Meet: Rod Argent of The Zombies interview

Its not often you get the chance to speak to a bona fide legend, a real one mind, not just someone to whom we bestowed that title to entice more people into reading it (actually, we don’t do that – but you know, if we did) So when we got the chance to have a chat with Rod Argent – mainstay, keyboard player and songwriter with similarly legendary band The Zombies (as well as his own later band Argent we shouldn’t forget) then we snapped it up.

He’s talking about a new Zombies release (check our review, its very good), Still Got That Hunger, which came out last month to warm praise and was funded through Pledgemusic. But hey, you don’t want to hear from us, let’s get to the man himself

Backseat Mafia: Hello Rod, how are you?
Rod Argent: I’m fine actually, still a bit jet-lagged. We’ve just come back from a tour in America, which was great but really intense. We’re back doing all sorts of promo, for a few days before we go off to Spain and France and then the UK, so it’s very intense but great to be doing it!

Have you always been such a live, touring band, or is this something of recent years?
This is the second incarnation really. I actually came off the road after the first incarnation of The Zombies, which split up in 1967. I had my second band Argent, which split up in 1975, and I’ve always remained in music, writing music for TV and films, producing albums for other people, playing on other people’s albums. I thought I wasn’t going to be playing live, and then got back together with Colin completely by accident, around the year 2000… and in a very slow way at that point, we started to do a few gigs together, and had such a ball that it gradually gathered momentum. This feels like a real second incarnation, we’ve brought up a real second phase of The Zombies with the current band, which I think is a fantastic band now, we just love playing live with it. The last few years we’ve been touring America two or three times a year, going all over the world actually, so it is very much a live band at the moment.

OK, I’ll ask about the new album. Is it fair to say that it’s quite auto-biographical?
In a way, the thing is, the songs, most of them come from a bit of personal experience at the start, but the song can then develop into something, which is more general. I always feel that if a song really works, you can start off by developing the song from something that you genuinely feel or something that’s happened to you that sparked something, because in a sense we all share the same hopes and dreams under the skin to some degree. I feel if something really works, it can communicate something to people who listen, and they bring their own experiences to the song and make it apply to themselves. That’s what I always like to feel happens; that it can make some sort of connection, and people feel some sort of sympathy with those feelings, that it can apply to something in their own lives. Most of the songs do start off lyrically from something that is personal, but even when you start writing the song yourself, it can develop into encapsulating lots of other things within the song at the same time I think. In that sense, I think everything on there started with something that was real to me, I wrote nine of the ten songs, and I know Colin’s song on there, ‘I’ll Never Get Over You’, was written from a personal experience as well, so I think there is an element of autobiography about it, yeah.

I was thinking specifically of songs like ‘New York’.
Oh, ‘New York’, absolutely, that is the one that absolutely is a thumbnail sketch of exactly how we felt when we stepped onto American soil for the first time, Christmas day 1964 at 8 o’ clock in the morning, six shows a day, on the Murray the K show, playing with people like Ben E King, The Drifters, Chuck Jackson, Patti Labelle, The Shirelles, that is an absolute encapsulation of how we felt then. When I played it to Chris White, the original bass player in The Zombies, he said “Oh God, I love that! That’s exactly how we felt.” (When we sat down), so yeah, that one is specific.

It really does come across, that that’s what it’s about – the wonder of it.
Yeah, absolutely, and also, this scary feeling about it, we were nineteen and we were taking over to America, what we were scared, that some of these heroes of ours, like the people I’ve mentioned, would think might be a pale imitation of American music. But in fact, they didn’t, they took us to their hearts, and Patti in particular, (we) had long conversations telling us about this new kid on the block, Aretha Franklin, you know, you’ve gotta check her out…and Nina Simone…and it was lovely. It was writing about the feeling of apprehension – “That’s why I came to love you New York.” We just weren’t sure at first because we didn’t know what was confronting us really! (laughs) So it was all those things together, but the wonder of being there and the whole experience, yes, that too.

Do you feel blessed to be a band, that experienced the 60s, and everything that entailed?
Yeah, I do, I think it was a very special time, a time that was set within the…certainly, the UK, coming out of the austerity of the war years, suddenly everything seemed possible, the first explosion of youth culture, a hugely positive time, when everything, because of The Beatles, everything artistic seemed to be centered on the UK, and everything seemed to be possible, certainly within music and the creative arts. It was a fantastic time to be in your late teens and starting to create things, and starting to be part of all that. The timing for us just really could not have been better. It was a fantastic time to be young I think.

So the music business, do you find it very different today?
Oh, it’s hugely different, in every sort of way. Things change, obviously, I’m not gonna just criticize everything, but… I think at the time we started making music, none of the people that governed the industry from a technical point of view, like the people in the record companies, they didn’t know what was going on, they had no idea what was good or bad in this music. So they left it up to us… and there was very little music on the radio and on television; that was the downside of it, that’s why the pirates started. The pirates started from people who loved the music and who were really tuned into it, so they were coming from something, which really served this growing music. The great thing for us, was that all the industry moguls, they couldn’t tell us what to do creatively, because they didn’t know what was right and what was wrong, so we had a blank sheet, and we could do what we were enthusiastic about, and what turned us on. And I think that was so much more healthy. Everything feels so tied down now, it’s like, you have a radio station that plays just this music, you have playlists that are absolutely prescriptive. They can’t move outside these particular playlists. At the time, everything seemed to be driven much more by enthusiasm, and by people getting excited about what was being created, and I think there was genuine creation around. Also because there was no technology, like being able to sample, and to loop things, the only way to make a song really work, a record work, was to get a structure of a song that was really really good, otherwise it just wouldn’t work. These days you can sample a drum and bass loop that sounds great, throw in a couple of licks, and sometimes you’ve got a record. I’m not saying all records are like that, but that can happen, and with our new album, we really wanted to try and go back in time, and we wanted to record in the way that we used to record, not layered at all but with everybody playing at the same time in the studio. With Colin doing a guide vocal at the same time, which in the end worked so well it turned out to be the master vocal. Even the solos we didn’t revisit, everything worked so well. In the way we used to do things in the old days, because there was no choice then, when you only had four tracks. But I think that raw structure is something, which was so necessary then, that sometimes it gets lost in songs now, and things become a little bit more formulaic now, than they were then. I think it was a time of great invention.

It does come across with the new album, that they are what you would call “songs”.
Yes, and we tried very much to make it again, all about the capturing of a performance. So we really prepared and rehearsed before we went into the studio, and we found a studio that had a great Steinway piano – which for me was important – and did everything very organically, as I say even the solos weren’t revisited, the live solos that we did on the day, even though we thought we were going to re-do everything. It was really like in the old days, we wanted to make it about really hitting the performance on the day and capturing it. And of course, the upside to that means that, at the end of the day you’ve got a complete track, and all you’ve got to do is put the harmonies and the overdubs on. So it has the advantage of completing the recording process much more quickly too.

I wanted to ask you about ‘Odessey and Oracle’. How do you feel about creating such an iconic album? Is it sometimes an albatross, or always a wonderful legacy?
I don’t think it’s ever an albatross, it’s always a wonderful legacy, but what I’ll say is that…the way I feel about that album – and Colin does as well, I know – it feels fantastic that all these years later, it’s actually selling more than it did when it first came out. Even in America, even where we had a number one record with ‘Time of the Season’. But it sells more even there now, than it did then. We’ve just come back from a six-week tour of America, and two things; the new album, to our absolute amazement, we had a phone call from Billboard saying, “Do you know that your album’s made the top 100 album sales chart, your new album?” and we thought “What?” “Do you realise that’s the first time in 50 years that you’ve charted in that way on Billboard?” (laughs). But at the same time, because we were featuring ‘Odessey and Oracle’ as well on the tour, the vinyl album of it had made the top thirty vinyl albums in America. So all these years later, it’s charting better than it did back in the sixties, and that feels great. The fact that it can still have some sort of relevance to a generation that is alive now, because it does, we always get a young component of people in our audiences, along with people of all ages of course. That feels absolutely great, and we’re really grateful for it. But at the same time, what excites us, and the reason that Colin and I are still doing this, is because we can get excited about being able to still have a creative path forward, in other words we can work on a new idea, on a new song, and get excited about it., and start doing it for the first time onstage and feel it getting a big reaction from the audience, and that is the most exciting thing you can imagine. And then to hear a track occasionally on the radio for the first time, and working, a new track, is a thrill that feels much greater than hearing ‘Time of the Season’ for the millionth time, which is wonderful but, the excitement of something new is always what energises you and keeps you feeling vital.

A technical question – when you play live do you use a big old beast, or something more modern and practical, like a Nord Stage for example?
I use something a bit more modern and practical. When we’re recording, I’ve got a B3 here, which is famous, at my house, and I have a wonderful Steinway piano at my house and I wouldn’t record with anything else. On stage, for me the joy of playing these days is that everything is so much more reliable, and easier to control in a live sound, sort of way. So I use a Hammond XK3, and I put it through a rotor-sphere pedal, which is a valve pedal that actually really widens the sound. Dave Greenslade who was with Colliseum actually gave me that tip. He said you’ve gotta use it through a rotor-sphere, and it was a great tip! They’ve stopped making those now, but that’s really worked. Even when I had the opportunity, when I did one of Ringo’s all-star tours with Edgar Winter and Sheila E, and Hamish from The Average White Band, I could’ve used a Leslie then, but I still preferred the control of the sound that I had with the XK3, so I use that and I use a sample keyboard onstage – a Kurzweil for the piano, but I try and keep it to that really. Basically piano and organ, and keep things simple, and stripped down and as organic, and performance orientated as possible.

A final question. Who came up with the name, The Zombies?
It was a guy called Paul Arnold, who was the only guy who ever voluntarily left our band (laughs), but for reasons that were other than financial. He was with us for the first year and a half, when we were semi-pro, and for a couple of weeks we were a series of awful names, like The Sundowners and The Mustangs, and then he came up with the name The Zombies, which I loved, because I thought it sounded surreal and exotic, and at the time there were none of these modern zombie movies around. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ came out in 1967, and there might have been something in the thirties, someone said to me recently, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ wasn’t the first zombie movie; it was Bela Lugosi in 1931. Well, I’ve never heard of that or seen it, but the first modern zombie movie was in ‘67, so no-one really knew what they were. Except I knew they were something to do with Haiti and voodoo and it just felt surreal and a bit odd, and I loved it for that reason, and I thought no-one else would have it. Colin hated it at the time, he’s got used to it (laughs). The first TV I remember doing was ‘Ready Steady Go!’(although Colin says we did a ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ before that, but it’s probably my memory) and wandering ‘round the corridors, and because I had a real love of jazz, I heard the music of Miles Davis playing from a dressing room, and I knocked on the door and went in.”Is that Miles playing on the record there?” He said yeah! It was Manfred Mann. He said “You’re Rod Argent aren’t you?” and I said yeah. He said “Oh man, I love your new record, ‘She’s Not There’, but you have to change that name!” (laughs) but we never did!

Finally, is there anything you’d like to pass on to the people who will be reading this article?
Only that I think we have a very vital band that’s still growing artistically, and we’re still doing it for what I think of as the right reasons. In other words, we’re doing it because we still get turned on doing it, by being able to make music and get up there and play it, and communicate with people. And if you haven’t seen us, do come and see us for those reasons.

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