An Interview with Rod Argent
Rod Argent has carved a considerable niche for himself in the world of rock, both as a keyboard player and a composer, first with the Zombies and now in the band which he has given his own name.
His name is not all Rod has given Argent. In any conversation with him, it becomes apparent just how much of his time, attention and thought has been invested in the band. His musical interests are broad, including classical, rock and jazz, and all have gone together to enrich both Argents.
Rod's life is music; from the moment he rises in the morning until he goes to bed, Rod is at the piano, listening to his superb collection of records, fiddling with his recording equipment, or preparing for stage or studio.
All this is not unusual in a musician — what is unusual is the exceptional standard of performance that Rod Argent has attained. Although, like all musicians, he still hears things in his head that he can't instantly play, by careful practice he has managed to develop his technique to the point where it usually helps his ideas, instead of hindering their expression.
This development is always at the disposal of the band. It is Argent the band that presses Argent the man to do his best work, that encourages him to practice and create new music.
As his life is given over to music, so is his home. A grand piano dominates the living room of his home in St. Albans. He bought that piano from a London recording studio for £250 — with a bit of refurbishing it might be worth £1,000.
Rod Argent's life has revolved around music from the beginning. His father played piano in a local dance band, and Rod took piano lessons as a child. Although he isn't classically trained, his background and early training prepared him well for his future life.
Your training to quite a large extent was based on the classics before you started playing rock wasn't it?
Well, I had three or four years of piano lessons and that was really the extent of it, apart from the fact that I was introduced to a lot of classical music because I used to sing in the Cathedral choir as a kid.
It was very good — we used to do broadcasts on Radio 3 and all that sort of thing. I was introduced to a lot of music that way — non-classical music as well — and it was fabulous. And the organist that was there was one of the best organists in Europe.
And you got to play it?
No, I haven't played it but to be up there when the organist was thundering out a Bach Fugue and things going all around you was really fabulous. So I heard a lot of classical music that way, but apart from that I'm more or less self-taught. I mean, I can play things now I could never have played four or five years ago.
You said you had piano lessons for a few years. Some people have said that if they form their technique on the old, classical foundations, it limits them in expressing direct feeling as opposed to interpreting dots.
Do you agree with that or do you think that's complete nonsense?
I think that's a complete load of rubbish. The reason people think like that is that there are a lot of people around who aren't very musical but they've still had piano lessons and by pure application, they've built up a certain amount of technique.
Because these people don't play with much feeling, as soon as they are taken away from music, they can't play a thing, and that leads people to put things the other way round and say 'Ah, that inhibits your feeling!' It doesn't at all, it's just that these people often aren't very musical to begin with.
Having technique will never inhibit any musical feeling you might naturally have. It can only enable you to express it better.
To what extent, if any, do you get angry with your hands? When you're on a keyboard, whether you're playing something you know well, or composing, to what extent do your hands still not obey you. Do you find any limitations?
Oh yes, obviously. It's all down to me. If I practised harder... I mean I don't have the opportunity, I'd love to do three or four hours a day if I could, I haven't really played the piano for the last two weeks because I've just played that hour a night and I haven't played anything else.
Do you think that your piano playing ability has suffered because of your band work and because of your writing? Have you still a great deal of potential to find in your hands?
I think so, if I do sit down and practice for a few days at a stretch then my technique definitely improves. People say that it's very hard to improve your technique after a certain time.
I'm 29 now, but I don't find that true at all. I think what happens is that most people's enthusiastic years, when they're a little younger, provide the basis of their technique and they're content just to leave it at that. My technique has improved in the last year. I'm sure that if I could just get down and apply myself I could get considerably better.
As you improve as a player do you find less and less in the simpler forms of music?
No... technique is a great thing to have, you can't have too much of it because it enables you to express what you've got, but that doesn't mean that you can only enjoy things that are technical, some of the most simple things are often the most effective.
For instance my favourite bands include Yes and Free. Yes are tightly controlled and Free is a very spacey band who just concentrate on feeling. There's a modern classical composer called Michael Tippett who is one of the most involved composers living today and yet he said — when he was talking about the blues once — that Bessie Smith in the space of a fourth could express an amazing amount of feeling.
When you sit down and write are you conscious of the limits in which you are writing? Are you conscious that you're not using your full technical capabilities sometimes or do you try to keep it as simplistic as possible?
It just comes out, I don't try to make anything more complicated or more simple. I get an idea and then try and develop that idea.
But as your technique develops so must your writing limits.
Well yes. On the album we're doing now, because of the state we were in, I found myself doing most of the harmonies on it by overtracking. I find myself able now to just listen to the track and hear the whole vocal texture in my mind and write it down even checking it on the piano. We were doing this in the studio, we were just listening to the track and then writing down harmonies and then just singing straight onto the tape. That's something I probably couldn't have done a year ago.
So you're not tempted at the moment to strike out as a solo keyboard player like Wakeman has done, for example?
I haven't really thought about it. I'm much more involved with getting the new band off the ground and we've got a tremendous new guitar player (John Grimaldi) so I am mainly concerned with pulling the band together. There's very little time to think of anything else at the moment.
Would you say that you work super hard, hard, medium hard or not very hard, most of the time?
Well it's a co-operative band — everyone has a hand in the arrangements et cetera. It's a slog but it's very enjoyable. At rehearsals it's got to be disciplined, there's no other way you can get things over, and you've just got to keep up the thing until everyone's really tired — that's the only way of doing it.
I think that the music we're playing is not the sort of thing for which you could just get stoned and go out and play. Some sorts of music you can. The stuff we're doing is a lot more disciplined than that but there are a few areas where you can just take off. But the areas which are arranged have got to be very tight, otherwise they just fall apart.
You don't seem to be touring as much now — is this a permanent change in the band's routine?
Well, that has been the case in the last six months or so but it won't be from now on. It depends, you see. What we're going to have to do, I imagine, is two tours of the States a year, possibly two English tours and possibly the odd tour of Europe.
How much free time can you find in your life? How many times can you get up in the morning and say "Well, the rest of the day is comparatively clear"?
Well, I could do that almost any day but the situation is that there's always so much to be done and I'm always behind schedule, that I feel guilty if I do that anyway. The only time when I don't feel guilty and I don't mind enjoying myself is days like today which is like a day off in two weeks of touring.
When Argent aren't playing, what do you do with your music? Are you continually working towards a musical aim which will eventually be Argent the band or are you working in other musical directions, completely separate?
I find that all musical directions tend to converge and anything that you do directly or indirectly reflects in some way what you're doing within the band. I like listening to music and I'm always trying to improve myself as a musician. I like classical music a lot.
For instance like tonight - it's my one day off and we were thinking of going to the Festival Hall to see something although in fact we aren't because we didn't fancy what was on. We like going to concerts and I've normally got a lot of classical music. I like jazz a lot as well, and mainly I really like to catch up.
When you're on the road, you're very much cut off from music because you're doing just the set you're doing on stage each night and there are very few opportunities to go to other concerts when you're on the road.
Are there times when you sit down at the piano now or the organ when you're at home and play it for its own sake? Does that happen now?
Yes, I do that all the time actually. I love just sort of sitting down and playing for two or three hours at a time just for my own pleasure.
What's your concentration like on the keyboard when you're sitting there. For instance, is it easy for your wife to interrupt you for a phone call. Are you easily distracted or are you right in there?
It depends what I'm doing really. If I'm writing then I have to be in there by myself, then my wife just has to go out. But if I'm just playing, I can keep that sort of concentration together without too much of a problem.
If I'm writing it's a matter of keeping my train of thought going, and once the thing is interrupted you may have to start from scratch again.
How do you force yourself, how do you discipline yourself?
I don't know really. I guess I just say "Right, that's it".
Do you arrive at the stage of feeling resentful at having to do it?
Oh no. I never feel resentful about it. I always seem to be working under pressure no matter how much preparation I make. I always seem to have my back against the wall working to a deadline.
Do you find that screws up what you're trying to do?
No, it helps me.
Do you think that if you had all the time in the world you wouldn't produce anything?
Yeah. If I had all the time in the world I'd still wait for that deadline. At the moment I've got a lot of enthusiasm for the band so I've got plenty of drive. Perhaps if things weren't going so well I'd get depressed and that would affect my work.
Do you ever get musical cliches in your head that you can't shake off? What I mean is, do you come down some mornings, sit at the piano, start working on something and every time you hit a particular chord think "Oh fuck it, I can't shift that?" Do you ever find that?
No, I don't usually. There are often days when you keep hitting brick walls all the time, when you can only play one damn thing. But I find you just have to keep at it and even on these days you can sometimes break through. And often when that happens you find that you can't get anymore out of yourself for that day.
Other days I find there's a surge of creativity at the beginning which tails off. There are no rules really. But I don't find myself ever thinking consciously in other people's terms. Although sometimes it does come out when you've finished something and you sit back and then you can see an influence somewhere. But you weren't consciously aware of it at the time.
I'm interested to know what limits you. Your limit seems to be in your inspiration rather than in your playing patterns. Every player has his patterns. If you listen you can hear they have a favourite sequence of patterns but these aren't your limits then, only what's in your head to start with?
I think I've got these limits too. I think everybody has.
Which keyboard player on our side of the business do you admire most?
I think there's only one player in rock that I admire and that's Keith Emerson. I don't think he's faultless by any means, he's at least got a technique and an originality in his playing. A lot of people believe that all he can do is to use large chunks of classical passages, but his own playing is quite original and it is musical. I find a lot of other people either lacking in technical ability or lacking in imagination... he's not my ideal player but at least he has got things that I admire.
So who's the ultimate for you in the musical field?
There's not one person. The first piano player who ever turned me on - I was about 16 — was Bill Evans when he was playing with Miles Davis. I still like everything that he does. I like so many people, I like Herbie Hancock very much, I think he's probably my favourite jazz pianist. People like Oscar Peterson are amazing, but for my personal taste Hancock is the most sensitive and the most musical player I've heard in jazz.
There are boredom thresholds with music. When you do a gig I'm sure that you come off with your head absolutely ringing with music. Do you ever arrive at a point when you just don't want to hear another note of music again?
Very rarely actually. There's normally some sort of music that I want to listen to. There are days sometimes when I don't want to hear rock 'n' roll any more and there are days when I just don't want to hear any classical music and I just want to hear a particular style of rock or something. I really do love almost every type of music and I think that gives me a larger area to move in so if I'm absolutely saturated after a day in the studio with loud music pounding at me it's real relaxation to come home and put something classical on.
As you get older — and I mean 10 or 15 years older — do you feel that your personal drive in music will increase or decrease?
I think it depends very much on your situation and what's going on around you at the time. I always tend to get very enthusiastic about things which is good really. And I always tend to think I could be doing very much more than I am doing which is probably good in a way because basically I'm a very lazy person, and I have to make myself do things. I feel very guilty when I don't do things and I have to make myself. I make any excuse to stop and have a cup of tea before I really get down to work.
Would you like your own studio?
I'd love it. It wouldn't really be a financial proposition, although of course it's all tax deductible, but the equipment would lose money. It would just be a great thing to be able to work with. Recording costs are phenomenal now. Two albums and you've paid for your own studio, that's how I'd look at it.
At the moment, one session, an afternoon and an evening in a studio, can knock you back £400.
Are you practical enough to be able to construct the studio yourself?
I am absolutely impractical, I'm completely hopeless with anything technical, anything to do with science in any form, electronics and anything like that. I've got no interest at all.
Given your self-confessed "hopelessness", what effect does it have on your preparation for live performances — what are your main concerns on the night of a gig?
I just want things to be right. It really annoys me incredibly if I go on stage and because I haven't checked things personally — even though there are people there to do it — things are out of tune and the whole thing's ruined for me. It seems like a terrible waste so I like to get involved and hustle to get things right in that way.
I've got a very good keyboard man. I have quite a sophisticated keyboard line-up now and the more sophisticated you get the more things can go wrong. This guy takes a lot of the burden off me. There are a lot of things that can go wrong that you don't notice until you get out there on the stage. Although he can play my parts to check the stuff, I'm so used to my own sound that I can discover something no-one else would.
Interview by Ray Hammond
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