Meeting The Zombies
An interview with the members of The Zombies on their first concert in New Orleans.
Tonight The Zombies will take the stage in New Orleans for the first time ever despite getting very close in the 60s. When I asked singer Colin Blunstone about this his enthusiasm was palpable “I can remember us coming very close to New Orleans in the 60s; and we were all really looking forward to exploring the wonderful music, the history of New Orleans. I think we got to somewhere—It was literally about 50-80 miles away from New Orleans—and we never quite got there.” Originally founded in 1961, The Zombies were led by Rod Argent (on piano, organ and vocals) and Colin Blunstone (lead vocals) with Argent and bassist Chris White sharing the principle songwriting duties. I was recently able to chat with Colin about the early days of the band, their current tour, the fans’ enduring love of the Zombies’ music and their belated arrival in the city.
In their first incarnation, The Zombies were together for six years and a mere two records, but the legacy of these records continues to resonate within the culture of music. The group burst out of the gate when Argent penned “She’s Not There” for their first recording session with Decca Records. Colin recalls how natural it felt at the time to follow the lead of these songwriters, “We discovered that we had two really quite prolific and quite sophisticated writers in the band. After we decided to become a professional band—we had made that decision—after that, we got a recording contract with Decca records through a producer called Ken Jones. And he said to us one day, this session is coming up—our first session in a proper commercial studio—he said to us you could always try and write something if you wanted to, and then he moved onto another subject; it wasn’t a big thing. And Rod Argent went away and two days later he came back with 'She’s Not There.' and Chris White wrote another really good song, 'You Make Me Feel Good,' which was the B-side of the single. And suddenly we realized we had two really good writers in the band. Suddenly we realized we were following the path of their writing.” Of course, “She’s Not There” went on to become The Zombies’ biggest hit and this serendipitous moment of discovery would set the tone for much of the groups future output. Unfortunately, this immediate success of this single led to increased pressure from both their record label and fans. “Decca wanted more tracks, they wanted an album and Rod and Chris had only just started writing so we were caught in a very difficult situation with our first album we didn’t have a back catalogue of songs…that’s when we had real pressure on us…Whereas by the time we did our second album I think they had really honed their writing skills, particularly Chris, I think he had really, really progressed over the three years and they were writing absolutely wonderful songs.”
The success of “She’s Not There” left The Zombies in a awkward position, the group had to simultaneously contend with their sudden fame while attempting to find the space to foster the artistic development of their songwriting and stagecraft. “In an ideal world it would have been better for us if it [fame] had come a little later. We had to find a musical direction, Rod and Chris had to hone their writing skills and we had to hone our stagecraft as well. As things worked out, we had to do that in the full glare of the publicity of a world wide number one hit record. Whereas if we had had that record later on I think we would have been stronger and more prepared for it.”
Despite this increasing pressure, Argent and White were able to deliver not just a strong debut record but they were also able to follow it a couple of years later with Odessey and Oracle. While it was not critically acclaimed at the time, Odessey and Oracle has come to be recognized as a baroque pop masterpiece. The wistful purity of Colin’s voice on this record is perfectly highlighted by the songwriting of Argent and White. For Colin this was a natural consequence of the immediate fame the band had received in the wake of its first record. “Of course at the time it was just very, very exciting…I think we were a totally different band by the time we recorded Odyessy and Oracle we were a lot more professional and polished. If you tour the world for three years you can’t help but learn and become a bit more accomplished in your craft.”
The Zombies ended up disbanding before Odessey and Oracle was released to the public. “When we finished that album, it was time to move on to other projects. And I think everyone was very comfortable with that. For my part, I would have been interested to see what we would have done next because it seemed to me that Rod and Chris had really found themselves as writers; and I just would have been interested to see what we could have accomplished next. But it wasn’t to be.” Despite the formal dissolution of The Zombies, the individual members continued to collaborate. It is clear that there was a certain allure to the group dynamic that they did not want to fully let go. Rod and Colin continued to collaborate with Argent producing Blunstone’s first two solo records. “I’ve been involved with Rod musically all my life although it wasn’t always in one incarnation or another of The Zombies…In a way we did continue the Zombies we just didn’t use the name.”
Beyond the continued partnership of Argent and Blunstone, the music of The Zombies continued to recruit fans on its own. There is something about the simple power of these songs that keeps them in the public consciousness. While listening to The Zombies’ catalogue in preparation for this interview, I was struck by how current many of the songs sound. Contemporary acts like Ra Ra Riot or The Mountain Goats clearly share a lineage with the work the Zombies were doing some fifty years earlier. I asked Colin to comment on this. “We’re very fortunate actually because there are some 60s bands whose music stayed firmly in the 60s, and it’s probably not so easy for them to engage an audience in 2015. And although I suppose some of the songs we perform—you probably would know they were written in the 60s—but they’ve just got a freshness about them that you can still enjoy interpreting them night after night even 50 years after they were first recorded.” It is interesting that both the band and their fans share a fascination with this sound. In fact, despite attempts to steer the public in other directions, the emphasis keeps settling back on the mystique surrounding The Zombies “When we [Argent and Blunstone] got this incarnation of the band together, we were very emphatic that we weren’t going to use the name The Zombies. We didn’t play many Zombies tunes. We both had solo careers and we were playing solo tracks…but we were amazed to find out the interest there is—we were genuinely amazed—in The Zombies catalogue and we were encouraged to include more and more Zombies material. And also promoters, when they engaged us to play a concert, they were very often billing us as The Zombies—even though they were not contractually allowed to do that. After about seven years of touring around the world, we talked the situation over with the other original members and came to the conclusion that—because of this huge interest in The Zombies catalogue—it seemed a natural way to evolve the band to call it The Zombies and to make the backbone of our concerts Zombies material—hit tunes and some very obscure tunes—as well some tunes that we probably hadn’t played since we recorded them. We literally had to relearn some of these songs.”
With this foundation of original Zombies material, the group has been able to build a repertoire that spans over fifty years and highlights the individual contributions of the band’s various members. Both Argent and Blunstone have had successful solo careers and this material has a place along with the original 60s hits. This legacy of cooperation has fostered the growth of each musician involved. What is clear is that all concerned are continually interested in moving forward as artists. For his part, once The Zombies disbanded, Blunstone developed his craft as a songwriter. “It’s always fascinated me—songwriting—because I don’t think anyone really knows where songs come from. You just sit down there and you get—you know—the seed of an idea and you just try and build on it…long after I’m retired and don’t play concerts anymore, I’m sure I’ll still write because it gives me so much pleasure…there are moments when songs almost write themselves. And I want to grab that moment and—sort of bottle it—so that I can keep writing song after song, but sadly those magical moments usually disappear quite quickly.” It becomes clear during our conversation that Blunstone has a profound attachment to music on every level. While we were discussing the band’s 2008 concert celebrating the 40th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle and the popularity of the DVD chronicling that performance, the subject of digital distribution and the impact that the rapid dissemination of music is having on both musicians and fans came up. Colin’s comments reveal something we have all felt about lost romance of the album as an artifact, as something to be held. “Really it [digital distribution] must be a good thing—you know—I sit here and I want to, perhaps, do a bit of research on songs, or a songwriter or a specific artist and, of course, it’s really comparatively easy to trace the history of writers or artists. And I think that’s great …I think the only thing is that—because everything is so easy now—in some ways it might have taken away a little of the specialness of music…I can remember buying an album—perhaps on a Friday night—and coming home and reading the sleeve notes. And then reading the sleeve notes again while I played the album. And it seemed to be a very personal and quite intense experience. Whereas now there is so much of everything, I think in some ways it’s—if I were to be a little bit critical it would be that—it’s slightly diluted the listening experience just because there is so much of everything.” Part of the struggle inherent in the modern music scene is the preservation of that “specialness” of the experience of music. To that end, The Zombies have taken the production of their new record back to the practices that served them so well at the start. For this next record, the rehearsal and live performance of the tracks will precede the recording, so that when the group does go into the studio the songs will carry with them the experience of the audiences’ response. “We’ve been rehearsing new songs for our next album but what we’ve done is—we’ve sort of gone back to how we used to do things years ago—where, quite simply, we would—when the song was written—rehearse it in the first place just acoustically in a small room so that we can really hear what everyone’s doing. We’ve always concentrated on vocal harmonies and it’s very important to be able to hear what people are doing, because as soon as you become amplified the sheer volume can sometimes mask what people are playing. So we’ve gone back to what we used to do. We rehearsed 6 or 7 songs, maybe 8 songs acoustically and then last week we took them into a rehearsal studio and rehearsed them with amplification. We’re going to try to include some of those songs in our sets when we come over later this week….from our point of view, when you play the songs to an audience the performance will grow. Every time you play it in front of an audience, it will change…we’ve always thought that it’s best to play the songs live before you record them and very rarely have we actually ever done it; but in this instance we’re gonna do it.”
On the last Zombies record Breathe Out, Breathe In there was an emphasis on the live performance of the songs. By keeping the overdubbing to a minimum, the tracks were constructed in a way that would allow them to live on stage. With this new record the band will be allowing the songs to come into their own in the public before they are set down in the studio. “We wanted to make it sound more fresh and more exciting for us really—and hopefully for the listeners as well. So yeah, it [Breathe Out, Breathe In] was played more or less live and I think we’ll be doing even more of that on this album…I’m going to sing the vocals live whether we’ll use those vocals or not I don’t know. On my last solo album about two thirds of the album’s basic tracks were recorded live—including my vocals…I really enjoyed that. I think as a vocalist you preform differently if you are singing at the same time the band are recording…I like the idea of everyone playing together. If it’s possible, we’re certainly going to try that this time around.”
This emphasis of on the live performance and the unity of the sound is what has kept The Zombies and the members of the band in the public eye all this time. If you have an ear for music and you would like to know what the new Zombies record will sound like, I suggest you come out to the House of Blues tonight and finally welcome these incredibly talented folks to New Orleans.
Check out the new song “Moving On” as performed at the Stern Grove Arts Festival.
This week make sure to catch Truckstop Honeymoon when they swing back through town for two shows (18th at Siberia and the 19th at d.b.a.). Mike West and family left New Orleans after the storm but we are always happy to welcome back their particular style of rocking bluegrass. Check out the video below for an idea of their work. If you have not heard Mike West sing, I highly recommend it.
Also don’t forget the BUKU Music + Art Project this Friday and Saturday at Mardi Gras World. For full coverage and my recommendations see my column in the March issue of New Orleans Magazine.