Say this about the Zombies: They were ahead of the curve.
We live in a world where you can’t turn on the TV or go to a multiplex without running into a zombie. Back in 1961, keyboardist-songwriter Rod Argent and singer Colin Blunstone and their mates proved a pretty prescient bunch back when they came up with the band’s name.
“We had no idea,” says Argent with a laugh on the phone from New Jersey, discussing the group’s beginnings in St. Albans England. “The first zombie movie didn’t really happen ‘til 1967. It was crazy.”
Told that on a recent Google search, the band comes up No. 2 (behind Wikipedia’s entry about “undead creatures”), Argent says, “Do we? I’m really pleased to hear that. There is a lot of competition.”
The moniker didn’t come from anyone in the group that scored hit singles later that decade with “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No” and “Time of the Season.”
“It was the very original bass player, Paul Arnold,” says Argent, “the only guy to leave the band. He became a doctor in Canada. We were desperately trying to find a name – it’s so hard – and when he suggested that name, I loved it immediately. I thought, as with the Beatles, if you were lucky enough to become known at all, people just start to associate the name with the members of the band. You know, with John, Paul, George and Ringo and you don’t tend to think of insects or a play on words or anything. So, I thought it was great for that reason. Colin hated it at first, but he got used to it.”
Ironic breakups happen to many bands, but how about this one? The Zombies called it quits in 1968 after recording a song-cycle album called “The Odessey and the Oracle.” It would spawn the psychedelic smash “Time of the Season” and come to be considered a rock classic. Rolling Stone and Mojo have named it one of the 100 best albums of all time and the UK’s Q and New Musical Express rank it as one of the 50 top British albums.
But the band was kaput before it was even released.
After the breakup, the musicians all had different projects. Argent, most notably, formed the ‘70s band named after himself, and had the hit “Hold Your Head Up.” The Zombies reformed on several occasions over the years for different stretches. They’ve been a working band since 1999, and in 2001 they released “Out of the Shadows,” the first of four albums this century.
In 2007, they got together for a few gigs in London with other original members, the idea being to play “The Odessey and the Oracle,” which they’d never played live.
And now, the Zombies are on a US tour, where they’ll be reprising that idea – playing the entirety of “Odessey” – and introducing four or five new songs from their upcoming album, “Still Got the Hunger,” due Oct. 9.
Argent wrote nine of the albums 10 songs; Blunstone the other. Aside from Blunstone and Argent, the Zombies include longtime band members (former Kinks/Argent) bassist-backup singer Jim Rodford, drummer (and Jim’s son) Steve Rodford and guitarist Tom Toomey, who joined in 2011. For this tour, they’ll be joined by the original rhythm section, drummer Hugh Grundy and bassist Chris White. Keyboardist Darian Sahanaja (Brian Wilson’s band) and backup singer Viv Boucherat, are also aboard.
The tour stops tonight, Oct. 6 at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston..
With the Zombies, you’re dealing with the past and the present, and I’m guessing one of your jobs is to fuse the two together – make room for ‘60s hits and yet tell people you’re still a band making good new music. Do you agree with that and if so, how do you do that?
Yeah, it is true. I think the answer is this: Things naturally evolve and you don’t have to do things ever in a contrived self-conscious way. The way ‘The Odessey and the Oracle’ tour came together was Chris White used to come along and see us and suggested just before 2008 in Shepherds Bush in London where we mounted a show. He said “Do you realize next year is the 40th anniversary?” and we’d never played it, obviously, the record beginning to end. So we thought why don’t we get something together as a special occasion with the original surviving members? We thought about this and said, “Yeah, this feels like a very exciting thing to do.” About half the material works wonderfully with just the five people who are in the current incarnation of the band. But because we overdubbed stuff on that record it meant that on various tracks – “Hung up on a Dream,” “Brief Candles,” “Changes” and “Maybe After He’s Gone” – they don’t work at all unless you have the extra parts, the extra (vocal) harmonies. So that was an experiment that excited us.
And now it’s come to the US.
It’s a big thing to mount if you’re going to bring the whole operation on to the stage and then if you’re going to try and tour it. It becomes expensive and difficult, but God willing we reached a point where Colin and I have actually built up enough of a profile over here – concerts are well more attended than they used to be – and everything has gone up a gear really. We finally got to the point where we thought, “We’ve got a new album coming out, why shouldn’t we make it a very special show?” So for the first part of the evening we do stuff from the new album along with the stuff you know as well – we’re not just going to inflict the whole album in one go on people – along with this one-off, specially mounted thing.
The new album, “Still Got That Hunger,” was produced by Chris Potter (Rolling Stones, Verve, Blur) whereas you’d produced the other albums this century. Why?
It was a bit of happenstance. We wanted very much to try and go back to a way of recording that we used to have with four tracks. You’d record with the whole band in one room and working off each, making music the old way when everyone was listening and responding to everything. And we missed that. We thought if we can find a really good vintage studio, one with a great Steinway piano, we would love to go back to that way of recording. To do that, you have to have a really good producer because you have to stay in there and work on the ambience and what you’re hearing. You can’t keep interrupting right in that moment. Strangely enough, we got a phone call from Chris Potter who said he’d seen some YouTube footage of us playing at Central Park and he loved it and said “I’d love to produce an album for you.”
What did you find in the studio?
We found ourselves recording quite quickly in a very fresh unified way, a capturing of a performance, getting that magic moment where everything jelled. You capture a moment where it feels like the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. That’s just like what used to happen. I feel the new album is the best stuff we’ve done for many years and has natural resonances of the early stuff.
You financed the album by crowd-sourcing through PledgeMusic.
When we started talking to Pledge, we got quite excited about the idea apart from the financial side of it. It’s not just a way of raising money; it’s a way of involving people that are interested in you and giving them tidbits of the process of writing and putting the album together. They become associate members of the journey. That makes things less impersonal.
You’re not on a rock star pedestal.
And that’s one of the reasons I came off the road with Argent. Everything was so big and everything was such a “performance” that the actual playing of the music itself was the last thing you ever thought of.
In “Chasing the Past,” Colin sings “Chasing the past, yesterday, it’s gone, it’s just as well,” which I gather is about an old romance. And in “Maybe Tomorrow,” there seems a bit of nostalgia with him singing “Just like the Beatles used to say \’I believe in yesterday,’ Kind of like you were trying to say you’d come full circle reconciling your past and present.
I do think that’s true, but I will say “Chasing the Past” is not really about a romance, it’s about lots of things as I think most songs are to be honest, covering different areas, and if the music works you’re capturing the emotion or a moment where you’re talking about yourselves, but it has a chance of some universality in a sense that it usually applies to many situations.
“Maybe Tomorrow,” the idea just started from dealing with being in a relationship and being frustrated and it blows up into a silly row. You’re just saying, “Listen for God’s sake, let’s sleep on this. We may see things different tomorrow” and at the end you’re saying “I believe in yesterday.” I wish we were like we were a day ago and it’s an affectionate nod, a fairly amusing nod to the Beatles.
There’s a great Mott the Hoople line in “All the Way from Memphis” where Ian Hunter sings “You’ve got to stay a young man/You can never grow old” about being a rocker. But now all of us are much older – me, him, you. How can you grow old and how do you do it in a way that looks good and feels right? What does an older musician rocker have to offer an audience that a younger one doesn’t?
The thing is when John Lennon said I can’t envision myself doing this when I’m 30, rock ‘n’ roll was a very young thing. Yet, I always remember thinking at the time, we were still idolizing people like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker who seemed ancient to us at the time and they were in their 40s or 50s. We had no problem with that at all. We were looking at an art form that was a source of rock ‘n’ roll and what rock ‘n’ roll had led from, the various beginnings, including those. I thought if rock ‘n’ roll grows up, we may feel different about it and that’s entirely how I feel now. Really young people are coming to us and loving what we do and that’s fantastic. From a personal point of view, there are no guarantees when you get to our age. But as long as you feel okay and take some sort of measures to look after yourself. Colin and I are both 70 now. You’ve got to look after yourself when you’re on the road and beyond that it’s in the lap of the gods. It feels exactly the same when we’re on stage, the energy we get back from the crowd, as it did when we were 18 and that’s such a privilege. As long as we feel well enough we’re going to do it.
Tickets: $65-$45. Starts at 8 pm.
246 Tremont St., Boston, 617-248-9700 www.thewilbur.com