- 05 Feb 20
49 years ago today, Led Zeppelin kicked off their 12-date 'Thank You' tour at Belfast's iconic Ulster Hall. The gig saw the band publicly perform 'Stairway To Heaven', 'Black Dog', 'Going To California' and 'Rock And Roll' for the first time ever. To celebrate, we're revisiting our 2010 interview with Robert Plant.
Wearing blue jeans, a leather jacket, a woollen hat and battered snakeskin shoes, bona fide rock legend Robert Plant strides purposefully into the residents lounge of the Clarence Hotel and challengingly looks your Hot Press correspondent square in the eye. “So you’re the guy who wants to know all about my life, are you?” he demands.
“Em... yes,” I reply, somewhat taken aback at his direct manner.
“Well, let me tell you,” Plant says, stabbing a finger. “I’m 62 years of age and I woke up yesterday morning and realised I’d got these strange voices coming out of my trousers.”
His record company PR and I exchange nervous glances. This is not quite how I envisioned my encounter with the former Led Zeppelin frontman beginning.
“Anyway,” Plant continues. “I went to the doctor this morning and told him about these strange voices in my pants. He took a look and then said to me, ‘I wouldn’t worry about it. At your age these things are to be expected. You’re just talking bollocks!’”
Boom! He bursts into laughter and shakes my hand. “How’s it going, mate?”
Whatever about his talking genitals, Plant looks pretty damn good for a 62-year-old rock star. His face is lined and wrinkled but, when he removes the headwear, his lion’s mane hair is as impressive as ever (if a little greying at the roots). Last night he and his new musical cohorts the Band Of Joy – featuring Patty Griffin as his female vocal foil – wowed a packed Olympia with a ninety-minute set drawn from a menacingly mixed palette of country, blues, folk and Americana (with a little Zep ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’ thrown in at the end).
Much has been made of Plant’s decision to make dark and obscure country music rather than pick up his share of the €200 million reportedly offered for a Led Zeppelin reunion tour, but watching him cavorting around the Olympia stage it was obvious that the man is far more interested in following the muse than the money. Then again, with a fortune estimated at around the €80million mark, he can easily afford to do what he wants. While he’s been consistently musically active throughout the post-Zep decades, in recent years he really seems to have found his groove, first with Raising Sand, 2007’s Grammy-winning, multi-million selling collaboration with vocalist Alison Krauss, and now with the further exploring eponymous Band Of Joy album.
A relaxed, affable and surprisingly down to earth individual, Plant seems very comfortable in his own skin. He orders a latte, and we quickly get down to talking bollocks...
HOT PRESS: Congratulations on the gig last night. Did you enjoy it?
ROBERT PLANT: It was a great show last night. I think we are now Siamese sextuplets. Everything is interplanetary when we’re playing. There’s just so many beautiful gaps and spaces and filigrees. The dynamics are amazing. I could never have imagined this really.
You seem to change bands fairly regularly. Do you get on well with musicians generally?
Well, there’s always an amount of tension, you would say. I think in the past my whole guise – or my projection – has been not quite as focused as this. I’m far less confused than I used to be. Because the transitions are made. I’ve moved through this kind of beautiful gossamer, if you like... I wouldn’t say away from rock ‘n roll, but perhaps more into the root of rock ‘n roll. The absolute root where Bob Luman met Lefty Frizzel met Scotty Moore. The whole deal about this is not to over-masculinise it.
What? Move away from cock-rock, sort of thing?
Well, it’s not even that, really. Who do you blame? Elvis? Johnnie Ray? I don’t blame anybody. I think it’s just there are different times in your life where you see projecting your music and writing it and stealing it and whatever it is. They all come from different places. You either mature or get old or go crazy. It’s just the different seasons of your time. So the tension is there, but I’ve never got on with people like the way I do with these guys. There’s no ego anywhere, and yet there’s absolute sublime moments, which some other people might feast on to the detriment of those around them. I mean, did you see Justin [Adams] and Juldeh [Camara] last night?
No, I actually missed the support act.
Ah, you were mad to miss them! Crazy to miss them! Juldeh is from Gambia and plays a one-string fiddle, and he always says, ‘I was really good tonight’. But from a Gambian viewpoint, he’s absolutely spot-on – it’s not ego, it’s just fact. And the difference between fact and all those insecurities and egos and shit that filter through popular music is a very fine line. The Africans know when they’re good and they know when they’re shit, and they can say it. With us, we kind of cough embarrassedly and go, ‘That was alright’.
Band Of Joy was the name of one of your first bands before Zeppelin. So are you coming full circle?
No, I just think that there’s no way out [laughs]. Well, maybe so, yeah. I mean, I’ve been asked this question quite a lot and in truth I suppose I would say that when I was 17 or 18 with the original group, I wasn’t prepared to compromise for anything – and that’s what got me my gig. When Terry Reid turned down the job with Page and Jonesy, and he recommended me, I got into that zone because of being the way I was. And so I’ve taken that zone right the way through all these sort of transfigurations, if you like. There was no kind of rock area left that interested me, so I could just set sail again with something similar to the attitude I had then I guess. Fuck it, just let it go! Just do anything and everything. Mind you, in a way I suppose I’ve always done that anyway. I mean, I could’ve had a fantastically prominent career, if you like, as one of the more mature members of the music fraternity. But I’m almost like some midnight creeper that sort of nips in and bites people’s ankles every eighteen months.
You’re pretty much a living legend of the rock firmament. Do you carry that awareness around with you in your day-to-day life?
Ha! [roars laughing] No, of course I don’t! I mean, fucking hell, if I needed to do that or if I was overly aware of it, I think I’d probably be playing four nights in Wembley Stadium with some other people. I’m just blessed you know, I couldn’t be in better company.
Do you still live in Wales?
Most of the time probably, yes, because I’ve got a beautiful running dog who’s looked after by my next door neighbour – who was the guitarist in the original Band Of Joy. We played here actually for Denis Desmond in the Priory Of Brian, that was the guy who looks after me dog. But yeah, I go back there all the time. But I’m also in Nashville a lot.
Are you ever to be found playing impromptu gigs in small Nashville bars late at night?
Nah. Well, I mean, I don’t know. I’m sure if we were all out together and there was a harmonious combination of people or a great band playing... I don’t have a problem with that or I don’t see any reason why not to. But I’ve always been neurotic about my voice. I don’t wanna overcook it. Tonight we’re playing in Belfast and tomorrow we’re finished. And that’ll be five gigs and a TV show and a day of rehearsing in eight days. So in the old days I would’ve lost my voice by now. But now I’m singing differently.
Of course, in the old days you would’ve been screaming your head off...
Yeah. A pointless exercise [wry smile].
Is that why you turned down the Led Zeppelin reunion? All those high notes?
Ha, ha! It would’ve been more demanding. But also, I want to get into melody, and I really want to maintain my condition almost as a student, believe it or not, a 62-year-old student. And that’s what I’m doing with these guises. I mean, Buddy [Miller, producer] has got 84,000 entries on his laptop. So when that bus is trundling through Kentucky, there’s one hell of a party going on on that bus. If we did it, if we cared to, we’ve got the next four albums already ready to record.
The new album sees you covering a lot of obscure old Blues and Americana, and there’s even a Richard Thompson number there [‘House Of Cards’]. But how about writing some new material yourself?
The thing about writing with people is that it can be a very naked experience to bare yourself. You can be quite shy about it, you know. I am. I’d only ever co-written one song when I joined Led Zep, and then I co-wrote 100 of them. It’s all about the circumstances and the vulnerability and the exposure. But of course from the age of 20, the way I saw things, and the way I wanted to express them, grew with me as I became more mature. So where am I now? I’m listening to Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen going, ‘Fuck me, these lyrics!’ Where do you go from ‘Bird On The Wire’? How can I get anywhere near that? It’s certainly got nothing to do with squeezing any lemons anyway! You know what I mean? So times change and go. But then again, I’ve a lot of observations that I make. I’m pretty alert. Maybe today I’m a little tired, but I’m alert enough to have something to say. Especially as Tony Blair is still walking the planet free.
Not to mention Bush and Cheney.
And Rumsfeld, yeah. I listen to a lot of black AM radio in Nashville, and it’s the sort of subterfuge of the glorious white supremacist trying to create havoc there. But whether or not in my time, I can actually add to anything that anybody else is already saying about the disgrace of our times, I don’t know. What can I sing about love? Well, I’m still learning.
You reportedly went into a studio in Nashville with Alison Krauss to do a follow-up to Raising Sand, but abandoned the sessions after a couple of weeks. What was the problem?
Alison is one of my best friends on the planet. She’s really a great, spectacular, quite profound and also incredibly funny person. We didn’t have a problem, we just didn’t have the material to suit our, em, melding. Because she and I, we really have to have the right songs to sing. And we just didn’t have them.
Did you perhaps feel under pressure after the massive success of Raising Sand?
Nah! Fucking hell, otherwise where would I be? There’s no pressure anywhere. I mean, the whole deal about my life is it’s a life. It’s not governed by anything. There’s no predictability about what I’m gonna do next. Although I do feel like I’ve found my place now. Like the absolute spectrum of possibilities in this combination is so fucking wide, so broad. It’s like you can get tired of shit quite easily I think. People fake it. There’s so many people faking in this game. But if you’re gonna fake it then you might as well sell cars. I don’t have any criteria to live up to. I’m so far away from where I was when I was 30. I mean, it’s like a million miles. Mind you, if I hadn’t have had all that stuff going on until I was 30, you wouldn’t be talking to me. The past creates the present.
A lot of our younger readers wouldn’t necessarily be aware of Led Zeppelin. Would you mind explaining what the band was to you?
I don’t know what it was. It was a roller-coaster of very, very rootsy sources, with four people coming from different parts of the musical globe and occasionally creating spectral music – from sort of the ‘Kashmir’ zone and ‘In The Light’ and all that stuff, the beautiful stuff, compared to ‘Custard Pie’ and all the kind of real raucous material – but there was ingenuity even in the tougher stuff. The worst thing in the world, I suppose, for anybody is to get typecast by a media that’s short on words. Hot Press is respected and all that sort of thing so obviously there must still be a reasonable amount of journalism that just doesn’t live on cliché, but I mean you could see how easy it is... When I read reviews. When I was working with Alison it was like “beauty and the beast.” Now it’s like the guy who turned down so many million to do... nothing. It’s like all these kind of clichés. So Led Zep – the miscalculations and the misinterpretations are quite vivid and very funny. But thank God I wasn’t in Genesis or I’d be called ‘prog rock’ now. And that’s something you can never get round!
What was the maddest moment of the Zeppelin years?
Well, it was always a surprise [smiles].
What was the lowest moment?
Losing John [Bonham, drummer] I guess. Or knowing that sooner or later, something was going to happen. Something had to give.
Given the kind of music you’re making now, did you feel a sort of musical emptiness about some of Zep’s rockier stuff?
No, because I never knew where it was going to go. In a way, when John passed I had a really big huge blank canvas and I just threw so many different attitudes at it. And I think that was always the way it was in Led Zeppelin too. We just threw ourselves at projects and at personality... You know, the functioning of four people together for about ten years is a hell of a deal. And the malfunctioning is even more of a deal. So everything runs its course. I remember when The Beatles were collapsing, it was so evident that was happening. And on the one hand you’ve got all the fans who didn’t want it to happen, and on the other hand it needed to happen very quickly – because it was gone. But then again, if you read between the lines, they had that problem that we’re free from now at this age – or I am. That kind of ego and competitive stuff. I mean, when George Harrison came out with All Things Must Pass after The Beatles, it more or less was the album that The Beatles should’ve made years before. It was so spectral and beautiful. But there was obviously a hierarchy in The Beatles.
Was there a hierarchy in Led Zeppelin?
Zeppelin wasn’t like that really. If anybody had an idea that was great, we pursued it. And of course we needed to. There was a good pulse to Zeppelin up to a point. But then we were maturing, and you can’t actually always fit the composite bill, the requisites of being a four man rock band. I mean, over here, Bono and the guys, they’ve negotiated the same thing, but they’ve actually sailed through it. And it’s not been easy for them, even though they’ve had massive international success.
It probably helped that U2 agreed to split the money evenly from day one.
That’s fair enough, yeah. That is an important issue because that can create or breed all sorts of rancour. But on the other hand, what’s more important is do people still mean it? Or is it just that kind of beautiful pacifier? Which I think a lot of my contemporaries are living with. Just doing it.
In a recent interview, you joked about being so broke in the early days that you had to steal milk from doorways and siphon petrol from cars.
Yeah. Tasted fucking awful.
It must’ve been a long time since you’ve had to do something like that.
I still steal [laughs]. It’s a long time since everything when you get to 62. But what a gig! What a blast! And on Saturday, my other obsession will be Manchester United [talks at length about his love of Wolverhampton Wanderers].
To be honest, football doesn’t particularly interest me.
Well you haven’t lived yet. Especially when it’s tribal.
It’s actually the tribalism that puts me off.
Well, that’s what puts me on. Because all my roots, my grandfather, my great grandfather, were bandleaders in the Black Country, it was all brass bands marching. The whole thing about being in a band, or being part of a unit, is it’s quite tribal, you look after each other. So it’s a natural progression to being a saddo like I am [laughs].
I noticed you only had a beer during the encore last night. Do you drink much these days?
Well, what are you gonna do? If I have an alcohol problem, it’s not getting in the way of anything at the moment. Obviously I don’t, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you now. Although I was still drinking Guinness at 3 o’clock this morning. But if I’m not gonna drink a Guinness in Dublin, where am I gonna drink it? And the U2 boys sent me some champagne and some Guinness, which I thought was very stylish. But I never drink before a gig. I leave it until the encore. But I don’t think I ever really caned it at all. I was immune to penicillin a few times through accidental liaisons, and that’s about it really.
You seem to be in pretty good shape. Do you go to a gym or exercise much?
I play tennis a lot. There’s still some pulse going on in there [laughs].
What’s your ambition in life now?
I think I’ve really found the home of the heart with these people. And the project itself could be quite amorphous, really. The Band Of Joy is and has to be exactly that. So one day we add somebody to it, or somebody goes off somewhere and does something else, maybe somebody else will come in. It doesn’t have to be hard and fast. But the way we are now – you’ve got three people who’ve got solo careers here, and people are just saying, ‘Hey, this is so good that I’m gonna put that on the back burner for a while and just keep doing this’. And that’s the most honest way to be, you know. If you don’t sign pieces of paper that adheres you to other people, you just do it as long as it feels good. But in terms of other ambitions, I’ve booked in a little course at the beginning of January before I go to see Patty and Buddy to write. I’m gonna do this little tiny course in hedge-laying.
Yeah, laying hedges. You know with a little billhook? The weave that you create. I used to do it when I was young. A farmer used to teach me how to do it. It’s a great art.
Do you have a lot of land in Wales?
No, I don’t really have land. I have access to everyone’s land with my dog. I can walk until I have to sleep without anybody objecting, as long as I don’t tread on the crops. I can walk from my place to Julian Cope’s without anybody interfering.
Is Cope a near-neighbour?
No he doesn’t live near, but he’s a kindred spirit.
What’s your opinion of shows like The X-Factor?
I don’t pay that much attention. It seems like it’s music for people who don’t even know that they’re listening to it.
Do you think that music is losing its mystique?
Talking about it taking away from the mystique. Being with you is taking away the mystique. Because once upon a time there was no talking. How many interviews did Elvis do? None. How many times has the King of Ireland done an interview? Yer man Van [Morrison]. He probably knows where to get some good white wine, but he’s not spilling the beans [laughs].
Van’s a notoriously difficult interviewee.
He’s a prodigious character. So long as he’s happy. I would like to hope that he’s happy. Actually, I played with him in Ireland a few years ago. I opened a show for the king of Ireland. That’s a good theme for a song.
Incidentally, speaking of Morrisons, did you know The Doors’ Jim Morrison?
Yeah. He was propagating his own myth. Pretending that he knew nothing about the music, and that he was in fact the lizard king. We played with him a few times. I saw him fall off the stage. He went to seed very easily. A shame, really. I still think of amazing moments that he had. But that was a much more kind of tangential time musically – said the old man with the silvering beard [strokes chin and grins]. There was great music. And there was radio that supported great music. But here’s the winnowing of an old man... so I must away.