If good things come to those who wait, The Zombies have most certainly waited long enough.
The venerable English rock group, which was a major part of the initial British Invasion with 1964 hits like its signature “She’s Not There” and follow-up “Tell Her No,” disbanded in 1967, and were sadly inactive by the time “Time of the Season,” recorded earlier that year as part of the album Odessey and Oracle, became a surprise hit in 1969.
The two main Zombies, vocalist/songwriter Colin Blunstone and keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter Rod Argent, went on to find solo success, Blunstone sometimes in association with other artists including Argent and fellow former Zombie Chris White, Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett and the Alan Parsons Project, and Argent with his namesake band Argent, which delivered the enduring 1972 hit “Hold Your Head Up,” and as a prolific producer.
Then in 1998 Argent and Blunstone reunited, reviving The Zombies name in 2004. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of Odessey and Oracle—long since hailed as one of rock’s greatest albums by the likes of Rolling Stone, Mojo, Dave Grohl and Paul Weller—the four surviving original Zombies (Argent, Blunstone, bassist White and drummer Hugh Grundy–guitarist Paul Atkinson having died in 2004) performed three concerts at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theatre in March, 2008.
The current edition of The Zombies –Argent and Blunstone along with bassist Jim Rodford (formerly of Argent and The Kinks), Rodford’s son Steve Rodford on drums, and superb session guitarist Tom Toomey–has been gathering increasing momentum thanks partly to regular touring in the U.S. The band was finally nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the first time in 2013–though they should have gone in decades ago. And now they have a new album set for release Oct. 9 on Brooklyn-based indie label The End Records/ADA–Still Got That Hunger, the fourth album of new studio material since Argent and Blunstone rejoined, and the first to be made via crowdfunding.
On Wednesday The Zombies begin a month-long U.S. tour, An Evening With The Zombies–Odessey and Oracle: The Odyssey Continues…, in Austin; they’re in New York on Oct. 9—Still Got That Hunger’s release date–at the already sold-out New York Society for Ethical Culture Concert Hall in Manhattan. Both the current and surviving original Zombies are participating in the Odessey and Oracle tour, with Brian Wilson collaborator Darian Sahanaja, as he did in the 2008 London shows, assisting on keyboards and harmony vocals during the Odessey and Oracle portion.
Blunstone, who retains one of the most evocative and recognizable voices in rock, and Argent, who remains one of the most important keyboardists in a guitar-dominated genre, were in New York last week doing interviews in support of Still Got That Hunger and the Odessey and Oracle tour. The ever insightful Argent spoke about both while Blunstone, bewildered by the duo’s 15-interview tally from the day before, did phone interviews in another room.
Does the new album’s title express the band’s feelings as artists?
It’s a line from the album track “Chasing the Past”–which is not about chasing the past, actually, but the exact opposite! But it sums up exactly what we feel: We have still got that hunger. What energizes us is being able to work out new material with the great musicians in our band and see it come to life. It rejuvenates and energizes you, and that’s what it’s all about.
You’ve said that it’s important to look forward and not get stuck in the past.
We never tried to copy what was fashionable then, or repeat what we’d just done. Neither did The Beatles, of course! If you’re doing things for the right reason, you have to make them work for yourself.
Go back to “Time of the Season” and it sounded so different from the first hits. Then again, there was a big gap between them.
I feel one of the reasons for the long gap between our early hits and “Time of the Season” was that we were very frustrated by how some of our singles were being produced: They didn’t reflect how we felt they should sound.
That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to do Odessey and Oracle. We were desperate to get the songs out the way we wanted, and when we did, we got some success. In fact, since 2012, “Time of the Season” has been one of the most shazam-ed songs! It must be kids hearing it and not knowing what it is. One million shazams!
Are you saying you were frustrated with the first Zombies singles, which were such big hits?
Not frustrated with the performances, but the way they were put together. Like [1966 single–which didn’t chart] “Is This the Dream?” I remember vividly that we recorded it very quickly, in two hours, and thought it was absolutely storming, with huge amounts of energy. But this was when we weren’t allowed to stay in the studio when it was being mixed–when the producers were very autocratic. And we came back after a couple pints–as we did back then!–and Colin thought that someone had come in and handmade a cover version! All the balls were gone from it, not like “She’s Not There” and everything else from that first session–“Summertime,” “You Make Me Feel Good,” “It’s Alright with Me.” All those were wonderful. “Tell Her No” we were also happy with. But [second Zombies U.K. single] “Leave Me Be” we weren’t happy with, and every time we play our third U.S. single “She’s Coming Home” [No. 58 in 1965] now, I get a pang of regret when we finish it, because it could have been a really big hit if it was produced to its potential–and we feel it wasn’t.
[1965 single] “Whenever You’re Ready” is another. I thought it had the potential to be a hit, but was a little bit anodyne when it came out, and needed a bit more balls–not in a contrived way, but natural. But I’m not ashamed of any of the records, but if they were a bit more ballsy they all could have been big hits–and the band could have continued.
How do you “stay in the present” now?
That was never a problem–even when we wrote and worked on songs in the early days. Even “She’s Not There,” which has a very weird construction, when you think about it: It has three sections, which is very odd. We always took a musical idea and then started to develop it–then we’d rehearse the band and bash it into shape. That’s still the only way we write.
What about the songs on Still Got That Hunger?
I wrote nine of them. I’d start with a lyrical idea, chord sequence or anything else that starts to work, until suddenly it feels really nice and I get excited. Then we work in Colin singing and then the band, and it gets natural and truly exciting–and that’s what we’re doing it for! Of course it’s great to make loads of money, but they’re byproducts. The experience of getting something new into shape is the biggest thrill–that and getting it heard on the radio the first time, which is hard when you’re a vintage band. But “Chasing the Past” has been played a couple times on English radio, and it’s got terrific reactions from people phoning in.
Was there anything different with the production process?
It was the first time we worked with an outside producer [Chris Potter] since the ’60s. It came about because Chris Potter, who’s worked with the Rolling Stones and The Verve, phoned us up. I think it came out later that his brother had seen us loads of times, and so Chris downloaded the video of our  Central Park concert and loved it and wanted to produce us. That was our introduction to Chris, and then we finally set it up–but there were hurdles to overcome: To use a well-known outside producer, you have to pay him! That was one thing, obviously. Second, if we were going to use an outside producer, we wanted to record the old-fashioned way, in a good existing studio with a great Steinway piano–and there aren’t many of those left–and great old vintage gear like Fairchild compressors and things we used in ’64–and that’s not cheap–and record the organic way like we did in the ’60s, all in the same room with Colin singing the guide vocal and capturing the performance.
We thought realistically we would overdub for a week and really work on the vocals and solos, but it went so well and was such an enjoyable experience that Colin’s guide vocals turned out to be the lead vocals, and we all were reacting to each other. So the solos without exception were not overdubbed, and it was all true to capturing the performance in the way it had to be done in the ’60s. We rehearsed the harmonies in the structure of the piece, so we knew what had to be done, and added a few touches later. So it was a very, very organic album–but to do that in that way it has to be funded. So the idea of crowdfunding came about.
How did that work out?
We got excited to draw people into the process and offer glimpses behind the scenes. Like the first rehearsal session of one of the tracks, with Jim Rockford in the room. It made it less of a cold process, seeing us getting excited and working everything out and doing it in an organic way.
What was it like working with a producer?
It was something new. We had to really trust him, when he said things were really working or not quite happening yet. He had a couple great ideas, and we learned quickly to trust him in getting a natural honest sound–very honest to what the song was. It went very much against some of my worries relating to some of the Zombies’ [early] material being not as successful as it could have been because it wasn’t as honest and fresh. So I’m very proud of this album.
And what about the vocals?
We’re still doing everything in the original keys! McCartney still is, but not many others. And Colin’s voice is stronger than it’s ever been. We still work on keeping our chops together!
And you’ve done a remake of the 1965 single “I Want You Back Again”?
Colin and I were looking at things we never played live, ever, and it was exciting to us. We listened to Tom Petty, who did a version on a recent live album The Live Anthology, and liked what he did, and it gave us the idea to do it. So we started playing it on stage immediately, and it worked and went over great every night on stage. Our new version is very true to the original character of the song but developed a bit further: It gives me the chance to get even more jazzy than I did on the original and a chance to stretch out a bit–though we always improvised. We thought, Why not record it again, at the point we’re at now?
You’re signed now to a Brooklyn label, The End Records.
It’s been terrific so far, and seems fitting somehow, as our first American concerts back in 1964 were at the Brooklyn Fox Theatre with [legendary rock ‘n’ roll DJ/impresario] Murray the K!
But you never did tour behind Odessey.
We realized that we never played “Time of the Season” on stage with the original guys. After Colin and I got back together, Chris said, “Lets get the remaining original guys and anyone extra to play every note,” and we did it in 2008 and it was very successful. Our American management company loved it, and it was a dream of theirs to bring it to the States—but that’s quite an expensive and logistical project. But it got to the point where we could make it work and not lose money and maybe make a bit of it! If you’d asked me before Colin and I got back together, I’d never thought we could play Odessey and Oracle and take it to lots of major places in America.
How does being in The Zombies now compare with the ‘60s?
It’s extraordinary! When we first came over here, it was fairly small audiences, and in the South almost nobody–and I thought that was just the way of things. But the last few years we’ve had a really big following, and in the South we now sell out places—and I never managed to do that with Argent!
But everything’s been a natural evolution, and now, on Still Got That Hunger, we’ve gone back to a very organic way of recording.
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