A Conversation with The Zombies’ Rod Argent and the Lemon Twigs

The artists discuss the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle, British Invasion, and their deep love of each other’s music.

Rod Argent is one of the founders of the legendary psychedelic English pop-rock band The Zombies; The Lemon Twigs are a Long Island, New York-based retro-tinged rock band fronted by brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario. Here, you can read their conversation about the making of The Zombies’ classic Odessey and Oracle album, the influence of British Invasion bands on the Twigs, and—despite the generational gap—their deep love of each other’s music.  
—Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse

Brian D’Addario: It’s great to speak to you, man! We’re huge fans.

Rod Argent: Well, I’m a huge fan of you guys too, honestly. I caught you on Jools [Holland] last night. You sounded great.

Michael D’Addario: Thank you!

Rod: How are things going over there?

Brian: They’re going well. That show was my first gig back with the group for about two and a half weeks, or something like that. They were touring without me because I was getting treatment for a blood issue I had that is getting better. So it’s all good, and I’m going to be touring with them for the next month.

Rod: Fantastic. Well, I’ve heard your new album a couple of times, but the one I know really is the first one. It’s great stuff. [Instrumentalist] Darian Sahanaja turned us onto you.

Michael: We love Darian. And he plays with you guys for the Odessey and Oracle shows, right?

Rod: He does, indeed. I wouldn’t do it without him, actually, because we thought if we were going to do Odessey, then the only way we wanted to do it was to reproduce every note that was on the original album. And to do that, obviously, there’s some overdub. So I got Darian to do the other people’s parts that I overdubbed at the time. He knows it better than I do, and I knew that. He understands exactly how it should sound.

You know, apart from being a lovely guy and lovely to tour with, he’s such a good musician. If we couldn’t get him, I wouldn’t want to do it. I mean, we don’t do Odessey all the time. We do some tracks from Odessey but some of them really need those extra musical parts. Particularly things like “Brief Candles,” like “Hung Up on a Dream”—they really flower when everything is there, and without that they sound pretty ordinary.

Brian: It’s amazing, we were listening to it today. I’ve listened to that album my whole life, basically. It sounds like it’s this really produced record in a way, ‘cause it’s arranged so well. But when you actually listen to it, the instrumentation is just you guys and those mellotron orchestrations. It almost sounds like there’s way more going on, but there’s not a whole lot of, like, guitar overdubs, and stuff like that. It’s basically, like, the group. Right?

Rod: Very much so. It’s quite stripped down really. And the fact is, we didn’t have a choice much in those days, just because we basically were working on 4-track. The Beatles—who had been in [Abbey Road Studios] with Sgt. Pepper just before us—were very frustrated because they heard Pet Sounds. They’d heard that Brian Wilson had access to an 8-track in the States, which in those days felt like an enormous luxury. They said, “Well, we need an 8-track.” But there wasn’t one in the whole of the UK. They said, “Well, sort something out.” So they worked out a system of using two 4-tracks and bouncing down. We used that too. Because of that, we did have the luxury of a couple of extra tracks.

But we had to be really, really prepared, because we had very little money. We were very frustrated [with] the actual production on some of our previous singles—we’d preferred the demos that we’d made. We wanted to produce an album ourselves, and we went to CBS and they gave us a thousand pounds to produce the album, which even in those days wasn’t very much money. And we had to really, really prepare, so we would rehearse before we went in. Mostly, the tracks were done in three hours, each track.

Brian: Wow.

Rod: Then we had the luxury of another couple of extra tracks. We put down what we’d prepared really well. Then if, for instance, I had an idea—I’d just heard a harmony, like the counterpoint harmony on “Changes,” so I said to Chris [White], “I can hear this phrase going over the top.” He said to just go in and do it. We had that combination of just being really prepared, and a little bit of spontaneous imagination that we could do on the hoof, really.

It was just great for us. Everything is what you get used to. There are limitless tracks now. In those days, that felt like a real, real luxury. It was pretty stripped down, and pretty much prepared, musically, but then, we also had a little bit of room for a little improvisation as well.

Brian: You know what I was kind of curious about? It seemed like at the time and [in] the scene, that everybody was sort of moving from the R&B-influenced songwriting—the American-influenced songwriting—to going further back in time to more classically influenced stuff. It seemed like that sort of songwriting could still be pop music. I was curious—do you have a classical background? With songs like “A Rose for Emily,” the chords are so beautiful and it seems to be pulling from that well rather than an American R&B kind of thing.

Rod: I am pretty much self-taught, but my mum actually got me involved with a very, very good cathedral choir when I was about 11 years old—it really opened my ears, Brian, I can’t tell you. Suddenly, it’s the most immersive musical education that you can imagine. Day in, day out, you’re singing the inner parts of Bach, you’re being exposed to avant garde classical music, just as a matter of course, and it’s the most wonderful panoply of 400 years of the best music ever written up to that point. That was fantastic. That gave me a real love for classical music that wasn’t just real popular classical music, which was the sort that my mum liked. It was quite deep, but there was no strain involved. It was just being exposed to something you think, Oh my god, that’s beautiful. It really, really moves you.

Even when I discovered Elvis singing “Hound Dog”—that got me interested in rock ’n’ roll and pop music, and it turned my life around, but at the same time, I didn’t see any reason to stop listening to the classical music. I was being exposed to some jazz at the time. It was a fantastic time for jazz. People like the Miles Davis group of around 1958 were absolutely wonderful. Fantastic musicians like Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans, that I still love.

All that was in the background. Chris White loved all forms of music, too. So when we were writing, we always just thought we were being the Beatles, really, but all these indirect influences sort of permeated through. We never thought that we were using them at all, but they were just there, in the background, and they found their way through.

Brian: That comes through so clearly.

Michael: In the keyboard playing especially, the jazz thing. My dad introduced us to all the British invasion stuff. It was his obsession his entire life. He introduced us to all that stuff very early on. We always knew The Zombies and we always knew the Odessey and Oracle album, and the earlier singles. I think that it was my favorite out of all those bands. I remember that was my first preference after I was just so sick of all the Beatles records. [The Zombies’ music] was this refreshing discovery of incredible songs.

Brian: Incredible songs on that tier.

Michael: Yeah, on that level. It definitely was my favorite sound.

Brian: Yeah, it’s such a specific sound.

Rod: Well, that’s fantastic.

Michael: I think with [our] Do Hollywood record we were so of… I guess, plundering would be the word—all of our very early influences, like The Zombies and a lot of the British invasion stuff.

Brian: I remember going for that sort of thing. I remember when we did the song “Frank,” I was trying to get the middle section of it to emotionally hit you the way “Hung Up on a Dream” hits you, because it’s this beautiful part. But when I listened, I realized I had to add so many string overdubs and horn overdubs just to get it to feel the way that the five piece group with a mellotron felt.

Michael: It was that thing of the cleanish guitar taking the melody.

Brian: You know what part I always obsessed over? I think it’s in “Friends of Mine.”

Rod: “Friends of Mine,” yeah.

Brian: [Sings vocalized melody from the song] That part always blew me away.

Rod: [Laughs].

Brian: There’s nothing else in the whole song like it, and it’s just in that section, and the notes are so perfect.

Rod: Well, that was an example of it just happening because we had an extra track. I just put that in singing falsetto. It was literally done in about five minutes. It was just because we had the extra track. We were like kids in a candy store, because suddenly we did have a bit of freedom, and stuff was going down in the way that we wanted it. It was so nice to hear the harmonies being balanced in the way that we heard. Of course, we had some fantastic engineers: Geoff Emerick and Peter Vince. They were the main engineers on that album for us. So sad that Geoff’s just gone, actually. [Ed. note: Geoff Emerick passed away earlier this month, on October 2.]

Brian: Yeah.

Rod: You know, the thing I love about all your stuff is that it is so inventive—in terms of the chord sequences, in terms of what you think you can incorporate into your main way of writing. You’re not frightened to go off into all sorts of angles, from sometimes an R&B sort of little bass thing, into some crazy drum and chord sequences. It’s so refreshing. It’s lovely to hear. I was so pleased that Darian turned me on to that first album, really. Obviously, the first couple of tracks I heard were “I Want To Prove To You,” which completely knocked me sideways, and then “These Words.” Was that your first single, “These Words”?

Brian: Yeah, it was.

Rod: It’s just goes on and on. On the new album, suddenly, you’ll get these lovely Beach Boys choral bits, and then go into a really lovely, odd, almost vaudeville thing which will come out into something very feeling. I love it.

Brian: Thanks.

Rod: I completely love that feeling of spontaneity and invention boiling over. It feels like that when you listen to it. It feels like there’s just so much energy in the creativity of it, but the feeling is there as well, which is essential. You’ve got to have that.

Brian: Thank you so much, man. That means so much. Were you guys kind of isolated in a way in your scene, or your approach? Were there a lot of other bands or other musicians that you worked with at the time, or were you self contained at the time of the first run of the group?

Rod: We didn’t play with any additional musicians in our recording or in our playing, if that’s what you mean at all.

Brian: Yeah.

Rod: Because we lived so close to London, we often didn’t actually hang out socially at that time with too many other bands. Many of them had come from different parts of the country, and they wanted to be in London, because that’s was where the center of everything going on was. They were all based around the same areas in London. We used to hang out sometimes at clubs like the Cromwellian and see various people around. We went to a couple of parties—the Moody Blues used to have parties in a great house that they had there. We didn’t know all of the bands, of course. We see and mix with more bands of our vintage now than we ever did then, because everybody was working so much.

Michael: Yeah.

Rod: We were being ripped off by our management in the way that many other bands were. We were playing every single night, sometimes doubles, and the only time we’d ever see anybody else, often, was when we were coming back at about two o’clock in the morning. We’d happen upon another band in one of the few motorway cafes that were around at that time; You’d walk in at two or three o’clock in the morning, and there might be Billy J. Kramer in there having come down from a gig somewhere. Unit 4 + 2, or Eric Clapton… That would be a fleeting, horrible quick egg and chips, or something.

That was about it. We tend to cross paths now and have more to do with musicians of that vintage than we did then. On our last tour, on one of our gigs, Graham Nash came up and spent some time with us, and that was lovely. It’s not that we didn’t see anybody then, but if we went out at night, we’d tend to come back to St. Albans which was, like, twenty miles away. We were very young, then. We were 18, 19 years old.

Brian: Wow, I didn’t realize that.

Rod: I still lived at home. I didn’t move out until I was about 20, I think. I moved away from home and into a flat with Chris White. In fact, the writing of Odessey and Oracle was a very intimate experience, really, because I had one room in the flat, Chris had another, and the third room was owned by Terry Quirk who did the cover art.

Chris would write a song, and he would come into my room and say “Hey I’ve got this idea, what do you think?” And we would often swap little ideas on how the songs would go. Essentially, they were written either by Chris or me. I remember writing “Time of the Season,” and that was the last track on the album. I remember saying, “I’ve got this simple song, Chris, but you know what? I think it could be a hit.” I honestly remember saying that. I know because Colin [Blunstone] never thought it would hit commercial in a million years.

I remember him playing “Butcher’s Tale” to me, because he happened to have, in this small room, a full Victorian pump organ with pipes going up the back. We worked out the details of “Butcher’s Tale” on that, and we transported that to Abbey Road when we recorded it. It wasn’t really a transportable instrument, but we brought it there.

Michael: Yeah, wow.

Rod: It was a very cottage industry type environment at that time, which was a lovely way to write—nothing got in the way of it. It was quite intimate. I’ve said this a million times in interviews: We were so lucky when we went into Abbey Road, because The Beatles were literally the previous band, having just finished Sgt. Pepper. They had left all sorts of stuff in the studio—electronic harpsichord, John’s mellotron. I just leapt on John’s mellotron. I didn’t ask anybody, I just used it. I’m so pleased, because I sort of knew what it sounded like, because I heard it on “Strawberry Fields,” but that was it. It was all very quick. I mean, the whole album took six months to record, but we were only in there occasionally, when a song was ready.

Do you write as you go along, as you’re recording?

Michael: Yeah. On the Do Hollywood record, we did that on a 16-track that didn’t have bouncing capabilities.

Rod: Oh, did you really? Fantastic. Well done

Michael: Thank you. For the strings and the horns, we overdubbed them on the computer, but for this new record, we did it on a 24-track with no digital overdub. The first record was on a 16-track, so we had the same thing where we had a lot of ideas that were simply inspired by having a few extra tracks, or one extra track.

Brian: We wanted to fill them all.

Rod: Was that a conscious decision? Was that what you wanted to do?

Michael: Yeah, we definitely arranged a lot as we went along. We couldn’t write as we went along, because we were in a studio for 12 days for the first record, with our friend [Foxygen’s Jonathan] Rado, who just did it on a 16-track. We had a lot of these ideas that were inspired by Oh, we’ve got one track left, or two tracks left. Most of those were background vocal ideas, or percussion or keyboard ideas.

Brian: Sometimes, now we have to say “OK, even though we have all these other tracks, we want to give it the feel of a group playing in a room, so let’s really limit ourselves.”

Michael: Sometimes, instead of having to force limiting yourself, I use too many tracks for the drums—more tracks than I need—so right away I’ve gotten rid of seven or eight tracks. Right away, I have way less.

Brian: You have to do more with less. Fill up the space with the individual instruments so you don’t just have, like, five instruments just playing chords.

Rod: That can be really good, though. I think boundaries can really be a good thing.

Michael: Yeah, exactly.

Brian: I am sure now, you guys having developed a chemistry with the group that you’ve played with for the last… How long have you played with this version of the group?

Rod: This kind of band, with a slight change of guitar players, has been together for the last 18 years.

Brian: Yeah.

Rod: I can’t believe that, because, honestly, [when] we got back together, I didn’t want to do it. I was heavily involved with music, but I didn’t want to be on the road again. Colin said, “Why don’t we do half a dozen gigs for fun?” That, honestly, was all it was supposed to be. It honestly felt as if we’d done our last gig a few weeks before, rather than whatever it was at the time—35 years. [Laughs].

It felt lovely. It really did, and it was such a buzz to be playing on stage, and I had forgotten what a thrill and how much energy I got from playing live. It felt completely rejuvenating to me, and it still does. Certainly, everything that surrounds what we do in terms of the huge travel and all the tedium involved, doesn’t feel rejuvenating, but that time on stage, when you’re getting a real energy back from the audience—it’s fantastic. I’d forgotten how much I love that. I’d forgotten how much I loved improvising as well.

Michael: Yeah.

Rod: Some of the tracks that we’ve done over the years have left room for improvisation. “She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season,” obviously, but other ones as well. You can vary your approach each night. Not to say you don’t use the same elements time and time again, but you can freshen things. And the band has always had a fantastic aptitude for listening, so if you do go off on one and you go into a different space, they’ll follow you, which is fantastic. I love that.

It really does feel like a band, and that was something I looked for. I think that’s the difference between us and a lot of other bands of our vintage that are going around. We’re honestly not trying to capitalize on our past glories, if you like. We’re very, very happy to play all of that—we love playing the old stuff—but we get more energy about new stuff and getting a great reaction from the people in the audience. That’s wonderful. Still, nothing beats the thrill of managing to get a new track played on the radio. It’s just fantastic.

Brian: Yeah, you can feel that vitality when you see you guys live. We’ve seen you twice, and it’s so fun.

Michael: Twice it’s happened that we’ve bought tickets, and then had to go away so we had to give them to friends.

Brian: Oh, yeah—we’ve seen you guys twice, and then twice had to go on the road when we were supposed to see you and have been disappointed.

Rod: You must come back and say hello next time—I am a genuine fan. It’s an age thing, but I don’t listen to very much new music at all now. I was saying to Darian, “Oh, there’s not much that I’ve heard that I really like,” and he said “You’ve got to check this band out, the Lemon Twigs.” I was so knocked out. It rejuvenates me, hearing that invention. There’s not a lot of… Well, maybe there is, and maybe I don’t hear it, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of music that’s formulized and a little bit mechanical. To feel the emotion and energy that is natural from the way of playing and creating that I’ve always been used to and [have] aspired to, and to hear it from you guys is really pleasing. It’s a great thing to hear. Did I read that your new album is going to be some part of a theatrical thing?

Brian: Yeah, it’s a musical.

Michael: If we can manage it, then we’re going to try to get it put on somehow.

Brian: Produced in some way.

Michael: Whether it’s a home made movie, or a real movie, or a—

Brian: Stage production.

Michael: Whatever we can scrape together.

Brian: Yeah, we’ll just need some time.

Rod: Don’t you have some sort of theatrical experience in your background? Did I read that?

Brian: Yeah, we did Broadway shows when we were young. Our mom moved to New York to be an actress—she ended up being a psychologist. Then when we were little kids, she had us do a couple community theater shows, and an agent saw us there, and we kind of fell into it, knowing the whole time that we wanted to be musicians. But it was this incredible experience and it exposed us to all these songs from musicals.

Rod: It all gives you material—emotional material and creative material. It all builds up the bank, it’s fantastic.

Brian: Yeah, I feel real fortunate about that time. All right Rod, we have to get to the airport. Thank you so much.

Rod: It was lovely to talk to you guys.

Brian: Man, it was so nice talking to you.

Michael: Thank you so much.

Brian: Yeah, and thank you for all the music.

Michael: All the wonderful music. Hopefully we see you at one of the gigs, I guess.

Rod: That would be great. I can tell people now that I know the Lemon Twigs. [Laughs].

Brian: [Laughs] And we can tell people that we know The Zombies!

Do Hollywood, The Lemon Twigs’ 2016 debut LP, was an invigorating, much-needed blast of fresh air that whipped across the arid landscape of contemporary rock. Now, with the follow-up full-length, Go to School (4AD), brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario have set the bar dizzyingly high even by their own lofty standards, and proceed to soar over it into the stratosphere.

Go to School is a 15-song extravaganza that tells the tale of the pure-of-heart chimpanzee Shane, who’s adopted by a childless couple—played by the brothers’ musical hero Todd Rundgren and their mom, Susan Hall—and raised as a human boy. The libretto is played out in a series of intricate, wildly eclectic musical settings ranging from spot-on throwback rockers to traditional Broadway-style production numbers.      

They recorded Go to School at the dedicated analog studio they’d installed in the Long Island home they shared with their parents. Brian composed the arrangements and conducted the musicians, while Michael manned the console.