Getting the Led Out: An Interview with Led Zeppelin’s
John Paul Jones
Besides The Beatles — who will, in my opinion, always be the greatest band of all time — my favorite hard rock band has been Led Zeppelin ever since I first heard “The Immigrant Song,” when I was about 10 years old. I thought it was the most far out, wild song ever. When John Bonham died (I think I was 12 or 13 at the time), Led Zeppelin broke up, and I never got a chance to see them in concert. I did see Robert Plant and Jimmy Page perform together at Madison Square Garden a couple of years ago and that was pretty close to the real thing, but I still get knots in my stomach when some of my friends talk about actually seeing the full band — Page, Plant, John Bonham, and bassist John Paul Jones — play live. One of the highlights of my Zeppelin worshipping happened at the South By Southwest music convention two years ago, when John Paul Jones participated in an interview panel: a one-on-one conversation with the bassist from the greatest heavy rock band ever! My personal Rock Critic Hero and Mentor, Jim DeRogatis, conducted the interview, so we all knew it would rock very hard. For over an hour, Jones held a capacity crowd spellbound as he rattled off “I remember when” stories and told his version of all the best Hammer of the Gods-style rumors — including that one about the Edgewater hotel, the groupie, and the shark — from his career with Led Zeppelin until I was giddy with excitement and actually became so overwhelmed and moved thinking about how “In The Light” and “The Battle of Evermore” shaped my youth that I actually got teary-eyed. Of course, I had to hang out after the interview ended to get my picture taken with Jonesy, because hey, this is Led-Fucking-Zeppelin we’re talking about, and I’m a huge fan!
A couple of months ago, I got the word that Jones was going to be in town doing some press for his second solo album, the follow up to 1999’s Zooma, and I wasted no time in securing a spot on his agenda. In this interview, conducted in his hotel room on Manhattan’s upper west side, John Paul Jones spoke at length about his latest solo album The Thunderthief, reflected on his days with Led Zeppelin and his subsequent place in rock history, and explained how his work with avant garde vocalist Diamanda Galas inspired his own solo efforts. For Jones, one of rock’s most influential living legends, the song, in no way, remains the same.
I saw the interview you did with Jim DeRogatis at South By Southwest in 2000. In that interview you said — perhaps jokingly — that one of the reasons it took you so long to make your first solo album is that you don’t sing. The Thunderthief has your first recorded vocals ever. Was singing on a record with no previous experience a scary thing for you?
Yes. I mean, I had to make sure I could sing well enough to put [the performance] on record, so it wasn’t totally scary, you know what I mean? I sort of crept up on it [laughs]. The scary thing was actually doing it live on stage the first night, in Nashville (when Jones opened for King Crimson on their last tour). That was scary. What I wanted to do was do three songs from Thunderthief. We started with “Leafy Meadows” and then I did “Hoediddle” and then I did “Freedom Song” — which is scary enough. However, I suddenly thought, “I can’t just sing one song” (two of these three songs are instrumentals). So I thought, I need another vocal [laughs]. I didn’t want to do anything else off The Thunderthief, so I, in my bravura, decided to sing “That’s The Way.” Singing a Zeppelin song was even scarier, I can tell you.
What I used to do on the tour before, I played an instrumental version of “Going To California” on the mandolin, and I used to team [those two songs]. I would start with “That’s The Way” — because I played those mandolin parts on the original record. [Hums the tune] Then I said, “You didn’t think I was going to sing, did you?” [Laughs] But this time I did it and I sang it, so people who went to both concerts thought it was some kind of a trick [laughs]. But it went down alright. Nobody killed me for it, ’cause I can’t possibly sing it like Robert Plant. I don’t have that voice. But I did it in this other way, and it worked, but the first night I was terrified. Remembering words is the hard part. I put the lyrics on a music stand, so I couldn’t fuck it up. But I’m learning, I’m getting better.
How has working with a guy like Robert Fripp influenced your own writing and playing?
Well, I haven’t actually worked with him that much. The biggest connection is being on his label. [Long pause] I mean, when Zeppelin first started in 1969, and people would say, “What sort of band is it?” I used to say “progressive rock,” because in those days it meant rock that progressed [laughs]. You know, it was a very literal term; “Well, you know, we’re trying to advance the form of it, and this is what we’re doing to make it go somewhere.” But of course, that title came to have all sorts of different meanings. When it started to mean “classic,” that’s when I stopped saying it was progressive rock. But then we’d say it’s “blues rock,” because people love to label things. I didn’t really hear an awful lot of King Crimson [music], to be honest. But being on his label is great, mainly because of the fact that you get, obviously, total artistic freedom. There are no contracts, either. He really hates the music industry with a passion, and he’s not afraid of telling everybody [laughs] at every available opportunity, which is great. And the artist maintains the copyrights to all their material, so I just agree with him on that whole side, and I really like the way he approaches music, and musicians. He’s so passionate about everything and has a definite way that he wants to do it. It’s inspiring to know that people can say, “This is the way I want to do it!” and off he goes!
He’s always kind of been around in the background, but the first time Fripp got my attention was when Brain Eno called me and asked if I knew a piano player who could do some avant garde piano. He asked if knew anybody who could do some spacey sort of piano, and I couldn’t really think of anybody. I asked him to describe what he wanted and then I said, “Well, I can do that” [laughs]. Alright then, so I said, “What’s the track?” and he said, “Fripp’s doing a solo on it, and I want you to do the counterpart.” So I went along, and it was just this rhythm track, and I played this sort of spacey piano. The next time I heard it, Fripp had put his guitar solo on afterwards, so there’s this sort of alien spacey piano and suddenly this guitar comes in like [makes sounds of cars crashing], and I was like, “Fuck! I wish I’d known he was doing that! Jesus Christ!” Like “Who is this guy?” [laughs] Then, when I met him, he was like [imitating Robert Fripp’s gentlemanly nature] “Oh, Hello John. How are you?” I’m thinking, “Now, this isn’t the same guy who was like [makes car crash noises] on that record?” But it was. And that’s what he did on “Leafy Meadows.” He walked in and he puttered about and set his pedals up and had tea and cake and then he went, “Whaaaahh!!!!” [Laughs] I really like that. It’s quite a paradox.
That’s what I like about Diamanda [Galas] as well. When you meet her she’s terribly nice and sweet. And then you see her sing and [makes exaggerated face of terror].
I had to smile when I saw that Nick Beggs plays the Chapman stick on the album, because I remember him as the bassist for Kajagoogoo. How do you go about finding the various players who are involved with your solo projects?
Well, on Zooma I had Pete Thomas on drums and Trey Gunn on stick. I wanted a stick player because they think differently. They’re often bass players as well, and they just approach it differently. Plus, from a very practical point of view, in a trio, it’s great, because I’m a bass player and a keyboard player and I play quite a lot of lap steel in my show. If I’m doing bass, then [the stick player] can play all the lead parts. If go to the keyboards, he can then switch to bass in mid-song, if necessary. So, it’s very practical and it means I haven’t got someone standing there with a guitar, who feels like, “Well I should be playing something, because I’m standing here” [laughs]. There’s loads of space in a trio — which is what was nice about Led Zeppelin, because when Robert wasn’t singing we were a trio. There’s loads of space and you can go anywhere you like.
So, Trey Gunn was on that album and originally I had asked him to come out with me on the road, because the idea, of course, with Zooma was to get out and play it. He was going to [come out with us], but then King Crimson had resurfaced and he said his first loyalty was to go with them. Then I asked Robert [Fripp] if he knew of another Chapman stick player, and he said [adopting Fripp’s accent], “Well you wont believe it, but Nick Beggs is a really good player.” I went, “Nick Beggs from Kajagoogoo? ‘Too Shy’?” And he goes, “Yeah, try him out.” So I did. Then I went through a few drummers and eventually Nick said, well, “Terl Bryant is a really good drummer.” So he came on board and he was great, and their attitudes are just awesome. It’s a happy family, they call me “Pater” [laughs]. But it really is just like a family on the road, it’s really sweet. And they’re just full-on, enthusiastic, 100% committed, and it’s great.
Will you be taking Thunderthief on the road now that your tour opening for Crimson has passed?
Well, yes. We’re trying to get some dates together at the moment, to do The Thunderthief. But he thing is, I’d like to headline again, because then I can do my long show with the keyboards and things. But I may have to open for somebody else, again, because we really need to play to more people. It’s just maddening. I mean, we can sell out Irving Plaza [mid-size venue in NYC], but there comes a point where that’s the biggest one we can sell out, because nobody knows us. Everybody comes to the show and goes away going [adopts American accent], “That was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen! It was fantastic!” and then they tell their friends and we get people going, “Wow, I wished I’d known he was playing there.” We really just need to play to more people.
Here’s a quote from a review of The Thunderthief: “Since his days as a top sessioneer, his abilities as an arranger and multi-instrumentalist have equipped him to add musical finesse to any genre.” That’s a pretty nice compliment. Is that part of the reason you’ve been attracted to such genre diverse projects? You know, from Cinderella to The Butthole Surfers?
Oh come on, I love Cinderella.
Yeah, they were alright. The drummer owns a bus company now. Yeah, it’s all the same to me. As long as it’s good [music] I don’t care what it is. I mean, I’ve done classical composition and string quartets and [sighs] I don’t really care what it is. If somebody asks me to do something and I don’t know how to do it, I’ll find out.
In a criticism of the song “Angry Angry,” one reviewer said that you were “Always too accomplished to achieve something so off the cuff.” I guess you’d call that a back-handed compliment.
Yeah, he didn’t get it. The Brits don’t like “Angry Angry.” For a start, they understand the accent [I sing that song in], which they hate, ’cause it’s “music hall,” basically, is what it is — like a vaudeville accent. And they don’t like it because I think they think I’m taking the piss out of punk, which I’m not. I don’t do parody at all. It’s actually terribly prosaic, how it all happened, but music is just like that for me, basically. “Angry Angry” is at the speed it is because I heard Adam Bomb (Pink Gibson from NY based rock band, Get Animal, who plays guitar on this song) play at the Borderline in London and I immediately heard what I wanted him to do [on the record]. I went back into the studio and put a riff down, which was on bass, mandolin, and drum machine which was [sings hyper-speed riff from song], at that speed. I got it to play for three minutes, just that riff, and then I wrote the song and thought, “Now, what do I do with it?” It was at that tempo and had that intensity and the phrase “Angry Angry” just came to me, so I wrote the lyrics from there. And I had to do it in that voice because it sounds stupid any other way [laughs]. But the Brits hate it. They think I’m trying to be something that I’m not.
Oh, those Brits are so serious about everything.
Well, you haven’t met the Germans. They’ll go right into anything and find all the symbolism and the lot.
“Ice Fishing at Night” is a really beautiful song with some dark lyrics. What inspired you to write that song?
Well, I didn’t write the lyrics. They came with The Thunderthief.
What does that mean?
What happened was, halfway through what was basically going to be an instrumental album, but was also a continuation from Zooma, I decided it’d be really nice to have voices [laughs]. As I’ve said before, I didn’t want to get a guest vocalist in, for a couple of reasons actually. One is that I know that I’d forget what I was doing and work on producing them, whoever the vocalist was. I would immediately turn into a producer and it would go somewhere else. The other reason is that, being a bass player, I don’t actually have a distinctive sound. I mean, some people will listen to a record and go, “Oh yeah, that’s a John Paul Jones record,” but if you just heard one song in isolation, [you couldn’t tell]. Like, if you’re Santana, that record he did, every time he hits that guitar you know that’s Santana. It’s what he does. He doesn’t do anything else except for that sound. I don’t have that, because of the instruments I play. I thought, guest vocalists will only dilute that and just diffuse it even more. I decided, “I’m going to try and sing myself.” Then I thought, “well, I’ve got nothing to sing.” Then I was thinking that I don’t want to become a singer and a songwriter all at the same time. One thing at a time, you know?
So, I knew Peter Blegvad, he’s a singer/songwriter, and a cartoonist as well — he did the album cover. He’s got a weird way of looking at things; just a strange, twisted sort of dark view. I thought he’d be the ideal person to write some lyrics. I asked him, “Have you got any lyrics that you haven’t got music to? Any lyrics just laying around?” He had about four songs that he gave me and I picked up “The Thunderthief” and “Ice Fishing at Night” and set them to music, and basically, just experimented with singing to see whether I liked what I did. I thought I could work with these songs and I could sing enough to do what I wanted to do. I don’t have a great technique or a great voice, but as long as I could convince myself that it sounded alright, then it would be OK… which is how I do everything [laughs]. You know, I’m not a great technician on any instrument, but as long as I can convince myself that is sounds real, then I’ll do it.
I sang those two songs and then I thought, well I can’t just sing two songs [laughs]… I think like this all the time… it’s boring really. “You can’t just have two songs… how about trying to do some more?” Now that I know I can sing, I’ll try and write some lyrics and see how easy that is. So, I learned another trick. I discovered, like many people I’m sure have, that with the onset of the computer, I enjoyed writing emails. And since I enjoyed composing emails, I thought, “I wonder if it works for writing lyrics?” [Laughs] I tired writing some lyrics on the computer and — sure enough — I wrote three songs in an hour… one of which was “Angry Angry.” I thought, “this is fun!” I could finally master the song form on the next album, ’cause there’s no rules, you see? It’s great!
You make it up as you go along.
Absolutely, you get away with it yet again. [Laughing] I’ve had a lot of encouragement, but at the beginning of Zooma I thought, “They’re all going to go, ‘it’s boring!‘”
You’ve influenced so any modern rock bassists, from Tom Hamilton and John Deacon of Queen to Krist Novoselic and Flea. It’s almost like, if you drew it all as a Family Tree, you’d be the father of rock bass playing. What’s that like?
Well it’s just that they haven’t bothered to look further than me. I mean, I’m just lower down the food chain than somebody else is. It just depends on how far you want to go back, really. It’s very nice, it’s very flattering… but I’m imparting stuff that I probably learned from James Jamison and [Donald] “Duck” Dunn and Charles Mingus. But it’s very nice [to hear that I’ve influenced somebody]. I met some guy in New Orleans on the last tour and he says, “You probably don’t remember me but I came to see you with my Dad when I was 12 years old. You really influenced me and you got me playing the bass and you told me I should practice.” He was, like, in his twenties now. I asked him if he was still playing and he said yes, he was the principal bass for the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony [laughs]. Right! Nice to meet you!
How did it happen that “Rock & Roll” is now the theme music for a Cadillac commercial?
Ah! Because they asked us if they could use it [laughs]. Cadillac’s kind of a romantic thing — for Englishmen, especially. You think, “Pink Cadillac,” and it was Elvis’s car, and it’s a Limo and it just has this aura. I don’t know whether it’s the same in America; probably not, because you have them over here all the time — you’ve lived with them [laughs]. I can see a Cadillac now, and it’s BIG, with big fins and whitewall tires. But they asked us if they could use the song, and they didn’t get it for nothing. And why not?
Do all three of you — you and Jimmy and Robert — all have to make a decision like that? It’s not like Page did it when you weren’t looking?
No, all three of us make those decisions.
Well, on one had, you can think, “Classic car, classic song,” but it does kind of bother me that I hear The Who’s “Bargain” now and instantly think of a car commercial.
Well, yeah… I haven’t actually seen the commercial yet.
Before Led Zeppelin ever came into being you had a successful career as a session musician and arranger. How much of Zeppelin’s unique sound is owed to your work on the arrangements?
Eh… some. But then it’s equally the way Bonham approached the drums and it really was a group effort. Even if the original idea wasn’t a group effort, the final thing was a group effort. It really was, more than any band I was involved in. It was never like the songwriter ruled the band. Robert wrote the lyrics last, usually.
But there wasn’t any other band that sounded like Led Zeppelin, and there never has been since. That’s kind of a big deal when you think about it. Especially now, in this day of everybody sounding like everyone else.
That’s because people in bands these days always listen to the same music. They all start a band because they all like U2 or they all like Pearl Jam. Consequently, their field of reference is very narrow. Our field of reference was huge. Page and I were very hard working session musicians, and when you walk into a session it can be absolutely anything. Country and western, to Champion Jack Dupree, to Englebert Humperdink, to a big band session. You walk through that door and you don’t know; it could really be anything [laughs]. You name it, I’ve done it. I played weddings, I’ve played Bar Mitzvahs, I’ve done Irish weddings, Jewish weddings, Greek weddings, Italian weddings. I can play it all. Musicians these days, they don’t seem to do that anymore, and bring it all into the mix. Bonzo used to like soul music and knew the words to every Chi-Lites record, ever [laughs]. He was the biggest Smokey Robinson fan, he was into Motown, he loved The Beatles and James Brown. I was into all that soul music, jazz, and classical. Robert was really into blues and all the rock stuff and doo-wop. Page had all these other interests. It was just a huge range of influences, you could go here or there or this way or that. And that’s what I do now, with this music.
What was the dynamic like between you and John Bonham as a rock rhythm section?
Well, we weren’t like a lot of rock rhythm sections, we swung like a bastard [laughs]! Groove was extremely important in Zeppelin and it wasn’t in a lot of those bands [that were popular at the same time]. It was extremely important, which is what, to me, made the band [so great]. We used to have a lot of women at our concerts — and I loved having women at our concerts because they’d dance. [Laughing] It’s great, because the guys stand there with their arms folded and the girls are dancing. Zeppelin was great because it was music you could dance to, and you can’t say that about too many rock bands.
How did your work with Diamanda Galas on her record The Sporting Life and its subsequent tour, end up affecting your own career?
Oh, wow, she’s my favorite piano player. She’s just very inspiring as an artist, she’s very passionate, very committed, always knows what she wants to do. I have several other things to thank her for; she got me playing steel guitar again, which I hadn’t done for years. She saw it in the studio and said “What’s that?” And I said, “Steel guitar,” “I want to hear it.” So we put it on one of her songs and we did two songs with it in her shows. It was good because it gave me some sort of “high voice” as well as being in the back playing bass. And I thought, “this is a way I can work, this is a way I can actually do a solo show without being a bass player and having other people take over all the fun stuff.”
Didn’t she also inspire you to start playing live again?
Yes, she did. I mean… somebody actually said, I think this was a German interview, [the journalist] said that he thought that these records — this is interesting — that The Thunderthief was the third record in a trilogy, starting with Diamanda’s record. And in fact, he’s right in that way, because that was the first time I’d tried using that sort of riff, drums and voice. A lot of people didn’t like it, but to me it was blindingly obvious. I couldn’t see why nobody had thought of it before, especially with her voice, because she has all that range and passion. Plus, her lyrics are great! These homicidal love songs are wonderful [laughs]. She came along with, “Hide the knives, baby’s insane!” [laughs]. “Skotoseme,” that first track [on The Sporting Life], she did it in one take. Me and the engineer were shaking at the end of it, and she just went [adopting a woman’s voice] “Is that OK? I’m going to get myself some coffee” [laughing]. When someone suggested we work together, I could hear it all in my head. I just went [snaps fingers], “I know what we’re going to do as well.” I sent her these riffs, to New York, and she sent back some ideas. Then she just turned up and stayed for two months, and we made the record. It was just brilliant. I thought, “This is great! We can do what we like again.” I was just so inspired. Then she also told me — cause she’s collaborated with everybody as well — that she’d said in interviews, when they’d say, “Well, why don’t you collaborate anymore?” She’d say, “Well, I’ve put effort into everybody else’s music. If I’m going to put that much effort into music, it’s going to be my own.” And I went, “Yeah!” [laughs].
She kinda scares me, to tell you the truth.
She scares us all! That’s the fun part. But she’s so committed to her music. She’s just having fun. She was great on stage one time, [laughs] there was that perfect moment in this theater in Chicago, she was there at the front of the stage and — you know how everybody shouts out song titles? — a little voice comes up in this slight lull between songs and goes “Song Remains the Same!” And she just looked at him and she goes [makes malevolent face], “No it doesn’t, motherfucker.” [Laughing] You could see the crowd part.
As a way of wrapping this up, I surely don’t have to tell you this, but thinking about how Led Zeppelin always gets the nod as the greatest hard rock or metal band of all time — on VH1 shows or magazine polls, or radio countdowns or whatever — do you think the endurance and greatness of the Led Zeppelin legend has much to do with the fact that you guys called it quits after John Bonham died, while you were still a hot item?
[Pauses] I suppose with hindsight, maybe that did have something to do with it. I mean, there was no point in carrying on, it would be a different band, because no John Bonham, no Led Zeppelin, it’s as simple as that. He was so integral, to have gotten someone else would have made it more of a tribute band, if you were playing Led Zeppelin songs, because anyone else would have to be in his shadow all the time. However, he died at a time when there was like a new lease on life, a new awakening in Zeppelin. Punk had severely embarrassed us [laughs]. We’d stripped down and just went, [shrugs] “Oh, OK, right. This is over, off we go again.” It was a very hopeful time, despite the darkness of having lost John. That was terrible. So, yes, [had he not died] we would have gone on and… who knows what would have happened.