An interview with The Zombies’ Rod Argent
The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle album was recently dubbed the 100th greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone, and the band continue to write music to this day, 50 years into their career. Jack Rayner caught up with the band’s founder, pianist and singer Rod Argent to talk success, new material and Cornbury Music Festival.
You’re playing at Cornbury this year – when performing, do you prefer to play your older back catalogue or is it more fun to play newer material?
I love playing all of the old stuff, I really do, but only within the context of feeling that we can have a creative path forward, so we always do new stuff too. One thing that knocked us out so much was, when we were on the last tour of America, we had a new album out in the middle of the tour. Billboard phoned us up and told us that we had made the Top 100 Albums chart for the first time in 50 years! That was very important and that’s certainly where I get a lot of my creative energy from: the idea of getting a great reaction to new stuff. Within that context, I’m really happy to do all of the old stuff and enjoy playing it.
Seeing as you’ve had so much success in the past, do you feel like there’s less pressure when you’re writing new material? Does it give you more scope to be creative?
I think in some ways, that’s true. When we started, all those years ago, singles were the main thing, and at that moment in time you were only as good as your last single. We used to have a single out every 12 weeks, and that was a huge pressure. For many reasons, the UK was our least commercially successful market at that time, and we only ever had one hit single in the UK as The Zombies. You were sort of defined by that then, whereas nowadays, because there is a legacy, it’s almost like having a cushion there which allows us to be freer. If we don’t put a single out and get a hit, it’s not the end of the world.
On the subject of modern music, are there any recent artists that you enjoy in particular?
I’m terrible, actually. I’m 70 years old now, and I still passionately love music, but when you’re 18 you naturally have a grapevine where you hear everything that’s new without really trying. When you’re much later on in your life, those things don’t happen so naturally. I do hear things from time to time – I remember when I heard the breakthrough Kings Of Leon album, I loved that.
I think one of the reasons for that was that I used to enjoy bands with a connection with rhythm ‘n’ blues or jazz, and I miss that connection with a lot of bands nowadays. When I first heard that Kings Of Leon record it sounded almost like a modern version of Steve Winwood, and I loved it. To some degree, I will gravitate towards stuff I’ve always liked, and I think maybe that’s something that comes with age.
I don’t think that’s even limited to music –when you reach a certain age you become comfortable with your choices in fashion and culture in general.
I think that’s true, and we’ve never tried to be something we’re not. Even in the old days, we never set out to be “fashionable” – if we were constructing a piece of music we never thought “I better get to the hook in 30 seconds” or anything like that. We always tried to make our music work in an honest way, and that’s how we approach everything nowadays. I don’t know any other way of doing it.
Could you see your influence in any of the artists that broke through after The Zombies reached success?
Well a lot of people have been kind enough to say that they were influenced by us. I always find it very difficult to hear those sorts of things, because to me we just sound like ‘us’. I remember listening to Odessey and Oracle for the first time in many years, and I couldn’t hear it in any way other than just us lot together, playing some tunes! I find that when people say that they have been influenced by our sound, to my ears I can’t hear anything that resembles our sound, but obviously people do find these things and are influenced by them, and that’s fantastic.
How did it feel when you first signed to Decca back in the 60s? It must have been a huge moment for you personally.
I’ll answer that in two ways. Firstly, you can only really have the naivety and arrogance of youth once, because you have no knowledge of any of the pitfalls and you just think “Yeah, I can write a song that’s as good as The Beatles, and it’s going to be a hit all around the world” because that’s the blueprint in your mind and you just think that’s how it’s going to work.
I was incredibly excited, but I sort of took it in my stride because you think that’s just what’s supposed to happen. Very quickly, you learn that you’re very lucky to have the write engineers, that the recording process goes well, and so on, and it’s so hard to get all those factors in place at any one time.
How old were you when the first album came out?
19. I wrote 'She’s Not There' when I was 18, and I was 19 by the time it came out.
That has to be an exhilarating experience for a kid of that age.
Oh, it’s like heaven. It’s a dream. I was so passionately involved in the music...there’s a John Lennon quote that really resonated with me: “When I was growing up, music was the real world to me”, and what other people thought of as the real world was just peripheral to my existence. That really was how I felt back in those days.
You were either the first or the second generation to actually have pop music in that way.
Yes, totally. In the real form. I always think of it – particularly my first exposure to pop music with tracks like Hound Dog – as hearing black music by proxy.
It had a huge impact, not just on me, but on almost every one of my contemporaries as well. And then, to be 19 years old 8 years later, to have a song that I’d written at number 1 in the charts – particularly in America which felt like this alien universe, was just unbelievable. Then later, to find out that Elvis had our songs on his jukebox, was like the best dream you could possibly have.
Do you have any new material on the way?
I feel like we’ve only just completed Still Got That Hunger, and that came out a few months ago now. We’re very proud of that album particularly, as I mentioned earlier, that it’s entered the major charts in America again.
Does it feel like you’ve now come full circle?
Well, I got together with Colin Blunstone again completely by accident when I did a charity show for John Dankworth, who sadly passed away. Colin got up and sang a couple of songs with me, and we decided to do half a dozen gigs just for fun. In a very slow way, that led to us bringing it back on a proper level. We’ve now built something which is really quite strong again out in America, and that feels almost like a greater achievement than the first time round.
What can we expect from your set at Cornbury this year?
We try and make a mix of things that you’d expect to hear like ‘Time of the Season’ and ‘She’s Not There’, and depending on how much time we have there, 4 or 5 songs from Odessey and Oracle, which recently made the Top 100 Album of All Time in Rolling Stone. We’ll also play a couple of real obscurities, because one of the things we’ve really enjoyed whilst preparing for live shows is looking back and finding tracks that we never played live the first time round. Then, we’ll do a few from the new album as well, which I have to say, go down just as well as everything else. That’s hugely gratifying.
Related Articles: Old-school cool: Rewind Festival