Colin Blunstone:
The TVD Interview

Colin Blunstone has enjoyed a serendipitous career in music. When he met Rod Argent in 1961 and formed what would become The Zombies, he couldn’t have imagined they’d win a Decca recording contract and write some of the most memorable music of the era. Equally surprising to some is that Blunstone and Argent continue to write music as The Zombies, and have released more albums in the last twenty years or so than they did during their ’60s heyday. Their latest LP, 2011’s Breathe Out, Breathe In, has been a critical benchmark, rivaling the praise received for their ’60s psychedelic epic, Odessey and Oracle.

And they continue to move forward, recording in Argent’s home studio, releasing albums on their own label, and booking their own wildly popular tours. Colin is one of the most affable of frontmen, and he took time from The Zombies’ massive touring schedule to talk about his musical inspirations, what it was like to be part of the British Invasion, and the freedom of creating music like an indie band well into his 60s.

It’s cool how your website is divided up into Past, Present and Future. It’s not often that bands that got their start in the ‘60s continue to put out music that fans love AND that’s critically-acclaimed. Are you surprised that you’re still so well-received?

Well, I’ll be absolutely honest with you… We are completely surprised, but of course in a very pleasant way. I think when Rod [Argent] and I got back together again — although, we’ve worked together continually over the years — Rod has produced many of my albums, and I’ve worked in concert with him regularly. But when we got back together again to tour in the year 2000, to start with we didn’t play many Zombies songs. We honestly didn’t know the intensity of the interest in The Zombies records were. But it just came as a very pleasant, total surprise!

Gradually we gauged from the audiences’ reactions that they loved The Zombies’ songs and we introduced more and more songs, and we’re very happy to play as many songs as people want from our back catalog. Perhaps we would always just add that we like to play new songs as well, and that’s been the biggest thrill of all — that the new songs we play get as strong a reaction as the classics from the ‘60s. And that’s been really, really heartening.

Breathe Out, Breathe In successfully manages to be a Zombies album without being a re-hash of what’s come before. How important was that combination to you?

It’s absolutely imperative, I think. Neither Rod nor I want to re-live the past when we’re recording new albums. In fact, we’ve always used a very simple recipe when we’re recording: We just collect the best ten songs that we’ve got and we record them the best we can. We never think about trying to emulate the past or imitate the past, or whatever word you’d like to use. It’s incredibly important to us that we’re recording new material and we record it to the best of our abilities using the techniques that are on-hand in the studio then, in this modern age.

Many bands and artists who got their start when you did have either packed it in, are content to play “greatest hits” tours. Yet you’ve chosen to not only keep making music, but to do it in the way most up-and-coming bands do today: writing and producing in home studios, booking your own gigs, basically doing things on your own terms. Is this better or worse than how it was when you started out?

That’s an interesting thought. I think in many ways it’s much for exciting for us because we were so young when we started. When we recorded “She’s Not There,” most of us were about 17. And of course we really didn’t know anything about the music business. How can you if you’ve never been in it? And so to a large extent, we had to allow ourselves to be led. The leadership that we had wasn’t always the best that was available.

But now we understand it a lot better, and the way the business is set up now you do have a lot more control over your destiny, if you like. We record in Rod’s studio usually, we have our own record label, we’re involved in promotion, marketing, artwork, absolutely every phase of releasing a record. And also with our touring, when we first came into the business, to a large extent, we were told what we were going to do. But now there’s an open discussion. We have an agent in the UK and we have an agent in America. We can have an adult discussion about what the plans for our future are, and in many ways [the whole process] is much more enjoyable. It’s much more fulfilling, you know. It’s much more interesting to try and plan what our aims are and how we can best achieve them, as opposed to just packing a suitcase and being sent off to wherever someone else has decided you should go.

Having that kind of total creative control must be very inspiring as you write music.

Well, absolutely. I don’t think we could do it any other way. I honestly couldn’t imagine either of us working with some dictatorial producer. If that were the only way to success, I mean chart success, or however you want to qualify success, I think it would be very difficult for us.

What was it like being part of that first wave of British Invasion bands?

Well, for me personally and the band, it was incredibly exciting. By the time we came to America, we might have been some of us 18, some of us 19 – something like that. To come to the home of rock and roll, to the home of the Beach Boys and Tamla Motown, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard – all the people that we really admired… for us to come over to America was just incredibly exciting! It was a place every British musician wanted to come to. And when I say that all the people we admired came from America, I would say there were some British artists we loved. The Zombies were absolutely enamored with The Beatles. We just thought they were, you know, absolutely the best band.

But really the whole history of rock and roll emanates from the States. When we arrived, we were #1 on Cashbox – I think we were #1 on Cashbox and #2 on Billboard – and we’ve gone in a six-month period playing local little dances and gigs in England to playing huge concerts in America. And often there would be 14 or 15 acts on the bill – and they were huge names that we’d never dreamt of meeting before. It was just incredibly exciting.

Having said that, personally, I’d heard the term “British Invasion” but I wasn’t aware that we were part of a musical movement. It was only afterwards that I think I could see it from that point of view. It seemed a loose connection between the British bands at the time. And, of course, when you’re young everything just seems natural. So many British bands had been playing in America and so it just seemed, well, that’s the way it’s meant to be. But of course it had never been like that, it had been hard for British bands to crack the American market. But when you’re young, you just accept things as the way they are.

How instrumental was pirate radio to The Zombies’ success in the UK and, eventually, to The Zombies “cracking the American market?”

I think all British bands have a lot to thank pirate radio for. Because before pirate radio, we had three national stations. That was it. It might be hard for an American to imagine just three stations! The home radio, I think it was called, was mostly serious and a lot of it was talk. The BBC Radio 3 – the third radio channel, whatever it was called back then, I can’t remember – that was classical music. And then there was what they called “The Light Programme,” but it was kind of orchestras and bands; there were very few records played. When I was in my teens, I think there was one half-an-hour record program a week – not a day, a week. And so without pirate radio, I don’t know how anyone would have ever heard any records.

And then later you had such wonderful programs dedicated to getting recorded artists heard. John Peel comes to mind, whom you must miss terribly.

Of course. John Peel was an institution. He discovered and nurtured many, many bands. He was a true… he was a wonderful person. I played his show quite a few times in the early ‘70s with my first solo band. He was absolutely brilliant. He lived for his music and so many people owe their careers to his intuition and foresight and tenacity at seeing them get through the huge minefields of the music business.

To promote the bands and albums in the way that he did, I think there’s a gaping hole left in the way bands are discovered.

I think there is! On the BBC stations, as I understand it and I’m not a great authority on this, there’s very few DJs who can choose their music. From what I’ve heard, there is only one DJ on the national network who plays their own contemporary music. Otherwise it’s a little bit institutionalized. There’ll never be another John Peel, but for someone to follow in his footsteps would be very difficult, because they’re not free to play what they want to play.

It’s really strange because, certainly in the UK, all the really successful stations and DJs came out of being able to play what they wanted to play. They believed in the music they were playing passionately and they fought for it, and it showed. There was an enthusiasm in the listening audience that was apparent then that isn’t there now, and I think to some extent because the stations sound, you know, corporately-programmed and a bit tired.

It feels like the lack of really authentic, visible champions of music sort of stifles the artists, too, in a way.

Well, it certainly can. Of course, the other thing is that there are so few [major] record labels left. It’s hard for artists to get recorded. And many times, in order to get into that big-time studio, they have to compromise and take to heart what a producer’s saying, what an A&R man’s saying – if they want to go down that road.

The other side of it is that there’s a whole new industry that’s opened up where people record in some kind of home studio environment. And then they can go to a distributor or just sell records directly on the internet. So there is kind of a new industry that’s gone up. We talk about it as being a cottage industry, where you can just do everything yourself. And because you don’t have to take on the costs of a huge record company – in fact, you don’t have to sell that many records to be able to finance your next project. But recording… there’s a cost involved, and to stay afloat you need to be a profit-making organization, however small you are, you have to make a profit to finance your next project. But at least there’s another way to do it, now, which I think is brilliant.

I can’t say that I’m really on top of everything that’s going on with regard to music and the internet, and the direction the music industry’s going, but for me the important thing – even before this revolution that’s happened over the last few years – a lot of bands and artists who had been in the industry for some time… I always use the expression that they can get a bit “bitter and twisted.”It’s a business of great highs and pretty big lows as well. You can get a bit battered and bruised. It’s very easy to become disillusioned and disinterested and I think if you do get disinterested, it can be the beginning of the end.

It’s a stamina business. You’ve got to be able to hang on in there and laugh off the knocks, really. And then it can be fun. I mean, who cares? [Laughs] If somebody doesn’t like your album, the important thing is did you like it? Did you make it the best you could possibly make it? Did you really fight for every song on that album? Did you get the best players and get the best out of them? Those are the important questions – not whether some reviewer likes it. I mean, it’s nice if they like it, but it’s not the end of the road if they don’t.

It’s interesting to me that you’ve released more albums as The Zombies in the last 20 years or so than you did in the ‘60s…

I know! Since Rod and I got back together again, we’ve recorded three studio albums and we’ve recorded three live albums as well, two of them with DVDs. And we’ve done that ourselves. I think it’s quite intriguing! [Laughs] I think it’s one of the most exciting things in my career, if not THE most exciting thing, is how Rod and I got together initially to do about six dates, around the year 2000 and halfway through the first date we were having such a great time that we knew we were going to just keep going. And here we are, 12 years later, and we built it up without being able to crack the charts. It’s very hard for a band with our profile to have chart success. But we managed to build the [current] band up playing very, very small halls to playing some of the major venues in the world.

After America, we come back to the UK, then we go to Japan, and then the Philippines, and then I’m taking my solo band to Holland. So, we’ve got a band that can play all around the world at the best venues in the world, and we’ve done that without having a hit record – it’s just been word-of-mouth. To me, that is a very exciting prospect.

Obviously, you enjoy it all so much and that must transfer to your audiences as well.

I think it does. Rod and I are always saying that if we didn’t enjoy it, we wouldn’t do it. It’s quite a tough business, especially the traveling and especially as you approach the autumn of your career, if I might say that [Laughs], the traveling gets a bit more challenging. If you didn’t love to play, it would be quite difficult to go on. Everyone in the band really loves it and there’s so much energy that comes off the stage. I think sometimes people are quite surprised. They might be expecting a ’60s band to be sort of going through the motions, but that has NO relationship to what we do.

What records were in your collection at the outset of The Zombies?

Right at the very beginning… well, I’ll just be honest with you. I’ve got a really bad memory, and I have trouble remembering what I did yesterday, much less 1961! [Laughs] What I can tell you that most of the big influences for us in 1961, when we got together, most of the influences were American. It wasn’t ‘til ’63, when The Beatles happened, that was a huge change for us. I just thought everything they did was just perfect. They were a huge influence on us. Once we finished our first album, I think because we’ve got two very prolific writers in the band I think we were plowing our own… whatever it is you do with a plow… furrow? [Laughs] We were traveling down our own road, or whatever the expression is.

But when we first started, we were listening to Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Gene Vincent… I would say Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers – all the American greats. I’ll tell you one difference with The Zombies is that we were also listening to classical music and to modern jazz, the blues, and rhythm and blues. So there was quite a wide spectrum of musical influences that went into The Zombies. And I think it was one of The Zombies’ strengths, but in some ways it was a bit of a weakness as well because I think people in the media found it quite difficult to categorize the kind of music that we played. And if they can’t categorize it, they don’t know whether a radio station should be playing it and they don’t know whether their magazine should be writing about it. It can confuse the issue a bit. As I said, it’s one of our great strengths that was also one of our weaknesses, I think.

It’s interesting that you were never pigeonholed as a mod band or as a psychedelic band with Odessey and Oracle?

Well, I think some people tried. We were fresh out of school – no one can help that. That was just our age. And we were deposited in the Press and Promotions office of Decca Records and they really didn’t know what to do with us because we hadn’t done anything. And in the UK especially, we were presented almost – and I’m sure this wasn’t what they were aiming for – but we were presented as “academic geeks.”And then Odessey and Oracle was recorded a year or so before it was released, so a lot of people will say that “Time of the Season” fit in very well with the summer of ’69 and flower power. But it was actually recorded some time before that, but it just happened that it fit the mood of the nation and the world at that particular time that it was released. I think The Zombies… when you’re talking about categorizing, we did have an image problem and it originates with the beginning of the band.

That’s how it looks when you look back. There are some terrible photographs to back it up, and it’s amazing. It seems like a small thing, but your first press biography, your first set of photos… they follow you around for years. They still crop up now! [Laughs] We still have atrocious pictures that turn up at gigs or in magazines, and it all comes from the very early days at Decca and I think it really damaged the band. I’m not saying this in any other way but with a smile on my face, looking back. [Laughs]

(Ed. Note: You can view one of these “atrocious” photographs here!)

Do you still listen to LPs? What were you listening to when you recorded your most recent album, Breathe Out, Breathe In? Many critics have noted some very specific influences.

I would say that both Rod and I listen to a very wide spectrum of music and all those influences come into songs we write and the way we record. I know that the first track on Breathe Out, Breathe In, a lot of people said it sounds a bit Steely Dan-ish and if it does, it’s a great compliment because we love Steely Dan, but that wasn’t the intention.

If there was anything that we thought we would try… we’d done a series of concerts for the 40th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle and we played it in its entirety with its original band, with the exception of poor old Paul Atkinson, who sadly passed away. The other guys – Rod Argent, myself, Hugh Grundy and Chris White – and we realized the power of things like the Mellotron in this concert, which we used because it’s on the album.

And we had extra singers to help with intricate harmonies. And so, on this album, the two things we took from the past was the use of the Mellotron and to emphasize the harmonies, and not only are some of the harmonies quite intricate, they’re also double-tracked, which we don’t always do. Those are the only two conscious threads that we too from the past into this album. Otherwise, it was quite honestly, choosing the ten best songs that were available at the time and recording them to the best of our ability. There was no other pre-conceived idea when we went into the studio.

It sounds like you had ten strong songs that could stand on their own, so do you feel that the album format is still important? 

I think to us it is. That may be because of the way we’ve been brought up we think of, in a very rough sense, that we’d like to make an album every two or three years – an album of brand-new songs, and consistently with ten new songs. It just seems like a nice way to recognize your progress. At the end of two years we can get together and see what songs we’ve written and spend some time in the studio together, sort of marking the progress that we’ve made. Along the road of life – that sounds a bit corny [Laughs] – we’ve literally been on the road those two years. [The album] is sort of a celebration of how we’ve grown in those two years.

The Zombies Official | Facebook | Twitter

The Zombies Tour Dates:
Thursday, August 2 – Waterfest Summer Concert Series, Oshkosh, WI
Sunday, August 5 – Highline Ballroom, New York, NY
Monday, August 6 – Highline Ballroom, New York, NY
Tuesday, August 7 – Wolf Den at Mohegan Sun, Uncasville, CT
Thursday, August 9 – Howard Theatre, Washington, DC

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