Posts

Photo: Dennis Marcus Photography
Photo: Dennis Marcus Photography

Instrumental Rock Legends The Ventures Come to The Birchmere

If the name The Ventures doesn’t ring a bell, trust me, it doesn’t mean you haven’t heard their music – including in Pulp Fiction’s perfectly timed final scene (see below). The Rock & Roll Hall of Famers are credited with being the godfathers of instrumental rock, with hits like “Walk Don’t Run” and “Hawaii Five-O” that you’d recognize within hearing the first three guitar chords. The iconic band is also known for their unwavering fanbase in Japan, where they still tour regularly, and their substantial contribution to surf rock as a genre in its own right in the 1960s.

On the eve of their 60th anniversary, the band’s current lineup – Bob Spalding (lead guitar), his son Ian Spalding (rhythm), Luke Griffin (bass) and Leon Taylor (drums) – are on a four-leg East Coast tour with a stop at The Birchmere on Thursday, January 17. We caught up with the current elder statesmen of the group, Spalding and Taylor (whose father Mel was the drummer in The Ventures’ classic lineup) before they take the stage in Alexandria this week about their new record Here We Go Again, why they’re not just a surf rock band and what it’s like to have fans spanning three generations.

On Tap: I know we’re interviewing you for your U.S. tour, but I really want to know what it’s like to tour in Japan.
Bob Spalding:
We’ve been to Japan so many times that I think most of us qualify for citizenship. We’re going back again this year. We usually end up doing 35 to 40 dates in a couple of months.

OT: How would you describe the experience of playing for fans in Japan versus fans in the United States?
Leon Taylor:
We’re going on our 60-year anniversary since the inception of The Ventures, [so we’re probably looking at] 57 years of going to Japan. It’s quite a different audience in the sense that Japanese people are very reserved. They enjoy the show and they’re active in their seats, but they don’t get up and jump around like the U.S. audience does. It’s very different in that way. When I first went there, I thought they didn’t like us. But I learned that’s just the way they are.
BS:
The Ventures had their first hit in 1960 with “Walk Don’t Run” and were invited to go on a tour of Southeast Asia in 1962. For all intents and purposes, they introduced Japan to the electric guitar. When they came back on tour in 1964, they were greeted by 10,000 people and they just became a tremendously popular group in Japan for a number of reasons. We’ve been very fortunate in being able to continue to go back to provide that level of music to the Japanese folks. And we’re still recording new music – not only for the Japanese folks but for the rest of our fans around the world.

OT: Can you tell me a little bit about your latest release?
LT:
The album is called Here We Go Again. Basically, the idea is The Ventures have morphed with different members over the years. There’s always been different members looking to change things up a little bit. We wanted to make a statement and say, “Here we go again,” because that’s kind of where we’re at. We’re making a resurgence into the market and we’ve got new material.
BS:
This will be the first new album [of originals] that The Ventures has done in 10 years or so. We will be playing some of our new songs at the show at The Birchmere, so look for those.

OT: Would you say the new album is more rooted in surf rock or instrumental rock ‘n’ roll in general?
BS:
I’m glad you brought that up. That’s kind of a difficult thing for us because people want to slap a label on you. Let me just say that we have no problem being known as a surf rock group because we popularized so much of the surf rock songs like “Pipeline.” However, the talent of the group both in the sense of performance – and writing and arranging [music] – goes beyond the surf rock genre. One of the songs we’re going to play [at the Birchmere] is a rearrangement of a Chopin song. I guess you can characterize that as surf rock, but I don’t think so [laughs].
LT:
If you want to say we’re a surf band, then we’re probably the most well-known surf band in American music. So, we’ll take it [laughs].
BS:
Yeah, here we go again.

OT: How would you describe your experience joining the band after The Ventures had already established such great success? Did you feel like you had big shoes to fill when some of the original members retired?
LT:
I definitely had some big shoes to fill and I knew it. Was it scary? Yeah [laughs]. It was very scary because the first time I played with the band, it was in front of 2,500 people in Japan and it was a packed house. But I rose to the occasion, and at one point one of the original members Don [Wilson] turned around and said to me, “If I hadn’t turned around, I could’ve sworn it was your dad playing.”
BS: It’s been quite an experience to be accepted as part of The Ventures family.

OT: What do you think gives your music universal appeal spanning generations – and even countries?
BS:
We are very fortunate because the music we popularized is basically evergreen. People know it, and we’re slowly getting these younger fans. A lot of them were exposed to the music when they were kids. They really have an interest in and a fascination for it.
LT:
When we have a fan come up and say, “My grandparents introduced me to The Ventures,” it’s cool and it’s kind of like, “Well, really?” [both laugh] It’s cool and kind of strange in the same way, you know? It’s amazing to have a following like that.

OT: What are some of the challenges you face in writing and performing purely instrumental music?
LT: If you don’t have melody, you don’t have song. So it’s a bit challenging in that regard.
BS: The hard part for us is to continue to develop, arrange and write new instrumental music and keep it in the character of The Ventures because of the sound that we have. We can’t say, “Okay, let’s do a Motörhead song.” That would be out of character for us and probably wouldn’t go over well because we don’t play like Motörhead. But we really try to continue the model of what the guys who came before us did, which is the interpretation of different songs as well as the development of new material within that Ventures’ [style], if you will.

Don’t miss the instrumental rock legends at The Birchmere on Thursday, January 17. Show at 7:30 p.m., tickets are $29.50. Learn more at www.birchmere.com.

The Birchmere: 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave. Alexandria, VA; 703-549-7500; www.birchmere.com

Photo: Andrew Eccles
Photo: Andrew Eccles

Psych-Rock Legends The Zombies Headline Birchmere

What’s your name? Who’s your daddy?

Sound familiar? The psychedelic rockers behind some of the most iconic lyrics of the 60s from hits like “Time of the Season,” “Shes Not There” and “Tell Her No” are on a 23-stop tour, and headlining The Birchmere on March 13. The Zombies are fresh on the heels of a 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination, and have breathed new life into their original sound after a 30-year hiatus with three albums over the past decade. The latest iteration of the band – founding members Colin Blunstone (vocals) and Rod Argent (keyboard), guitarist Tom Toomey, former Kinks’ bassist Jim Rodford, and his son and drummer Steve Rodford – have spent the past few years embarking on wildly successful tours performing their 1968 album, Odessey & Oracle, in its entirety.

And though tragedy recently and unexpectedly struck the band (Jim passed away suddenly in late January), the band is determined to move forward with this leg of their tour. On Tap chatted with the charming, eloquent and disarmingly soft-spoken Blunstone about losing his dear friend, recording new music with his bandmates and the legendary rockers’ upcoming show at Birchmere.

On Tap: First, let me start by saying how sorry I was to hear of Jim’s passing.
Colin Blunstone:
It’s been a huge shock to us. We’re totally lost because he’d been with us since the founding of this incarnation of the band. He’d been with us for 19 years. He’s Rod’s cousin and our drummer Steve’s father. It’s been a huge shock, but we decided pretty early on that Jim would want us to go ahead. He was very much a “show must go on” type person. So, we decided to keep going and we managed to find someone who is a wonderful player. He’s coming over from Denmark at the end of the week and he’s very [familiar] with the Zombies’ repertoire.

OT: That’s great that you were able to find someone quickly who is a good fit for the band.
CB:
We’re very fortunate to have him on board. Here we go. We haven’t really had time to think about it too much. There was a wonderful celebration of Jim’s life, actually, in St. Albans Cathedral where we all come from. It’s a huge, very, very old cathedral and it was absolutely packed. There were hundreds of people there. It was a very sad time but there was a strange beauty about the ceremony [in the cathedral]. It was great to see so many of [his] friends.

OT: Wow, that’s such a testament to how loved he was by his community.
CB:
He was a very special person. He always had time for everyone. He was a real musician’s musician. He had many friends who were musicians because he was so respected as a player. But he always had time to speak to other people as well.

OT: I feel really lucky that I was able to see you guys play together at 9:30 Club for the Odessey and Oracle tour last year.
CB:
Did you enjoy it?

OT: I loved it – it was a fantastic show. In fact, my husband bought one of the tour T-shirts and wears it to a lot of shows and concertgoers always strike up conversations with him about your band. Speaking of the Odessey and Oracle tour, how has that been going?
CB:
It’s been incredibly successful. The whole reason for doing those shows was because it was the 50th anniversary of the recording of the album. There are a lot of harmonies and overdubbed instruments on that album, so we were very determined to recreate every note that was on the album. We had great help from Darian Sahanaja from the Brian Wilson Band. He knew it better than we did. With the help of all these wonderful players, we were able to recreate the album note for note. And it was great for us to do that.

OT: Why do you think the album has such staying power five decades later?
CB:
Year on year, it just attracts more and more attention. It’s a very strange story. No one had been promoting it, no one had been marketing it. It was just word of mouth. There are lots of critics and reviewers that have named the top albums of the 60s, and you usually see Odessey and Oracle in there somewhere.

OT: For the upcoming leg of your tour, will you be performing much of the album? Or focusing on more recent discography?
CB:
It’ll be a cross-section of tunes that we’ve recorded over our whole career. We will be playing some songs from Odessey and Oracle, but we will be playing lots of songs from more recent albums. Our last album actually got into the Top 100 in Billboard, and we’ll be playing two or three songs from that album, and some other things that we’ve recorded. Sometimes we even put tracks in there that we’ve recorded away from The Zombies. I’ve recorded quite a lot with the Alan Parsons Project and of course, Rod has his own band, Argent, so we try to give a fair interpretation of what we’ve been doing over the last 50 years, but it varies from tour to tour.

OT: What was it like to go back into the studio three decades later with your bandmates who you had recorded with in the 60s?
CB:
The strange but wonderful thing is that when we started playing concerts together, it felt as though we’d played a few weeks before. But in actual fact, at that point it was probably 30 or 40 years since we’d played a tour together. And that led to us going into the studio. It just felt very, very natural. Our first experiences of professional recording studios were in our formative years together. When we were 18 years old, we went into [the studio] and recorded “She’s Not There” and from there on, [we spent] three or four years recording constantly. Because we grew up recording together, I think it just came very naturally. We just slipped back into the partnership that we had before.

OT: Any plans to record a new album?
CB:
We will be. We’re just talking about recording now. We’re really in the writing stages of things. There’s one or two ideas that have come up. I think there will be a new Zombies album next year. I’m saying next year because most of this year is full of concerts. I don’t know when we would get a chance, really, to get into the studio so I would imagine it’d be next year.

OT: Have you played The Birchmere before?
CB:
I think we’ve played there three or four times before and always had a wonderful time. If anybody is thinking about coming out to see The Zombies, this is a great place to come and see us. It’s quite intimate, so you’ll be very close to the band. The acoustics there are great. It’s a wonderful place to see live music.

OT: Are there any up-and-coming musicians on your radar?
CB:
This might sound a bit strange, but because we’re traveling all the time, I don’t get an awful lot of chance to listen to new artists. But off of the top of my head, Ed Sheeran, [and] there’s a wonderful Canadian female singer-songwriter called Sara Bareilles. She’s absolutely sensational.

Learn more about Blunstone and The Zombies here, and don’t miss the rock legends at The Birchmere on Tuesday, March 13 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $55.

The Birchmere3701 Mt. Vernon Ave. Alexandria, VA; 703-549-7500; www.birchmere.com