Extended Q&A with The Zombies' Chris White | Pittsburgh City Paper

Extended Q&A with The Zombies' Chris White

With The Zombies playing Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead Wednesday night, I had the chance to talk with two founding members of the band: keyboardist Rod Argent and bassist Chris White. The pair were the two main songwriters for the band; Argent, who has toured regularly with the current iteration of the band, is the talkative face of the band, and does plenty of interviews. So while I was pleased to chat with him, it was my talk with White, who went behind the scenes in the music industry after The Zombies' breakup, that was especially exciting. White has played with the band a few times in recent decades, but hasn't toured in nearly 50 years. Here's the full transcript of our talk.

click to enlarge Extended Q&A with The Zombies' Chris White
The Zombies circa 1966 (Chris White, center)
You got back together in 2008 for that big set of concerts, then there was a few years' lag in between. I know you stayed in the music industry after The Zombies; do you have another job?
Well, I'm still writing stuff for other artists. Rod and I stayed together and produced Argent, and Colin's first couple of solo records. I've done nothing else but music writing and publishing, really.

Rod mentioned that when The Zombies broke up, you didn't really like playing live. Do you not like touring, is it a stage fright thing?
No problem with touring, at all, really — we played in 2008 and it was like yesterday, really. But when we put Argent together, [Jim Rodford] was a better bass player, and I thought, well, I'll just concentrate on producing and writing.

Rod cast you as the guy who really came up with the idea of having the concerts in 2008, to play Odessey and Oracle.
I did! I suddenly realized it was coming up on the anniversary, and we'd never played Odessey and Oracle anywhere, because we split up soon after recording it. I said to Rod, "Well, you realize it," and he said "Well, let's talk about doing an Odessey and Oracle premiere!"

What did it feel like getting back together and playing that material? You wrote a lot of that material; was that satisfying for you?
It was like we'd never stopped playing. It was really like we were teenagers again; it was quite strange. I was at college and they were in school, so we really grew up together. It was really like going through a war together, probably. When you get back together, it's like nothing changed.

Rod said he thought Odessey was where you really came into your own as a songwriter. Do you agree, and did you feel that at the time?
The weird thing was, it's only when I look back on it. At the time, we were just writing songs. although we were trying to do something different. It was the first time we'd produced ourselves, and we had a very limited budget, so we just concentrated on the writing. It was a time of great creativity, for Rod as well. But I didn't realize it at the time. Having to re-do them now, I see what Rod was talking aobut, but we didn't feel it at the time. We were just writing songs.

Were you surprised by the album's success after you broke up? Was it a surprise when "Time of the Season" hit it big?
Very much so, although I always thought it was a strong song. But when people like Tom Petty and Dave Grohl started talking about the album, and quoting it as an influential album — nobody wanted it at the time, when it first came out! Then over the years — it's really quite strange.

Did you ever regret that you broke up when you did?
There wasn't any rancor about it. Rod and I had enough to live, because we were writers. And the others weren't. The record didn't take off first of all, so they had to live. We later worked with Colin on his album, but there was no rancor or trouble about it at all.

For those anniversary shows, and for this tour, you aim to really reproduce the record as faithfully as possible. Do you encounter specific challenges in attempting that?
Some things were double tracked by Rod, like on the mellotron, so we brought in Darian Sahanaja from Brian Wilson's band; we did that before, though, and it fit in perfectly. It just fell into place, really.

The Zombies, and Odessey, are sort of a cult thing — musicians, people like Dave Grohl, talk about it in hushed tones. Is that a legacy you're satisfied with, as opposed to being more commercially successful?
It's heartwarming when people really like the album, which makes us look at it again and try to see what they're seeing in it. At the time, it was the best that we could do. Now younger people are coming up to me and quoting it as an influential album on their careers, and it's heartwarming. And younger musicians who we appreciate their music too.

Do you have a favorite Zombies song in general, and a favorite that you wrote?
I think "Butcher's Tale" is my favorite of mine. I like "Hung Up on a Dream," one of Rod's. And of course, "Time of the Season," "She's Not There" — Rod wrote some really classic stuff.

Is doing "Butcher's Tale" live a weird experience?
It's a very emotional thing, doing that one, because you use the original pedal organ, and then some sound effects. It was emotional when I wrote it and it's emotional when I do it, because it's about the First World War. It really struck home. And I enjoy doing it, because it has echoes in the modern time, the war, sort of, that's going on.

It's weird to think that at the time, World War I was only 50 years in the past, and now that song is nearly 50 years in the past.
That's right. And I always remember the night one of my uncles died, I played the song, so I think of that, too.

Did you generally draw from personal experience when writing, or just come up with stories?
I'd read a lot about the First World War, and then it slips into your subconscious and you write a song. You don't think to write the songs, they come out of the aether. And I have the advantage of working with some great singers, like Colin Blunstone and a great keyboard player like Rod Argent. It's a dream team, really.

It's interesting how a bunch of the right people find each other — you were really young when you started playing together.
We were schoolkids, really. We enjoyed doing what we were doing, and it certainly helped getting a hit record. One of the first songs we recorded was "She's Not There."

I'm curious, too, while we're talking about specific songs: "This Will Be Our Year," that was written by you, right?
Yes, that was my song. And it's funny; now it's become a wedding song!

Do you like that or do you not like that?
I do! In fact, my youngest son got married on August 1st, and I played that song with my middle son, who's got a band called Et Tu Brute, and I played it at his wedding. It just goes on and on. I've heard it at so many weddings, and it's been requested at so many weddings, it's really quite strange. It's not really mine anymore.

Was there a specific story behind that song?
It's just a feeling; the sequence of chords came out and it's a song of hope. I like positive songs, basically.

Rod and Colin have been touring with other guys for years now — is it ever weird having other guys playing your songs in the band?
Oh, no! It's wonderful when people do your songs, and Colin's voice and Rod's keyboard playing are so great. Then, Tom Petty doing the songs, Dave Grohl doing the songs — they're different interpretations, but the song continues. It's like language, like translation.

Rod and Colin still have the chops. And Rod's so energetic still.
And Colin's voice is the best I've ever heard it!

Have you played in America since The Zombies?
The last time I toured was '67. The year before that was the Dick Clark tour. I've just been looking at the Carnegie Music Hall there in Munhall and it looks beautiful. I'm looking very much forward to it, and to playing with the boys.

They have a new album out with their current Zombies band, Still Got that Hunger. Does that play into the tour?
It's a great album. It's the best thing they've done, I think. They're playing some of that, and we're playing Odessey and Oracle, as we recorded it, from beginning to end. There's one song on the new album, "New York," that's about our first trip to New York, playing Murray the K's Brooklyn Fox. It's a great song, and it just sends shivers down my spine. 

The ZOMBIES play ODESSEY AND ORACLE. 7 p.m. Wed., Oct. 14. Carnegie Library of Homestead Music Hall, 510 E. 10th Ave., Munhall. All ages. $40-250. 412-462-3444 or librarymusichall.com