Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

Moogfest Preview: The Volt Per Octaves

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

The original idea for Moogfest came about while Dr. R.A. Moog (“Bob” to everyone who knew him and many who didn’t) was still among the living. Originally a smallish New York City-based event, it was initiated to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the company that bore the man’s name. Moog Music had been at the cutting edge of music since its inception, and though the company effectively went away for a number of years after Bob Moog left it, the company he founded after moving to Asheville (originally called big Briar) reacquired the rights to the Moog brand name in the early part of the 21st century.

The first Moogfest was a single night, and featured many of the biggest names associated with Moog instruments. By the time the second Moogfest rolled around, it had already begin to grow. It was around that time that an unsigned band from the west coast won a competition, the award of which was the opportunity to travel to open at Moogfest. That band – The Volt Per Octaves – was named after an electronic measurement credited to Moog, and initially featured husband and wife duo Nick and Anna Rhoney Montoya. The couple have known each other since they were fourteen, and Nick got into synthesizers when he was in high school. “I got my first Moog when I was about seventeen,” he recalls, “and I fell in love with it.” Nick and Anna became a couple in life, but didn’t collaborate musically until some seven years later. When they did, their goal was, Nick Montoya says, “playing vintage synthesizer music live, without samples or loops and computer. Just playing. With our fingers, and our toes, sometimes.” Their early influences included Air, The Moog Cookbook and other retro-minded projects as well as Aphex Twin and other more modern sounds.

That 2005 performance at BB King’s in NYC led to an endorsement deal with Moog Music. In the intervening years, Nick Montoya became an authorized service rep for Moog out west. In summer 2013 Nick and Anna and their daughter Eva relocated to Asheville, where all three now work in various capacities for Moog Music.

Mere days after Nick landed in Asheville, he posted a Craigslist ad offering his services on electronic pianos, an area of expertise above and beyond his synth-related technical prowess. I had just scored a very good deal on a 1973 Fender Rhodes Mark I piano in fairly rough condition. I made an appointment with Nick, and he came over a day or so later, tools in hand. Together we more or less disassembled and rebuilt the keyboard, though I should point out that my involvement was (wisely) limited to following simple, straightforward and explicit instructions. (I’m not very technical.) Within a couple of hours, we had restored the Rhodes to something not far from factory condition. Several months later Nick performed a similar act of resurrection on another of my thought-lost keyboards.

But though those happy episodes were my introduction to Nick, all of that is secondary to the music.

While there are certainly some big names – some really big ones, like Nile Rodgers and Chic, Keith Emerson, Kraftwerk, M.I.A. and many more – to me, The Volt Per Octaves are the sort of quintessential heart of Moogfest. They actually play Moog equipment, even. Nick and Anna play all manner of synths, while Eva Montoya provides additional synth and percussion and operates something Nick describes as “a robot thing called a Thingamagoop.” She also, chuckles Nick, “jumps around a little bit.”

While some might argue (and I’d guardedly agree) that in recent years Moogfest strayed a bit from its core concept, the 2014 event looks to be much truer to the spirit of Dr. Bob. A veritable teach-in, the five-day event will include talks by synth/electronic music pioneers whose names adorned some of the most forward-looking equipment of the electronic music era: Roger Linn and Tom Oberheim, to name but two. And all manner of talks that explore the nexus between technology and modern life are a big part of the festival. But the band that “traveled 3000 miles to play two songs” at Moogfest 2005 will enjoy a more prominent – and longer – performance at Moogfest 2014 here in Asheville.

Stay tuned for extensive Moogfest coverage on the Musoscribe blog.

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 4

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: As much as I love your songwriting, two of my favorite tunes of yours have always been “Hold Back the Night” and “I Want You Back,” both soul/r&b covers. How did you discover that sort of music when you were young, and – since it has clearly influenced your style – what do you think it was and is about that kind of music that connected with you on an emotional level?

Graham Parker: None of that was a stretch in England in the 70s. After The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, there was a sort of subculture of soul, ska and Motown. And a sort of mod look, but more like skinheads. We looked like skinheads, but without the violence. Well [chuckles], sometimes, but not always.

And the culture was going to the clubs and listening to that music. Even going to see The Skatalites in the suburbs of England! I saw them, for goodness’ sake, in a provincial town, a nowheresville. These people would tour ’round here. [In the 60s] Otis Redding would play at a big scene about five miles from me. I was probably about fourteen [circa 1964-5]. Maybe sixteen. And in those days, we knew about things by seeing posters. And if you didn’t go out in a car that week, you wouldn’t see a poster. And you’d miss Otis Redding, playing down the road!

It wasn’t a stretch for us to be into that kind of music. It was a semi-underground thing; the charts were still much more pop music. But it was really something that got into my blood at that age. And then you get out of that and into the psychedelic era, then the blues era – Peter Green and Chicken Shack – I went through all that and forgot about soul music.

By the time I got to my early 20s, I might hear “I Want you Back” on the radio. And I realized, “That’s never gonna die.” Whereas a lot of this progressive rock, it’s dead in the water, y’know? So my entire attitude changed once again. I rediscovered that music, and I suddenly had a plan, as it were, or a direction to reinstate soul music into the culture. But to do it in an English way, of course. Like the Rolling Stones had done blues in an English way. And the Beatles did “Please Mr. Postman” and stuff like that.

BK: It’s part of the proud tradition of British artists serving up American music to Americans, filtering it though a British sensibility.

GP: Right. There was really nothing original about what I was doing. I was just doing it in my way, and it sounded like me. And it was extremely aggressive. We were also doing “You Can’t Hurry Love.” It’s on the [1976] Live at Marble Arch record, I think. Which at the time, 1976-76, was radical. The audience would see us doing that, and they would think we were doing bad pop music. They didn’t understand, because it wasn’t progressive, and there weren’t big lead guitar solos. But we took soul music and beefed it up into hard rock’n'roll style. But as I say, it wasn’t any more original than what The Beatles or Stones or Chris Farlowe were doing.

I was writing songs that were very soul influenced, but with more intellectual lyrics. But it wasn’t slavish, like the Alabama Shakes, which is basically a very good slavish copy. I wasn’t doing that, ever.

BK: A good bit of the film focuses on the events leading up to and including the making of Three Chords Good. What abut the experience of making that record was the same as the old days, and what was different?

GP: It was much different because we didn’t have a producer. It was me and my engineer/co-producer Dave Cook, saying, “We’re doing it. No way are we looking for some outside producer; it’s not going to happen.” And the band went along with it. Everybody in the studio was very glad of that. We know what we’re doing now; all that mystique about a great producer, that’s gone. It’s rubbish. What you need is an engineer who knows what he’s doing. And I had the experience to know what my songs are about. You don’t need someone walking in who’s heard them twice and thinks they know what they are! They never did; it was really getting in the way.

It was better. Everyone could relax and come up with their own ideas. And nobody had to listen to another guy who they’d barely met. Because [producers] always want to put their ten cents in. They’re being paid to do that.

BK: All the upcoming dates listed on your site are in the UK or western Europe. Do you have any plans to tour the states, or is that even feasible?

GP: Because we did it twice – and we did all of my markets in the States, and let’s face it: I have a limited amount of markets – there are only so many markets that make it feasible for a six-piece band and crew to come through without going broke.

It just seemed to happen. We did four dates in England; Shepherd’s Bush was sold out months in advance. To a certain extent, the response was even better than in America. In America, we’d just fill out a 1000-seat venue in New York for the last few dates. In England, we’d fill out a 2000-seater months in advance. So basically, I go where I’m in demand. And as soon as my agent saw that – him and the promoter – they went out thick as thieves and said, “Let’s do some more!” And I kind of got bowled along with it. Now we’ve got all this stuff lined up, including Europe, and I don’t really know how much I want to do this all year’ round. And – to talk in hard terms – I don’t think I can strain my market. And to tour America again that soon with The Rumour, I think that this year is out as far as the U.S. Is concerned. I’ve got other markets, like Scandinavia and Spain, that I have not toured in a long time. They want me to go other there solo, or any way possible. But how much life there is in this dog, I don’t know. I really take it bit by bit.

BK: Two Chords Good was released more than a year and a half ago. And while the bootleg box set is a recent release, what are your plans as far as recording releases for the future?

GP: Well, the lot of us are meeting in London, and we’re doing a record in about a week’s time. How about that? [chuckles]

BK: Fantastic!

GP: You may be the first to know that.

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 3

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: As the new Ask Me No Questions documentary points out, you parted ways with The Rumour after The Up Escalator (1980), but with the exception of Another Grey Area (1982), you pretty much continued to work with guitarist Brinsley Schwarz on many of your recordings. What was it about him that led you to keep using him but not the other guys in The Rumour?

Graham Parker: I’ve never really been able to answer that questions, really. Actually it was him and Andrew [Bodnar] on the bass as well. They continued on quite a lot of stuff. If you think of The Mona Lisa’s Sister [1988] – which was quite a radical record for me, production-wise – I had gotten fed up with all these 80s-sounding producers, and wanted something with as few instruments as possible. I had never really done that, and I pulled off something quite different, I think. Brinsley and Andrew were part of that, and they were on the road with me. So we did quite a lot together.

But I don’t really know the answer; it just seemed to fall into place without me thinking about it. Brinsley is a foil for me; he can take off the rough edges a bit. Martin [Belmont], as a guitarist, is sort of rough-edged. He’s a brilliant guitarist, and he actually played some incredible guitar on Howling Wind. That’s a lot of him playing the lead on songs like “Don’t Ask Me Questions.” Much more than people think. But he’s got that incredible intensity: Martin cannot lay back. Brinsley adds a dimension that real counts against what I do. So it seemed normal and natural to me; I don’t know how it happened, but I just started talking to Brinsley, and I said,”I want you to help me with The Mona Lisa’s Sister.” He was also on Steady Nerves [1985].

Also, some of the guitarists I was finding myself working with via producers like Jack Douglas on Another Grey Area, I didn’t think they were quite right for me. I didn’t think they had enough individuality in their playing; Brinsley has great individuality. So he has both of those things: a style that can smooth of some of my edges, making a very nice balance, and also individuality as a player. But it’s only now looking back and analyzing it that I can see why I did it.

BK: You mentioned about the 80s sound on some of the records. For me, the only one that really has what I’d consider “dated” production is the one that has “Break Them Down” on it…

GP: Steady Nerves, yeah. That was around the time I was saying, “Oh, I should be my own producer.” But I didn’t really have the guts to do it completely. So I got this guy Bill Whitman, who had engineered the She’s So Unusual album by Cyndi Lauper. And if you think of the sound of that, it personifies the 80s. Not that it wasn’t good; it was very good. He had done that record, and he was in that mode. There was no shaking him out of that. And I went along with it, because it was what you did then. You made an absolutely enormous drum sound, and all the instrument had a load of reverb on them. Everything was drenched in that sound. And that one’s definitely a culprit.

And that’s why I went radically against it with The Mona Lisa’s Sister. I really wanted to do the opposite. Although, if you listen to “Start a Fire” now, you could very well say, “That sounds very 80s.” The difference is, there’s one acoustic guitar doing the rhythm on a sort of disco beat song. Which is sort of unusual; that song is on a lot of alternative [compilation] records. But on that record, I stopped at four instruments: “We’re not gonna double the guitars.” That’s what you did on 80s records; if I played a rhythm guitar on Steady Nerves, the producer would say, “Double it.” So then you’d play what you did again, and they’d copy it. Because it made everything “bigger.” But in hindsight, it made everything smaller, in a strange kind of way. It squashed it with lots of treatment, lots of reverb. And that kind of production really canceled out the rock’n'roll element. It did so very effectively. And we were all guilty of that. We were searching for a bigger sound, but what we were getting was a louder sound. So it was very good to make The Mona Lisa’s Sister, and even better to make Struck by Lightning [1991]. By then, everything was much more grassroots again. There are a couple of tracks on that one that are overdone with production, but mostly, it’s back to the roots.

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 2

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In the new documentary film Don’t Ask Me Questions, you come off very authentically as a sensitive, soft-spoken individual. But back in the 80s, like many people, I think, I was convinced of your reputation as an angry, sort of perhaps even confrontational artist. How and why do you think that reputation developed?

Graham Parker: Well [laughs], there’s some brilliant stuff from Bruce Springsteen on that, about my material. He said that there was always this “caustic sound.” And that’s true. Because when I started, I’d had pretty much zero experience. I’d written these songs, and was totally green to the whole process. And I found myself instantly with a record deal. I had found the right people, like David Robinson, who managed me and then got all those great musicians behind me. And once that had happened, there was a record deal. Out of the blue, really.

So my style was already very aggressive. That just seemed to be the way I was writing and singing at that point in my life, in my early twenties leading up to 1975 when we started. I developed that style of singing, and I didn’t really know anything else.

It’s still there in my vocals, but it’s softened a lot. Because I enjoy actually singing now. I think it’s much more suitable for the kind of songs I write, and probably would have been more suitable in the first place. But there again, hindsight et cetera.

You can’t help but hear it: “This guy is really pissed off!” And [laughs] I did it on love songs as well. It was a style; I just wanted to be harder and louder and nastier. Remember, in that part of the 70s, there wasn’t any punk rock or any of that, and I wanted to sort of change what was going on. And somehow I found this extremely aggressive vocal style, and stuck to it.

So it’s understandable that people have that impression. And that’s okay.

BK: You’re know for your heartfelt lyrics; A Graham Parker song is never a simple moon-june love ditty. But many of those deeply heartfelt songs – especially from the period during which you worked with The Rumour – were written by a man in his 20s. When you sing those now, do the lyrics still resonate with you, or do you feel that since you’re singing the words of a man less than half your age that they sentiments are somehow alien or even naïve?

GP: Ah, that’s an interesting point. It doesn’t strike me that they’re out-of-date. It doesn’t strike me that way at all. Because obviously – with or without The Rumour – I do play those songs from my early-early career. There’s a few periods where I might be doing shows where I’m really concentrating on a newer period, but there’s always old ones. Especially from Howling Wind; they seem fairly universal to me.

There are some songs where I think, “Nah, I don’t really want to do that.” They’re not quite right; they don’t quite sit right for me, now. But for the most part, I don’t listen to them and think, “I don’t understand this.” I know what I was thinking. They all make sense. Some of them I wouldn’t write now, but there’s nothing alien to me there.

BK: There’s a belief among some that conflict, turmoil and distress are somehow essential ingredients for artists to create enduring works. And while I’d say that that “Mercury Poisoning” is one of my favorite of your tracks, I’m not sure I buy the argument that – if you’ll pardon the horrible metaphor – you have to have sand in the oyster to get the pearl. What do you think?

GP: “Mercury Poisoning,” for instance, is a joke. When an artist starts complaining about his record company in his songs, you should start worrying. It’s not a good sign; it’s a sign of running out of ideas.

My manager was much angrier than me, and he told me to write an entire album of hate-songs. That’s literally how it came about! I wrote one, and said, “I’ve said it all in this song, Dave. That’s enough. Okay?” So I stopped there, thankfully, and wrote [the songs for] Squeezing Out Sparks. A much better idea, really; let’s face it.

People never, ever seem to get it. But the first album had songs like “Between You and Me” on it. And “Gypsy Blood,” though that’s a song I don’t like now; it’s a sort of maudlin, romantic song. But they don’t remember that, and so they think that “Mercury Poisoning” sums it all up. “New York Shuffle” is another one. And that’s really a very, very small part of what I do. But again, I would even do a love song back in the 70s as if I were trying to hurt somebody. And it took a long time for me to temper that with some actual singing.

To be continued…

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 1

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Once pegged as one of rock’s angry young men, these days Graham Parker is neither angry nor young. And while his profile these last few decades has been lower than in his commercial heyday (1976 to the mid 80s, and even then only a modest commercial success), Parker has continued to release a remarkably consistent string of albums that are true to the virtues he’s long championed. As he sang on his (best) album, 1979′s Squeezing Out Sparks, “Passion is No Ordinary Word.” But it’s a word that aptly sums up Parker and his music. As he told an NME interviewer in 1979, “All I want to do is send a shiver up people’s spines.”

Bursting on the scene in the late 70s, Parker thrilled critics but confounded the marketplace; was he a punk? Was he part of the then-nascent UK pub-rock scene? Was he part of rock’s heartfelt old guard (Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Phil Lynott)? Or was he – as the odd passerby still sometimes asks him – Gram Parsons?

A new documentary film, Don’t Ask Me Questions attempts to answer these and other burning questions. And it does so with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of Parker, who – surprisingly to those taken in by his angry persona – happily fields queries, reggaefied song titles be damned. Luckier still for me, he is happy to answer my questions as well.

Bill Kopp: When you were first approached about the film Don’t Ask Me Questions, what was you reaction? Were you skeptical? Suspicious? Enthusiastic?

Graham Parker: It was in the late 90s that I met them. I was doing a gig; I remember it specifically. It was something for the Long Island Brewing Company. I don’t know why I remember that, because there’s a lot of gaps in my memory! But that’s when (director/producer) Michael Gramaglia and his brother approached me. They had done the Ramones film, End of the Century. And I said, “Well, that’s a story: The Ramones.” It’s sort of Shakespearean, y’know. I said, “You won’t get much material from me. It’s boring, really.” But they didn’t really believe that.

It took a couple of years. I’d just put them off, really. I told them, “I just don’t think there’s the material there. I don’t think it’s worth it.” It would be a lot of trouble for something that would just be…a flop. I didn’t have any confidence in it.

In 2001, I had this short story book, Cod Fishing on Valium published. And I thought that was quite an exciting thing, that I’d got St. Martin’s Press behind it, and a literary agent who loved it. It was going very well, and then I did a little tour promoting the book, reading bits of it. And playing songs specifically written for the stories, which is a very gutsy, unusual sort of thing to do. I did about eight to ten gigs like that, mostly in the Northeast.

I called them up and said, “Why don’t you do a film about this?” And of course then I had opened the door. Once you open the door, all bets are off. So from then it just kept going. So every year, a few times, Michael might film a bit of me, come to a studio, do an interview. So now he’s got tons of footage of stuff that didn’t make it [into the finished film].

It just went on like that. That’s why it took so long. Filmmaking can take many, many years. And it was really finished…until I went and dropped the bomb. I’d done it: I’d re-formed The Rumour. And I was going to be in this Jud Apatow film [This is 40]. The documentary was finished; we’d already had a screening in New York. Three of The Rumour came, and we had all these [Kickstarter] donors. And suddenly I dumped this [reunion project which culminated in the release of 2011's Three Chords Good] on them, and so it wasn’t finished at all.

But then [Gramaglia] had the finish he wanted; he had always wanted something dramatic. And I had been telling him, “It’s not gonna happen.” I don’t work on plans; I work more on whims, really. But we got a more satisfying finish for the film.

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Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part Three)

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

One thing that has changed – somewhat – is Rod Argent‘s keyboard arsenal. “I would only ever use my real [Hammond] C3, a Leslie [rotating speaker], and a beautiful Steinway concert grand piano in the studio. When we are recording an album, that goes without saying.”

“But,” Argent admits, “on stage, it’s so convenient and so reliable to use the new modules. I think that onstage the Hammond XK3 holds up really well. It’s obviously about a tenth of the weight of a real Hammond organ. I have memories of those days of when I would help huff that ’round myself! I couldn’t play for two hours because my forearms would hurt so much. I mean, it’s a bloody nightmare. And it would go wrong about once every two nights because they are not made to be thrown around the world.” He adds an amusing vignette: “The first time I came to the States with Argent, we brought our English one over, it came up on the [baggage] carousel. The whole thing came up on the carousel, like a huge theater organ!”

When seeing the band live today, a common reaction among audience members is, “Oh, gosh! I forgot they did that one!” Another is the look of sheer joy on many faces in the audience. I ask Colin Blunstone and Argent if they get a sense of that feedback when they’re up on stage.

“I always get a sense of that,” says Argent. “I always ask that instructions be given to the lighting people not to put the audience in total blackness. I don’t want them to be brightly lit, but I like to be able to just catch people’s reactions and movements so there is a real feeling of interaction between us and them. In the middle of this tour I am going to be 69, and I can’t believe it. But when we are on stage, it feels 100% the same as when I was 18 years old. That is such a privilege and it does not happen in many professions. And I love it.”

“You definitely do get a sense of it,” concurs Blunstone. “If you have an enthusiastic and supportive audience, that’s why performers want to perform. That’s what we do it for, really. It really lifts you, and it’s a completely different experience to that of playing somewhere where you’re not very well known, with a very quiet audience. You have to sort of work a lot harder to get a good performance in a situation like that. It’s incredibly important that you have that enthusiastic audience. It’s very easy when you go out onstage to a wonderful audience; they do it for you.”

The group are already at work on a studio followup to 2011′s Breathe Out, Breathe In. “We’ve already started recording. We’re rehearsing three or four songs, and we’ve recorded two tracks; we just did one the other day. And we’ve got one more day of recording next week. But after that, of course, we’ll be away for six weeks. Later in the summer – I think the end of June – we’ll start recording again. And we’ve deliberately kept the second half of the year quite free. So it will be a time of writing and recording.”

Argent elaborates, saying, “the other day, just for fun, we started doing a song called, ‘I Want You Back Again,’ which was a very little known Zombies a-side in France and was a very small hit there in 1965. And we played this original song for a very short period of time. We heard Tom Petty do it, and we thought, “This is a great song! Why aren’t we doing this?” And so we started doing it on stage. And, just for fun, ’cause we love doing it on stage so much, and we think the band sounds so good now, we wanted to capture the 2014 version. And, strange enough, when you just called me, we just had it blasted and I was just playing it through. It sounds great. It sounds so much in common with the original, but I think it sounds better. I think it has all of that fresh feeling, absolutely no overdubs at all. We recorded it live, like we do on stage. The vocal was live, everything was live but in a studio environment.”

Both men still feel they have a lot to offer musically. “We are having a ball doing it,” Argent says. “And we have discovered that we are not trying to be what we were in the ’60s, but there are a lot of parallel elements going on. We are just trying to make things work for us in the same way that we were trying to make things work for us when we first started out.”

Asked if any of the new, as-yet-unreleased material will be previewed on their tour, Blunstone is circumspect. “We haven’t been talking about that, no. But we may well play some at sound check, and if they start to sound polished, maybe we’ll experiment. We’ll be playing lots of hits and lots of newer material; I like to think that there’s something there for everyone.”

The Zombies will perform at Asheville NC’s Orange Peel on Tuesday, April 15.

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Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part Two)

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Continued from Part One

“I can’t tell you why [Odessey and Oracle] wasn’t successful when it first came out,” offers Rod Argent, “unless it was the fact that everything was so much more based in the country where you lived in at that time. And we only ever had one hit in the UK. Fewer hits in the UK than anywhere else in the world! We later found out we almost always had a hit somewhere in the world at any point that we were together, except in the UK. And because our profile had got so low in the UK, Odessey and Oracle came out – and it actually got great critical reviews, let’s be honest – but it didn’t sell. There was no real viability to it.

Argent continues. “There are two reasons why it later became successful. One was that it was picked up by well-known people who became fans. Paul Weller became a huge fan, and then more and more young indie groups of the time. I mean, Paul was a young hotshot when he first came out in the UK and he picked this as his favorite album of all time. And that is something he still says now. And then just succeeding waves of young indie bands and established artists, people like Tom Petty and Dave Grohl have said absolutely lovely things about it all the way along. Now that has obviously helped.”

“The other reason that I think it hasn’t faded away, if you like,” Argent adds, “is that we never tried to just be commercial when we made that record. In the same way that we recorded everything all those years ago – and we still do now, – and we don’t think, ‘How can we make a hit record?’ We never thought that; we just thought, ‘I’ve got this musical idea. How can we make it work?’ And that was always the focus of what we did, and that is the focus of what we do now.”

Colin Blunstone agrees. He says that “radio programmers ask, ‘What is it? Is it rock? Is it jazz?’ People don’t know how to program it. I think that is really a problem that the Zombies suffered from all the way through their brief professional career from ’64 to ’67. We didn’t really fit. We never wrote to have hits. We wrote what we wanted to write.”

“When you are honest like that,” says Argent, “it might not be the most commercial thing in the short term, because what you are not doing is trying to tap in to what used to be in the old days ‘zooming up the charts.’ Instead, you are trying to please yourself. In the long term, I believe that that means things don’t date quite as much as some other things. It is important not to try and make it with that in mind, but just try and do it for the right reasons. When young artists come up to me and ask what advice can I give, I say, ‘Well, there is not much I can give except really to say be true to yourself. Just do what turns you on. Do things for the right reason. Don’t try to do things just to be famous.’ There is nothing wrong with trying to be famous. But first of all, try to be the best at what you can do. If you asked an 18 year old when we started, ‘What do you want to be?’ he would say, ‘I want to be in the best group in the world. I want to be the best guitar player in the world.’ Nowadays you ask and they say, ‘I want to be famous.’ And it is a very different thing.”

“We still cut records now that we like,” says Blunstone, “and just hope that just hope that if we like them, and if the performances mean something to us, it seems logical that there is at least a chance there are other people out there that will derive the same pleasure that we do from these performances.”

I remark that Blunstone’s voice seems largely intact, having changed little since the group’s debut some 45 years ago. “I do work at it. Rod and I both started with a singing coach probably ten or fifteen years ago. Not when we were young; we did it in this incarnation of the Zombies. He taught us some things about technique, and I think it helped us to keep our voices strong and fairly accurate.”

“And it is important that your voice is strong,” Blunstone adds, “because we have to play…we usually keep it to five nights on the trot, five nights and then we try and have a day off. Because a lot of these songs we play are, for our voices, in very high keys. We’re really straining. All the songs we play are in the original keys. We’re singing in the same keys, in our late sixties, that we were singing when we first recorded them. When we were eighteen. It really does pay to have a little bit of singing technique, and to know how to support your voice. And to sing from your diaphragm.”

Blunstone believes something valuable is lost when a song’s key is changed. “The song won’t sound the same. By the by, [laughs] I do feel that I’ve strained my voice this week! And here I am agreeing with you about how strong my voice is. I’ve been singing a lot, and we’ve got a lot of singing next week as well. I’m trying to keep my fingers crossed; I do everything I can to keep my voice sharp, to keep it in shape.”

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Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part One)

Friday, April 11th, 2014

The Zombies are among the fondly-remembered cast of characters from the British Invasion (or, as they somewhat more succinctly call it in the UK, the Beat Era). While they certainly didn’t rock as hard as The Who, Yardbirds, or The Kinks, and enjoyed nowhere near the level of chart success that The Beatles and Rolling Stones achieved, their subtly jazz-inflected pop music has worn quite well. One of the more sophisticated (musically and lyrically) groups of the era, their hits – “Tell Her No,” “Time of the Season,” “She’s Not There” and more – remain staples of oldies radio, and sound much fresher in 2014 than anything by Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clark 5.

The Zombies famously broke up – thinking they had gone as far as they could – -before their best album, Odessey and Oracle [sic] was released. And while that might have been the end of the story, the former band members remained quite busy. Keyboardist and vocalist Rod Argent started his own eponymous band, scoring the monster hit “Hold Your Head Up” and a smaller hit, “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” Lead vocalist Colin Blunstone went on to a solo career and did notable work on a number of Alan Parsons Project tracks.

But it wasn’t until the tail-end of the 20th century that Argent and Blunstone reunited, and not for several more years before they reactivated the Zombies. After mounting a UK tour that culminated in a live run-through of Odessey and Oracle (with the four surviving original members), The Zombies (Argent, Blunstone and other slightly younger players including Jim Rodford from 80s era Kinks and Rodford’s son) became a going proposition once again. They now tour regularly, and released an album of original music (2011′s Breathe Out, Breathe In) to positive reviews.

The Zombies bring their show to Asheville NC on April 15 – the band’s first time here – and I spoke to Argent and Blunstone ahead of the tour. In many ways they’re more popular now than they were the first go-round, some 45 years ago. Colin Blunstone offers his take on that conundrum: “I think that if you understood why we are more popular in one era than another – or if you understood why one record sold more than another record – obviously you could put the situation right and everything would be fine. The thing is there are so many unpredictable and unknown quantities in the music business, no one really knows the answers to those questions.

“For me,” he continues, “the most exciting thing that has happened from my career is this renaissance of the Zombies. We have a really, really great live band to go out night after night and play around our country, your country; we play around the world. And we have managed, without a hit record, to recreate some of that interest that was there in the original incarnation of the band in the ’60s. I think that is really exciting, because it is just word of mouth that traveled as a result of the performances.”

“The thing is that we did not plan any of this,” Rod Argent says. “Colin and I just got back together by accident when we did. We didn’t plan it at all. We decided to put a band together and do a half a dozen gigs for fun, not any particular focus on the Zombies. It felt so lovely to be working together again.

“It just sort of spiraled,” he continues. “It took a long time for us to embrace the original feeling of the Zombies. The last thing we wanted to do was just to try and go out there and milk it, do it to make a buck. We really did not want to look back; that wasn’t the reason we were doing it. We were doing it because we suddenly found ourselves having a great time working together again. But, when we started to write a little bit of new material, and to expand our direction in that way, it suddenly felt relevant, and not like a cop out, to go back and rediscover a lot of the old material.

“And then,” he says, “we realized that a lot of that old material that we had never played. Not least, the Odessey and Oracle stuff. Because we had never had performed that live. When we did that in Shepherd’s Bush in 2008, we played from start to finish. That’s the first and only time we reproduced every note from that album. We got other forces in because we had to, because we had overdubbed stuff on the original album. And I said to Chris [White, original Zombies bassist], “If we are going to do this, then we’ve got to reproduce every single note that was on the original album.” We did that. I even went out and bought a 1890s Victorian pump organ so we could get the exact sound on “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”

Speaking (again) of Odessey and Oracle, I wonder why the album was such a slow burner, seeing as it now stands as an exemplar of that late-60s baroque rock style. Blunstone offers his perspective: “The obvious thing to say is that the band decided to finish before the album was even released. It was a time when the single was still important and we had released, I think, a couple of singles, maybe even three singles from the album. They hadn’t had any commercial success and I think everyone felt that we had gone as far as we could. And so the band decided to finish so there was no band to promote the album. I think that piece was a huge part of it.”

“I think that everyone in the band felt it was the right time for us to finish,” Blunstone adds. “We felt we had completed a musical circle. We had given all we’d got to give on that particular project, and it was time to move on and get involved in other projects.” He pauses and then goes further. “With a tiny bit of hindsight, I am probably the only one who feels like this: I would have been intrigued to have seen what we might have done if the band had stayed together. In particular, I think, Rod Argent and Chris White’s writing skills were really magnificent at that time. Really fabulous. They still are, but it seemed they just really sort of exploded just at that time in the late ’60s. I would have loved to have seen what we would have gone on and done.”

“But,” he says, “I feel that is one of the main problems, as I was saying, there was no band to promote [Odessey and Oracle]. I think it is a unique album. The sound of that album is not really like anything else from that period.”

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Preview: The Graham Parker Interview

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

I first discovered the music of Graham Parker in the early-early 80s, in the finale year of my high school career. This was before MTV; if I recall correctly – this was a looong time ago – I learned of him via his association with other British acts I enjoyed. People like Nick Lowe (who produced Parker’s Stick to Me album) and so forth. At the time, I didn’t know enough about pop music history to understand how Parker fit into the musical mosaic; later I’d appreciate this his music draws upon American soul and r&b as much as rock, and was part of the proud tradition of deeply personal and powerful singer/songwriters (see also: Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy‘s Phil Lynott) but even then I had the feeling that he was well apart from the punk/new wave scene.

I grabbed up his albums whenever I found them; I even snagged a copy of The Pink Parker, the 1977 EP that contained Graham Parker and The Rumour‘s thrilling cover of The Trammps‘ “Hold Back the Night.” But once the vinyl era ended, I began to lose contact with Parker’s music. Live! Alone in America was the last Parker album (cassette, actually) I heard for many years.

Recently I discovered that he’s remained active, and that I well should have continued to pay attention. He reunited with his old band The Rumour in 2012 for a well-received album called Three Chords Good. And the fire still burns brightly for Parker and his mates.

The other big bit of news is the release – this week, in fact – of the long-gestating documentary film Don’t Ask Me Questions. It’s an incisive look at Parker and his music, from the beginning ’til now. Available on DVD and download, it’s a highly enjoyable and well-paced look at Parker, and of course the music is stellar.

I was even more thrilled to have scored an interview with Graham. I spoke to him last weekend, and am rush-releasing the resulting feature for release next week. In the meantime, I highly recommend Don’t Ask Me Questions. Keep an eye out for my Parker interview, right here, middle of next week (around April 16).

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Coming Attractions: Stay Tuned

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Both in the professional and personal sides of my life, there’s a lot going on at the moment. It’s all good, but it does put some serious constraints upon my time management skills. Nonetheless, I plan to continue my unbroken string of blog entries (one per business day, every week since June 2009.

This week alone will see a lot of blog-related activity for me, though the fruits of those activities won’t show up until the coming weeks. I recently interviewed jazz/fusion guitar legend Larry Coryell; we discussed his latest album, The Lift, but we also spent a good deal of time on his career overall, stretching back into the 1960s. Look for that feature soon.

Keith Allison initially made his name as a co-star (alongside Paul Revere and the Raiders) on the weekly TV show Where the Action Is. He had previously been in The Crickets, and eventually joined The Raiders, with whom he remained until the mid 70s. He’s remained quite musically active since that time. A new compilation of his Columbia Records releases (plus some even-more-rare small label sides) have been collected on a new release from Real Gone Music. We discussed that and much, much more. He’s always a fun interview, and I’m really excited about sharing that feature with my readers.

The early 1970s was a fertile period for the style of music we now call fusion. Keyboardist Todd Cochran (aka Bayeté) released an album that’s an exemplar of the genre; Worlds Around the Sun has been out of print for decades, and used copies command steep prices. Omnivore has reissued the album, and last week I enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation with Todd. Look for that feature soon.

Speaking (again) of jazz, I’ve just completed work on the liner notes and package design for another long-unavailable album due for reissue on Real Gone Music. Cannonball Adderley‘s double LP The Black Messiah will be out in May. My liner notes include excepts from an interview I did last week with Adderley biographer Cary Ginell. The Black Messiah is one of the most varied albums you’ll ever hear, and I’m honored to be involved with its long-overdue reissue.

German art/space/prog rockers RPWL haven’t made inroads into the American market, but they certainly deserve to. Their upcoming album Wanted might be the one that breaks them through. I reviewed their live album not long ago, and I’ll be interviewing the band later this week. Keep an eye out for that feature.

The Zombies are legends. They enjoyed a number of hits in the 1960s (“Tell Her No,” “She’s Not There,” “Time of the Season,” and more). When they split at the decade’s end, lead singer Colin Blunstone went on to a solo career (including sessions for The Alan Parsons Project), while keyboardist Rod Argent formed a group called…well, you know. “Hold Your Head Up” was their biggest hit. These days Rod and Colin tour again as The Zombies, and I’ll be speaking with both of them in the next few days. Look for a feature soon (they’re coming to Asheville NC’s Orange Peel on April 15, by the way). I saw them a few years back in Chapel Hill’s Cat’s Cradle, and I’m here to tell you: they’ve still got it.

Organist Dr. Lonnie Smith is a star of the jazz, soul-jazz, funk and jam idioms. Though the “doctor” honorific and the ever-present turban are stylistic affectations, his music is the real deal. He’s playing at Asheville’s Isis Music Hall this Friday, and I’ll be conducting a pre-show interview with him. That feature will be online soon.

And on top of all that, I have a huge pile of CDs – new music and reissues – that I’ll be reviewing in the coming weeks. The music never stops at Musoscribe World HQ, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks for reading.

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