“To this day have never seen a zombie movie” – Rod Argent of The Zombies (The Vulture Hound Interview)

The Zombies remain one of the UK’s most enduring rock-inflected outfits after five decades in the business. Through the bands ups and downs, from inactivity to heavy touring they have amassed generations of die-hard fans, curious converts or people who at the very least know their songs without realising it.

With founding members Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone reforming in recent years they’ve toured heavily in the US, played Glastonbury and SXSW, been sampled by Eminem on The Marshall Mathers LP 2, received a nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have recently released their new album Still Got That Hunger.

Having grown up as a big fan of their classics ‘She’s Not There’, ‘Time of the Season’ and the 1968 masterpiece Odessey and Oracle it was a pleasure to have some interview time recently with Rod Argent.

Your latest album Still Got That Hunger is out now. After all these years where does the passion still come from?

Really for me, and for Colin as well, what it’s all about is keeping yourself excited. I’ve always felt that it’s a privilege to be involved in music. I wake up in the morning and think “all my life I’ve been able to make a living out of something I would have otherwise paid to do”. That privilege is fantastic. What it is that makes it real and exciting is that you’re still able to create, whether it’s going on stage or improvising, finding the time to create something new or go off in a new direction, getting a new idea for a song or hearing something new that you’ve done on the radio for the first time and it sounding good.

It’s just a thrill and while we’re not at all looking down on the old stuff we’re really gratified that people are still excited about hearing our stuff now than they were back in the day. We’ve just been touring the states and people like Graham Nash and Al Jardine from The Beach Boys all sorts of people come along cause they love what we’re doing and they love all the old stuff. All that is fabulous and we don’t knock it at all but that doesn’t equate to the thrill of getting a new idea and working it round the piano for the first time with me and Colin and feeling it start to work. It’s so exciting and then taking it to the band and working on it and suddenly it starting to gel and it starting to work, then taking it to the studio and hearing it really coming together. That’s still the biggest thrill of all and that’s why we’re doing it. It’s great to do all the old stuff but in the context that of being able to feel there’s a creative path forward as well. I think that’s why still have the hunger because when Colin and I first got back together, completely by accident, 15 years ago and just very slowly started to do a few gigs we went to America and we just broke even for the first three tours we didn’t make any money.

But we were doing it because suddenly it felt like an opportunity to get out there, have fun and almost create a second career. As longs as we feel well enough to be able to do that I can’t tell you how energising that is. To get the audience and the energy back from the crowd and they do give it back and that’s what feels like a privilege and that’s why we do it.

How do the song ideas come to you? Is it a process you have to work on or is it more spontaneous?

It can come from anywhere. It can start with, you know I love to doodle on the piano I still do I can do it most days it’s a real pleasure, and suddenly you can find yourself playing a chord sequence that appeals to you or feels like something new. Again with what I’ve just been talking about that feels like a creative spark. That’s what energises you. It can come from that. It can come from over a long period of time when you’re just messing around with something and it starts to gel, then it changes direction a little bit. It can come very quickly.

There was one song on the album actually that I found myself in the car a few months ago and I was thinking how extraordinary it was when we first went to America. Christmas Day 1964 we opened at the Brooklyn Fox and we were really scared about playing in front of some of our heroes like Ben E. King & The Drifters and The Shirelles and Patti LaBelle, Chuck Jackson and we thought “they’re going to hate us”. Cause in our heads we just started out copying American music and there we were taking it back to America. We were 19 years old and we thought “they’re gonna think this is a pale imitation and why are they doing this to our music etc.” But it wasn’t like that at all. I think by the time it had gone through the English filter it had come out as something different and they responded to that. They took us to their hearts, Patti LaBelle in particular used to have long conversations with us and tell us about the new artists she had heard – Aretha Franklin, we got to check her out, and Nina Simone and she turned us on to all sorts of things. I found myself thinking about that in the car and something about it, suddenly… a whole verse and chorus of a song came to me. The melody, all the lyrics for the second verse which is “I walked into the Brooklyn Fox that snowy Christmas Day/And Patti and the Blue Bells simply stole my heart away/She took me to Aretha Franklin, showed me so much soul/And helped us join the party with our English rock and roll.” And that sums up how we felt. I remember the first time I played it to Chris White, the original bass player, he said “that’s exactly how it was”. So that came as quickly as that and I worked out the chords to the song when I got home. I had the whole melody in my head so that was very quick.

Another thing will just percolate, you have an idea you really like but it’s not quite right, you don’t strain at it and it starts to come into place over a period of time. There’s no real rule I have to say and there are times that you can get a song which is almost there and you can’t quite finish it, it drives you crazy and that last brick takes a long time to go into place. But it feels great when it does. It’s usually not an easy process in many ways but it can be.

STILL GOT

Overall it’s a very upbeat album but there is  poignancy to it. How much of this album is autobiographical?

Well I think in a sense it’s all autobiographical. Not in a literal sense. My view on songs, on writing songs and ones that really work is that you start with a personal idea or experience. If the song works you can make that real in any sense at all enough for it to communicate to people. You can transfer that mood or emotion into their own lives. You know, we are all one really, I know that we’re very different individuals but there is a common thread of humanity running through everything. If you can get something honest down I think very often you’ll find people will have something people can apply to their own lives. Quite often it’s a combination of things, for instance with ‘Moving On’ that had its genesis in the most ridiculous scenario.

In 1977 when Elvis died it absolutely shattered me and I though “what am I going to do now?”. That’s taken a complete anchor away from my life, I didn’t expect this to happen. I wrote a couplet for it “I’m moving on like a ship sailing, wind blown/August moon can you tell me where I’m bound”. That’s all I wrote that’s it, because was August at the time. Now all those years later, for some reason, the chords and the melody for that bit and the words stayed in my mind and I revisited it last year. It wasn’t about Elvis anymore but it was about people not letting something horrible define the rest of their lives. It became much more general in that sense. There were real things of experience that I remembered as I was writing it. Things I’d remembered from other people. Things that applied to me that came into the song. That’s how that song was written and developed. It started from that moment that Elvis died in ’77 and for some reason why now it became April moon instead of August moon, that aside that original couplet stayed as it was and the song developed into something different from there.

That’s amazing that you held on to that for so many years.

I know and I don’t know why! We did that on Jools Holland the other night and there it was all these years later.

There’s a lot of genres at work on the album was it a way of incorporating your influences or being more playful with incorporating different elements?

No none of that’s ever conscious as far as I’m concerned. It’s about being honest and just what comes out. Now the think is you go back to the very early Zombies stuff, you’ll find stuff on there that has no right to work together. In ‘Hung Up on a Dream’ there’s some Bach in the middle, not really Bach but something that sounds like it in the middle, in a rock n’ roll song. There’s a little bit of improvisation that was rhythm and bluesy which is basically what ‘Time of the Season’ was based on. You got a bit of jazz improvisation in the middle and two solos in the record. That record should never have been a single, we were told it wasn’t commercial at all. It’s ended up being one of the Top 40 Most Played English Records in America ever! These things that shouldn’t work, they’ve come from an honest source. It’s not the thinking of “oh I’ll put a bit of this in here, a bit of that there”. I never think like that. It’s just trying to get a musical idea to work and it naturally comes out. Right from the beginning I’ve always… I only liked classical music until I heard Elvis when I was young. Within six months I just wanted to devour the most raw rock n’roll I could find. That led me on to the blues and into jazz, Miles Davis but the whole time I never stopped listening to Bach and Stravinsky.

For me if something works it’s water from the same well. Even though the styles may be very different. That’s always been apart of The Zombies makeup really and it still is. It’s all very unconscious. On something like ‘Chasing the Bars’ it starts off with a very Bach-like piano with Colin singing softly as he used to in the old days then it really develops into something where he sings really high, cause he’s got his complete range still we all have. We go into some 4-part harmony, suddenly there’s a hammond solo which is very jazzy and all these things shouldn’t work together but I think they do.

ZOMBIES

Do you think that’s part of the reason songs like ‘Time of the Season’ are so timeless?

I think that is a very strong reason because what we never did was to try and copy whatever the fashionable record of the day was. In the short term that did us some harm sometimes because that wasn’t what the radio was expecting. It was something that turned out to be quite different. In the long term it hasn’t quite dated as much as some of our contemporaries, not all of them of course but it’s meant that all these years later… what we heard in America, we just visited the offices of Shazam and they couldn’t believe that how many times ‘Time of the Season’ had been Shazamed since 2012. It was over a million times and they said that that’s more than some number 1 hit albums in America. By it’s very nature people who Shazam it are people who haven’t grown up with The Zombies so it would be a component of young people doing it. So it’s still relating to people of this generation which I find really gratifying, it’s so nice to think that.

It’s a wonderful thing and, of course, Eminem sampled ‘Time of the Season’ on his last album.

Yeah. Indeed very heavily.

Do you think that’s brought a new audience to you?

Yeah. These things do I think. The was a record that wasn’t a big hit here but it was a hit in a lot of European countries and Canada by Melanie Fiona and she heavily sampled ‘Time of the Season’ on it. Very soulful sort of record and that’s still being played now so people sometimes just make the association, all these things – when it appears in an advert – all these things help.

Do you mind when the songs are used in that way? Do you take it as a compliment or are a you a little protective of them?

I take it as a huge compliment particularly if I think they work and I loved the Eminem version because it wasn’t just a copy. What he did was heavily take it but very cleverly, made it a real sound-alike instead of “Now it’s the time of the season for loving” it’s “There’s no rhyme or reason for nuthin’”. All sound-alike in terms of the sound and the rhythm but what he did was completely invert the sentiment, very clever I thought, I loved it.

I know you’ve covered this before but it would be great if you could tell us where the name of the band came from?

It was suggested by our very, very first bass player Paul Arnold who was with the band for about a year and a half when we were semi-pro. Like everybody else we were desperately searching for names and they were all awful. You always knew that half a dozen other bands would have that name, I think for a week we were The Sundowners. There was a band called  The Searchers, which was a John Wayne movie, I think The Sundowners was another Western movie, something like that for a week. I think we were The Mustangs for a week. It was just old fashioned and not, not good. Then he suggested The Zombies. I’m not sure where it came from. I loved it because I thought this was so off-the-wall and no one would have this. It has a slightly exotic feel to it and surreal feel. Colin hated it at the time. But I thought if we’re lucky enough to get any measure of success people will start linking the name with the people in the band. In those days, I know there was a Bela Lugosi movie in the 30s, but people didn’t really know what a zombie was. The first real zombie movie was in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead and I still to this day have never seen a zombie movie.

Oh the irony! Do you think these days because zombies are everywhere in pop culture that there are people who may come to your music expecting something, perhaps a bit darker and heavy?

I don’t know. If they come to us having not heard us then maybe but what can we do? We’re what we are and we’ve never had that criticism, not someone saying “oh that wasn’t what I was expecting at all”. That’s the first time I’ve been asked that question!

Just one more: you’ve had a cracking year with festival shows at Glastonbury, SXSW and touring in general. Who does it feel to play those big stages.

You know I was feeling really nervous of playing Glastonbury because I love festivals but I hate them in the sense that they feel so uncontrolled. I never feel nervous about playing anywhere if I feel that every things under control. If I know that the sounds going to be right and that I know when I’m on the stage that the monitoring will be right, so we’re in control of what we’re playing. Soemtimes at festivals that doesn’t happen and you don’t know what you’re listening to. You don’t feel on top of what you’re doing. The minute we started playing Glastonbury those fears dissolved because the crew was brilliant there. It really was like the festivals used to be in the so-called Summer of Love which despite the naivety of what was going on in those days there was a real feeling of rejection of violence, a rejection of war and a view that you could make a difference. There was that feeling round then and that was real and there was that sense at Glastonbury. For everything to run smoothly there, there were so many bands on and everything running on time and it was with a really good grace and temperament it was such a nice experience. The show went down great. First of all, because there was so many stages in the change over time the crowd clears and I thought “oh shit there’s not going to be anymore there when we go on stage, this is going to be embarrassing”. But there was a really good audience, several thousand when we went on stage, and that grew as we were playing. By the end of it it was really rammed and it went down fantastically well and it was just a lovely experience I loved it.

Still Got That Hunger is available now and The Zombies are currently touring the UK:

December 1st 2015      Brighton                                              The Haunt
December 2nd 2015     Cardiff                                                 The Globe
December 3rd 2015      Bristol                                                 The Fleece
December 4th 2015      Birmingham                                     Library, The Institute
December 5th 2015      Norwich                                              Norwich Open
December 7th 2015      Leeds                                                    Brudenell Social Club
December 8th 2015      Glasgow                                              Oran Mor
December 9th 2015      Manchester                                        Manchester Club Academy
December 10th 2015    Liverpool                                            Arts Club
December 12th 2015    Newcastle Upon Tyne                     Riverside

Cover photo taken by Svenja Block