‘All the old gods are long gone. But still…” An interview with Robert Plant – Uncut, Part Two

Sitting in the pub garden, Robert Plant loudly slaps his left thigh with the palm of his hand. He is emphasizing the importance of The Sensational Space Shifters in what he calls his “adventures in music”, and pontificating on the wider musical possibilities they offer. “Last night, I was at home approving the vinyl, the test pressing,” he begins, referring to the first fruits of this latest endeavour, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar. “Of course, the vinyl is always going to sound better, but I thought, ‘Wow, I actually did it. And the substance is new. All of it, it’s new. That’s quite a place to be, really. The laurels that I can lean back upon are so far back now that it’s gotta be just about what this is today. The present is everything.”
Although Plant talks about the album as a new concern, its roots nevertheless lie in an older project. He originally attempted the album’s opener, an old folk song called “Little Maggie”, while he was making Raising Sand. “I’d always tried to attack it as a song,” he begins. “I was listening to a lot of Roscoe Holcomb, and he had this frailing banjo and I said to Alison, ‘Let’s try and do this, because if we get it right…’ Of course, it was disastrous, funny beyond all belief. If it were to be included [on Raising Sand], I was to sing the main vocal on it. Alison was gonna join me on some lines here and there and play the fiddle. We knew we were going nowhere because T Bone suddenly appeared wearing a red dressing gown down to the floor, playing a tiny kid’s piano with his fist, saying, ‘We’ll put this on it, too.’”
Plant, however, has high praise for the version he and The Space Shifters have recorded for lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar. It’s a typical blurring of musical lines, exploring the congruence between Celtic folk and African music and taking in dub and rock along the way. “I like the tease on it kicking off like you’d expect it to be if we were playing at Telluride at a Bluegrass festival,” he explains. “By verse three, our keyboard player Johnny Baggott comes in round the corner with the full force of his loops. So in the first two verses, I might have been nominated for an Americana award by Jed Hilly in Nashville, and by the end of it I’m castigated, thrown out, and I can no longer go to the Ryman. Which is exactly how it should be. I only stop for a second in any genre and keep going.”
If “Little Maggie” is indicative of the album’s wide-ranging musical sensibilities, there are other, self-penned songs that find Plant tackling his recent past. “Turn It Up”, in particular, seems crucial in addressing Plant’s decision to leave America. Against a thick, snaking riff and thrusting rhythms, he sings of being in a car, “Somewhere east of Tunica” and “close to giving up”. Is this specific to him leaving America?
“‘The car goes round in circles / The road remains the same’,” he quotes. “‘The song remains the same’? Yeah, yeah, definitely. Patty was recording American Kid across the border from Memphis with the North Mississippi All-Stars. I used to pop in every day and listen. But I didn’t want to sit in some studio listening to people recording. There’s nothing duller than that unless you watch a nil-nil draw with Aston Villa. So the rest of time, I had a car and I was moving through the hill country. I had the radio on and I realised I couldn’t find anything substantial. I just heard religious claptrap and right-wing stuff down there on AM radio, sports radio, phone-in programmes… it’s a very poignant song because I was turning into someone else I heard so much about. I suddenly became a hero with people, instead of ‘Planty down the road’. I come and go in the game that I play, and I have the audaciousness expectation to be invisible most of the time. Because I just like to sing.”
One of the album’s central themes is the idea of Plant the explorer returning home – the record contains references to “my island home”, “brought me home again” or being “out upon the Shire”. It often seems as if Plant is trying to write himself into the mossy nooks and crannies of his beloved Marcher lands, with their own deep history and magic. A lot of the songs, too, are written in the first person; has Plant ever written about himself so openly before?
“I’m at the time in my life now where I can’t really sing about a girl in a bar room,” he considers. “I can’t go into familiar music terminology like you would hear on so many other songs, and I can’t sing about love as an absolute pure and relative condition. Because there’s way more to it than that, and the way I’ve crashed through my life and everybody else’s life…
“You know, I had to give so much away to come back,” he admits. “My relationship was out there. But what could I do? I could sweep it all under the carpet and pretend it doesn’t exist. But I subscribe. Sometimes, some of the choices you have to make are bitter.”
Like moving back to the UK?
“Yeah, like realising that I actually am from here. I see this is where it is for me, but I’m always coming and going. I’m a trader, really. I go and I come, I have a cargo of madness that I keep dumping into venues. I’m glad I can do because I celebrate my gift. There’s no point in fucking about and pretending.”
Later on, standing in the gift shop at Ludlow Castle, Robert Plant scrutinises the contents of a well-stocked bookshelf close to the tills. His eyes rest on a copy of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s novel about the rise to power of the Tudor statesman, Thomas Cromwell. Plant says he recently saw the stage adaptation at Stratford-Upon-Avon. As we walk out into the grounds, he confesses that whenever he comes here as a paying customer – about once a month, he reckons – he nags the staff to stock books on Owain Glyndŵr, the 15th century Welsh prince who led a revolt against English rule. We’ve come here for part of the Uncut photo shoot. Standing in the outer bailey, Plant points out a solitary hawthorn tree growing close to the drawbridge. He extols the medicinal properties of the berries, then pauses and smiles. “The May Queen,” he gestures in the direction of the tree. “‘If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, it’s a spring clean for the May Queen’.”
In the pub garden a few hours earlier, Plant addressed the weird logistics of lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar being finished just as the Led Zeppelin remasters were starting to roll out. “You have to get it out,” he says matter-of-factly, referring to his own album. “It’s just what I do. Whatever happens, this will be one of the best records I’ve ever made.”
Does he see himself as competitive with Page and John Paul Jones?
“I don’t think so. Visually, musically and the drive and intention behind all these things are coming from such different angles. I’ve seen Jonesy playing in the last couple of years with Them Crooked Vultures, or with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, and he’s now in the final stages of writing an opera. That’s magnificent. Nothing gets in the way of anything. You just make music and keep moving.”
What about Page? Do you think he needs you more than you need him?
“I don’t know…”
What about The New York Times quote: “He’s playing games and I’m fed up”?
“I feel for the guy. He knows he’s got the headlines if he wants ‘em. But I don’t know what he’s trying to do. So I feel slightly disappointed and baffled. The only game I play really is making great music with people who are really vibrant and positive. It’s so easy, everybody’s cannon fodder if they’re not careful. Who cares? Getting up and being able to breathe is a good thing.”
Is there a Zeppelin song that reminds you of Page?
“‘Friends’,” he pauses, then a big smile. “Well, it’s a Monday, innit?”
A short while later, Plant revisits the question of his relationship with Page. “Jimmy’s like a clockmaker,” he observes, pausing. “A couple of years ago, I said, ‘If you’ve got anything acoustic, let me know. I’ll give it a whirl. It was hands across the water. But he walked away. Just walked away. But we couldn’t do anything proper. The weight of expectation is too great.”
We meet again a fortnight later in London at the playback for lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar. The date is June 2, the same day the Zeppelin remasters go on sale. In a newly opened hotel in Soho, Plant unveils his new album to a small audience of industry folk. Afterwards, he appears in the bar, stopping to share a few words with old friends who’ve travelled down from the Midlands, a representative of his long-serving legal advisor Joan Hudson and delegates from his new record label, Nonesuch. Does Plant ever feel anxious when letting a new record out into the world?
“I just want to take it into a corner and feed it milk and honey,” he admits. “I feel a traitor to it. Like I’m selling it down the river to put it in the hands of people who want to consider which is the best way to hike the fucking thing to its ultimate, maximum… But here I am, talking to you. You’re a nice guy, and so am I. But to give it on to other people, it’s a price you have to pay. You know, when I was 12, I had a paper round and I was sending off to America for things like James Brown Live At The Apollo. So. Records, records, music. I’m part of it. Do it, then let it go.”
There is a man kneeling on the floor next to Robert Plant pulling seaweed from a wooden crate. It’s June 23, and we’re at a small after show drinks reception at Le Bataclan, Paris for Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters. The man on the ground, it transpires, is a friend of Philippe Brix, the French manager who introduced Plant and Justin Adams to the Festival In The Desert in Mali. Brix has arrived at the gig with a crate of homemade wine and a crate full of oysters for Plant and the band. The next morning, Plant arrives in the lobby of his chic hotel wearing a navy blue t-shirt and grey jeans with his hair tied up in a topknot. At our first meeting, Plant hadn’t entirely decided on a title for the new album. Can he now explain what lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar means?
“It’s explanatory of all life,” he begins, sipping a café au lait. “Life has a dynamic. It’s not always so dramatic, but the extremes are… well, the extremes. It probably follows right the way through the story of my choices in music. Where I’ve been pleased to rest along the way in music, with people, with certain musical attitudes and enthusiasms – and sometimes the very opposite of that. It’s just like, ‘What a life!’”
And what is life like now for Robert Plant, out there on the Welsh Marcher lands?
“I like adventures in Soho and East London, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and I know my way round Marrakech quite well. But I’m not a city guy. I can never really get over the speed of the changes of the seasons. At this time in my life, I’m trying to slow it all down, slow down the movement of the seasons so I can really devour them. We were in Estonia and Northern Sweden recently and I could see that spring had turned to summer there and I knew that if you went seven or 800 miles south you’d be on a line where I live. So the season would have advanced that much more there, and I would have missed it. But what do I do? I just go slowly with Arthur over the fields. ‘Misty Mountain Hop’. Well, that shit’s all still there, I’m drawn to that stuff. That’s what I do when I play five-a-side on a Wednesday night with my friends in the village where I’ve been most of my life. We all wait to see who’s gonna have the first cardiac arrest. I promised I’d buy a defibrillator for the village, just to help out.
“There’s one or two policeman who play on the team. It’s funny how a few years gone by, I was neurotic about the cops checking my pockets and I now I play soccer with them. It was a huge change to come back, a complete about turn for me. I spun round, right round, 360 degrees really, right round in a circle and came back. I threw my lot back in with the five-a-side on a Wednesday!
“I think you asked me about being… not restless, but on the move. I think that shows in the lifestyle of a musician anyway. You’re not around long enough to be particularly affected by the glory of the moment. I like that thing about being gone. I don’t wanna do multiple nights in one place. I wanna be gone 15 minutes after we’re offstage. Just gone. I guess every generation’s got its epoch of hope and passion and drive and zing and zest. I don’t miss the one I was in because I’ve still got it. I’m still there, and the company I keep is everything. That gig last night? That was as good as it ever, ever was. Ever was.”
Do you still think you need to prove anything after 48 years of making records?
“No, not to prove… time is so important. The passing of time, when you get to this stage in life. When you get to that last verse in the ballad on the album [“A Stolen Kiss”]: ‘There’s so little time’. You can’t bluff it. You can’t fake it, you can’t take it up, you just gotta live it out. Time is so valuable. I don’t put anything out that I don’t have 110 per cent passion for. Otherwise I’ve got plenty of other things I could do with my life. Mix a greyhound with a good Bedlington Terrier, all that stuff. That’s what I love.”
How would you like to be remembered?
“Probably as the world’s slowest inside right in the Kidderminster Sunday league. I was always keen, though. I never had sex on a Saturday so that I could save myself, and to see if I would actually be picked in the First 11 that ran out onto a pitch that’s covered in cow shit, on the top of the Clee Hills. Clee Hills and Mortimer, where you could have a bloody nose in a minute and a half if you weren’t careful. Look, I just wanna have some fun. And that’s kind of what I said in 1968.”
And have you had fun?
“On and off, yeah. Mostly on.”
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