Rod Argent/What's Your Name? Who's Your Daddy? (07/19/12)

July 19, 2012
Deborah Miller, Entertainment Columnist

What’s Your Name? Who’s Your Daddy?

 I fell for the British invasion hard. Like a rock. I couldn’t get enough and couldn’t spend my allowance fast enough on 45’s at The Record Bar on Henderson Street in Chapel Hill.  The Animals. The Yardbirds. Them. The Kinks. The Zombies. I first saw The Zombies in the cult classic film Bunny Lake is Missing (1965). Filmed in black and white AND in widescreen, it was gritty film noir at its most psychologically thrilling. There’s a scene in a London pub, all of about 1 minute long, where The Zombies are playing Just Out of Reach in the background.  I walked out of the Varsity Theater and went straight to The Record Bar.  Time of the Season and House of the Rising Sun were two of the first songs I loaded on my IPOD.  I still crank them up a little louder when they shuffle past and am instantly transported back in time.

Breathe In/Breathe Out, released in 2011, is just a beautiful collaboration musically and vocally. No, these are not the raw, spare Zombies songs of the 60’s that made dramatic use of today’s equivalent of “white space” … pauses full of meaning and longing followed by the almost religious chording from a Hammond B3. Instead it’s like a giant warm hug from an old friend. The musical talent is still superb; the vocals fluid and touching.  In an era where too many of my favorite singers on this side of sixty have started to deliver barely recognizable vocals, Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent still have it.  A Moment in Time and I Do Believe are my favorites …but then I have a weakness for soaring piano.  Each listen I hear something new and wonderful. 

Given the chance to interview one of the original members, keyboard player Rod Argent (also front man for Argent 1968-1976), made me giddy like a little school girl.  He was open, amusing, and charming, and it took little to send him off in various directions with a true story about this or that.  Whether it was the visit the band made to Graceland to find Elvis, working with Director Otto Preminger on Bunny Lake is Missing, or the 2008 live London performance of their classic Odessey & Oracle when it was performed in it’s entirety for the very first time.

Read my entire Q&A with The Zombies Rod Argent online at:  

Cat’s Cradle
Sunday, July 29, 2012

with special guests The Fellow Travellers
$32 in advance / $35 day of show
Doors: 7:00pm | Show: 8:00pm

Q&A with Rod Argent of The Zombies

By Deborah Miller 
Monday, July 9, 2012

DM:  Welcome, Rod Argent, all the way from England!

RA:  Thank you, Deborah, it’s a pleasure to be talking with you.

DM:  So, for you, it all began with Hound Dog?

RA:  I spent the first 10 years of my life listening to classical music. One day I heard Elvis sing Hound Dog and it just spun my whole world around.  I wanted to listen to the rawest rock and roll I could lay my hands on for months after that.

In 1956 when I first heard Elvis, it really felt like this was music from another universe.  It didn’t seem like a real person at all, it was some mythical creature from a mythical land just bringing this stuff down

On our first tour of America with the Zombies in 1965, we decided that we’d go and see Elvis. We didn’t plan anything, we just walked through the gate and up the drive; there was no security or anything.  Just walked up to the front door, knocked on the front door and Elvis’s father, Vernon, came to the door. We said “Hello, we’re The Zombies from England is Elvis in?”  He said “Well, he’s away filming at the moment, but he’s real sorry to have missed you ‘cause he loves you guys.”  And I thought “Well, he doesn’t know who we are, but that’s a nice bit of Southern hospitality.” 

I didn’t discover until the end of the 90’s when I was relaying that story to an Irish DJ and he said “I can’t believe you didn’t know this, man, but I’m an Elvis fanatic and Elvis, in fact, had at least two of your songs on his jukebox.”  I could NOT believe it .. there I was 9 years later from the moment that transformed my life. I was over there in the guys house and he had MY songs on his jukebox.  Unbelievable. [laughing].

DM:  Odessey & Oracle (1968) is one of my all-time favorite albums.  What was your reaction when the cover art was spelled incorrectly?

RA:  I’ll tell you the real story of that. Three of us of shared a flat. One was Chris White, the Zombies bass player, one was me, and the third guy was an art teacher. We loved his style of art so we asked him to mock-up a cover for the album. He showed us the original draft of his idea which were those sort of fairly psychedelic scrawly, swirly sort of designs from the 60’s. We just looked at it, loved it, said “yeah, that’s great, finish it” and then we went away on tour. He presented the final version to the record company, who also loved it, and we didn’t see it again until it was printed up. When we looked at it, I said to Chris “Oh my God, he’s spelled Odessey wrong. What are we going to do?”  Then I said “I tell you what, we’ll tell everybody, even the other guys in the band, that it’s intentional and it’s a play on the word ode.”  [laughing]

We just didn’t notice it until it was too late. It was an album that was really done on a tight budget … I think we were given something like 1,000 pounds to make that album.

After Colin and I got back together, I was telling this story one day and he couldn’t believe I’d never even told him that story.

DM:  Do you still have that original artwork?

RA:  Terry, the guy who designed it, does.  I’ve got a print of the original artwork signed by all the guys in the band.

DM:  Who does the ahhhh/sigh breath during the lead in riff of Time of the Season … did you realize at the time that girls everywhere were going to find that the sexiest thing ever?

RA:  I wish I’d know that at the time [laughter].  We went in and recorded that track in three hours. It was a pretty new song. The rhythm track took something like an hour and half and then we put the lead vocals on. Then I quickly had the idea … and I was just thinking of percussion, really … to add the percussive clap and the sigh either side of the snare beat. Just on the spur of the moment.

DM:  You do know that song defined the summer of love?

RA:  It did capture something of that.  We were knocked out when the film Awakenings came out. I think it was Randy Newman that chose the music for that film. He had to choose a track for a scene that took place in the summer of 1969.  Time of the Season typified that summer.

DM:   Is Bunny Lake Still Missing?  (1965, directed by Otto Preminger)

RA: [laughing] I don’t think so.  That was a good film actually. Otto Preminger directed that film.  Laurence Olivier and Keir Dullea were in it and we were given equal billing, even though we only had about 45 seconds on the screen. That always made us chuckle.

DM:  How did the band’s appearance playing Just Out of Reach in the movie come about? 

RA:  That’s a great story. Otto wanted a band to play in the movie and he auditioned several people.  We went to this small club in London and it was just us in the club and Otto. He was sitting on a chair with the chair backwards, his legs astride the back of the chair, and we happened to play Summertime. I didn’t know that Gershwin was one of his heroes and he loved our version, so he said “well, you’re the band for the film.”  He was obviously a genius of a director, but he was very autocratic and very dictatorial and I know that people were very scared of him.  But, of course, we didn’t care. I just got one memory of that … when they filmed that bit when you see my face on the screen, Otto, who was very rude to everybody, I mean incredibly rude, said something to me.  I can’t remember what he said, but it was sort of brusque and rude. I stood up and said “Don’t ever talk to me like that again.” There was complete silence on the film set. He looked at me and then he just laughed. Just about killed him self laughing. After that he was very polite. He was so used to everybody being scared stiff … because their careers depended on him … ours didn’t.  We were just there for the day. If he’d told us to go, we’d have been very happy to just go home.

DM:  So the song Just Out of Reach had already been written?

RA:  At the time, Colin had almost written nothing, in fact, that might have been the first song he ever wrote. Otto asked us to write something for the film and I didn’t have anything at the time and, in retrospect, I wish I’d thought more about it and tried to write something.

DM:  How did it feel performing Odessy & Oracle in its entirely in 2008 in London with original band members Chris White and Hugh Grundy? 

RA:  It was fantastic. Colin and I got back together in the year 2000 and that was a complete accident.  I was playing a charity show, Colin was in the audience, and he got up and sang She’s Not There and Time of the Season on the spur of the moment.  We had such a ball playing together again that he said “why don’t we do half a dozen gigs together, just for fun?” and we did that. It was that that’s turned into twelve years of touring. Right at that time we put together a band of musicians. We started off to play almost no Zombies songs at all, but we gradually started to rediscover some of the old Zombies catalogue and to our amazement we had a ball doing that as well. In the past we’d said we don’t want to look back, we don’t want to just rake over embers, that’s not what any of us are about. But when we started to play those old songs, we started to play some that we’d never played the first time around, which got lovely, and secondly we discovered we were really enjoying it so we started to play more and more of them.

Chris White, The Zombies original bass player, who hadn’t played bass for years used to come along to our gigs.  One night Chris said “do you realize it’s almost 40 years since we recorded Odessey & Oracle? We really ought to market that. We’ve never played it … because we broke up right after it was recorded.” 

He said “why don’t we do it?”  I said “I dunno, I mean, you haven’t played bass for 40 years, Chris, are we going to be able to do this?”  He said “come on, we should do it.” 

Also, we had never played it in its entirety because two or three of the songs on there really need the extra keyboard parts that I overdubbed to make them work. Half the album you can play fine without those extra overdubs, but just a few songs like Hung Up On a Dream, Brief Candles, and Maybe After He’s Gone … they really need every part that’s on the original record to work. 

So we booked one night at Shepherds Bush in London. It sold out, and in the end we did three nights.  First of all, we couldn’t believe who booked tickets. Paul Weller had tickets for all three nights. Robert Plant came along, and Snow Patrol. All sorts of people.  Just before we went on stage, we looked at each other and said “oh, my God, this could be a complete disaster. What will it be like if we get halfway through the first song and it’s really not working? It’s going to be a nightmare. All those people out there.”

DM:  Well, you had rehearsed, right?

RA:  We’d rehearsed [laughing], but we only had two production rehearsals, a couple of rehearsals acoustically around somebody’s house, and a couple of productions with everything prior to the gig.  But, I got Darian Sahanaja from Brian Wilson’s band to come over to play the second keyboard and the mellotron parts because I knew he knew every note of Odessey & Oracle better than I did actually. And I knew he was a good singer and could supplement some of the overdub harmonies. Chris White’s wife, who is a great singer, also supplemented the harmonies. The touring band was also on stage, so we replicated every single part that was on the original album. Even down to Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914) which was recorded on an 1890’s Victorian pump pedal organ, which nobody had. So I went out and bought one of those just for those shows. But when I started playing it, I suddenly remembered that they were tuned differently, so I had to play a semi-tone lower to be in key with the original key of the album track. 

After the live DVD and album of the show came out, I opened the national newspaper one day and read that Rick Wakeman had been asked to choose his eight favorite cd’s of all time.  We were completely knocked out that he chose the live album of Odessey & Oracle saying it was even better than the original.

DM:  Yours and Colin’s vocals feel like you’ve been singing together forever … how long did it take for you both to fall back into that natural groove?

RA:  It was totally immediate yeah. And we have, in a way, been singing together our entire lives. We’ve made three studio albums, the first one we dredged up four or five tracks that were sort of half-written and half-recorded and finished that off.  The second album was very deliberately based around strings, because we wanted a collection of songs with strings. 

DM:  Breathe In/Breathe Out is just a beautiful collaboration musically and vocally!  A Moment in Time and I Do Believe are my favorites … I have a weakness for soaring piano anyway.  It’s been in A rotation in my car since I got it and each listen I hear something new and wonderful. 

RA:  I’m so glad you like it.  Breathe Out/Breathe In is really the first real group album since we’ve been back together as a band. We went into the studio with several things to do.  One was to replicate the energy and enjoyment we have on stage. Two was to record all the tracks together the way we used to do in the 60’s doing as much as possible with everybody playing together with very few overdubs. Third, then we’ll explore harmonies in the way we used to. We didn’t try to consciously copy anything from the old days, but we just used those central ways of doing things.  So basically, the keyboards I used were purely Hammond, electric piano and piano, and that was it. 

DM:  I really like that you didn’t reform the band just to make a quick buck. 

RA:  When Colin and I first started touring again we were financing everything so we could go on the road to play.  Touring capitalization is enormous.  Most people my age are retiring, and it’s a privilege to go out and earn a decent living doing this.

DM:  What’s one of your all-time favorite albums and you can’t pick a Zombies or Argent album?   

RA:  Oh my goodness. [laughing hard]  All these hard questions.  Trouble is, I like so many types of music. If I just put my IPOD on shuffle, you might get something like a Bach organ fugue, Elvis, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett …

DM:  Mine might be Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse, Trampled by Turtles.

RA:  Let me tell you … Nina Simone … I had almost every album she ever made. Back in 1964, we were on the Murray The K Christmas Show with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles.  Patti and I became very good friends. She turned us on to two people. She said you HAVE to listen to Nina Simone, who I’d never heard of at the time, and Aretha Franklin.  Now Aretha at the time, it was before her Atlantic period and she hadn’t done any soul stuff, she was a cabaret singer.

DM:  If you could put together your dream fantasy jam, who would you play with or have you already done that? 

RA:  When I did a solo album after Argent was finished in 1975, the guy who played with me on the album was Phil Collins. Phil then introduced me to Alfonso Johnston, bass player with Weather Report. I had booked three live shows and Phil Collins and Alfonso Johnston were going to play with me, but Phil had to cancel at the last minute when he had to fly to Canada to try to save his marriage.  So he paid for Chester Thompson, drummer with Genesis & Weather Report, to come over and take his place. That came out of something that was totally unexpected. The two of them came over and played and it was just fantastic. Best rhythm section I ever played with. I was so scared of that first rehearsal because I loved Weather Report. I never found a rhythm section that was more easy or sympathetic to play with.  Everything just flowed.

DM:  Do you go out and see live music at all? 

RA:  Not as much as I should. I go and see the occasional classical concert or the odd bit of Jazz.  Sometimes a rock concert, but I’m terrible. I guess that’s one thing about getting older. You just don’t go out. Whenever I do, I always say I ought to do this more because I always gain something from it. 

DM:  Any last words?

RA:  If anyone’s thinking of coming to see us, do come along. I’m not just saying this, but I think the band we’ve got is fantastic and we’ve got more energy on stage than we did when we were 18 years old. It’s not a band that’s put together to cash in on a bit of nostalgia, it’s a band that really cares what it’s doing, is totally energized, and everyone’s playing their socks off. You need to come along and see it.  I’m so knocked out that you like the album, please go ahead and keep playing it for anyone you can.

DM:  Thank you, Rod Argent!

RA:  Great pleasure, Deborah, see you in Chapel Hill!