“Someone had the great idea that if I opened for The Who, more people could hear my new work, but we promptly fell flat on our faces,” legendary singer Robert Plant tells me with a laugh when we meet up and I remind him that we’d met before, back in the early ’00s. He’d recently reemerged as a solo artist, after a stint in the 1990s when he’d joined forces with former Led Zeppelin band mate Jimmy Page for several albums and tours.
That, of course, came on the heels of more than a decade of work as a solo artist where he’d done all he could to put his former band in the past.
In fact, Plant has always seemed to be racing away from his past, and never moreso than in the last decade, after Led Zeppelin’s remarkable reunion in 2007 at London’s O2 Arena, and the clarion call of millions of fans eager to get the chance to see their heroes one more time, not to mention the lure of the almighty dollar. But Plant was a reluctant suitor, and resisted reuniting with Page, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham’s son Jason, in what was sure to be the biggest grossing tour of all time.
Instead, Plant set about making a series of albums that confounded many of his fans, even if the results were nothing short of excellent. With last year’s Carry Fire, it seemed as though Plant had finally put his past behind him. The album was universally praised, and sold well, but more importantly – as Plant tells me – was that it felt as though he was doing the best work of his career.
Rock Cellar: Very few people in your position have reinvented themselves completely in the way you have – several times, in fact, in the last 15 years – and created a whole new way of working for themselves. Like after The Beatles, Paul McCartney totally reinvented himself as a writer and as a creative person and even producer, so that Wings didn’t sound anything like The Beatles. He was drawing on a different palette.
Now with your music I can hear the Celtic influence, and the American blues and roots influence, and there’s the Middle Eastern thread – so lots of what’s always inspired you — but with Mighty Rearranger and going forward, you made a complete departure from even your solo records that had come before, let alone what you’d done with Led Zeppelin.
Robert Plant: Well, there’s an essence, I think, that moves through everything that I’m involved with, and that is stimulation. If you’re going to be a mug all your life, asking people to tune in to your inner sanctum of creative whatever, it’s not always going to be consistent work or consistent quality, even. But that’s important. It’s important that there should always be a limber approach to what we do, which when we go out and twist and reshape everything — and that was prevalent right away for Led Zeppelin, and it remains that way for me – keeps everything interesting, for me as well as the audience, whether it’s working with T-Bone or Buddy and Patty or the Afro Celt System or going to Northern Valley to play with the Sensational Space Shifters.
Rock Cellar: I get that you’ve got to keep yourself interested, but you’re drawing from a different creative well in many ways. Do you kind of think about writing from a different point of view?
Robert Plant: Well, it’s just whatever is in the songs that are coming to you and the people you’re working with.
Rock Cellar: So is it surrounding yourself with different people?
Robert Plant: There’s a lot of continuity now, that’s for sure. We’ve been together since 2001. But they, like me, are always taking their game just that little bit further out — or further in — and that’s what we do, and that’s what everybody does. Doesn’t everybody do that?
Rock Cellar: No, they don’t. That’s why we’re talking about it. The interesting thing to me is that you don’t seem to care about alienating your audience. Certainly there’s a big chunk of money to be made by doing a certain thing — repeating what you’ve done in the past — but it’s always struck me that you’re not afraid to alienate your core audience by doing something you truly wanted to do.
Is that ever a consideration, that your music might get missed by your core fans?
Robert Plant: I mean, sure.
Rock Cellar: Well, think about it this way: We were talking earlier about when I saw you with The Who, and you said, almost matter of factly, that it kind of fell flat.
Robert Plant: Well, that was 13 years ago, and it was an attempt to get a lot of people with mullets to actually tune in to Mighty Rearranger. And it didn’t work.
Rock Cellar: Okay, but even more recently, when you had success with Alison Krauss, you easily could have done that again.
Robert Plant: But the thing is, with mature artists, that isn’t very interesting or satisfying.
Rock Cellar: So do you feel the clock ticking?
Robert Plant: No, no, no. I don’t. The thing is, with material, the solo artist, they usually swing their own leg. You do what you want to do, and there are no real major forces around you to say, ‘You’ve got to go back there again.’ So no.
Rock Cellar: Tell me a little bit about the Austin period, because that was a really fertile period, and it feels to me like it led you here.
Robert Plant: Well, it certainly led me away from there! Even though it was fertile — and feral — and exciting, I became quite homesick. And I realized that I was coming from a different cut of man. I really think I’d spent so long where I’d come from back in the U.K., and slightly taking it for granted a little bit, and the very simplistic basic stuff of knowing every single movement in the landscape every hill and valley and those of my ancestors that have been marching through there for thousands of years, I missed that. And mostly everywhere else I go I’m the visitor, and really was in Austin. I was a visitor. I really wanted to stay there. I really wanted to make everything work. But I was missing the tribe.
Rock Cellar: That’s interesting. So do you feel that because you’ve had this kind of nomadic existence, as a performer going out on tour throughout your life, do you feel as though you need that sort of home grounding that being in Wales gives you?
Robert Plant: Well, you know, I think people move on, especially in America. It’s easy to… Well, not easy, but it’s more of a known thing. I’ve gone from Maine to Florida to Massachusetts, and I ended up in Austin. It’s a great town. Her infrastructure and her tribe is very charming and substantial, and there’s a lot of heart there, but I guess I’ve got the same thing where I came from.
It was that time in life that I had to go.
Rock Cellar: Well, Wales is very different to Austin. People from Wales are not like anybody I know from Austin. It’s a different sensibility.
Robert Plant: I don’t know if you’d ever get a Vietnamese Thai origami player in the mountains of Wales, though, and you might in Austin. In fact, you couldn’t come in contact with the living in Wales if you didn’t want to. Even if you tried, you still wouldn’t find anybody most of the time. But there’s something else there, and that’s in my bones.
Rock Cellar: What do you draw from the past when you’re onstage now? I’ve seen you, and it’s a completely different experience from when I saw you with Jimmy Page and in the ’90s, or even as a solo artist in the eighties. As a performer, where do you draw from?
Robert Plant: Well, to begin with, the substance of our live performance, it’s really varied. We use a lot of rhythm that is both sampled and played at the same time, so there’s a big, big leap towards mass rhythm. Some songs we use five or six hand drums, distorted through the P.A. So there is a lot of lot of exotica and a lot of lure coming from rhythm, and that’s coming from North Africa, or it’s coming from Bristol and Massive Attack. There’s a lot of varied elements in what we do, and you can hear it in the most recent records. It’s a kind of underlying loop, which is almost like a kind of cradle from which everything builds. It’s really pretty exotic. It’s in the moment.
So I just follow where that takes me.
Rock Cellar: It’s so different from Led Zeppelin, though maybe not so far from your original roots as an artist.
Robert Plant: In those times we just used everything we had available to us. There were, you know, the guitar effects, keyboard stuff. Fantastic. Ludwig’s amazing work for John.
But now we have this mesh of sound. A huge wall of sound. It’s an exotica. It’s a place to be. It’s almost like an empire of sound and it’s not for the squeamish some of the time.
Rock Cellar: And it allows you to be experimental and lets you go down any path you want, creatively, in a way that when it’s just guitar, bass and drums, limits you, I imagine. So as a producer — you’re the producer on this album — you produce yourself at this point, obviously, but how do you approach the music and the band? You have a lot of experience, but clearly you have to go in with a vision.
Robert Plant: Yeah, well my vision is to carry on and extend the capability of the previous record, and on the previous one before that, so that my mind opens more and I have the flexibility and the options sonically to accompany the emotion of the lyric.
You surround your theme, your song, with something — with a bunch of musical notes that are in total empathy with the idea of what the song’s all about — like they’re paintings.
So they’re loud and aggressive sometimes, or very sarcastic or humorous or romantic.
Rock Cellar: How did this record take shape artistically for you, and where did it come from?
Robert Plant: Every day, amongst the six or seven of us, somebody’s got a new idea. Everybody carries the torch everywhere we go. So somebody will just put something in there for us to work on. Johnny, our keyboard player, bagged it yesterday. He came up with this amazing loop which will fit really nicely around a new idea which we’ve got that we’ve been developing at soundchecks. So that’s one way of doing it, between us all. Because there’s such an eagerness to contribute, sometimes you have to put the brakes on, and maybe just take two people together to find that different element that you require. Or sometimes maybe just one person. But the most important and relevant things through all of this is that everybody’s always developing, and that’s great.
We went to see this sort of Serbian band in Brooklyn the other night. The rhythm was a guy playing the bass drum, and another guy playing the snare, and it was just the greatest thing, you know? It was just saxophone and trombones — a load of brass — and an accordionist from Romania, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute!’
So that’s going to be inspiring us for four weeks!
Rock Cellar: That’s interesting, because it’s basically being a receiver.
Robert Plant: Exactly. And two nights before we were watching George Clinton! So it’s really that everybody’s on a mission that will take us to the next record.
Rock Cellar: So you’re not just, ‘Okay, I’m going into the studio I’m going to start work on new songs, I’d better hunker down and write.’? It’s constantly being on the receiving end?
Robert Plant: You don’t go anywhere without an idea. Yeah.
Rock Cellar: When I knew we were going meet up I went back and I listened to your last couple of records. There’s a huge leap to me, artistically, on Carry Fire. The writing and performances feel as though everything you’ve been doing on the last couple of records gelled. Obviously, you’ve lived that arc — I listened to it yesterday in a couple of hours and just thought, ‘Holy shit, this is an amazing evolution!’ – and it came more gradually to you, but when you were making this record, were you aware that it was a leap? Could you feel it?
Robert Plant: I don’t know. But the reviews have been very favorable. But then again, it’s just that some (albums) earn more favorable consideration than others, and sometimes you don’t really know why.
Rock Cellar: So it doesn’t matter to you if it’s critically well received?
Robert Plant: No. It’s obviously very flattering to find out that it’s the final icing on the cake that means I don’t have to go back to playing in the state of Delaware to ten million chairs and do ‘the big deal.’ This combination of spirit and humor is my life’s blood.
Rock Cellar: But here’s the thing, you’re playing relatively small places, and the tickets are enormously hard to come by. You could certainly play bigger places, especially the bigger markets. Do you like a place like the Beacon as opposed to Radio City Music Hall?
Robert Plant: Yeah, I love the Beacon. It’s far less formal. And also, it’s much more appropriate for the way we play.
I mean, sometimes it sounds like we’re building a shed.
It’s just fucking great, and there’s a lot of humor about what we do, and we do look into the abyss sometimes. But we’re coming back in the summer to do something more substantial. But don’t imagine that big is beautiful. I’ve been there.
Rock Cellar: Well, that’s certainly from a position of knowledge. And as you said before we started, you can walk through an airport and people don’t even know you have a new record out, or even who you are, sometimes.
Robert Plant: That’s a place to meet people, airports.
Rock Cellar: And I’m sure smaller venues feel better at this stage because there’s a little less drama involved. In this streaming world, with a lot less physical sales, I guess you’re not aiming for playing the Garden.
Robert Plant: No. And thank God for that.
Rock Cellar: We don’t have to argue about that, but I’m curious, do you ever think, ‘It’d be great to sell a million records again,’ even though that’s obviously not the world we live in anymore?
Robert Plant: No, and that’s not the criteria. You know, we can play Bonnaroo down in Tennessee, or play in festivals in the summer. It’s not hard to reach people. You just go where you want to go and see whether or not it fits. The thing about stature being relative to the size of the audience is an archaic tradition.
It’s okay on the way up to think that’s all it’s all about, but when you’ve been there and you know how shatteringly insular everything becomes, then your relationship with this carnival we have becomes priceless. To try and make it something to fit in with a symbol of success just for the hell of it, I don’t think that’s really where I’m at this time in my life.