The Zombies Never Say Die

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Nearly 50 years after their masterpiece, Odessey and Oracle, it would be cruel and inaccurate to compare The Zombies to their trudging, undead namesakes. The jokes are too easy, and they overlook the fact that the band is still very much alive, determined to continue putting out compelling new material like the aptly named Still Got That Hunger (out Oct. 9) and revisit their past only when they can find a way to make it new again.

So when Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent reunite with the other surviving members of the original Zombies lineup—bassist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy—to tour the States, performing Odessey and Oracle in its entirety, it’s not because they’re resting on their laurels and becoming a nostalgia act. It’s because it’ll be the first time they’ve done it.

Given the huge cultural impact the album wound up having on this side of the pond, it’s easy to forget the band broke up before its 1968 release, never getting the chance to perform it live for American audiences. But a few reunion shows in the UK in 2008 and 2009 planted the seeds for this stateside tour. Catch it while you can, though—this US jaunt will be the first and last American Odessey and Oracle tour.

“It’s the kind of thing we weren’t really sure would ever happen,” Blunstone says. “We have done this in the UK, in 2009, but we thought that that would be the last time we’d ever do it. And then, we were just invited to do it in the States. There seems to be so much interest in Odessey and Oracle, and we were invited to do it in the States, and we decided we would have what I think will be our last concert doing Odessey and Oracle. I don’t think we’ll ever do it again, but it’s an opportunity for us to celebrate the completion of the album. It was nearly 50 years ago that we finished it. And it’s also an opportunity and meet up, tour and play with our old mates like Hugh Grundy and Chris White. I think it’s a very exciting prospect, and you know, we’re all really really looking forward to it.”

“For a long time we thought that it was going to be too expensive to bring to America,” Argent adds. “Because it’s a much bigger production than our normal concerts over there. We’ve got—as well as Chris and Hugh—we’ve got all our normal band involved with it…we thought if we were going to do it, we wanted to do it, and we could use every single note that was on the album, you know, either do it really 100 percent or not at all. And, Colin and I, I’ve often thought, one of the things that makes us really proud is that we’ve managed to build something up in America over the past few years to the extent that we now are in a position that we can take on something as big as this. Where I don’t think we could have done that a few years ago. I don’t think it would have been economically viable. But we are at the point now where we think we can make it work, and so, as Colin said, it will feel quite emotional working with the old, working with the original guys again. It’s something we’re really looking forward to.”

The fact that there’s such a market for an Odessey and Oracle tour in 2015 is something Argent and Blunstone never imagined; though the album is now considered a classic, one of its decade’s most iconic, it was originally met with lukewarm sales.

“We were always so proud of it, and when we finished it, we thought it was good, and we thought it was the best that we could do at that time,” Argent says. “And when it came out, it got great reviews but it just didn’t sell anywhere, at the time. And then extraordinarily, all these years later, it sells far more. Even though eventually there was a huge hit record from the album [“Time of the Season”], the album didn’t really sell in great quantities at the time. And it’s never going to be Dark Side of the Moon, but at the same time, it sells more every year now then it did when it first came out, which is quite extraordinary. And that momentum just keeps going.”

Thankfully it does, because as Blunstone notes, the album’s initial sales actually cemented the band’s breakup at the time. “I think it’s very hard to judge your own work, and consequently I don’t think any of us thought that ‘in 50 years’ time this album we’re working on will be judged by some to be one of the best albums from the ‘60s,’” he says. “I don’t think any of us saw it in those terms, but just to use a phrase that Rod used, personally, I thought it was the best that we could do. And leading on from there, when it wasn’t a commercial success, I think that in many ways that was one of the main reasons why the band ended. Because we all thought it was a good piece of work and it wasn’t a commercial success. And it starts to make you think, ‘Well perhaps it’s time for us to start getting involved in fresh projects, you know, moving on.’ And that’s in fact what happened.”

The chance to finally play the album in America means a lot to Blunstone and Argent, who have always had a special connection to the country—one they chronicle on Still Got That Hunger track “New York,” which details their first trip to the city in 1964.

“America to us has always been a magic land,” Argent says. “It’s always been a land where rock n’ roll came from, where the great black music came from, whether it’s the R&B and soul of Ray Charles or the fabulous jazz of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. It’s always been the source of great popular music, and because of that, it was always a magic land to us. It was when we were 11 years old when we first heard Elvis, [and] it was when we first got the film of those magic early rock ‘n’ rollers like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, so it’s a very special place to us. And the fact that we could actually go over to New York and actually make some success of what we were doing and to be accepted by some of the people that were our heroes that were there, that we were pretty scared to play in front of, actually—people like Ben E. King and The Drifters and The Shirelles and Patti LaBelle—and the fact they took us to their hearts, was, you know, it was like living a dream. It was so magical for us.”

But Still Got That Hunger doesn’t dwell on the past. In fact, one of its songs, “Chasing the Past,” serves as a sort of mission statement for the band at this stage in its career, as Blunstone sings “yesterday, it’s gone, it’s just as well, now we’ll take tomorrow and give it hell.”

“When Colin and I got back together again quite a few years ago now, we never looked at the past—first of all, we made a real point about not doing old songs and material because we don’t want to just rake over the embers,” Argent explains. “You know, we always got our energy from looking forward and to try and get our excitement from working on new ideas and making things work musically. That’s always how we naturally feel. Having said that, we then found ourselves quite naturally immersing ourselves in the Zombies canon of material and suddenly realizing that a lot of that stuff we didn’t play live the first time ‘round. So it became something that was naturally exciting to do in its own right. But, you know, we never, ever got together just to make a buck—I mean, you know, it’s lovely to make money!” He laughs. “I hope we make lots of money! But, at the same time, that’s not the main focus of what we do. It’s always the excitement of the music that drives us, and it was when we were 18. And it is now…And it feels like a real privilege to be at this stage in our careers and still find things opening up for us. You know, it’s not something you can say for a lot of—a lot of my friends are retiring now, [people] that I knew from many years ago. And we’re in that privileged position of being able to still go out all around the world and try and create new powers, and it’s really very energizing, and it’s something that you shouldn’t take for granted, I think.”

“I think at one time Chasing the Past was suggested as the title of the album, and in actual fact, the lyric is ‘there’s no case for chasing the past,’” Blunstone adds. “The lyric is the opposite to what you would think if you just said ‘chasing the past.’ And so we very quickly dismissed that idea.”

Argent chuckles. “We vetoed that one pretty quickly, didn’t we?”

“Absolutely,” Blunstone affirms. “Because it’s completely the opposite to how we feel.”

But there’s a difference between refusing to chase the past and ignoring it completely, and Still Got That Hunger features a few nods to that Zombies canon. Terry Quirk, who designed the cover for Odessey and Oracle (and is in fact responsible for the misspelling of “Odyssey” in its title), did the artwork and even included a tiny version of the Odessey and Oracle cover within it, in the arms of a headphones-sporting figure who appears to be listening intently.

“We did say ‘try and spell it right this time, Terry,’” Blunstone jokes.

“He did tell us what he was doing, and he said he wanted to base it on graffiti, which he’s very into at the moment,” Argent explains. “But the fact that we knew that it was going to have some real connection with his style from Odessey and Oracle— even though that wasn’t graffiti, that was more sort of psychedelic explosion, [but] at the same time there were real areas of connection graphically…We really loved it, we loved to see the connection, but it’s something in its own right as well. Again, it was lovely making the connection with things from the past but knowing that this is an entirely new project, and we had the same sort of feeling behind everything as when we recorded all those years ago. It’s a modern album—musically it’s modern, graphically it’s modern—but at the same time, we’re all doing it for the same reasons, and that’s true and honest.”

Still Got That Hunger also features a new version of their 1965 single “I Want You Back Again”—yet another way of revisiting the past without necessarily chasing it.

“It’s the only one [on the album] that is a remake, and the reason for that is… it’s like a two-part answer, really,” Argent says. “One of the things that I’ve already mentioned is that Colin and I got very interested by the fact that there were a lot of songs that we never played live the first time around, and ‘I Want You Back Again’ was one of those songs. And then one day we heard Tom Petty’s version because he recorded it on a live album recently, and we thought it was great. And we thought, ‘that’s a great song! Why have we never played it?’ And we started to play it, and by playing it, you know, it’s got a lot of the things in it that were intrinsic to the early songs. We’d always have bits of improvisation, it’s a very blues-based melody, and when we started doing it on stage, we really, really started to enjoy it. It went down great, and we thought, ‘Well, the spirit in which we’re doing it is entirely the same spirit as the original, but we’ve sort of taken it a step further, and the improvisation is a little bit more developed now,’ and we thought, you know, ‘just this once, let’s do a 2015 version of it.’”

And that’s essentially where the 2015 Zombies are as a band—their desire to keep moving forward and continue to write and record new material is strong, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have a fondness for their classics. They get that you want them to play the hits, and they’re happy to do that…but they’re confident you’ll like the new stuff, too.

“It’s not an easy thing to do, to get a setlist that runs smoothly and that covers songs that were first recorded in ‘64 and also includes songs that were recorded in 2015,” Blunstone says. “But I think it works really well with us, and we often find that the new songs get just as good reaction as the old, classic tunes.”

“We’re not tired of them, playing things like ‘Time of the Season’ and ‘She’s Not There’ and whatever,” Argent insists. “And what Colin is saying is absolutely true, that we’ve always been knocked out with the way the very new stuff goes down almost as well as the huge hits. And we’re very grateful for that. Because people embrace what we are trying to do. And they, and they receive it really enthusiastically.”

He and Blunstone are aware that they’re a rarity—a legacy band that refuses to simply rely on its legacy.

“We’re proud of this album, and I think we really want to try and get people to hear it,” he says. “And you know that can always be a problem with bands of our vintage, because the heritage stations, they only want to play old stuff. And the new stations say, ‘Oh you’re a heritage act, we’re not going to play that stuff, we don’t play heritage acts.’ So, it can sometimes be difficult to get it out there…[But] we’re hopeful that we can actually get this thing out there for people to hear, that people can respond to it emotionally—and I really hope they can. And we’re gonna try as much as we can to, you know, follow that through. Because we’ve put an awful lot into making this album, as I’m sure every band does if they care about what they’re doing.”

If the Zombies find themselves caught between the past and present, they seem quite comfortable with being in that limbo. But unlike the Walking Dead characters they share a name with, these Zombies are on one clear side of the fence when it comes to life and death. They’ve still got that hunger, that vivacity that only comes when you really care about what you’re doing, and it’s not brains they’re looking to feast on—at least not in that way. Theirs is a hunger fed by ears and hearts, and the plan is to keep coming for yours for as long as they’re able.

The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle tour kicks off tonight (Sept. 30) in Dallas, Texas. Check out the complete list of dates here, and watch The Zombies perform “She’s Not There” at Paste’s SXSW party in the player below.