By Chris Junior
With all due respect to bassist Chris White, drummer Hugh Grundy and late guitarist Paul Atkinson, the identifying sounds of The Zombies are Colin Blunstone’s ethereal voice and Rod Argent’s moody keyboards. Were it not for suggestions that Blunstone and Argent made to each other very early in the British rock band’s history, the sound — and fate — of The Zombies would have turned out much differently. Lately, Blunstone has kept busy fronting the current version of The Zombies (still anchored instrumentally by Argent) and working as a solo artist, but he found time to speak to Goldmine about his past, present and future.
Goldmine: The Zombies would have sounded much different had you and Rod not changed roles during the band’s first rehearsal in 1961. What are your memories of that historic day and how you — not Rod, as originally planned — became the lead singer?
Colin Blunstone: Funny enough, a lot of things Rod and I sometimes remember slightly differently, but I think we agree on this one. Rod was the lead singer, so he didn’t really do anything [on an instrument]. We had a break, and he went over to a broken-down piano in the corner of the rehearsal room, and he played it … and my jaw dropped. He was so breathtakingly good. I said to him, “You have to play keyboards in the band.” And he was a bit wary of it because he thought that all rock bands should just have three guitars. We discussed it, and it seemed a very natural thing to do. And the other thing that happened — and I think it may have been at the same first rehearsal — I just started singing a Ricky Nelson song. And Rod said, “Maybe you should be the lead singer [instead of a guitarist].” And I had never thought of me being a lead singer at all.
GM: When and how did you arrive at your vocal style? Growing up, were you a fan of singers with softer and smoother-sounding voices, and you tried to emulate them?
CB: I think, for the most part, it’s pretty much how I sing naturally. I don’t think I based my singing on anybody. I was a big Ricky Nelson fan. But I liked all of the rock greats, starting with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. But I didn’t try singing like them.
I think I was quite conscious in the ’60s that I wanted to sing with an English accent. A lot of British vocalists sing with an American accent, and I felt a bit self-conscious doing that — not to say they’re wrong. I’m not making any kind of judgment on them. But it felt more natural to me to sing with an English accent. I will say that Rod and I do talk about phrasing a lot. We did way back then, and we still do now. We’ll talk through a song in great detail before we perform it — especially his songs. He has a pretty definite idea of the phrasing.
GM: Onstage, you keep movement to a minimum, and you often leave the microphone, mostly untouched, in its stand. That’s quite a contrast to Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey and some of your other British-rock contemporaries. What or who influenced your stage presence?
CB: Well, I think it’s because of two things. One is that The Zombies were really led from the keyboards, and it seems more appropriate that I’m fairly restrained while we’re onstage. And the other thing is I would say that I’m not a particularly naturally coordinated mover. I’ve had many requests from my family to stand very still (laughs). I’ve been given permission to move my left knee — that’s as far as we’ve gotten so far in family discussions.
I also have a solo band, and I don’t move a lot in the solo band, either … I think when I was very young, I probably did move a bit more, but when I started to see myself on TV (laughs), I thought it would be best if I stood fairly still. Some people say it’s quite a powerful thing to do, to stand very still in the middle of hopefully what is a wonderful song and a wonderful performance from the band. Hopefully, that’s how it comes over. But it is intentional. And it seemed more appropriate in the original band on lots of levels, and so I’ve just stuck with it.
GM: How has your creative and personal relationship with Rod been over the last 10-plus years? Are things like they were between you guys throughout the 1960s run of The Zombies?
CB: I think it’s very similar, actually. When the original Zombies got back together [for shows in 2008], with Chris White and Hugh Grundy onboard again, it seemed to me that people fall back into their old relationships very easily. [We] re-established our positions in the band as if we last played yesterday.
And I think that’s true with Rod and I. It’s very similar to how we were in the ’60s. Rod is the dominant writer in The Zombies, and because of that, we all look to him for the songs and the arrangements. I’m very happy to do that.
GM: Late last year you ended a long gap between new solo albums with “On the Air Tonight.” How long was it in the works? And how do you approach recording a Zombies album compared with making a solo work?
CB: I’ve actually done quite a few solo albums, but I don’t think they got much attention in America. Since 1995, I think I’ve made four solo albums. This last one came out in the autumn in the U.K., and it probably took about 18 months. I think it would have been finished a lot sooner, but The Zombies are just touring all the time. I didn’t have any time to get into the studio. [Under different circumstances] we might have finished this solo album in three or four months, but instead, it took about 18 months. How I come to record a solo album in some ways is similar to The Zombies, and it’s very simple. We collect the 10 strongest songs that we’ve got, and when we have 10 strong songs, then we start recording an album. It might sound a bit simplistic, but it’s very hard to get strong songs.
GM: Talk about “So Much More” and “Dancing in the Starlight,” two songs you wrote on your own that are on the new album.
CB: Most of the songs that I write by myself are literally stories that have happened to me. I’ve told this story [about “So Much More”] a few times, and if I can just [repeat it now] in a lighthearted way: I met a very special person who was very inspirational and had had a lot of setbacks in life but stayed very positive. She’s a beautiful lady, and this song is based on her and how she overcame these challenges. And then I say her luck finally ran out, because I married her, so it’s really a story about my wife and thinking back to when I first met her. She had quite a difficult life, and yet she was one of the most optimistic and cheerful people that I’ve ever met.
And in a way, “Dancing in the Starlight” is a different take on the same subject. I feel I’ve made so many mistakes in life, and I sometimes say to my daughter, “I want you to observe and inwardly digest everything that I’ve done in my life, and then do the opposite.” The important thing to do is to learn from your mistakes.
GM: It’s only been two years since The Zombies released “Breathe Out Breathe In.” But is there a timetable for the band’s next studio album? Have any songs been written?
CB: It’s an interesting thought, because there’s a record label in America, and I don’t know who they are, who have been asking if we’re going to come up with a new album. They’d be interested in putting the album out. But because our live schedule has been so heavy, we haven’t had a lot of opportunity to write or record. As far as I know, Rod has one song completed, but he usually has quite a few ideas that could become songs. It is something we have to investigate. Most of this year, we’re going to be [on tour], so I can’t see that we can do much before the end of the year, to be absolutely honest. There are one or two old songs that we’ve been asked if we’d be interested in covering, and we may be able to [enter the studio] and do one or two tracks. But as for doing an album, I can’t see doing one before next year.