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July 27, 2012

Q&A: ROD ARGENT

Rod Argent_photo by Chris M. Junior.jpg

Not all rock 'n' roll milestones are treated the same way, either by the media or the artists themselves.

There has been plenty of coverage this year marking the 50th anniversary of The Beach Boys, whose surviving members have gone all out, reuniting for a new studio album and an extensive tour. The same can be said of The Rolling Stones reaching the big 5-0 as a band, even though they've looked like slackers compared to Brian Wilson and company, authorizing an upcoming photo/artwork book and documentary while toying with the idea of performing later this year.

Then you have The Zombies. In 2011, their 50th anniversary was handled much more passively by the mainstream press, even though the crafty British band — still led by original members Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent — released a new studio album, Breathe Out, Breathe In, and hit the road.

Maybe it's because singer Blunstone and keyboardist Argent — unlike the surviving Beach Boys or the current Stones lineup — have been working together on a regular basis in recent years, reuniting circa the early 2000s to record and tour as a duo, then reviving the Zombies moniker. Or maybe it's just the latest example of the band being overlooked; the most egregious example of this, of course, is that The Zombies have not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Prior to a string of Zombies U.S. concert dates, Argent addressed the Rock Hall issue and other topics, such as how his band fit in with the other 1960s British Invasion acts and what continues to motivate him and the rest of his group — currently Blunstone, bassist Jim Rodford (formerly of The Kinks and Argent's cousin), drummer Steve Rodford (Jim's son) and guitarist Tom Toomey (a veteran of Blunstone's solo band).

Medleyville.us: The early 1960s British rock bands all had defining characteristics, but The Zombies really stood out from the rest of the pack, in large part due to Colin’s voice and your keyboard sound and playing. Back then, did you feel at one with those other groups on a musical level?
Rod Argent: "Yeah, I think we did. It was just a very exciting time, and lots of boundaries were being pushed in all sorts of ways. I think one of the great things was that record companies didn’t really understand what was going, so they didn’t put their oar in too much. They just let the bands get on with it. You had all sorts of an invention going on. I felt very close to bands like The Who, who were very different from The Zombies in some ways — although, we had things in common, too. I had quite a few chats about various things with Pete Townshend at the time about avant-garde jazz, about all sorts of boundaries being pushed. He was a brilliantly inventive harmony arranger, and harmonies were always something that interested me a lot. So in many years, I felt a lot in common, but I always felt we had our own path to follow."

Speaking of unique vocals, what’s the story about the "aah" bit that repeats throughout "Time of the Season"? It's so distinctive and essential to the song, yet so simple.
Argent: "That was me. It was just a bit of vocal percussion, actually in the same way The Beatles often [did] sometimes — vocal things as percussive things; they would use anything cardboard boxes, anything at hand. It was something that happened very quickly; it was just a moment of invention. I mean, we recorded every track on the Odessey and Oracle album very quickly because we didn’t have any money to do anything else, to be honest. And the way we would go in was to be very prepared, but then we would leave room for invention on the actual session itself.

"We rehearsed ‘Time of the Season,’ and we went in and recorded it. And then while we were in the studio, there were two things that quickly came into my head, it being my song, I guess. That was the percussive part, which I very quickly laid down — the clap and the “aah” sound — and the other thing was, I added a little tom-tom beat to the drums during the [keyboard] solo, which I played. I mean, [original Zombies drummer] Hugh [Grundy] could have easily played it, obviously, but there I was, and I just did it. That’s how we used to do things in those days.”

When rock ’n’ roll started out, the saxophone and piano were just as prominent as the guitars and drums, but not so much these days. As a keyboard player, do you think the instrument is overdue for a return to the foreground? And who do you like among the piano/keyboard players on the scene today?
Argent: "Oh, my goodness, what a question. Well, you’re right — actually, strange enough, you saying that makes me realize, of course, that piano was very prominent in some early rock ’n’ roll — and rock 'n' roll I loved. I grew up for the first 10 years of my life only liking classical music, or thinking I did. Then one day I heard Elvis Presley sing 'Hound Dog,' and it just turned my world around, and at that point, I wanted nothing but to hear the rawest rock 'n' roll of all time. And of course that included Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis — the stuff sounded absolutely brilliant.

"I know that by the time we got together as a group, I thought the piano was getting a bit passé and that groups were really guitar groups. That very first [Zombies] rehearsal, it was intended that I should be the lead singer, and Colin was going to be the rhythm guitarist. And at that very first rehearsal, I heard Colin sing an old Ricky Nelson song, and I thought he sounded fantastic and said, 'You’ve got to be the lead singer.' And he heard me wander over to an old, beaten-up piano and play [a song], and he said, 'You have to play piano in the band.' I mean, that’s how those two chairs got moved around, in that very first rehearsal.

"I hadn't thought recently about the fact there was a lot of piano in early rock 'n' roll stuff. But of the current keyboard players, I can’t think of anyone who really turns me on as a player. Do you know I never used to model myself on keyboard players at all? I listened to a lot of jazz, and the artists I loved a lot were John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and the people who were in the Miles Davis group in 1958, 1960. Mind you, at the same time he had Bill Evans, who absolutely knocked my socks off. I thought he was absolutely wonderful. But I never really consciously went out to copy keyboard licks. I never thought about that. I think the closest I came to that at the time was really being knocked out by Jimmy Smith, and that got me interested in playing the Hammond organ. But of today’s keyboard players, I can't really think of anyone who impresses me, to be honest."

What are your feelings about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Do you think The Zombies should have been inducted by now?
Argent: "Yeah, I do, actually. … We've had articles in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for years, but we've never been voted in. I don't think it would be out of the way if we were. It would feel like a great honor; it would be something that would really knock me out.

"In England, there are [historical] Blue Plaques put up on walls sometimes. Well, we have one [that marks the 1961 meeting of the original band members], and that absolutely knocked me out — it's probably because I’m getting old (laughs). But those things feel really nice, and to be [inducted into] the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would be great."

Breathe Out, Breathe In was well received when it was released last year. Is it too soon to be asking you about the timetable for the next Zombies studio album?
Argent: "We played so much last year, and to some degree this year … We just had a ball playing live and just enjoyed that for a while. But literally in [early July], I've had a couple of first inklings of ideas for songs, and I would love to start recording again. I actually think that the creative energy and the physical energy and the playing ability in the version of the band we've got at the moment have never been greater. For me, it’s as exciting as anything I’ve ever been involved in actually, which is a huge bonus. To be at this age — or at this stage in our career, however you want to put it — and feel that there are actually paths opening up feels very energizing and revitalizing, and I love it.

"The last reason in the world that we got back together again was to try and make a buck. We've been very lucky in the sense that some of the old stuff has continued to do very well, and it's provided us with a financial cushion, which doesn't mean we have to desperately go out and just try and make money. That’s a freeing thing in its own way. But at the same time, I think we've always tried to make music for the right reasons. The center of our attention and our focus is always to go out there and try and excite ourselves and be excited by playing the best way we can, by trying to get to the center of the music. That's always been the focus for us, and as long as we feel well enough to go out and do it, that will always be the focus for us."

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

The Zombies featuring Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent on tour (schedule subject to change):

* July 27: Largo Cultural Center — Largo, Fla.

* July 28: Southern Ground Amphitheatre — Fayetteville, Ga.

* July 29: Cat’s Cradle — Carrboro, N.C.

* July 31: Viper Alley — Lincolnshire, Ill.

* Aug. 1: Mayne Stage — Chicago

* Aug. 2: Waterfest — Oshkosh, Wis.

* Aug. 5-6: Highline Ballroom — New York

* Aug. 7: Wolf Den/Mohegan Sun — Uncasville, Conn.

* Aug. 9: Howard Theatre — Washington, D.C.

Photo by Chris M. Junior

July 17, 2012

BLOWING HIS OWN HORN

Jerry Martini upholds the Sly and the Family Stone legacy

The Family Stone 2012.jpg

Once upon a time, horns were common in rock, pop and R&B. In fact, there was a period in the late 1960s/early 1970s when horn players were regularly heard on hit recordings and were full-time members of the most popular bands in the world — among them Chicago, Tower of Power and Sly and the Family Stone.

So what's become of horn players and their place in popular music since those glory days?

"I'll tell you what happened — it's called the computer and the synthesizer," says saxophonist Jerry Martini, a founding member of Sly and the Family Stone. "They have come up with really good computer trumpets and trombones and things like that. But they haven't been able to come up with a good saxophone sound yet, and I'm very thankful for that."

Martini has plenty to be thankful for: In recent years, he's backed the likes of Robert Cray in the studio and Prince onstage. Lately, Martini's regular gig has been leading The Family Stone along with trumpet player Cynthia Robinson and drummer Greg Errico, both fellow veterans of Sly and the Family Stone.

"We're not a tribute band because we have three original members — that takes us out of the category of 'tribute band,' " Martini explains. "Audiences really get the picture of the original band when we play. When you see us, you get as close as you can get to the original band. We don't change the arrangements — they weren't broke, so we're not trying to fix 'em."

Rounding out The Family Stone's lineup are Alex Davis, Trina Johnson Finn, Nate Wingfield and Blaise Sison. However, Martini says the door remains wide open for Sly Stone, guitarist Freddie Stone, keyboardist Rosie Stone and bassist Larry Graham to return to the fold.

"We all still have the camaraderie. We're all staying active," says Martini. "The thing about Sly and the Family Stone — all seven [original] members are alive, and all seven members are still working. Sly is not dormant; he's in his studio in his house. He's writing songs constantly; he must have written thousands of songs. Later on there’s going to be a Sly archive, and people will be fighting over it. He's still got it."

— By Chris M. Junior

The Family Stone on tour (schedule subject to change):

* July 20: Theater Square/New Jersey Performing Arts Center — Newark, N.J.

* July 21: Santa Paula Citrus Festival/Harding Park — Santa Paula, Calif.

* Aug. 4: Yoshi's — Oakland, Calif.

* Aug. 18: Long Beach Funk Fest — Long Beach, Calif.

* Aug. 25: Lock 3 — Akron, Ohio

* Aug. 31: American Music Festival — Virginia Beach, Va.

Jerry Martini.jpg

July 09, 2012

NOT THE END OF THE PARTY

The English Beat hits the road supporting two retrospectives

Dave Wakeling_photo by Jackie Butler.jpg

Three studio albums — that's all The English Beat released, but they were enough to form a solid foundation for Britain's burgeoning Two Tone ska movement and later influence the likes of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and other ska-centric bands.

The Beat's catalog is also enough for a boxed set. On July 10, Shout! Factory is set to release the five-disc The English Beat: The Complete Beat, featuring remastered versions of the band's three studio albums with bonus tracks, plus dub and extended versions as well as concert and radio performances. On the same day, the label will also issue the 16-track Keep The Beat: The Very Best of The English Beat, featuring "Save It for Later," "I Confess" and other signature songs.

Singer, guitarist and longtime leader Dave Wakeling recently reflected on some restricting comments he made during the early days of The English Beat, what went into assembling the two new compilations and why he thinks his band is appreciated more now than it was in the early 1980s.

Medleyville.us: Some artists like revisiting their past efforts, and others not so much. With Shout! Factory releasing an English Beat single disc and boxed set, how comfortable are you with turning the clock back and going over so much of the band’s history?
Dave Wakeling: "Well, you don’t know when you start, and of course you fear the absolute worst. But we had a best-of record that had come out about 10 years ago, where everybody was forced by the producer to listen to all of the albums, and we had to discuss and pick and vote. And during that process, we were all pleasantly surprised that we weren’t thoroughly embarrassed by most of it. … And so slowly, over a period of 10 years, we’ve become more confident in what we did. There are a lot of things that get smashed up the charts, and it would look as though it’s the new Mozart, and 10 years later, you pretend you weren’t ever in the group: 'No, no — that was another guy with pink hair. He kinda does look like me' (laughs).

"But we've all been very pleasantly surprised over the years. We were a bit scared, of course, because [with the boxed set], now we were going to be thrown live tapes that some of us have never heard before and radio sessions that we probably only ever heard when they were on the radio, if we managed to catch the program or somebody had a cassette.

"And so, yes, [there was] trepidation, but [the project organizers] were Beat fans and sifted through what they thought were the finest moments. They sent their lists separately to us and had a lot in common, so that helped guide us — [they are] people with no axes to grind who actually liked the group anyway. So we started listening there, and from there, everybody seemed to build up confidence."

On the subject of longevity: When The English Beat formed in 1978, The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks were about 15 years into their careers, and a lot of people thought they were too old and should hang it up. What was your thinking back then about how relevant a band was after, say, five years or 10 years or even longer?
Wakeling: "We sort of built our own cross to nail ourselves on by saying too often too publicly that we thought most of our favorite groups had had three great albums in them, and most of them should really had probably packed it in at that point and let somebody else have a go. Not in every case, but a lot of cases. Sometimes, after a band’s third record, I started finding their live records more interesting than their studio ones because there was still an immediacy and a sense of spirit to them, whereas the lineup might have started recording in separate little booths on different dates for their fourth album.

"So we did say that, and I think it's probably true that any one particular lineup has probably got three great strokes of immediacy, and then it tends to become a bit more studied just by definition. And that can be the difference between superb rock 'n' roll and a great record."

Do you get caught up in thinking about who has been influenced by your music? And do you feel underappreciated in any way?
Wakeling: "I think our influence has probably been greater because we weren’t appreciated enough at the time. We were college-chart darlings but rarely broke into the Billboard Top 100 in terms of singles. We never had singles because the record company we were with at the time didn’t play the Top 40 game. They didn't put in all the money that the big major labels put in, but they built you grass-roots fans in college — and I still see most of them. They still come and tell me, 'Oh my God, last time I saw you was …,' and they'll name the college and the year. And I've got that good at it; I can usually name the support band [that played with us], and when I do, they're thrilled: 'Oh yeah, R.E.M. opened.' 'Oh my God, you remember the show.'

"So we did feel underappreciated at the time because other bands that were sort of in [our] peer group who you and them knew weren't as good as you, but they would try to show off a bit in your face because they were in the Top 40 charts all the time. Of course, at the time, you don't say, 'Well, wait 30 years, mate — we’ll see' because you all figure you'll be dead in the next year like James Dean, that sort of thing.

"There was a resentment, sure, and yes, [now] there is a gentle sense of validation, which is nice, but still doesn’t quite make up for the fact that we should have made millions and millions of dollars more than we did at the time [laughs], and I probably wouldn’t be sitting in a van doing an interview now.

"It's odd the way things work out, but because we didn't get that huge mass-marketing push where you get so sick of hearing the record every 12th song on the radio, to the point where you hate the band, we never suffered that part. So our songs managed, by default, to retain their credibility for future generations and have bands along the way like Mighty Mighty Bosstones say what a great influence we were and continue to be. And one of the things I like about it is the music doesn't sound dated."

Does that belated validation and latter-day appreciation keep you going, or are there other things you're out to achieve moving forward with the band?
Wakeling: "What keeps me going mainly is two starving teenagers with a love of fine European cars. I travel around the country in a van with 350,000 miles on it in order to satisfy their unnatural lusts. It's so funny because you hated it when you’re dad sat you down and talked about how he was raised in a coal mine, had to walk to and from school, and it was uphill both ways — all of that. It was wonderful to be able to sit down with my teenagers [recently] and say, 'Do you know what? When I was 17, I had my own apartment, I had my own job, I was saving up for some wheels, and I thought I had it good.' They looked at me very odd and said, 'What's your point, Dad? Am I getting the Jag service, or do I have to get a rental for the weekend?' " (laughs)

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

The English Beat on tour (schedule subject to change):

* July 9: Grand Auditorium — Ellsworth, Maine

* July 11: Tupelo Music Hall — Londonberry, N.H.

* July 12: The Bell House — Brooklyn, N.Y.

* July 13: The Stone Pony — Asbury Park, N.J.

* July 14: Parkway Field — Pleasantville, N.Y.

* July 15: Bay State Cruise — Boston

* July 18: Sellersville Theater — Sellersville, Pa.

* July 19: Bottle & Cork — Dewey Beach, Del.

* July 20: The Stephen Talkhouse — Amagansett, N.Y.

* July 22: Baltimore Sound Stage — Baltimore

* July 27: Monte de Oro Winery — Temecula, Calif.

* July 29: The Hangar — Costa Mesa, Calif.

* Aug. 4: Bimbo's 365 Club — San Francisco

* Aug. 10: Doug Fir Lounge — Portland, Ore.

* Aug. 11: Showbox at the Market — Seattle

* Aug. 17: Humboldt Brews — Arcata, Calif.

* Sept. 21, 22: Belly Up Tavern — Solana Beach, Calif.

* Sept. 28: Coach House — San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

* Sept. 29: Saint Rocke — Hermosa Beach, Calif.

* Oct. 6: The Canyon Club — Agoura Hills, Calif.

Photo by Jackie Butler

July 02, 2012

WILD AND FREE

Omar Kent Dykes calls on his friends to make I'm Gone

Omar Kent Dykes.jpg

When Omar Kent Dykes refers to himself as "a little archaic," the veteran Texas blues rocker does so with a gruff laugh and, more importantly, not a trace of regret.

Dykes still likes to buy vinyl records at stores -- just like he did as a teenager, plunking down his cash for 45s at a Mississippi appliance shop. And when it comes to recording his music, Dykes follows the same old-school approach in the studio that's served him well for more than 40 years.

"I'll have engineers tell me, 'You all can't set up in the same room. What about bleed-through?' And I'll say, 'What about it?' " Dykes says. "I've got 10,000 vinyl albums, and half of ’em were all recorded [with the musicians] in the same room. … We can deal with that.

"You can manufacture music that, to be honest with you, sounds great," he adds. "A lot of the techno stuff -- that's what they're doing. And I like some of it, but when I’m recording blues and country and shuffles, stuff like that, I want it to be real. I just don't want to put it together like a puzzle at the end; I want it to be like a band playing."

Dykes and his supporting cast keep it real on I'm Gone, the latest Omar and the Howlers album, which was recorded over two days in Austin, Texas, and released last month on Dykes' own Big Guitar Music label.

"I had two different sets of my friends get in the studio with me, and we just cut loose and had a good time," he says. "A lot of that stuff is one take. Afterward we went and listened to it -- 'Let's see if we need to do it again.' And after everybody listened to it, we realized, 'Well, what else are we going to do to it? It sounds fine to me.' "

Sticking close to home also sounds find to Dykes; he doesn't have any plans to hit the road behind I'm Gone.

"I'm 62 years old. I have toured the world over and over and over again," he says. "I'm trying to connect dots I've already got. I have a lot of people who’ve kept up with me over the years."

What Dykes does have planned is more recording.

"I think I’m going to do a Howlin' Wolf tribute," he says. "I'm going to do an album of what I call country. I'm still in the George Jones/Hank Williams phase. I have another Jimmy Reed collection comin' out called Too Much Is Not Enough. I'm sure people will be surprised I'm putting out more Jimmy Reed, but at my age, I just do what I like to do."

-- By Chris M. Junior