In the Spotlight with The Zombies
Courtesy of Andrew Eccles
The Zombies depart London on an unseasonable eighty-degree spring day. They’re ready to arrive in New York City for an appearance at Rough Trade NYC, the city’s largest record store and annex to the UK-based shops known to treat music enthusiasts to signings and live performances. What the band may not be prepared for, however, is the less-than-dismal cold front awaiting their arrival stateside—a damp and windy spell that would plague the East Coast for the next week.
Luckily, their welcome at Rough Trade proves far warmer as founding members, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone, greet ecstatic fans and share with them an intimate thirty-minute set. This show, unlike most others, spotlights only the duo and allows them the chance to perform before a select few with as little fanfare as possible.
“Colin and I occasionally do an acoustic thing, which is two voices and a piano,” Argent reflects in his hotel room the following day. “Doing that feels very liberating. It’s another way to approach the songs. You can stretch out in a different way, so it’s something I enjoy very much.”
The group’s keyboardist speaks during one of his rare downtimes on the road as The Zombies gear up for thirteen dates in the month of May for their aptly-named MayFlowers Tour. At the thought of tonight’s Mohegan Sun kickoff, Argent’s voice chirps with the enthusiasm of a newcomer on the scene. On the contrary, the veteran musician has spent over five decades proving himself—and his band—an unstoppable, ever-innovating force to be reckoned with.
“Honestly, we still get a huge buzz playing,” he says matter-of-factly. “A lot of the stuff we do has room for us to minimally change things all the time. There’s improvisation. The guys in the band really listen to what each other are doing, so there’s always something to excite us when we go in a slightly new direction. I’m not saying people will get different songs or a different structure in each of the songs, but there’s always something there to make it different for us each night. And hopefully make it a slightly new experience for people that are listening as well. As long as we can feel that freshness and energy, it feels like a very revitalizing thing to keep going.”
The Zombies, rivaling other such giants of the British Invasion as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Animals, captured the world’s attention and epitomized the counterculture movement that characterized much of the 1960s with songs like “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time of the Season.” Since their official formation in the early sixties, the band credited with altering both musical and cultural landscapes underwent a series of changes in lineups, leading up to their first split in 1967. It would be thirty years before Argent and lead singer, Blunstone, would reunite again on a professional capacity.
“We met, strangely enough, on our very first rehearsal,” Argent reminisces on his longstanding relationship with the lead vocalist. “I was putting a band together and gathering a load of people that said they could play. I was supposed to be the lead singer, and Colin was introduced to me as someone who played a bit of guitar.”
Argent looks back with a sense of wonderment.
“[At one point] during that rehearsal,” he explains, “I wandered over to a beaten-up old piano and played the old B. Bumble and The Stingers’ hit, “Nut Rocker.” He couldn’t believe it. And when I heard him sing an old Ricky Nelson song in a coffee break around an acoustic guitar, I thought it was wonderful. We started forming our friendship on that day, really.”
Despite the band’s occasional shake-ups, Argent maintains that the dynamics between himself and Blunstone have withstood time and distance to create a stronger-than-ever foundation for the pair to reunite in the slightly newer Zombies line-up touring today.
“[Colin and I] have worked together over the years,” he comments. “We obviously broke up the first time around in ‘67, even before ‘Time of the Season’ hit in ‘69, but I was constantly involved in writing for him and producing some of his albums [afterwards]. And we’ve always remained friends. I did a charity concert for a jazz musician friend of mine in 1999 and Colin was in the audience. He got up and sang later on in the night, and it felt so nice to be playing back together again. In a very, very slow way, we started doing one or two gigs for fun, and over the next few years, that gradually gained momentum. Without us even planning anything, we started to work in a much more intense way again and it’s led to the last couple of albums.”
The Zombies have since welcomed session guitarist Tom Toomey, bassist Jim Rodford—a cousin of Argent’s and former member of The Kinks, as well as Argent’s eponymous 1970s band—and Rodford’s son, Steve, on drums.
“It’s a family affair of sorts,” Argent explains. “Jim was the reason I got into rock ‘n roll in the first place. He took us to our first rehearsal and loaned us all his group’s gear. I asked him to be in the band before anybody else, but because he was in the top local band at the time, there was absolutely no reason for him to do that. Steve’s been on drums since Colin and I got back together again, and Tom is a relatively new addition, but a wonderful musician. So it’s a very attractive proposition to be playing with these guys.”
The culmination of their efforts resulted in their most recent and appropriately entitled album, Still Got That Hunger, capturing both The Zombies’ signature sound and their exploration of new concepts with ten eclectic songs. Their October 2015 release saw them treading into uncharted territory as their 1968 album, Odessey And Oracle, re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 alongside their newest record 48 years since it last placed on the charts—a feat reached by few artists in music history.
“When we got the call from Billboard, I thought it was absolutely fantastic and not something I expected to happen,” the singer raves on their rare accomplishment.
One month later, the band welcomed yet another unforeseen honor—this time, an induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame for their achievements with “She’s Not There”. Officially, the band would join the ranks of Bob Dylan, Jimmy Buffett, and Joan Jett, among other artists dubbed as inductees by the Recording Academy.
In many respects, Argent credits the band’s loyalty to their origins as key in both their longevity and recent achievements.
He remarks, “I never try and write in the current fashion. I never did. It’s just about taking a musical idea that excites me and making it work with the elements that I’ve got. I usually write with Colin’s voice in the back of my head, in some sort of subconscious way, so I’m thinking about the structure of what we have and how to build it up.”
“The thing is,” he continues, “we kept our chops up, so to speak. I think I play better now that I could ever play, and I can sing higher now than I could ever sing. Colin’s voice has changed a little, but in some ways it’s better and more powerful. Everything is done in the original keys. There’s a track on our new album called “Edge of the Rainbow” that I deliberately wrote to hit a top B flat, which is really at the top of [Colin’s] range, because I knew he’d really enjoy it. We’ve kept all of that going and we’ve been lucky in that respect.”
The Zombies’ accolades and credits of the past may have hurled them into stratospheric heights, but their main focus now lies on the road ahead. Asked which songs among their diverse catalog Argent looks most forward to playing on stage, he references a mix of old and new, including what he calls, “some Zombies obscurities that we realized we never even played live on stage the first time around, because we’d broken up by that time.”
At the end of the day, the MayFlowers Tour may come to represent not only The Zombies’ latest ventures or their historical significance, but the coming full circle of a band who has endured in the face of victory and uncertainty alike.
Credits: Rod Argent, Melani Rogers, Andrew Eccles
© Veronika Tacheva, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.