Amos Pitsch's guide to The Zombies
Tenement's leader discusses some standout tracks ahead of The Zombies' April 15 show at the Barrymore.
We were pretty excited upon hearing that English art-rock legends The Zombies are rolling through Barrymore Theatre on April 15 as part of the 50th anniversary tour (well, technically 49th if you want to split hairs about it) for their seminal 1968 album Odessey & Oracle. Most prior opportunities to see the smooth psych outfit of late would've involved dealing with the annoyances associated with some giant outdoor festival like Summerfest—standing around in the heat all day, watching sloppy programming, having a bird shit on your pizza (I still haven't let that go), and being surrounded by wasted, non-committal passers-by who are thrilled to discuss the size of their dicks over the most tender sonic moments.
Anyways, the opportunity for a proper Zombies concert experience is cause for celebration. The Zombies prioritized great songwriting over the tired tropes that weighed down so many of their psych-rock contemporaries and younger followers. After all, if there aren't any surprises, it isn't psychedelic. True surprise unravels in the mood-altering chord changes of "A Rose For Emily," vocalist Colin Blunstone's deep vocal harmonies pushing "Changes" along, or the playful, Leslie-speaker guitar lead in "Beachwood Park." Ahead of The Zombies' show in Madison, we asked Appleton-based Zombies superfan Amos Pitsch—vocalist-guitarist for bizarro power-pop trio Tenement, bassist-vocalist for full-flavored country-rockers Dusk, and all-around songwriting wizard—to discuss a handful of his favorite Zombies-related tunes, what exactly made The Zombies' first few albums so riveting, and the merits of Amy Grant's secular era.
Tone Madison: At what point did you start diving into The Zombies?
Amos Pitsch: Many years ago, I bought the comp Time Of The Zombies at Exclusive Company in Appleton because I didn't want anything else in the store that particular day and I sort of liked "Time Of The Season"—at least, enough to take a chance on an LP. It included their first record, as well as Odessey & Oracle, and the latter blew me away. It wasn't the psychedelic elements, as I never cared that much about psych-rock, but because the pop songs are so perfect and Colin Blunstone sings like he's got a flute in his throat. I'm absorbing these songs again right now and, no matter how many times I hear them, Blunstone's vocal phrasing and timbre still blow me away.
Tone Madison: His vocals walk this line between a sort of untrained breathiness and total precision—lots of beautiful, twisting melodies that seem to hit the mark, even if there's no accompaniment.
Amos Pitsch: I've actually heard that he didn't take a singing class until after they recorded Odessey & Oracle.
Tone Madison: I remember you mentioning that you saw The Zombies a few years ago at a festival and that it left a heavy impression on you, but I don't recall the details. Going into this show at the Barrymore, I'm very curious how the classic material translated.
Amos Pitsch: I saw them at Waterfest in Oshkosh. I'm not really sure why, maybe the ticket sales were dismal, but they lowered the price to $4 at the gate on the day of the show. It was incredible. Surreal, really. They were a flawless band. [Vocalist and keyboard player] Rod Argent still had his chops and Blunstone's voice sounded like it hadn't aged a day. I have a really vivid, dream-like memory of watching him from 10 feet away, singing "Summertime" under a really clear summer night. It was general admission and I was probably in the second row—the first row being starstruck older women and their drunk and apathetic husbands.
Tone Madison: Wow, so were they pulling anything from Blunstone's solo career or 1989's Return Of The Zombies and later?
Amos Pitsch: Yes. They played a few newer Zombies songs that were actually great live, some Argent material, and some Colin Blunstone solo material—mostly from [1971's solo album] One Year. Without the gorgeous string arrangements, it's tough for the One Year songs to live up to the recordings in the live setting, but they had great, simple arrangements of the material.
Tone Madison: Interesting. I recently gave that last Zombies record a listen—2015's Still Got That Hunger. Unfortunately, the super-polished, shiny production doesn't really compliment the songs, which still admittedly seemed well-written.
Amos Pitsch: Yeah, that's what I think is so difficult for older artists. When they made their iconic albums, they initially just set out to make really good-sounding records and, due to limits on what equipment of the era could do, had to make really creative choices that led to these timeless recordings. When they attempt to make a great-sounding record in a modern studio and they've got so many resources at their disposal, they end up with a really squeaky-clean album and don't have to make many creative decisions or compromises to get their sounds. It really just ends up sounding sterile. Somehow, The Sonics kind of nailed it with their newest record, but often the pursuit of perfection in recording—without a particular, final creative vision, other than sounding "clean" or "good"—is really damning in the end.
Tone Madison: Do you set limitations for yourself when you're working on Tenement material?
Amos Pitsch: I really just try to get great performances, fidelity be damned sometimes. But, I do tend to gravitate toward the grainier, dirtier side of things when it comes to recording. I guess it just comes back to what your particular vision for a recording is, or if you even have one beyond "I want this record to sound really good." Some of my favorite records sound really dirty—for example, Neil Young's Tonight's The Night or Marvin Gaye's Moods Of—but they also had really determined producers behind them that had a picture in their mind. A lot of the drum sounds on those early Zombies records would not be acceptable by today's recording standards for a big commercial record. So, it makes a lot of sense that, going into a record, they'd think , "whatever's furthest away from that." I'm assuming that drum sound is a novelty to them at this point, but it's still great. It's a very pleasing sound to people. After all, those records are so timeless. They want to hear that sound again and again. You probably won't be saying the same thing for many modern rock records 50 years from now.
Tone Madison: "I've been doing some research—experimenting with mic positioning—and I think I've finally replicated that snare drum sound from Korn's Life Is Peachy."
Amos Pitsch: [Laughs] Exactly. However, I have been drooling over the production on Hanson's Middle Of Nowhere lately, so who knows?
Tone Madison: Before we get too deep into the studio prowess of classic Hanson albums, which could surely merit its own article, let's get into this list of Zombies-related tunes you wanted to chat about. Chronologically, the first one up is "Summertime," from The Zombies' 1965 self-titled debut. I love the mysterious, waltzing vibe on this one. What pulls you in here?
Amos Pitsch: Well, first off, it begins with that bewitching dissonant chord on the Wurlitzer, which was love at first sight for me. It's perfect. The way Colin Blunstone drawls out the last syllable of each line is so sublime, too. His phrasing on this song rivals the best balladeers. The "oohs" during the verses are straight out of an early Les Baxter album— I'm thinking of his 1961 album Jewels Of The Sea, in particular. And finally, I just love early-to-mid-20th-century pop standards and seeing what each performer does with them. This is my all time favorite standard and somehow a rock band did one of the absolute best versions of it.
Tone Madison: Oh yeah, that first chord just screams, "Do I have your attention, asshole?" So beautiful. I think Les Baxter is a perfect reference point for the "oohs." There's some kind of bleak, 60s-lounge exotica thing going on there.
Amos Pitsch: Right. That wordless vocal in classic exotica albums—I was always a sucker for that.
Tone Madison: Ok, so next up with have "The Way I Feel Inside" from 1965's Begin Here, an eerie and spacious ballad. I love the intro and outro on this one—particularly where he flips a coin at the end.
Amos Pitsch: Yeah, that's great. It's really something to hear Colin's vocal isolated with the echo chamber. Really, that's the main reason I picked this one. Everyone loves to hear great singers isolated. This recording absolutely floored me when I first heard it—everything is so simple and tasteful. They couldn't have done a better job. Have you heard the full-band version? It's a little faster and more danceable, obviously, but it doesn't have the magic that this one has. That Hammond, or whatever it is, sounds like a church organ. Everything's so spooky and dirge-y, but still really uplifting. That's how you write and record a damn song
Tone Madison: I haven't heard the full-band version, but I'm wondering if he recorded his vocals to the band for this version and then stripped the accompaniment. I'm mostly curious because there are some really tricky turns in the chord progression and melody that would make that vocal ridiculously tough to nail with nothing behind it.
Amos Pitsch: That's a great point. He's gotta be singing to something. I think that's a testament to a great recording. If I'd recorded this, you'd surely hear the scratch tracks blaring through the headphones in a mix like this.
Tone Madison: [Laughs] OK, so you've only selected one tune from 1968's Odessey & Oracle and it's the sweet, sunny shuffle of "This Will Be Our Year." What made you choose this one?
Amos Pitsch: This is the first song that ever caught me from this record. That piano sounds so great. Really strong in the mids—kind of thin, but really present. Every element is working together in a rhythmic way, which I love. Blunstone's vocals are at the top of their game and the melodies are perfect. What can I say? It's just a great pop song. I've always kind of strived for a sound like this when recording pianos. It's not so realistic by modern standards, but it just sounds really strong and silky at the same time. I had originally thought of including "A Rose For Emily," which is like The Zombies' "Eleanor Rigby." It's just a really heartbreaking song with the most eloquent lyrics on loneliness, but I chose this one because I can't resist a well-written, sunshine-y pop song.
Tone Madison: Yes, that piano sound is beautifully mixed. It's definitely the element that stands out most when I listen.
Amos Pitsch: I also love the key change. Who can resist a key change? There's like five of them in Amy Grant's "Baby Baby" and that song was a megahit, which must be saying something.
Tone Madison: Don't get me started on Amy Grant. "Good For Me" is one of the most infuriatingly catchy pop tunes ever recorded. Moving along, the last couple tracks you selected are all solo Colin Blunstone. Let's start with the string-heavy "Say You Don't Mind" from 1971's One Year. What a beauty. I'm feeling like Blunstone's solo material is severely underrated. What do you love about this one?
Amos Pitsch: I'm a sucker for small groups of strings. Chris Gunning's arrangements for strings on Blunstone's first two records are really unique. They're really sparse and, instead of laying back behind everything in long broad silky sweeps like a pedal-steel or something, they pop in and out of the mix and interact with the vocal. They're mixed so loudly, they could almost be the vocal.
Tone Madison: Totally. The strings feel conversational.
Amos Pitsch: They kind of remind me of both the arrangement work that Clare Fischer did for Donald Byrd in the late 1950s and also for his own solo albums for Columbia in the 1960s—beautiful chords and phrasing. There's a live video floating around on the internet of Blunstone performing this song with a small string section behind him. He's just sitting on a stool amongst them, belting it out. The most fascinating element may be the faces he makes—something about them draws you in. It's entrancing, really—a trait I think the best frontmen tend to have.
Tone Madison: Lastly, we have "Andorra" from 1972's Ennismore. I certainly don't mean this negatively, but I have a tough time pinning down the mood on this one. I hear snippets of country, but then there's this flamenco guitar stuff, and a playfully ominous feel that generally reminds me of Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man."
Amos Pitsch: "Andorra" is a great song, though. I'd originally chosen Argent's "Dance In The Smoke," but took it back after revisiting Ennismore. Because no matter how good Argent gets, Blunstone's solo records are better. Besides, Ennismore is pretty much Blunstone backed by Argent, with Chris Gunning returning on arrangement duties. So, I chose a Rod Argent-penned song that has the classic, mystical quality of Odessey & Oracle, which maybe makes up for the lack of Odessey & Oracle tunes here. It kind of has a "Ricky Don't Lose That Number" feel to me. I love the drum sound. It's heavy in a mid-70s, Stax kind of way—almost Willie Mitchell-style, but not quite there. The "Chick-chicka-cha's" allude to "Time Of The Season" and they totally work. It's got a darker mood, but it's not ominous. It's like you just made it through some serious shit and now you're blazin' out on a long desert highway on a chopper—heading toward the sunset. Roll credits.