Robert Plant on Stylistic Exploration, Trump, and All Those “Dull” Tribute Bands
It’s rare to be told by a label rep that certain topics are off-limits in an interview, but seconds before we’re patched in on a call with Robert Plant to talk about his new album, Carry Fire, we’re nicely informed that “he won’t be talking about Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page, or reunions.” Fortunately, there were no questions about that holy trinity to cross off, or what-the-hell-I’ve-got-him-on-the-phone-now-anyway curiosities about mud sharks or playing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards. Karen, I’ve chosen you, a complete stranger, a music journalist who has never interviewed me before, to break the news that Led Zeppelin is reforming and going on a world tour. Pointless to ask.
Instead, some pleasantries kick off the conversation with the legendary front man, who would later just so happen to bring up Zeppelin of his own accord. Evidently, he didn’t get the memo. “I can feel everybody’s energies,” he says of the album release. “It’s a funny thing. When you were kids, you just made records and kept touring. The machinery is huge now.” The 69-year-old with the iconic primal howl and curly mane still the envy of many a man — and a mighty gentlemanly speaking voice, too — has released 11 solo albums. Two years after Zeppelin split in 1980, following the devastating choking death of drummer John Bonham, he put out his first, Pictures at Eleven. Since then, the sort of adventuresome heavy rock music that Zep birthed hasn’t given rise to many equals (certainly not in the mainstream), but Jimmy Page’s guitar work and Plant’s stratospheric vocal range continue to inspire new generations.
Not that Plant is particularly interested in channeling his power-ballads-and-Hobbits days of yore. While bands left and right have been embarking on reunion tours (see: Guns N’ Roses, Fleetwood Mac, LCD Soundsystem, At the Drive-In), the last decade has seen him skirt the rock idiom, opting instead to explore bluegrass and Appalachian folk (as on his Grammy-winning collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand) and continuing his interest in Celtic, Indian, and Middle Eastern sounds. His backing band on Carry Fire, the Sensational Space Shifters, are old mates from 2001’s Strange Sensation — John Baggott, Justin Adams, Liam “Skin” Tyson — who, along with Dave Smith and Seth Lakeman, collectively played 30-some odd instruments on the album, including Moog, t’bal, dobro, violin, fiddle, bendir, djembe, oud, and, of course, your standard drums-bass-guitar keys.
Carry Fire has got so much life to it, so many nuances and layers, that — like the more minstrel-y Zep tracks — it’s transporting.
Self-produced and recorded mainly at Top Cat studio in Box, Wiltshire, the band just got to work and let the ideas flow. “It’s just got to be the absolutely correct mood and the trance aspect of rhythm, a talking through the music without even there being lyrics at all,” says Plant. “It sounds pretty good without a singer. It’s got such a great ambience to it.” He’s heard the album called “nomad rock” and “heavy folk,” which he doesn’t seem to mind. “It’s not a world music extravaganza,” he says. “These instruments that we use are part of everyday life for us. I’ve got bendirs all over the house at home. I buy them in Morocco, but you can get them in L.A. now.” He thinks it’s “a bit more sexy” than always turning to a conventional drum kit. “It’s like a mantra, a kind of — whatever you call it — I guess trance music.”
“There’s a sort of intoxication that people get from power and from being able to manipulate the media.”
Lyrically, there appear to be some life lessons and wistfulness about the passage of time on “Season’s Song,” “Dance With You Tonight,” and “Heaven Sent.” As well, some songs about immigration — “New World,” “Bones of Saints,” and “Carving Up the World Again… a wall and not a fence …” — which Plant insists had nothing to do with Trump, despite one tune seemingly quoting him directly.
“I’m not inspired by anything at all like that. I just find it abhorrent and unbelievable. There’s a sort of intoxication that people get from power and from being able to manipulate the media,” he says. “You can create an entire picture that has nothing to do with reality. One man’s reality is not another man’s, either, so my songs just say what they say.”
He points out that he sang “Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night,” the Kenny Dino cover, in 1990 — “I just think that aimless songs about affairs of the heart roll off the tongue” — and on Carry Fire, he covers “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” written in 1958 by Ersel Hickey and popularized by Ritchie Valens and then the Beach Boys. Plant’s take is a bleeding, slow, swampy guitar track, featuring the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde.
Plant wouldn’t mind if it prompted listeners to check out the other versions, too. Rock ’n’ roll, after all, has long been about seeking inspiration in what came before you and moulding it into your own. “In Led Zeppelin, it was the same thing,” he says. “You lean on all sorts of styles, but, of course Ritchie Valens was so amazing, and to think that he was 18 when he got killed with Buddy Holly. His style was amazing, and his voice had this almost disinterested tone on ‘Bluebirds Over the Mountain.’ When we were creating Led Zeppelin II, we went to the studio where he recorded that in L.A. to try to get some of the sound that Richie Valens had.”
Still, Plant believes there ought to be some limitations on revisiting the past.
“Yeah, music is everywhere; kids have got it down. The only thing that is a little dull, really, is the number of tribute bands we have in England, where it’s old guys playing the Eagles until the very last breath.”