it was a very different world as far as live performance is concerned. To go on the road was a massive undertaking in the sense that you had huge trucks, you had to take your own PA systems, the sort of instruments you had on stage, like the real Hammond organ and various other things, mellotron, I used to take pianos, etcetera. 

And I really had enough when we came offstage. And then when we got back together by mistake, almost, in the year 2000. I had done a charity show for somebody and Colin was in the audience and got up and just joined me on “She’s Not There” on “Time of the Season,” and it felt as if we’d been together a few weeks before rather than 33 years or whatever it was. Soon after that Colin started to do one or two solo gigs and he phoned me up and said, “Do you fancy doing a half a dozen gigs?” And I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I could get into all that again.”

It was such a drag in the end, what you had to go through in the Seventies, Jim Rodford, the guy that was our bass player, said, “It’s not like that anymore. It’s absolutely different.” So I took him at his word. I said, “All right, just six gigs then.” And we went on and did six gigs. To my amazement, I really liked it. And they gradually turned into what has been 22 years, basically touring around the world. We are going to have to slow down, obviously. I mean, we’re getting to that age, but at the same time, it’s still a thrill to spend that time on stage.

The actual touring itself is just as tedious as it was when we were 18 years old with huge distances and traveling from one city to another. It certainly doesn’t get any easier as you get older. But when you actually get on stage, the energy that you get is very rejuvenating, so we don’t quite want to let that go yet.

Rock Cellar: Rod, many bands are identified by their hits, the ones that were most commercial. And obviously The Zombies had their batch of major hits. But in your eyes, do they represent the best of the band, or are there others that you feel exist on that same artistic level?

Rod Argent: Oh, my goodness. Well, on the new album, in many ways, I think it’s some of the best material I’ve written, I really do. And maybe that’s something that one naturally thinks to some extent when one has just finished a piece of work. But at the same time, we’ve been getting that sort of response initially from other people, too. I’m just crossing my fingers. I really am. But there have been several tracks over the years with the new stuff that we’ve done.

There was one song called “As Far As I Can See,” which I’ve always absolutely loved.

Rock Cellar: Of the newer Zombies tracks, I’ve always felt “Shine On Sunshine” was magic.

Rod ArgentOkay, very cool, very good. Well, yeah, it was lovely doing that. It really was. I love doing the song. I love messing with the harmonic progression and some harmony. It was great.

Rock Cellar: Rod, you are one of the masters of playing mellotron very creatively, as demonstrated on The Zombies’ classic album Odessey and Oracle. But the use of the mellotron on that album wasn’t planned, and was instead the perfect happy accident, right?

Rod Argent: Yes. When we went into Abbey Road to record that album, the mellotron was just in the studio. We walked in just as the Beatles walked out, having recorded Sgt. Pepper and they jumped on the mellotron that was there and they put it all over various tracks that they’d recorded. A couple of them, of course, didn’t make it to Sgt. Pepper, but there were previous singles like “Strawberry Fields.” So they left it there and we leapt on it as well.

I initially thought that that was a way of being able to orchestrate because we couldn’t afford a real orchestra. But in the end, I’m so pleased because it turned out to be something that was characteristic and had more of an unusual character, particularly at that time, than normal orchestrated strings, so that worked out beautifully.

Rock Cellar: Back in the ’60s, The Zombies were working hard. You were on the road a lot, touring and recording, but there were times you weren’t. Which of the classic British bands of that era did you see live? Did you see The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, The Kinks?

Rod Argent: Oh, yeah, I saw all of them. Our band, when we were still semi-pro, saw the Stones, when they used to play in a club every week called “Studio 51.” It held about 100 people. All the Stones would sit on stools, including Jagger, and it was very purist blues. And in some ways, that was my favorite time to hear The Stones, it really was.

We were all so knocked out when we saw that at “Studio 51.” I saw The Beatles live. Like anyone else at that time, we were just absolutely knocked out with them. I mean, it changed our lives in the sort of way that when I first heard Elvis sing “Hound Dog” and some of those very early songs.

Rock Cellar: Where did you see The Beatles? 

Rod ArgentI saw them on a package show, because that was the only thing that existed then. The P.A. systems were appalling. They were cinema. P.A. systems. They weren’t dedicated to the band. They were in a cinema with a small P.A., like public address systems that the bands would just go through. No one in a band had a monitor in those days. You just listened to what you could. I don’t know if you’ve ever played on stage, but when you’re on stage without monitors, it’s very hard to pitch, very hard to judge how you’re singing, et cetera.

But that’s how it was in those days. But actually, I was beyond excited to see The Beatles because like everyone else, I’d heard their first couple of albums and been just completely blown away.

Rock Cellar: What year was this?

Rod ArgentIt would have been ’63 at the latest. It was at a cinema. The stage was cleared for the band that night in Luton, which was quite close to where I lived.

Rock Cellar: And you saw The Who early on as well?

Rod Argent: Absolutely. We played with The Who in the very early days. I remember playing one gig down in Brighton with them. And strangely enough, we were always knocked out completely with The Who, absolutely knocked out with their first records. Absolutely. But we shared a bill with them down in Brighton and the crowd didn’t really react very much to The Who. It was a bit beyond them. It was a bit advanced for them at that time, but we absolutely loved them right from the beginning. They were fantastic.

Another band towards the end of the really loved was Cream. I didn’t like their first single, which was “Wrapping Paper,” but I loved their second single, “I Feel Free.” I just love that. I thought it was great, and I loved everything about them. It was so musical, but had such a great groove. One thing we tried to do on the new album is not do what some vintage bands do and that is sort of scale back the energy. We’ve got several lovely ballads on the album, but they’re in the context also of three or four real groove tracks out of the 10 tracks. And we thought that sort of excitement and muscle to a certain degree was really important as well, because it’s a way of capturing energy.

Rock Cellar: Fast forward 10-15 years later, you played keyboards on “Who Are You,” the last Who album with Keith Moon. What was that experience like?

Rod Argent: Well, I’m only credited on two tracks, but I played on three. The first track I played on was “Love Is Coming Down,” and then I played on “Who Are You” and I also played on the John Entwistle track “Had Enough.” It was just a simple synth part on that.

I had just finished playing on the Roger Daltrey solo album One of the Boys. Roger spoke to Pete [Townshend] and said, “Can we try and get Rod for the new Who album?” And that’s what I did. But I’d also agreed to do an Andrew Lloyd Webber record, which turned out to be a No. 1 record where I played with Gary Moore, Coliseum and Andrew’s brother on cello, Julian Lloyd Webber. It was called “Variations.”

So even though The Who didn’t spend forever in the recording studio on each track, they were going through a lot of managerial changes and a lot of the days, nothing got done because they were in meetings all day long. And it got to the point where I said to Pete, “I’m going to have to leave next week because I’m doing this Andrew Lloyd Webber record.” And he said, “Which record would you rather be on?” I said, “It’s nothing to do with that. It’s something I’ve committed to do and I’m not going to renege on that.”

So that’s what I did. So basically, I only appeared on three tracks and as you said, it was Keith Moon’s last record. Keith was really lovely. And strangely enough, as I just told you about all the meetings, I would get there at 11:00 in the morning. and it was really quite a long way away from where I lived. And the only person that would come there on time was Keith, and he would be totally sober at that point and really quiet and absolutely charming and a real gentleman. Lovely.

And then I soon learned what not to do because about the second day, he said to me, “Oh, come on, let’s just go down the pub. There’s nobody here. Let’s go down the pub,” and I said okay. So I walked down the pub with him and as we walked into the pub, there was this huge brawny guy playing pool and as Keith went past him, he hit his elbow and went, “Oh sorry, mate.” And the guy turned around and looked at him like thunder. And I thought, oh God, hello. [laughs] 

And after about 15 minutes, I thought he hasn’t got his minder here with him that I said, “Oh, I just remembered Keith, I’ve got to go back and sort a couple of things out” [laughs] so I escaped. And then about two hours later, I walked into the studio and he had come back and he obviously had a bit of drink and he was sitting on the drum rostrum and suddenly I got a hail of drumsticks coming at me. [laughs] I thought, “Whoa, what’s going on?” So it was a complete change, but he was a lovely man.

He was absolutely lovely, and so were they all. 

————-

THE ZOMBIES SUMMER U.S TOUR DATES

July 13 – Alix Goolden Performance Hall, Victoria, BC

July 14 – Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver, BC

July 15 – Historic Everett Theatre, Everett, WA

July 16 – Aladdin Theatre, Portland, OR

July 18 – The Chapel, San Francisco, CA

July 19 – The Chapel, San Francisco, CA

July 21 – Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, Pioneertown, CA

July 22 – Libbey Bowl, Ojai, CA

July 23 – Fonda Theatre, Los Angeles, CA

July 24 – Belly Up- San Diego, CA

July 26 – Rialto Theatre, Tucson, AZ

July 28 – Egyptian Theatre, Park City, UT

July 29 – Egyptian Theatre, Park City, UT

July 30 – Egyptian Theatre, Park City, UT



Related Posts