January 19, 2013

An Interview with Colin Blunstone of The Zombies

Nearly half a century ago Colin Blunstone emerged as one of England’s most singular, evocative vocalists. As the lead singer of the Zombies, whose classic hits like “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time of the Season” helped define the British Invasion, Blunstone imparted sophistication and grace that were rare for the era. Although the group called it quits upon the release of their 1968 LP, Odessey and Oracle, Blunstone eventually found his footing as a solo artist beginning with 1971’s One Year, with such gems as “Caroline Goodbye and “Though You Are Far Away” earning him even further distinction.

While his post-Zombies endeavors haven't enjoyed the same success in the States as they have in his native country, Blunstone has continued to explore and expound upon his talent, whether recording under his own name or in collaboration with other artists, most notably Alan Parsons and fellow Zombies alumnus Rod Argent. For a little over the past decade, in fact, Blunstone and Argent have (with an otherwise revamped lineup) brought the Zombies back to life in the recording studio as well as on the concert stage. “It reminds people of what we did years ago,”
 says Blunstone, and I hope it enhances it.”

The same could be said for his eleventh and latest solo effort, On The Air Tonight, which reflects the hallmark sublimity of Blunstone’s classic works in timeless, touching ways.

The Zombies had a very distinct sound. Did you guys consciously strive to have a unique sound or did that unique sound come about because of the makeup of the band, particularly with Rod Argent on keyboards?

It was just the way the band sounded naturally. I think to some extent that sound evolved over a period of years. What I would say is that we consciously didn’t try to copy. That’s the one thing I would say. We didn’t try to copy people. And of course we had two quite prolific and sophisticated writers in the band. I think that that was one of the great strengths of the band that we had these two writers, Rod Argent and Chris White. Rod had always written good songs, and Chris had [too] but he really progressed in the three years we’d been on the road that by the time we got to Odessey and Oracle they were both writing really, really fine songs. In some ways that’s one of the main things that sets us apart from other bands. I know that there were some that were writing, but they had their own sound too. But there were other bands that were just copying, but we certainly weren’t.

And of course our band was very much a keyboard-based band. It was musically based on Rod’s keyboard abilities, and he’s a world-class keyboard player. And I think that gave us a very distinctive sound as well whereas most bands of that time — in the mid ‘60s — were very much guitar-based bands. There were very few that were keyboard-based bands. So that did make us sound very different and possibly unique.

Another thing is that your voice, unlike those of a lot of English bands of that era, sounded British. Many British singers seemed to affect an American accent perhaps to appeal to a wider audience, but you — along with Syd Barrett and David Bowie, for instance — had a distinctly British character to your singing.

There’s a lot of rock ‘n’ roll tunes that [are] very tempting to sing with an American accent. Sometimes, I think, you possibly have to sing in an American accent. But certainly in the ‘60s I did try to maintain my English accent. It wasn’t something that I laid awake at night worrying about. It just seemed more natural to me. I found that if ever I started singing with a bit of an American accent I think I found it a little bit embarrassing, really, and a little bit unreal. So it was more natural for me to sing in my English accent, and to some degree I still do. I try to make my singing as natural as possible. I do think about singing a lot. Every phrase has been discussed and thought about and maybe even argued about — every phrase in every song that we record.

The new album, On the Air Tonight, includes a version of “Though You Are Far Away,” which you first recorded in 1971. Was there a particular reason you wanted to revisit that song?

There was. There’s a very famous Belgian singer, Jasper Steverlinck, who recorded this song. He used the string arrangement from my first album and interpreted that on piano. Of course that’s how it was written in the first place. The arranger for this song is called Chris Gunning. When he first played this arrangement to me he played it on piano, and later on we used a string quintet to interpret his piano arrangement. Then Jasper went back to the piano. I just thought that it was really striking when I heard it. I thought, “I’d like to try it on stage,” which is what we did. We put it into our stage act and we got such a good response from when we were playing it live that I thought, “I’d like to re-record it.” So that’s what I did.

Do you have to pay any special attention to your voice today—perhaps in ways that you didn’t 40 years ago—in order to preserve it?

Well, 40 years ago I didn’t pay any attention to it at all. It was just the natural sound that came out. But as you get older your voice does change. Both Rod [Argent] and myself went to a singing coach about 10 or 15 years ago. I only studied with him for a few weeks, but he taught me a little bit about singing technique and he also gave me some exercises that I can practice. I found them a great help. Especially as you get older, you need to exercise your voice and to strengthen your voice. It taught me to keep my voice strong, and I think it’s made me a little bit more accurate with regard to intonation.

The way your voice works within the structures of these songs on the solo album, particularly slower ones like "For You" and "The Best is Yet to Come," inspires a lot of unpredictable moments, little deviations in the melody — kind of like a Burt Bacharach composition, where you don’t really know where he’s going with it.

It’s funny, my touring band will sometimes say that. We play half of the album when we play live. Nearly all the songs we play live, you’re never quite sure what’s going on next. So you have to really put some work in before you start the tour so that you know these songs inside out. Some of them seem quite simple, and when you start to think about them you think, “It’s not as straightforward as you think.” I like songs like that, especially if they sound quite simple on the surface. And then when you start to really dig deep you realize that there’s a lot more to the song than you first thought....

I get really excited about chord progressions. A lot of the chord progressions [on the new album], they’re not what you think they are and they’re not like a lot of contemporary music, which is a lot more predictable. These chord progressions are very unusual. And they very often have different bass notes than what you would expect, which also, I think, enhances it. It’s an area that I really like.

Do you encounter songs that you appreciate but don’t necessarily feel you could do them justice or, for lack of a better phrase, make them your own? Do you have those moments?

I do. I can’t think of any instances off the top of my head, but it does happen. Especially if someone’s put a really wonderful vocal performance onto a great song, I think you realize it’s just best to leave it as it is because everything that could be said about that song has been said in that performance. Yeah, it does happen. The other thing is, generally but not always, I try to do a song in a different way. I try not to copy. There have been occasions when they have been pretty close, but usually I would do them in a totally different way. But certainly, yeah, there have been lovely songs that I thought, “Well, that’s just been done so well, I think it’s best to move on now and try something else.”

And it doesn’t even have to be a case where someone has recorded a definitive version of a song and you just don’t want to infringe on that, but rather an instance where you say, “That’s a great song, but the way I sing — my technique, my sound — wouldn’t complement it as well as I’d like.” It just doesn’t go with your aesthetic, really.

I have felt like that over the years, yeah. More than that, I’ve started singing a song — not often — and I might’ve given up on it and said, “Listen, this song’s not for me.” It would usually be some kind of phrasing issue; I just felt I wasn’t getting my head around the phrasing of a song. That would usually be the main problem, I think. But there are many songs out there, so you have to find something that you really like and that you feel you can sing well. It takes time. I don’t think people realize how much time and effort goes into making an album. When you’re looking for other people’s songs it can be very, very hard to find them.

And I do try to write more and more. It’s so much more natural to sing your own songs. You don’t even have to think about it, usually. I find it very exciting to take a song from that initial spark of inspiration through to recording it and then eventually take it out onto the stage and play it live in front of an audience. I think that’s one of the most exciting things about being in the music business — if you can do that. I’ve never been a particularly prolific writer; it’s very hard for me to write songs. But when I’m fortunate enough to do it, I think it’s a very thrilling situation.

When you write, is that a process you enjoy? I’ve heard songwriters say that they like having written a song, but they hate trying to write lyrics and coming up with a chord structure — everything that it takes to get from that initial spark of inspiration to the finished song.

Me, personally, I’m trying to write songs all the time. And I think I must drive people around me crazy because when you’re writing songs it doesn’t always sound very attractive. You’re just trying things all the time and often it doesn’t work. And so I just sit here doodling with my guitar, and I think it must be a bit trying for people that are around me. But I’m almost doing it subconsciously now. It can be a real struggle. Once in a while I’ve written a song really quickly, but they’re real exceptions. Usually it takes months from that first little chord progression or maybe just a little bit of lyric and then you just have to build on it bit by bit.

Despite not being prolific, then, you do appreciate the process.

I do, to be honest. It quite intrigues me although it can be very frustrating. I’m not really an accomplished guitarist. When the Zombies first started I was a rhythm guitarist. So I’ve always played guitar, but I’m not an accomplished player. I couldn’t make a living being a professional guitarist. So it means I’m a bit limited musically when I compare to other writers, and that can make it frustrating. I’ll find that my hands will fall onto the same chord progressions if I’m not careful. I’m just playing the same thing over and over, and I have to really work on expanding my knowledge of chords and music to try to write fresh songs.

Because you fall back on what you know.

Well you do. It’s a subconscious thing, really. You sit down, you relax, pick up your guitar, and you find you’re playing a progression that you’ve played a million times before. You just have to force yourself to move into new areas.


doug denslowe said...

I've been a Zombies fan since their first hits back in the sixties.I have their first album and their singles and "B"sides LP.When I go for my daily stroll I often find myself playing the Zombies.I thought the vocals and songs were top of the pops,right next to the Beatles.