Robert Plant interview about life after Led Zeppelin

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Feb 13, 2020, 12:01:26 PM2/13/20
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It's been a long time since Robert Plant fronted the biggest band in
the world, and now, at 71, hes enjoying the fourth decade of a
successful solo career

I remember that great morning when the term classic rock was invented,
Robert Plant says, by way of introduction, at his base in the Severn
Valley. It became a radio network in America long before your
magazine. What had happened was that the world of raaaak with several
as had become like an oldies station.

"But it doesnt relate to you guys much, because youve kept up
with my madnesses over the years. And I appreciate that because,
ironically, I dont get played on classic raaaak these days, apart from
my previous incarnation. Now Im out there with the angels and the
birdies, theres not a chance in hell.

Plant has indeed been out there for some time now, ever since making
his solo debut in 1982, two years after the death of his great friend
John Bonham signalled the end of Led Zeppelin. Its been a fascinating
and wide-roaming career, pulling in elements of folk, blues, African
music, psychedelia, roots-rock and beyond. And while he acknowledges
that, for some, he will forever be the golden god of Zep legend, his
rich catalogue from his first tentative steps as a solo artist to the
multi-faceted brilliance of recent albums Lullaby AndThe Ceaseless
Roar and Carry Fire is the work of an inveterate seeker.

A conversation with Plant is just as digressive, his mind sparking off
at tangents, one recollection eliding into another. Today he talks
about his early years in Birmingham; being chauffeured around town by
John Bonham at the height of his fame; bad-hair days on Top Of The
Pops; why hell never write a memoir; his recent sojourn in Texas And
of course theres his current band of brothers, the Sensational Space
Shifters.

He also talks a lot about digging deep, which brings us to his latest
endeavour. Digging Deep With Robert Plant is his hugely popular
podcast, in which he eloquently discusses the hows and whys of songs
from his across his career. Digging Deep is also the name to a box set
that gathers together singles from his solo albums up to 2005s Mighty
Rearranger.

Plant is great company. And, considering that aforementioned previous
incarnation, about as unstarry as its possible to be. Modest too. He
and the Shifters are just back from America, where they ended their
tour with an appearance at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, an annual bash
in San Franciscos Golden Gate Park.

Im still stoned from the weed in the crowd, he laughs. Fuckin hell! I
was craving a snack by about song number three. What I wouldnt have
done for a tuna melt.

Its time to dig in...

What prompted you to do the podcast?

A lot of the endeavours that have been and gone since the passing of
Led Zep have been great dalliances, almost like romances with
different musicians and their input. Different sounds and the way
contemporary recording changed in the mid-eighties, the fond farewell
to analogue recording. All that sort of thing. I think I had so much
experience of the acceleration of creativity going into chaos for a
period in the seventies, that I really just wanted to keep doing
different things all the time.

I do interviews with people and they say: Have you thought about
writing a book? I go: Fuck off. Everything that Ive got between my
ears, or between my legs, is my business and nobody elses. I know too
many things, and when I finally depart this mortal coil I dont want my
family to think that I was some kind of weirdo. So I keep it hid. One
of the tracks off my last record [2017s Carry Fire] is about just that
Keep It Hid. And thats what you have to do.

At the same time as guarding your privacy, the podcast aims to throw
light on parts of your back catalogue.

Talking about the creation and development of music is a double-edged
sword. I recently did a gig in Roskilde, Denmark, and Bob Dylan wanted
to talk to me about touring. So I met him where all the buses are
parked, at this big festival, and we eyeballed each other and smiled
in the darkness. It was pissing with rain, two hooded creatures in a
blacked-out car park, and I said to him: Hey, man, you never stop!

He looked at me, smiled and said: Whats to stop for? But I couldnt ask
him about his songs, because as much as Ive been affected by his work
you cant talk about it. My work is not anywhere near as profound in
what its trying to do. At the same time, you can get to know the
motive and circumstances behind a particular song, without it being
Masters Of War.

Through discussing certain songs on the podcast, have you discovered a
unifying thread to your work?

In a way. There was always a reticence with stuff, kicking off in 1982
with Pictures At Eleven, which was using drum boxes and stuff, just
trying to break the mould of expectation of me being part of some huge
juggernaut. The bottom line is to dig deep. At the time, I kept on
twisting and turning with these musical threads.

When I look back now, I never quite reached the point where I was
trying to get to with some of them, but with other ones I really did.
Doing Your Ma Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Night [a cover of
Kenny Dinos early-60s hit, on 1990s Manic Nirvana] with the actual
run-in to the track being the sound of the stylus on the original
vinyl in my house was just idiosyncratic beyond all belief. Nobody
gave a flying fuck. But I did. And thats what counted.

The whole idea of doing this thing is that it brings these songs back
to life, which is fun. They almost come to life in a totally different
way. Its amazing how the whole idea of podcasts, as a mode of
entertainment, has replaced radio in many peoples imaginations.

Ive also got forty-plus tracks that Ive never put out. Ive got stuff
that I did in New Orleans with the Lil Band O Gold and Allen
Toussaint. Ive done so many things. Ive got a whole album, Band Of Joy
II, that I did with Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin. Ive got stuff
everywhere. So it might be a good way to gather some pretty powerful
stuff and just eke it out there. Ive just been tidying up my little
studio here, to do some rehearsing later in the week, and found some
stuff with the Space Shifters that we did at Rockfield two years ago.
So its not just about stuff that came out through the normal
channels.

s fun. They almost come to life in a totally different way. Its
amazing how the whole idea of podcasts, as a mode of entertainment,
has replaced radio in many peoples imaginations.

Ive also got forty-plus tracks that Ive never put out. Ive got stuff
that I did in New Orleans with the Lil Band O Gold and Allen
Toussaint. Ive done so many things. Ive got a whole album, Band Of Joy
II, that I did with Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin. Ive got stuff
everywhere. So it might be a good way to gather some pretty powerful
stuff and just eke it out there. Ive just been tidying up my little
studio here, to do some rehearsing later in the week, and found some
stuff with the Space Shifters that we did at Rockfield two years ago.
So its not just about stuff that came out through the normal
channels.


Going back to the start of your solo career, am I right in saying that
it almost didnt happen? You were all set to go to teacher training
college at one point.

In 1977 we lost our son, Karac [he died of a stomach virus while Led
Zeppelin were on tour in America]. He was only five years old. Id
spent so much time trying to be a decent dad, but at the same time I
was really attracted to what I was doing in Zeppelin.

So when he bowed out, I just thought: Whats it all worth? Whats that
all about? Would it have been any different if I was there, if Id been
around? So I was thinking about the merit of my life at that time, and
whether or not I needed to put a lot more into the reality of the
people that I loved and cared for my daughter and my family
generally. So yeah, I was ready to jack it in, until Bonzo came along.


He convinced you otherwise?

Yeah. He had a six-door Mercedes limousine and it came with a
chauffeur drivers hat. We lived five or six miles apart, not far from
here, and sometimes wed go out for a drink. Hed put the chauffeur
drivers hat on and Id sit in the back of this stretch Mercedes and wed
go out on the lash. Then hed put his hat back on and drive me home.

Of course, hed be three sheets to the wind, and wed go past cops and
theyd go: Theres another poor fucker working for the rich! But he was
very supportive at that time, with his wife and the kids. So I did go
back [to Zeppelin] for one more flurry.

Similarly, a few years later, Phil Collins helped you on your way when
you went solo.

Phil was at such a huge peak and very prolific. I sat in a room with
Atlantic Records and Peter Grant, talking about the solo thing. I
said: Look, theres no other way to do this, really. Ive got to keep
going, because Im thirty-two years old and I havent actually felt
anything else other than this juggernaut success thing. I need to find
out what the other side of it is like.

Consequently, Phil Carson, of Atlantic, was dealing with Phil Collinss
solo stuff, post-Genesis. Phil was such a huge fan of John [Bonham]
that he sent me a message: Id really like to help you, because this
must be one of the toughest things youve ever had to do, musically.

He was talking about me being without the guy Id been playing with
since I was sixteen, although we had a fiery relationship, myself and
Bonzo. So Phil came in and just got on with it. We had four days for
the first album and four for the next. So we were cutting backing
tracks non-stop. And if he didnt like something, hed stop halfway
through, stand up and tell people why it wasnt quite right. I loved
that, because I was still tiptoeing around, not knowing how to deal
with other musicians.

As much as there was trepidation about going solo, presumably it was
also a liberating experience?

Absolutely. Its really what its all about. Youve got this thing inside
you where you know theres something around the corner that youve never
heard before, but whos going to pick the lock to get it out? I knew
[guitarist] Robbie Blunt really well, from being around this area here
in North Worcestershire. Hes a very lyrical guitarist, a beautiful
player.

So I hear the first solo record and things like Like Ive Never Been
Gone and realise just how beautiful his playing was.

Like Ive Never Been Gone is on the podcast and in the box set, as is
1983s Big Log, your first major solo hit. Looking back at your
performance of it on Top Of The Pops, you seem slightly awkward.

Well, I dont know who the hairdresser was. Im still looking for him.
Hes probably hiding somewhere. The song is a good one, but I felt out
of place with the whole deal. I could understand more the Robert that
had played at the Fillmore in San Francisco, with everybody flat out
on the dance floor while we [Led Zep] were doing a song that lasted
fifteen minutes, with a violin bow in the middle.

Singing a song that had a beginning and an end, at that point in time,
was quite challenging. And also miming. It was all so new. It was a
long way from playing with Alexis Korner in some folk club.

You once said you felt you were in the wrong place around the time of
Big Log. Can you expand on that?

I didnt really know what to do, because the wheels of fortune and
also the wheels of Warner Bros. were encouraging me to play it tough
and hard and to somehow carry on the tradition that was already there
in the psyche of everybody, because of the Zeppelin thing. And I think
I touched on that with things like Slow Dancer [from 1982s Pictures At
Eleven]. But the idea of actually being groomed into this other guy
was very odd.

I made a few videos and I got on maximum rotation on MTV, which was
kind of funny. We all grow, you know? Its either that or recede back
into something and say: Ive gone far enough now and this is all I can
do. I think the growing went from that MTV rotation thing into slowly
edging my way out into Fate of Nations [1993]. From then on I was kind
of gone.

As much as there was trepidation about going solo, presumably it was
also a liberating experience?

Absolutely. Its really what its all about. Youve got this thing inside
you where you know theres something around the corner that youve never
heard before, but whos going to pick the lock to get it out? I knew
[guitarist] Robbie Blunt really well, from being around this area here
in North Worcestershire. Hes a very lyrical guitarist, a beautiful
player.

So I hear the first solo record and things like Like Ive Never Been
Gone and realise just how beautiful his playing was.

Like Ive Never Been Gone is on the podcast and in the box set, as is
1983s Big Log, your first major solo hit. Looking back at your
performance of it on Top Of The Pops, you seem slightly awkward.

Well, I dont know who the hairdresser was. Im still looking for him.
Hes probably hiding somewhere. The song is a good one, but I felt out
of place with the whole deal. I could understand more the Robert that
had played at the Fillmore in San Francisco, with everybody flat out
on the dance floor while we [Led Zep] were doing a song that lasted
fifteen minutes, with a violin bow in the middle.

Singing a song that had a beginning and an end, at that point in time,
was quite challenging. And also miming. It was all so new. It was a
long way from playing with Alexis Korner in some folk club.

You once said you felt you were in the wrong place around the time of
Big Log. Can you expand on that?

I didnt really know what to do, because the wheels of fortune and
also the wheels of Warner Bros. were encouraging me to play it tough
and hard and to somehow carry on the tradition that was already there
in the psyche of everybody, because of the Zeppelin thing. And I think
I touched on that with things like Slow Dancer [from 1982s Pictures At
Eleven]. But the idea of actually being groomed into this other guy
was very odd.

I made a few videos and I got on maximum rotation on MTV, which was
kind of funny. We all grow, you know? Its either that or recede back
into something and say: Ive gone far enough now and this is all I can
do. I think the growing went from that MTV rotation thing into slowly
edging my way out into Fate of Nations [1993]. From then on I was kind
of gone.

On 2001s Dreamland you cover Bonnie Dobsons apocalyptic folk song,
Morning Dew. How did you come to that one?

I heard it when Tim Rose had a kind of hit with it in sixty-seven or
sixty-eight. Later on in that period of the Morning Dew era, John
Bonham was the drummer in Tims band. I had to go and fish him out for
Jimmy [Page] from the Hampstead Country Club, when he was playing with
Tim. I never even realised it wasnt Tim Roses song.

He did a deal with Bonnie Dobson, whos since become a regular
acquaintance of mine whenever we go into Bert Jansch world. I just
thought that song was really beautiful. It would be just as valid for
that to be played now by a really contemporary artist. Just change the
time signature. Let kids hear it and realise that were in trouble.


Going back to your own folk club days around Birmingham in the
sixties, was it a healthy scene?

It depends where folk and blues become two different things. I would
say that Alexis Korner singing Rock Me Baby may not be traditional
English folk, but it can still run in the same climate. The folk thing
was only really in the very early days for me.

It was a very prolific scene around where I was at school, and there
was a folk club there that had Alex Campbell, Ian Campbell and various
people coming through who were singing songs about ships going down
the Northumbrian coast or wherever it was. But the blues scene was
more evocative for me, because it had that sort of minor-key,
blue-note misery thing going on, which I love.

Did you take the usual route to music via doing a succession of
workaday jobs?

I was working at Lewiss in Birmingham, measuring gentlemens inside
legs. The great phrase that went with that task was: Which side do you
dress, sir? In other words, where are your bollocks? And if those guys
were a little bit springy, theyd tell you the wrong side, just so you
would give it a quick tweak!

I believe your dad played violin, but did your parents still have that
attitude of: Go and get a proper job?

Well, I was bound for a proper job, and Ive got one. Yeah, I had my
moment of professional potential, and because I didnt accept it I had
to leave home when I was seventeen. So I toughened up pretty quickly.
I made my peace with my parents a couple of years later. But it was
good, it was what it should be.

I know so many guys from my time at school, who I still see and who
are very funny and love life, but they did the wrong thing. They stuck
with a family or whatever you were supposed to be doing, and they
really rue the fact that it never really kicked in. They didnt live
their life, they lived the life that was required.

So you knew early on that you didnt want to do that?

I didnt know what I wanted to be, but I wasnt going to push a pen for
two quid a week and train to be an accountant.


Pre-Zeppelin, you and John Bonham played in Band Of Joy around the
Midlands. But is it fair to say that at that time your spiritual home
was the West Coast of America?

Yeah, I think so. It was more like there was something being said
there. We didnt have the Vietnam phenomena and we didnt really have
the same knee-jerk racial tension although there was racial tension,
but we didnt have the marches. The whole deal of being over here was
old Empire.

America has always been reeling and yawning and growling and having
internal conflict, so the youth culture was dealing with its own
problems. So on the West Coast, the people out there were vanguards
for their own generation of musicians, bringing it through. If you
think of Buffalo Springfields For What Its Worth, its all about what
they were dealing with themselves on the street with the authorities.
Over here, the revolution was slightly to suit a bit of a cottage
industry; there were a lot of bells and beads and stuff being sold.

Leaping forward to your 2005 album Mighty Rearranger, you talk about
one of its songs, Tin Pan Valley, on the podcast and how important
that time was on a personal level. You suggest that it was the start
of you embracing that challenge of being both a singer and songwriter
in earnest.

Maybe, but Ive always been trying to make the whole thing work as a
kind of rounded-off piece. I think the great power of Mighty
Rearranger is its flexibility, from Tacamba [a Malian rhythm] through
to all sorts of things.

I believe your dad played violin, but did your parents still have that
attitude of: Go and get a proper job?

Well, I was bound for a proper job, and Ive got one. Yeah, I had my
moment of professional potential, and because I didnt accept it I had
to leave home when I was seventeen. So I toughened up pretty quickly.
I made my peace with my parents a couple of years later. But it was
good, it was what it should be.

I know so many guys from my time at school, who I still see and who
are very funny and love life, but they did the wrong thing. They stuck
with a family or whatever you were supposed to be doing, and they
really rue the fact that it never really kicked in. They didnt live
their life, they lived the life that was required.

So you knew early on that you didnt want to do that?

I didnt know what I wanted to be, but I wasnt going to push a pen for
two quid a week and train to be an accountant.

Pre-Zeppelin, you and John Bonham played in Band Of Joy around the
Midlands. But is it fair to say that at that time your spiritual home
was the West Coast of America?

Yeah, I think so. It was more like there was something being said
there. We didnt have the Vietnam phenomena and we didnt really have
the same knee-jerk racial tension although there was racial tension,
but we didnt have the marches. The whole deal of being over here was
old Empire.

America has always been reeling and yawning and growling and having
internal conflict, so the youth culture was dealing with its own
problems. So on the West Coast, the people out there were vanguards
for their own generation of musicians, bringing it through. If you
think of Buffalo Springfields For What Its Worth, its all about what
they were dealing with themselves on the street with the authorities.
Over here, the revolution was slightly to suit a bit of a cottage
industry; there were a lot of bells and beads and stuff being sold.

Leaping forward to your 2005 album Mighty Rearranger, you talk about
one of its songs, Tin Pan Valley, on the podcast and how important
that time was on a personal level. You suggest that it was the start
of you embracing that challenge of being both a singer and songwriter
in earnest.

Maybe, but Ive always been trying to make the whole thing work as a
kind of rounded-off piece. I think the great power of Mighty
Rearranger is its flexibility, from Tacamba [a Malian rhythm] through
to all sorts of things.

Your most recent studio album, 2017s Carry Fire, feels like a
companion piece to Lullaby.

Yeah. The Space Shifters, to a man, are remarkable. Theyre also
remarkable from the different angles from which theyve developed.
Justin Adams and Johnny Baggott and I have been together, on and off,
since 2001. And theres enough going on in between that when we come
back its a great homecoming.

When Billy Fuller arrived, he brought something different again from
his side. And hes got his adventures with Beak. John Blease has joined
us on drums. Hes an amazing player. And Skin Tyson was a founder
member of Cast. So its like a kind of fraternity. We can get together
any time and its all good. Theres great creative encouragement between
us all.

Do you have anything new on the horizon, recording-wise?

Yeah, there are some things in the air, possibly in Nashville. Im
supposed to be going there in two weeks time. Theres nothing going on
at all at the moment, but there will be. Between Justin and Skin and
everybody, weve got about forty different instrumental ideas already.
We work with a guy called Tim Oliver, whos the studio manager down at
Real World, Peter Gabriels place, and we can mess about in there.

I can spend an afternoon with Tim and really shift styles and stems of
music in preparation to shape them as songs. Weve recorded the last
two records with Tim and its a great way of doing things. Its a good
combination. We all know where were going.

Will there be a follow-up to Raising Sand at some point?

Oh, Im sure, yeah. I see Alison a lot and talk to her a lot. And T
Bone too. The reality is that I ran back once before, and Patty had
made her American Kid record [2013] and was touring with that. And I
think once you start splintering off and going different ways, and
youre a stranger in a place where people still think theres a mirror
ball rotating around your head, its really good to dig in with the
reality of the Space Shifters. Theres no greater thing than being on
stage when these guys are in full flight.

Pete Townshend recently said he thought guitar-based rocknroll had
exhausted its possibilities, and that new technology has opened the
door to create other forms of music with different attitudes and ways
of working. Whats your take on that?

I just think that the game is there for everybody and everything. As
far as the people on the street are concerned, its just a matter of
taste. There are people making great music everywhere, all the time.
Petes right in that as far as recording techniques and changing the
whole idea of creating songs goes, you dont have to worry about a
guitar solo.

You can put in lots of little bits of confectionery in contemporary
stuff. And humour and social commentary. Not everything has to come
from Nashville. I think thats just the way that Pete feels. Also, hes
been travelling a lot, so hes probably switched on to all sorts of
musical formats.

One of the things that you refute in the podcast is the idea that
youre restless. Instead you say its more a case of you being inspired
and constantly stimulated.

Its another way of looking at the same condition, isnt it? Its the
same beast. I dont know when the curtains going to close for me,
either as somebody whos inspired or as somebody whos actually
breathing, but five-a-side on a Wednesday night is not enough.

So I do this. And Im lucky, because Ive got two or three different
roads that I can enjoy with people, and different rewards. I do know
that bona-fide bands put out records and tend to feel disappointed.
Because the whole window of exposure and opportunity has gone, no
matter whether its Neil Young, Elton John or whoever it may be that
people are ready to switch on to.

But who cares? If its fucking hip-hop or a cover of a Melanie song, it
doesnt matter. Just do what you do and feel it and mean it.

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