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Friday, August 22, 2014

Psych-Pop Legends The Zombies on Getting Back Together and Reminiscing About the '60s

Posted By on Fri, Aug 22, 2014 at 10:51 AM

The Zombies play Stern Grove Festival, Sunday Aug. 24. Free.
  • The Zombies play Stern Grove Festival, Sunday Aug. 24. Free.
When Colin Blunstone recalls the beginning of his musical career, he speaks as if he is in awe, in almost disbelief even by his own story. The lead singer of the legendary psych-pop group, The Zombies, formed the band with Rod Argent, keyboardist and songwriter, when the two were just teenagers in 1961. After winning an England rock competition, the band scored a recording contract with Decca Records, which launched the band's career as a leading act during the British Invasion in the mid '60s. The Zombies produced a handful of hits with their record, She's Not There, including the title track, and "Tell Her No", both of which placed The Zombies second to The Beatles on American charts. The Zombies play blues-based rock with pop hooks and playful come-ons, but they were able to establish a signature sound with Blunstone's smooth whispery vocals and Argent's psychedelic jazz-tinged keyboard riffs. The end product is a groovy and dreamy soundscape.

The Zombies went on to become one of the most influential rock bands with long-lasting impact in pop music. Their biggest hit "Time of the Season" from the 1968 record Odessey and Oracle, topped pop charts just after the band split. "Time" along with other Zombie hits continue to play in rotation on radio and film soundtracks standing testament to their timelessness and impact. The band has been quite busy as of late, releasing a new studio album Breathe Out, Breathe In, last year, and touring in early 2014. We had the chance to catch up with Colin Blunstone to talk about the latest iteration of The Zombies, how the music industry has changed, and what it was like to play in the '60s.

The Zombies are back, and have been for awhile now. How did the band reform?

We got back together again in 1999 performing under our own names, Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent, and we realized there was a huge interest in the Zombies catalog. It took us completely by surprise. Gradually promoters started billing us as The Zombies, so audiences started requesting more Zombie tunes. Then about three or four years ago, it felt only natural to call ourselves The Zombies.

This new incarnation of The Zombies, what is it all about?

Well you know, bands from the '60s can tend to just go through the motions and play a medley of all of their hits. But we play really well-known tunes. Songs from my solo career, from Argent, a couple of songs from the Alan Parsons Project, because I played on six or seven of their albums. So at our concerts we are giving audiences a musical journey through our career from 1961 to 2014 — and there are a lot of hits in there. Not all of them are under the name the Zombies, but it makes a concert full of songs that people will know as well as more obscure songs as well. They all seem to fit together really well. We just released a studio album last year, Breathe Out, Breathe In, and we are currently recording a new album we hope to finish by the end of the year.

Since you've been in the industry so long, tell me a little bit about how it's changed.

It's changed out of all recognition. When we first started recording we were recording on four-track analog machines, which meant we were basically recording live, which is fine. Then in the '70s it was 24-track machines and then that went to 48-track machines and now these digital machines, the tracks are limitless, which is fantastic and gives you incredible freedom.

Since you've got so many options, in a strange way it can make recording slower. Going back to the beginning where we were recording on four-track analog, how you played it, that's how it was. I remember in that first session at Decca studios we started at about 7 p.m. and finished just past 10 or 11 p.m. And we finished four tracks. Finished. And that would be very unheard of in a digital studio today.

How old were you then?

I was 18. We were all very, very young. We had a lot to learn — we certainly did.

How was that first session then? Going into Decca Studios at 18 must have been unbelievable.

Well it was a very memorable session, because it was our first time in a commercial recording studio. It was early evening, and our recording engineer had been at a wedding all afternoon. He was quite drunk — actually incredibly drunk. It was a bit of shock to walk into our first recording studio for our first session and to realize that not only was our recording engineer drunk, but he was very aggressive. And It makes me laugh because within a half hour, I knew recording was not for me, because this guy was crazy. Then to think that I've spent 50 years in the recording industry it makes me laugh. (Laughs).

Anyways, we had a bit of luck and the engineer passed out. (Laughs again).

This guy passed out cold on the floor and we had to carry him out, up two flights of stairs and put him in a London black cab, and waved goodbye to him, and that was that. (Still laughing).

And here's the strange thing: His assistant engineer was called Gus Dudgeon. Gus Dudgeon went on to be one of the most successful producers in the world. He produced all of the early Elton John albums, David Bowie and many other names. But the first session that Gus Dudgeon ever had was with The Zombies, because the engineer passed out drunk, and Gus was the assistant engineer.

So we recorded She's Not There, which was a #1 record all around the world. And we recorded it with Gus Dudgeon.

It's quite strange, now that I remember. In 50 years, I've never had to work with a drunken recording engineer since then.

That's quite a story, and again, everything must have been so exciting then. Do you remember hearing your record play on the radio for the first time?

Well, I can remember, there was this very popular television program called Juke Box Jury, and they would have three stars that would judge records that would be released that week. This was on national television in the U.K. at about 6 o'clock on a Saturday night. And George Harrison was on this week and he was giving his opinion about records. Of course we wanted to watch George Harrison, and they ended up playing our record. And George Harrison said, He really liked it: "Well done, Zombies," he said. I remember it to this day. He said, "Great keyboard in the middle. Great harmonies. Well done Zombies." For George Harrison to say that on national television, that it was a great record, you can't get higher praise than that. It was fantastic.

Were there any other moments throughout your career where you've been starstruck, or excited to perform with other bands or artists?

I can remember palying in the '60s with the Beach Boys, which was very exciting. I can remember sitting in a bar in the '70s and Stevie Wonder came in and we stepped in with the band and started playing. That was very exciting. My mind's gone blank. It's like when people say, "What's your favorite color," and I'm trying to think of what my favorite color is.

Over the years of playing so many concerts, I remember the overall feeling of having enjoyed it, but it's very difficult to remember the details and specifics. I'll leave it at that, and just plead insanity after that. (Laughs)

Are there any parting words of wisdom for hopeful artists and musicians?

You get out of life, in proportion, what you put in, so at the end of the day, as a musician and performer, the harder you work at it, the more you'll enjoy it, and the more rewards you get. That's just a fact.

The Zombies play Stern Grove Festival, Sunday Aug. 24 w/ Vetiver. 2 p.m. Free.


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Adrian Rodriguez

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