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Interview: ROD ARGENT

Rock Stars...  

The Zombies feat. Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent

When 'She's Not There' the second song Rod Argent ever wrote at the tender age of 18 became one of the most successful singles in rock history, he could have been forgiven for thinking success comes very easily.

But Rod Argent keyboard player, singer, songwriter, producer and core member of The Zombies and Argent has never been let the grass grow under his feet.

His stellar career has included hit singles, chart albums, high profile production credits and successful TV themes. And now after spending a decade back on the road with his long time compatriot Colin Blunstone, suddenly it's the 50th anniversary of the Zombies.

Pete Feenstra talks to Rod Argent a passionate interviewee whose enthusiasm for music remains undiminished after 5 decades at the musical coalface

Did you feel under any pressure to write new material that was linked to the original Zombies style?

It was a mix really. When we started I always had a certain criteria in my head that the songs would be concise. It was similar to recording 'Odyssey & Oracle' in that we set about exploring the harmonies first, especially as we have four singers in the band. I mean I do a lot of the harmonies on the record but I wanted to make a very organic album, one that represented what we do on stage as a band.

So the harmonies were the natural starting point just like they used to be. This is also a great band and we've been touring a lot so it felt natural to try and reproduce what we do now.

For example, I envisaged the opening track 'Breathing Out, Breathing In' as a three part harmony song although Colin obviously sings the first verse.

But I always wanted the album to be organic with not too many overdubs and the aim was to try and capture the same experience and feeling that we have on stage in a small group context.

Obviously there were some overdubs on the album etc, but we went into this recording as a band, in the same way we did in the old days. So we also set out to re experience the enjoyment of making and playing on a record.

Another technique I use - in fact the first time I've done it for many years - was that on many of the songs I would often write the instrumental parts as an integral part of the track - much in the same way as the bass part of 'She's Not There' for example - and so it becomes part of the song.

Similarly the stuttering drum part was a bit like Ringo's work on 'Ticket to Ride' and in that respect it was like a return to the Zombies.

I wrote 9 songs on this album and Colin wrote 'Any Other Way'. I demo'd the piano and voice parts and then I wanted to put the bass part on and would get Jim in to do that and once you've got the music written as part of the song, you've got got 90% of the whole thing.

Rod Argent

Was there a lot of pre-production before you started recording?

The original idea we had was to try and play the whole of the songs on the album on stage before we started the recording process, so basically we could 'play them in'.

Very often you start with a song and after you've been playing it for some time it takes on a different direction. So by the time you come to record it it's grown into something else. So we tried to do that but in the end we didn't get the chance to rehearse them all, but we have played 'I Do Believe' and 'Any Other Way' on stage in advance of recording the songs. Much of the pre production was working on the harmonies in the songs in advance and then working in the changes into the original concept.

So 'Breathe Out - Breathe In' was essentially an easy album to make?

For some reason this wasn't a difficult CD at all. There was a huge amount of work to do but it all felt very fluid. We brought in Jim for some parts and I worked with Steve on the drum parts and then we worked on the vocals separately and had a track down in about 3 hours, mostly with solos too.

There was a lot of energy and eagerness in the making of this record, but you've still got to make the record work. So we did the vocals and harmonies separately and made the basic track, and then I'd mock up the harmony parts and it all started coming together.

The Zombies feat. Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent

Do you think recording this album was easier simply because you are more experienced than the old days?

I think it's more to do with the fact we approached this album as a band project and we recorded as much as possible with us all playing together. Back in the old days we had to record everything in about three hours as there was no money for studio time or production.

It wasn't until 'Odyssey & Oracle' that we were first introduced to multi tracking etc. So initially on this album we just laid it all down and like in the old days it was a case of getting it down quite quickly.

How long have the songs for 'Breathe Out-Breathe On' been around?

Well some of the songs actually came at the end of the session. One example of that would be one of my favorite tracks on the album, 'A Moment in Time'. And the basic idea for that came from our guitarist Tom (Toomey).

He was sheltering from the rain backstage at a festival in Bordeaux and played a particular lick that I thought would be great idea for a song. I then worked on the chorus and then the song as a whole.

On the other hand 'Breathe Out, - Breathe In' the title track was something that I had kicking around my head for ages but I hadn't quite crystallized it yet. So I guess altogether the cd took about a year to make, though only a few days of actual recording time in the studio.

The Zombies feat. Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent

And Colin has written a gem in 'Any Other Way' hasn't he?

I was so pleased that Colin came up with 'Any Other Way'. He was just singing a melody which had no lyrics at the time and he sang a bit of a chorus. And I loved it immediately and said, 'we should do that'.

In fact he didn't think it would be right for The Zombies, but we worked on it. It's a bit more of a straight forward version on stage and was a little more pedestrian in the studio, so we put that Latin feel in there and the acoustic guitar part.

You also sing an impressive lead vocal on 'Show Me The Way'?

Well it was the result of the same approach to most of the album in that it was written very quickly. I originally suggested to Colin that he sing it, but then I said to him that I'd always had one song on every Zombies album and I ended up doing it.

There seems to a definite Beatles vibe to both 'Play It For Real' with its 'Hey Bulldog' intro and 'Shine on Sunshine' which reminds me of 'The Long & Winding Road'. Is that fair comment?

Well you're not the only person to mention 'Bulldog' in particular. In my head I'd wanted a strong keyboard riff for the intro and then for the guitar to take up.

And I've obviously heard 'Hey Bulldog' before, but I was solely concentrating on the opening riff. Someone called it an affectionate nod to the Beatles and in a way it is, though it wasn't conceived as that, but simply the opening riff of a song that goes elsewhere.

'Shine on Sunshine' came from my Argent days ('Circus') It was a 70% re write as I didn't think the song was fully realized with Argent, so I redid the chorus, added a new bridge and some new lyrics and basically built a new song.

And you also rejigged the Argent song 'Christmas for the Free' from 'In Deep'?

That was because I always wanted to hear Colin sing that song. He also really liked it so I thought this could be our only real re-visit. It's funny as it was originally an Argent Xmas single that our record company released in January!

There's an obvious Gospel feel to 'I Do Believe'. Where did that come from?

Well it seemed a kind of natural song to do for me as we wanted to utilise the three part harmonies in the band. But the original part of the chord sequence came to me when I worked with Edgar Winter on Ringo's 2006 American tour.

We were all asked to contribute a couple of songs and then we had to sing everyone else's song , so Sheila E, Billy Squire, Hamish Stuart, Richard Marx and me got round to playing a great song of Edgar's called 'Livin' To Die' (ed note; from 'Edgar Winter's White Trash').

I hadn't heard the song before, though Colin knew it. Anyway Edgar played this song and asked me to put a bit of a string part on it. So I sussed the chords and loved the chord changes and basically played around with that sequence. And that led to 'I Do Believe' one of the songs that we subsequently 'played in' before we recorded it.

The Zombies feat. Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent

You shied away from using The Zombies name in the past. 'Out Of The Shadows' was attributed just to the two of you while 'As Far As I Can See' mentioned both of you in bold and then The Zombies, while 'Breathe Out-Breathe In' is finally The Zombies featuring CB and RA. Why was that?

Well I was the one who always wanted to run away from reforming anything. When we initially broke up and suddenly had a hit in America all the promoters over there wanted us to reform immediately.

I didn't really want to do that at the time, not just because of the morality of it but more because I didn't ever want to do it for the wrong reasons of just making a buck. It was also a question of feeling it had to be the right moment and wasn't a question of just raking over the old embers. So we left it at that.

Then in 2000 I was playing a charity concert at Johnny Dankworth's place and in the final set I asked Colin if he wanted to come up and sing 'She's Not There' and 'Time of the Season'. It felt great and afterwards Colin told me he had 6 dates booked and asked me if I wanted to play on them. It was a fun thing to do and we billed it as Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent. But of course in the States they had always billed us as The Zombies.

I kicked against that, as for one thing I didn't just want to play our old catalogue of songs. But once the new material was being explored it felt fine to revisit some older stuff and we gradually started to introduce some older material into the set.

The Zombies feat. Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent

And then as time went on and we reached the 40th anniversary of 'Odyssey & Oracle', Chris White said to me, 'can't we get together and play the whole thing live'? And I thought yeah, we'd never played it live before and it seemed like the natural thing to do. And while that was happening I got more into the catalogue and really felt part of it.

But I was still worried about Chris (White) and Hugh (Grundy) who were the original members. But then the tour band we had was already 5 years old and was getting better all the time and we had a new energy in this band.

And I also thought about the fact that at the very outset of The Zombies I had asked Jim to play bass, but he didn't commit as he was in a high profile band in St Albans at the time. So there were all these things to think about in relation to The Zombies.

For me one of the most exciting things about 'Breathe Out - Breathe In' is that it carries The Zombies heritage into the contemporary era and updates the band's style. Do you feel that is the case?

Well most of the reviews so far have been very positive especially in Q, GRTR! and Record Collector. But the truth is that we were never really trying to emulate anything from the past although the same ingredients were obviously in place.

But there was certainly the same excitement as when we first recorded 'She's Not There' and it was exactly the same process in terms of me just turning to the others and asking, 'what do you think about this'? And hopefully that comes through in the music.

As the two mainstays of the band, do you and Colin share the same views on the direction of the music and the songs?

Well I think we share a lot of the same general views. I mean we don't necessarily always agree on everything but I would say we are very close when it comes to the importance of harmonies for example, though sometimes we might differ on a verse.

I'd say we are much more different when it comes to our listening tastes. I'm fairly catholic about what I listen to. I still like a lot of the jazz I heard in my youth - Miles Davis, Coltrane in the late 50's and I still love Ray Charles in particular and early Elvis and rock & roll, while I think Colin is more into singer song writers, like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Brown etc.

Do you specifically write songs for Colin's voice?

Yes very much so. I totally write for his voice, but it's a much of an intuitive thing rather than something I think I ought to do.

I'd start with a choice of key that I think might suit him and fashion a melody and when that works go for the vocal. Colin tends to craft songs in his way almost as a parallel part. But eventually the feeling of his voice takes over the song.

Do you find you have to write in a different way for The Zombies than for example in Argent or any of your other projects?

Well writing for The Zombies pretty well takes up all my time and energy now. In fact I made the decision to walk away from production at the end of the 90's when it became apparent I would be working with Colin again. It was great fun to work with Argent again but I can't think of that as being a creative thing again at present. The Zombies is my creative source at present.

Considering the origins of the songs, the new CD does have a lovely flow to it that suggests you must have thought about the sequencing?

Well I do think that structure and pacing is terribly important to an album. But in this case it all seemed quite obvious at the time. And the whole thing really took shape as we were recording it. I ended up listening to the tracks in a certain order to see how they worked. It's a bit like a set list really, it all falls into shape.

Finally how many of the songs on the album are you likely to play live?

Six I think, certainly 'Breathe Out - Breathe In and 'Any Other Way' and 'I Do Believe' which we've already been playing. Then there's 'Show Me The Way', 'A Moment in Time' and 'Play It For Real'.


Breathe Out, Breathe In is released on May 9 (Red House Records via Absolute)

A free download of album track 'A Moment In Time' is available at

Interview © April 2011 Pete Feenstra

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