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A Quietus Interview

"Embrace It Or Fuck Off" - Robert Plant Interviewed
Julian Marszalek , November 20th, 2014 11:33

Julian Marszalek talks to Percy about the influence of North and West African music, not succumbing to the cabaret disease and why he'll never cut his hair. Portraits by Ed Miles

Robert Plant doesn't so much walk into a room as bound in and fill it with both a physical presence and a palpable charisma. A big man - he could easily have been a centre-half in another life - Plant is all laughs and smiles as he arrives in his local watering hole when based in North London away from his home in Ludlow. Affable and friendly, he pauses to say hello to the staff before finally settling down to make himself comfortable.

Yet for all of Plant's personable nature and easy going manner – you can easily imagine yourself watching the football results on a Saturday afternoon over a pint with him – the veteran singer is deadly serious when it comes to his craft. Now living back in the UK after spending several years residing in Austin, Texas, Plant is, appropriately enough for a Wolves fan, as much of a musical wanderer as he is a geographical one. With his current band, The Sensational Space Shifters – that'll be guitarists Justin Adams and Liam 'Skin' Tyson, bassist Billy Fuller, drummer Dave Smith, electronics wizard John Baggott and Gambian musician Juldeh Camara on kologo and riti – Plant has released Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar. His most fully realized solo album to date, it binds together the musical strands that have fascinated him over the decades whilst doing much to belie his reputation as the wailing Golden God who rampaged across the America of the 70s with all the gusto of a Viking raiding party.

Partly inspired by his break up with singer Patti Griffin and his increasing isolation in Texas, the album is a superb melting pot of influences that takes in West Coast psychedelia, North African music, loops, electronics, folk and country without it ever sounding like a cut and paste Frankenstein monster. This is music that celebrates all manner of possibilities and directions as well being the sound of an artist happy within in his own skin as he faces up to ageing and mortality, love and loss and all points in between on the emotional compass. You can see why Plant can't be doing with the much-demanded Led Zeppelin reunion. Rather than re-tread old ground, Plant is forging ever forward while still retaining the exploratory vision that made his former alma mater such a unique proposition.

"So then, young man," he says as he sits down. "What do you want to know?"

To what degree would you say that Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar is a sequel to Mighty Re-Arranger or do you see it as a continuation of the work started with Led Zeppelin III?

Robert Plant: It's a bit of both, really. Possibly the whole creative whirlwind of any musician's life is based on garnering and developing and absorbing more and more experience. I think about how the Brill Building affected me as a kid and how songwriting teams like Lieber & Stoller, and Pomus & Shuman, and Goffin & King kept the teenagers of the English speaking world happy for years, but for my time and the time I've been making music it's all been about cause and effect. So Led Zeppelin III, probably for me, was about picking up different clues. I was so impressed by the coherence and adamance and the power that musicians in the youth culture were able to steer with social commentary in America – musicians who were regularly pilloried by the likes of Richard Nixon and the paranoia of the right-wing fascists that were there – so songs like 'That's The Way' were like my awakening. I had to join in some way or another so it wasn't just about going to Iceland and writing stuff surrounding the big riff of 'Immigrant Song'.

All the way through time, whether it's 'The Rover' or 'In The Light' or wherever you want to end up calling to you, loads of different songs have had reflections based on experience. I think that by the time I got to Mighty Re-Arranger, I had just come out of the Dreamland period of creating trippy music based on the gifts of the musicians around me. They were all far out guys who all kept away from the clichéd blues world and all that stuff. So Mighty Re-Arranger was the melding of a more coherent and more mature and more aware voice. And, of course, in the company of these guys, they already had the powerful ammunition that was necessary for the Sensational Space Shifters. They were already riffing over these African beats that were not polite and I saw a place I could go to take my madness and make this mélange that shows no respect for anyone or anything. It's our own signature.

With Raising Sand and Band Of Joy, you released two very successful albums rooted in American vernacular music. What shifted you back in this current direction?

RP: There's a 'yes' and 'no' surrounding this before we even get into that. The reason the album starts with 'Little Maggie' was because I learned a lot out there in Tennessee and those musicians, and I haven't lost any of it. In a few days I'm going to be singing on a Ralph Stanley record with him. His version of 'Little Maggie' came out in 1948 and it was first recorded in 1928 so I didn't turn my back on it at all.

I just came back to, if you like, Led Zeppelin III, not as that album but as me going back to the misty mountains. I know that sounds cheesy and I say it with a twinkle in my eye but I definitely found the little bit of ember left that got me going in the first place. I just stumbled upon it and it was such a contrast to America.

Back in June at the playback for Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar, you stated that your intention was to fuse West Coast psychedelia with North and West African music. Do you find any common threads in these differing types of music?

RP: I think that if you look at music just as music in itself then there's a lot in common in the scale structures. I have some old cassettes of Cheb Khaled that I bought in Barbette in Paris, which is the big North African area, and he played this music on accordion. I learned to play these songs on guitar and I then realized that I was learning a Fairport Convention song! And that flipped over in to Kaleidoscope in San Francisco and that went over into Jefferson Airplane and Paul Kantner and Jack Cassidy because a lot of this West Coast American stuff was looking into this raga style of playing and into the mystic. There was definitely a movement where everybody was looking for something a bit more wholesome and ethereal and rewarding than just going for the big buck.

A lot of blues, folk and psychedelic music uses drones. What is it that attracts you to it?

RP: I think it's healing. For me, it carries a panacea. It puts me in a place that is multi-lingual and multi-national. It's just as relevant if you hear a koto playing in Japan; you can't turn that into 'Ace Of Spades'. These things are untouchable and they go into the epidermis and into the back of the mind and they are triggers. So if you listen to 'A Beacon From Mars' by Kaleidoscope or if you listen to some Turkish taxim then something starts happening.

More than that, for me as a singer, you can play some beautiful melodies over drones. With this album and this collection of songs, that's exactly what I tried to do. I tried to weave melody amongst this great meld of mostly drones. The music beckons to those who are listening so our plan with this was simply to create a beautiful weave. And it has to have a meaning for real. I think we've got it right here and have achieved something that sits in a contemporary place.

How autobiographical is the Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar?

RP: It's basically having a look at the whole thing but at the same time each of those lyrical departures were relevant when they were relevant. It doesn't mean that they're equally as relevant now; they're just moments. That's what they are. If you think about something like Dylan's 'Tangled Up In Blue', I mean, fucking hell, he's got it in for that woman big time but I'm sure he slept with her later. I like to think he did! I'm not particularly morose but I do occasionally shake myself by the throat.

There's that line in 'Turn It Up' where you sing, "I'm stuck inside America/It's turning me inside out". Was that homesickness?

RP: You could say that but it's true. I was suddenly finding myself to be the kind of guy that you see in a magazine and that's how everybody greeted me. I'm not used to that because I live among people that I've known forever. I have a place and it's not an elevated place here on the island of the blessed. The thing is, I know where I belong but I was moving through the spheres with no particular impetus. Every time I stopped the car in Texas to get gas I was faced with that old guy that I didn't even remember. It's not about being the cute guy with no shirt on the cover of Hit Parader; you just become in tune with yourself where you sit and stand with your contemporaries.

In the theatre of music we all need cross-pollination and it was really weird to find that I was viewed as so many different people by so many different people. You know, I was with Alison Krauss at an airport even though I wasn't; people would say, 'Where's Alison?' or 'What happened to that guy from the 70s?' and all I was doing was driving down to Clarksdale. It was a continuous condition wherever I went and whatever I did. Of course, I like to think that I'm Planty in the street and I know that I am and I know that I'm not. The only reason that I know that I'm not is because I stuck my head out too far and I wouldn't take it back in. I could've had my moment in the sun and then got stuck into running a chip shop in Gloucester or somewhere like that.

But instead of that I just keep going so you get the shards and ricochets down through time, so that's what all that was about. It was really, 'Get me out of fucking radio!' because it was all old-time. Especially the radio I was listening to in Texas which was AM radio which is mind-bogglingly evil. It was all right-wing Christian stuff filled with incredible racism and sports radio which, after 45 years of going there, is still gobbledygook. I've never been seduced by American football or baseball but I used to like social diseases; that was a good game! You know, antibiotics after full time! But I never saw the reason to get excited by games that stop and start a million times.

Back on 'Tin Pan Valley' on Mighty Re-Arranger you sang, "My peers may flirt with cabaret/Some fake the rebel yell/Me, I'm moving up to higher ground/I must escape their hell." How much of a personal manifesto is that and how hard is to live up to?

RP: I can't really say that I despair with late maturity in my peers but I think the death of the idea is not a foregone conclusion. You don't have to end up with a bag full of laurels to rest on. I would like to think that the reason we did this in the first place – playing to empty rooms in the Black Country – hasn't got to be forgotten and it should be cherished.

The reason me and John Bonham started doing this in the first place was because we didn't belong in proper bands. We needed to be out there on the fucking edge going nuts to such a degree that people used to cross the streets when they saw us coming! I used to say to Bonzo, 'Fuck me! We've got a lot of pals around here but they all hate us!' But we were so adamant and arrogant and fixed on going somewhere special so it's not a manifesto, it's just a comment really. It's fine; I know what the options are but they're not for me. Why would they be? It's all about the industry and invention. And if it's not the latter then what's the point in carrying on? I mean what I do.

Of course, the music you're making now isn't entirely new territory for you. Could you tell me about your experiences with Jimmy Page exploring and making music in Marrakech in '71 and Bombay in '72?

RP: I went on holiday with my wife at the behest of Yes' Jon Anderson who said [adopts an Alan Bennettesque accent], 'If you go anywhere at all then make sure you go to Marrakech.' So when my wife Maureen packed off, Pagey packed in and we went exploring. I managed to write a lot of lyrics there and did so again when we went back there in '94 or whenever it was. I could write lyrics on the spot and it was so interesting because I knew the place so well. I can also speak a bit of Maghrebi Arabic so I also knew what was going underneath what we were experiencing.

India was spectacular because there was nothing riding on it. It was good because Jimmy must have contacted George Harrison and there was some link with EMI India so we muscled together this group of guys and we played 'Friends' and 'Four Sticks'. It was very interesting because it was all on to Revox. It was on the last day of a week or so that we'd been there and we'd tried hashish with flecks of opium in it and there'd been this Indian military blackout of Bombay where they went in to a fake preparation of an air raid from Pakistan. I had a cassette recorder with a microphone down my sleeve recording street musicians and the whole fucking city went black. I was stuck in a doorway with Jimmy trying to keep out of the way because when the lights go out, it's another world. It was pretty interesting and very prickly. But good.

But those experiences in Marrakech and Bombay were dalliances. First of all, at that time in Morocco, we were just observers. I was buying lots of cassettes and I've got the most amazing collection of North African Berber music on the planet. Some of it has figured quietly on bits and pieces of music but most importantly, when Jimmy and I went there in the 90s the connection with the Gnawa was pretty important. It was easy for me because I'm a singer so even if I sing complete gobbledygook, so long as the melody works with the musicians, then I'm in.

Once, when I was North of Timbuktu a few years ago playing at the Festival au Désert with Skin Tyson, Justin Adams and my son, Logan, there was some spectacular music, the likes of which I don't think can ever be heard again. The Tuareg were coming from all over Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Southern Algeria and they were bringing their families and their flocks. As they were coming to this particular area – and it was a meeting place that I think has been favoured for many, many generations where they come to discuss the erosion of the Sahara – this gathering was about the size of a quarter of a football pitch and everybody was just getting this rhythm going and then the Griot start playing. It's unbelievable because you then start to realise that these people have waited a year to get up and speak on behalf of their families.

So anyway, at night-time, we were sitting around talking and somebody turned up with a pick-up truck with some tree roots and they dug up a bit of sand, got some kerosene on the wood and got a fire going. People were moving away from the fire and carrying fire in their hands – little burning twigs that they would take to their Berber tents and with their hands they would make little holes in the sand and the fire would begin and they would make tea. There were these tiny little gatherings of sand and fire and there, sitting by the main tree root, is Ali Farka Touré playing quietly. Justin started playing along with him and it was so beautiful. Ali Farka Touré turns to me and smiles, and in the half-light he just nods and I start singing. And in this most amazing scenario surrounded by a bunch of tree roots powered up by kerosene, I'm thinking to myself, This is it! And I was singing the flipside of a Drifters song from 1958, just singing the melody and it was the most amazing, magical weave for me because for all 'Immigrant Song''s moment, it didn't surpass what happened that night. Everything leads to everything leads to everything which leads to Juldeh Camara.

Juldeh Camara has certainly made a profound effect on your music.

RP: We've built a lot of stuff around him and because he's never heard of Howlin' Wolf just like Tinariwen have never heard of John Lee Hooker but that's the family now. I think this musical family is quite profound because nobody gets in the way of anybody else in the musical performance; everybody plays off of each other and there's a lot of smiling and a lot of laughter. We know each other really well so there's nothing perfunctory and it's not a job at all.

It's weird watching you live because there always seem to be elements of the audience who grumble about what you do. It's as if they've got a fixed idea of who Robert Plant is and what Robert Plant should be doing. Do you enjoy confounding and challenging their expectations?

RP: Well, what do you do about Bob Dylan then? I mean, he's the master of that and everybody goes back and has some more of it. They say, 'Oh, I'm never going to see him again!' and they do because what are you going to do for 45 years saddled with the same piece of music? I don't take any pleasure in it; people pay for entertainment and if part of their idea of entertainment is to come and knock me then so be it. So long as they go there and come out feeling as curmudgeonly and miserable as possible – if that was their plan – then there are artists for them who do cabaret who were bona fide rockers once upon a time. You have to take all of it and continue to give it a personality.

Look, I'm not trying to play Wembley Stadium; I'm just playing. I don't expect to be carried shoulder high. You know, I think people have got it now. If you want to have an interesting night with some great players and a sense of humour, then come and see us. We're one of the best bands on the planet. For real! You have to have the mentality to be ready for something and embrace it or fuck off.

How do you view the Led Zeppelin re-issues in the context of an artist still releasing new material? Is the Robert Plant of 2014 in competition with the Robert Plant of 1971?

RP: Oh, fuck off! No, no, no! I don't know where it is and I don't care. I just make records. I mean, I learned so much when they finally opened the trap door and I was let out. I suppose that in the whirlwind that was the 70s, we kept very close in our situation and it was like a centrifugal force, really. The band was developing so fast and the music, up to a point, was developing fast and then after that we were sort of left in this area that was uncharted territory as far as size and success was concerned. The whole thing just went into a place that no one had been to before. There was no real infrastructure or therapy that could contain and deal with that. And of course it was moving so fast that you didn't even realise it was having an effect on yourself. But the good thing was that it didn't have the same addictive effect here in Britain as it did in America.

We were wrestling with it. When we went to Knebworth in '79 we were four years away from playing Earls Court so there was a lot riding on it for us. And that had quite an effect on our performances there, really. That's a nice way of putting it! And I thought, Is that it? Is that all I'm worth? But later on down the line, I realised I was a jobbing, working musician who would just team up with anybody that I really enjoyed. I mean, I worked with a bloke from Buggles and I worked with loads of people because I was really interested in other people's take on music. And I was free to fail and that's been the greatest gift of the last 30-odd years. I mean, I want it to be successful and I know that what I do is for me within my own remit and I have to look at myself very seriously. I know that I'm doing good but it doesn't have to be a compulsory inoculation for the world! You know, it's let me do my bit.

So when I come across as being everybody's mate and nice and humble, I'm only nice and humble to a certain degree; the other side of me is arrogantly determined to do what the fuck I want.

Could your career have survived baldness?

RP: That's a very good question. I don't think I could survive it. I've never had a nightmare about losing my hair but I did see a bit of our performance on Later… with Jools Holland and I thought, Fuck me! I really need to get it cut!

It's a funny thing, hair. What to do with it? I always listened to David Crosby and I think he's got the voice of an angel. It's absolutely amazing despite all that freebasing but he persists with that hair of his. It's like he sang on 'Almost Cut My Hair', "I feel like letting my freak flag fly" so I'm going to hang on to mine.