April 15 2016
It is an great honor to get to chat with such a distinguished musician that has been creating and producing lasting music for well over 50 years. He and Colin Blunstone are defying time with their incredibly active run in the Zombies along with a fine band including former Argent/Kinks bassist Jim Rodford (Rod’s cousin), Jim’s son Steve, and Tom Toomey on guitar. They have played with their original Zombies band mates for special shows as well. They sound like they have not aged a day with all the great vocal harmonies on top of their stellar pop, rock, popsike, and even progressive songs.
Robert E Parilla Performing Arts Center on Saturday, May 14th. They do a fabulous job and remind you how great their music is from all the decades they have worked in. Long time readers know that has been reported here numerous times.
Thanks to Melani Rogers for setting this up.
DAVID HINTZ - (After the usual introductions) I hope you will indulge me with questions on the early days. I know you have answered them forever, but I think it will be good background for everyone, if that’s ok.
ROD ARGENT - Sure.
DH - OK. I have read you were in choirs as a child, but how did the piano and keyboards come into play for you?
RA - Well, we always had a piano in the house because my Dad was with a dance band from the age of 17 to the age of 83 and he was a pianist. But he rarely played in the house actually, but he loved playing. The only time he played in the house was when people came round. My Mother really loved classical music, but it was more the Romantic lighter side of classical music and that mainly was what I heard until she got me involved in a very very good choir, actually. I have to say it was a brilliant musical education.
DH - OK.
RA - And you know, the music around was fantastic. That was my introduction to Bach and other classical music as well. But I definitely wanted to play the piano. And strangely enough I only had piano lessons for two years from the age of about 9 to the age of about 11 and I actually played the piano less at that time than any other time. But, it gave me a knowledge of where the notes were and I sort of taught myself after that really. I really got turned on to popular music for the first time when I heard Elvis sing ‘Hound Dog’. I am not alone in that.
DH - (laughs) No, your’e not.
RA - I just really wanted to hear rock’n’roll for about six months after that to my parents horror at that particular time. All this time I had already started experimenting with playing by ear and working out chords and things by myself because it actually just completely intrigues me. I actually loved sport and I used to go out and play football for my priory school, and when I say football it is what you call soccer over there, when I was eleven years old. But I used to get caught up with the piano on long summer-six weeks holiday. My Mother used to get worried and say “shouldn’t you be outside playing” because we always went outside as there were much fewer cars in those days. So we used to play cricket and football with the kids around right in the road, which you couldn’t do now. But I would just get pulled to stay and mess around for about four hours on the piano, just plunking around and being fascinated by working out harmonies for myself and chords and everything like that. So, as I said I was self taught aside from a couple of years of lessons, but I never took an exam or anything.
DH - Umm hmmm.
RA - But I was at one with John Lennon. Years later hearing John Lennon say to me when I was growing up “Music felt like the real world” and what other people’s real world was the environs really. And that was very much how I felt at that age. But your question about the piano, really was that, the piano was there and I was endlessly fascinated working out things on it.
DH - Great, and you lead into where rock’n’roll came in because you were right there at the beginning of the Beatles era. And it’s kind of well known that the Beatles and the Beach Boys had kind of a competition to top each other’s production qualities from album to album as the technology improved. Now I think your (Zombies) singles sound great and have a lot of complexity, too. So were you listening to these other bands and following their studio advances?
RA - Oh yeah, we certainly listened to the other bands and the Beatles hit in the UK a couple of years before they hit in America. It was ’62. We started in ’61 and the Beatles came on to the scene in ’62 and we, like everybody else, were completely blown away. I think by far they were the biggest influence on popular music for any band in the UK at that time, including and particularly the Stones. It used to make me smile, I thought the Stones were great, but the Beatles would maybe come out with a single that had maybe a picked guitar like ‘I Feel Fine’ or something—I can’t remember exactly, but then the Stones would come with ‘The Last Time’ or something, if it had a picked guitar, I just used to be very aware of it. The Beatles just had a huge influence… I’m rambling here.
DH - That is quite alright.
RA - But back to your question… our early singles were produced by a guy called Ken Jones right up to ‘Odessey and Oracle’ actually, so most of our life. Now he was an old school producer—he was a generation older than us. We thought he did a fantastic job on our very first session where we recorded ‘She’s Not There’, ‘You Make Me Feel Good’ which was the B side written by Chris (White). A song called ‘It’s Aright With Me’ which was virtually the first song I ever wrote. ‘She’s Not There’ was the second one, although there was one very Beatles like cut that I completely forgot about that turned out was actually recorded at Olympic Studios unbelievably and it is quite charming, but very derivative of very early Beatles. Oh, and ‘Summertime’ was on the first session.
DH - Oh Right.
RA - But after this session, it used to frustrate us incredibly that after that every session instead of just taking the music as it was and making the best of it, which is certainly what we did on the first session, he was always thinking what was the sound of the first record. Well, in his eyes it was Colin’s breathy vocals. Well, Colin’s vocals did have a breathy quality to them, but it was a lot more than that. It was everything involved in the recording and by concentrating on that, we sometimes used to be frustrated that sometimes the balls had been taken out of the way the records were sounding—those early four-track productions. So we were not in charge in any way of the production facilities of the singles. As I say, we thought they were great from the first session, but after that we had our reservations. And when Chris and I felt that as if the band might be splitting up in the not to distant future. We were desperate to do an album ourselves to where we could put our own ideas into play. To give Ken Jones, the original producer, his credit—he was a very autocratic producer as we were never allowed into the mixing sessions or anything.
DH - Really.
RA - But when we said we wanted to do it ourselves, he was great. He helped us and he even got us into Abbey Road. Now, we of course had listened to everything the Beatles had done along with everybody. There was a DJ on English radio called Kenny Everett and he used to do this thing where he would play a fraction of a second of a Beatles song of the first note, literally like an eighth of a second, so the sound was just there in the most minute fashion and people would weigh in on what the record was. And I always knew because of how close we paid attention to what was going on. And we loved what the Beatles and George Martin were doing in a production sense, absolutely wonderful, groundbreaking as everyone in the music world knows. And when you were talking about the Beatles and the Beach Boys competition, we were very aware of ‘Pet Sounds’. ‘Pet Sounds’ came out several months before our ‘Odessey and Oracle’ album was recorded. We were very aware of it and we loved it and it did inspire us. The Beatles competition with the Beach Boys was ’Sgt. Pepper(’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)’ and Sgt. Pepper was recorded almost minutes before we started ‘Odessey and Oracle’. They virtually walked out of Abbey Road studios maybe a week before we went in to start recording. But it was not so much of the competition between the Beach Boys and the Beatles that we were aware of, but we were very aware of their production values and what was going on. And when we went into Abbey Road to record ‘Odessey and Oracle’, because we were just about the first band (not sure how it came to us) that were allowed to record in Abbey Road Studios that were not signed to EMI.
DH - Oh?
RA - But we walked in, and because we used some of the same engineers-Pete Vince and Geoff Emerick, for the work they had just done, they were fresh from all the techniques that were going on with Sgt. Pepper and some of the technological advances the Beatles and their production team had forged. And we were able to be one of the first bands to be able to use a virtual multi-track recording that was more than four tracks. They did not do it by using a dedicated eight track machine, as there were none in the UK, but we could use some of the techniques they used to create more tracks. It was fantastic for us because for the first time we could double track harmonies, well not quite the first time, but we would overdub extra harmonies. So we could put down what we rehearsed, that was one thing. Then there would be an hour or two left in the session and we would run a harmony that was in our heads and put it on and so it gave us a real expansion of what was going on. So in some ways, we were using the same palette as the Beatles and the other thing was that Lennon had left his mellotron in there (DHlaughter). I’ve guess you heard that.
DH - Yeah I had, that is great.
RA - Yeah, it was fantastic for us. So that was about the situation.
RA - Yeah.
DH - So anyway, moving on to a couple questions about Argent and you (the Zombies) even play a song or two from your Argent days. That was a much tougher and progressive rock’n’roll sound. Was that something you were actively seeking or was that due more to the band’s chemistry?
RA - I think it was more than anything due to the natural make-up of the band. The fact that we had a different drummer in Bob Henry, a different bass player in Jim Rodford (now a current Zombie), and at the same time along with everybody else, it always frustrated me particularly when we first went with this phase where people wouldn’t accept anything we did on stage because they would say ‘oh, you’re moving away from…’ well, look at the difference from what the Beatles were doing from their first singles to when they split up. If any band had any ounce of invention about them, they were drinking in every influence around and getting excited about cutting edge things. And we were aware of other things going on at the time. And it was just natural. We were not trying to do anything in a contrived way. We were just expressing how we were feeling at the time and trying out different avenues, really. And it was a very natural process. But I think you were right when you say it was partially due to the different people involved in the creative input as we were before and in the way a particular piece of musical material is shaped. I mean the first two Argent albums were recorded at Sound Techniques. And we were a little bit frustrated again, because we wanted the sound to be bigger, but I think they had a huge amount in common—the first two albums, they sounded like a very natural progression from where the Zombies had finished up on—the ‘Argent’ album and ‘Ring of Hands’. They are my favorite Argent albums, by the way, and they sound like they are a natural progression. We then moved, strangely enough, to Abbey Road again because we wanted slightly bigger sound. And that is when we recorded ‘Hold Your Head Up’ for the ‘All Together Now’ album. In some ways that album does not hold together as well as the material on the previous two albums for me.
DH - Huh, interesting. Hey, I gotta ask since I am a psychedelic folk record collector and a writer for Folkworld magazine, I noticed during my research that Mac MacLeod actually played bass on the first Argent demos.
RA - Yeah!
DH - So how did you meet up with him? You were all from St. Albans?
RA - Yeah, indeed. That’s where I grew up and that’s where Jim Rodford our bass player grew up and as I say on stage if you hear me there, I say that Jim was the very first guy I asked to be in the Zombies because he was a real inspiration to me because his group the Bluetones, which started out as a skiffle group then got some of the first electric instruments in the south of England. I just thought it was wonderful when I was 11 years old—he’s a bit older than me, but I just wanted to put a band together. But Mac was Jim’s contemporary and was a friend of his. I think I got to know him through Jim. There’s a funny story I can tell you about Mac.
DH - Oh, yes please.
RA - But I had no idea he was known in America! Obviously in the folk scene, he was. But in those days, there were soft drugs like cannabis or whatever, it wasn’t so prevalent—not when we started. You know, it was not a common thing to be around in those very early days. And Mac was in to that and he got caught using and prosecuted for it. And he was hauled up in front of the Judge, or the Magistrate as we call it over here in the small courts, and the Magistrate said to him “Well Mr. MacLeod, this is your first offense. I think if you can assure me that you won’t do it again, I am inclined to let you off this time.” And Mac said “No your honor, I can’t honestly say I won’t do it again.”
DH - (laughter) That’s great!
RA - (laughter) So the Magistrate actually laughed and said “Well, I have never heard that before, but I appreciate your honesty.” But you know he gave him something light—I can’t remember what he gave him.
DH - I like that. Now, he’s not extremely well known over here, but those of us really follow the British folk scene, we know him.
RA - Wow, well done.
DH - Now the business world in music has changed since you and Colin decided to restart the Zombies. How much do you appreciate the control you have over the music and the business side these days?
RA - Well, yeah, it is nicer to have a bit of particular control. Although what is nice is that when we started out with the Zombies, the whole scene was so heavily concentrated on singles to the extent in the mid-sixties that albums were a complete afterthought. You were just as good as your last single and a single came out every 12 weeks. And you expected the life of the single to be just a few months long and no one would hear it again. I was speaking to Graham Nash when he came to see us on our last American tour and he said if we had spoken together 50 years and said to each other in 50 years time we would meet again, while still creating music and feeling very energized about that, but still would be playing some of the songs we had written now, we would be crazy. And the fact that we are not tied commercially to how successful the last single was. It is a great feeling now and that side of things is great.
DH - Unh hunh.
RA - From a technical point of view, strangely enough—I’ve done a lot of production in my life as well and I’ve used most every aspect of technical production; but when we did this last album, we really wanted to get to more old fashioned way of doing things. Not in any way obscuring what’s there—use as many tracks as it takes, but really to record in the same room together in the way we used to do it because we had to do it when we started, in a way to just capture a performance rather than build something up slowly in a layered way. But to capture the magic moment of people playing together and that magic moment when it gels and all comes together. The way we did it… we had to raise more money than we had been recently doing, so we used a pledgemusic campaign which was great because it allowed us to do it and we got a great producer, Chris Potter, who had done the Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ and recorded the Stones and lots of people. So he was in the control room and when we played a track together, Colin would do a guide vocal, since it was important that we could relate to what he was doing and he could relate to us, as it was going down. The idea was we were going to have five days of recording, five days of overdubbing, and then a day for each mix that Chris could use. And we thought that we would lay the tracks down with minimal overdubs, but during the overdub process work on the vocals and the solos. But in fact we enjoyed it so much, that virtually with just one exception, that all the vocals were used were the live vocals Colin did as the guide.
DH - Huh.
RA - We didn’t use a click track so we could use any technical secrecy or anything or any adjusting of the time in that way. It was recorded very much as a performance and we captured it. And even the solos, we did not erase one solo. We did the solos improvised at that moment in the studio. It was fantastic and we did overdub backing harmonies—we couldn’t do those at the same time so we did those afterward, but virtually the backing harmonies, a tiny touch of percussion, and maybe a couple of other small solos and that was it. So in a way, we came full circle, we used the digital technology that was available, you know the more things are played, you will lose quality as bits of tape will come off and we used as many jacks as it takes, for if you wanted to use twenty on the drums for balance quality you did. But all of the performance element was done in the way we used to do it in the early days and it ended up with sounding like us now, but it has more relevance for me because we still have the same values when we write and record.
DH - Right, ok that’s fascinating, for as much as you have been in the studio, you can go from one extreme to the other and back from live performance to build-up and back. That’s exciting. Just a few more questions, then. I first saw you when you toured with Love, which was a dream showcase for me to see both bands at one time. Was that as fun for you or was that difficult?
RA - Well, it was great fun.
DH - Good!
RA - At the time, we could not understand that one night we would go down great and other nights not so well, and we realized half way through the tour that it was because we did not have our own sound man and Arthur (Lee) did. We realized how important that was, so that taught us that on that tour. And after that we made sure we got a sound man we really loved and now I would not go out without the current guy we have got. I mean Colin and just wouldn’t work without him because it is just so important to get your own idea of the correct way you should sound across the stage. But the actual artistic side of things, we very much enjoyed doing that. And it was lovely to meet Arthur. It is not like we had hugely close contact with Arthur, but we had a couple of chats and he was very sweet with us. It was nice.
DH - That’s good, because he could be a challenge.
RA - And his great mate, from the original band…
DH - John Echols.
RA - Yes. He was really lovely.
DH - Yeah, that was a surprise for me as I was not aware he was on the tour. It took me a while before I thought, oh my god, I think that’s John Echols!
RA - Yes, indeed and he was a really nice guy.
DH - Good, I’m glad to hear that. And since that time, at least in DC, you have played so many different clubs and you seem to really try different things. And I am also curious on how things went in Austin at the Austin Psyche Festival. How was that with its really diverse crowd.
RA - It went absolutely brilliantly. Our experiences in Texas general and Austin in particular have been fantastic, actually. And when we did South by Southwest for the first time.
DH - Oh right, you did that previously.
RA - Yeah, I was really nervous about doing it because I thought no one was going to come because it is such a big showcase for young emerging bands, although at the same time you have people like Prince dropping in. When we did our showcase gig at the first one we had Prince about 400 yards away doing a concert, so I thought no one is going to come. But they did, we had a packed hall. And I thought also that if anyone did come, we wouldn’t get noticed with so much going on, we won’t get any coverage. But we did! It really amazed me. The great thing from my point of view and Colin, was when we first toured with the Zombies… and Argent as well, we never really made a great impact in the south as I remember. And when we were back in our second incarnation—when we started touring the States again maybe in 2003 or when it was, when we played in the south, we played to just a handful of people. But now, we have a real following in the south and we seemed to have cracked it. And that is fantastic to me.
RA - Ummm, well I have always loved literature on the whole actually. I read… not as much now, but when I am on the road, it seems to be the time you read the most because you have long trips. I can never read anything very demanding when I am on the road. It has to be a… what you call it, a potboiler, something that takes you from one thing to another with cliff hangers or whatever. So I find myself reading a lot of things like John Grisham because I find it quite easy to read and I want to find out what’s on the next page. I do read a lot but I don’t seem to have time to read other than that… I am trying to think of things that have inspired me recently. I do come across books—Oh, one of my favorite books ever is by an English writer that I don’t know if he’s known in the States called Laurie Lee and he wrote a very famous book over here called ‘Cider with Rosy’ and his second in the trilogy was called ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’, which I think is a very beautiful book and one of my favorites. He just left a very small country place in the 1930s in the UK and walked out with a violin as a teenager, and just walked. And he found himself just walking across Spain and Spain was a very medieval country in those days and later on he got involved in the Spanish Civil War by accident. And it is (the second) part of a trilogy and I would recommend them to anyone. I think it is really beautiful.
DH - Oh, OK. I don’t know him.
RA - Ah, what was something else I read recently. Oh there was something called ‘Red Joan’ (by Jennie Rooney) which I thought was great. It was about… God, I’m getting old, I can’t remember the writer (Jennie Rooney). It was about the time people were very idealistically excited by the emergence of communism and around the time of the 2nd World War. And some English people got involved with it in an idealogical way from the universities—Oxford and Cambridge over here and with Russia and this book ‘Red Joan’ explores that area and is really good.
DH - Huh, have not read that one either.
RA - And when I was in the States last time, I read the Harper Lee thing that was thought to be a sequel to… the famous book. God, I can’t recall the words!
DH - To Kill a Mockingbird (laughs)
RA - (laughs) To Kill a Mockingbird,yes! But that turned out to be more of a prequel to which ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ came from. That was the last thing I read that wasn’t a potboiler while I was on tour. So from a writing point of view, and I’ve always enjoyed poetry although I read much less of it now. And I have always loved Art and from a general interest artists are people like (Théodore) Gruyere I would say in some ways and a lot of art in a general interest. And other than rock’n’roll, I have always been passionate about music, even when I was most passionately a teenager in love with rock’n’roll, I still didn’t see any need to stop listening to people like Bach and Stravinsky. I didn’t see any difference, really. I now it sounds weird to say, but if something works, it comes from the same well. And in about 1958 after I had discovered Elvis, I discovered the early groups of Miles Davis with “Cannonball” Adderly and John Coltrane.
DH - Yeah.
RA - The ‘Milestones’ album… and I still listen to jazz from that period and I never stopped. Even when the Beatles came out and I was completely in love with what they were doing, it still didn’t stop me listening to Miles and the great jazz scene of that time along with the whole panoply of classical music. And now, still now one of my favorite things to do is to put my IPOD on shuffle, so you might have a bit of early Ray Charles followed by Stravinsky followed by maybe on of the few newer things I listen to like Kings of Leon occasionally or things like that might come up, maybe followed by a bit of early Cream if you know what I mean. Then perhaps Miles or Bill Evans. That whole era of music is something I am interested in and still listen to. Whether it is a very romantic, but beautiful piano concerto like Rachmaninoff. The whole thing, really.
DH - Right. That is a full answer and I am going to look up some of those books because I like to read a lot.
RA - Yeah. Do you know the Ishiguro book ‘Remains of the Day’? It became quite a big seller and a movie with Anthony Hopkins.
DH - That is on my all-time Top 10 fiction list. I love that book.
RA - Yeah, me, too. That just came to me because I can never think of this when people ask. (laughs).
DH - Right, right.
RA - It is also one of my favorite films, a bit of a desert island film as well. Just a great film
DH - Oh, yeah. And I read the book first, which I like to do when possible to separate it from the film a bit and appreciate both.
RA - Absolutely, yeah. I will tell you another thing that I read. We had some time off last summer and for Valentine’s Day, which is obviously well before summer, I went into an old book shop and bought the original 1930s edition of ‘Gone with the Wind’
DH - Oh, OK.
RA - And I couldn’t believe what a great book it was. I mean I enjoyed the film, but the book was a wonderful document laying out not only the Civil War, but what was happening before the Civil War in America. And where society was and where people came from. I mean I know it is very slanted to one point of view, that is obvious. But my wife and I ended up reading it to each other, which is something we hadn’t done for ages. You know, just sitting in the garden in the nice weather just reading it for an hour to each other. That was a lovely experience, actually.
DH - Well good, the film is so famous that I don’t think people have gone to the book that much.
RA - Ah, but the book… of course the book was amazingly famous at the time.
DH - Yes, exactly.
RA - That was why it became such a famous film. And it was read by such a huge amount of people, and yet it is written so beautifully. I couldn’t believe how well technically Margaret Mitchell wrote. Brilliant.
DH - One final question, you mentioned football earlier, do you follow a team in the Premier League or in somewhere in England?
RA - Well, years ago I used to follow it more avidly in a detailed way. But I got really turned off because of the real cultural violence that came in with the supporters. This is different than any sports event in the states and it really turned me off. I mean I still follow the International matches, but not the domestic leagues. The sport I follow most is tennis.
DH - Oh, yes.
RA - I can tell you the 16-year old girl who is making waves in a very minor way in tournaments, Katie Swan you know. I can tell you what is happening in detail on the British tennis scene. Although still last night I went to bed at 11:00 and while my wife was reading I put on the headphones and was watching a match that was on (Liverpool). I’ll watch Match of the Day in the Premier League, but I mostly watch the International matches.
DH - Yes, I follow tennis too. And England is getting better younger players in and hopefully they will be taking over Wimbledon finally.
RA - We have won Wimbledon at last.
DH - Oh of course, you have done so on the Men’s side at least, courtesy of Scotland’s Andy Murray.
RA - That was huge at the time a few years ago. And then he won in New York so he has a couple of grand slams to his name.
DH - Although Novak Djokovich is becoming a rather impenetrable wall for him.
RA - Unbelievable. He doesn’t get the esteem he deserves, really. It must be very frustrating for him as he has been absolutely extraordinary. I mean he lost this tournament in the second round and that has got to be the first time in ages that he has that early. He always is great in the Grand Slams and tournaments like Miami.
DH - He is amazing. Well I will let you go to get back into your day or evening actually.
RA - Yes, it is evening here.
DH - Well I thank you for spending some time with me and I hope we get a big crowd for you show at Montgomery College (at the Robert E Parilla Performing Arts Center on Saturday, May 14th) but I am sure you will have a big crowd like you always do. Thanks again.
RA - OK David, bye.