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

September 8, 2014

‘All the old gods are long gone. But still…” An interview with Robert Plant

Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin, his solo career and more…

Robert Plant’s excellent new album lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar goes on sale today [September 8], so it seemed like a good opportunity to post the full text of my Plant cover story from last month’s Uncut… Hope you enjoy it.
Recently, Robert Plant has been troubled by bees. “I’ve spent the whole weekend with a colony of honey bees,” he explains. “We had to cut through the floor into the passage between the bedroom and the sitting room, looking for the queen. Hundreds and thousands of bees.”

Plant’s revelation comes during Uncut’s photo shoot on Whitcliffe Common – an expanse of steep woodland on the southern edge of Ludlow in the Shropshire hills. Admittedly, a bee infestation does not immediately spring to mind when considering the misfortunes that might befall an international rock star of Plant’s standing. But even during Led Zeppelin’s imperial phase, Plant successfully balanced life aboard the Starship with more rustic and homely pursuits, like getting it together at the fabled Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in the tranquil Dyfi Valley. These days, you’ll most likely find Plant traversing these Welsh borderlands accompanied by his loyal companion: Arthur, a lurcher. “I like the idea of Arthur carrying down through the generations,” he admits. “As a sort of touchstone.”
Plant has maintained a home in this wild and woolly region all his life, but he has been living back here permanently again since September 2013. For the last few years, he has resided in both the UK and in Austin, Texas – his base of operations from which he masterminded 2011’s Band Of Joy album. Along with Raising Sand, its multi-Grammy winning predecessor, Band Of Joy was an elegant exploration of Americana, drawing together many of Plant’s wide-ranging musical obsessions. Critically, those two albums also served to distance Plant from the long shadow cast by Zeppelin. But even on this warm day in mid-May – with the remasters of the first three albums imminent – Plant is niggled by a recent comment from Jimmy Page. His erstwhile band mate has grumped to The New York Times about being “fed up” with Plant for not committing to a reunion tour. “I’m not my brother’s keeper,” shrugs Plant. “And he, really, as a pro, should know better than that.”
From the windswept Welsh Marches to the dusty plains of Texas and beyond, Plant has spent the last five decades on a wonderfully digressive adventure. “I have to keep moving,” he confirms. “Everybody laughs at me, my kids and everybody. ‘Jeez, why?’ And I say, ‘Because it’s there to go to it.’ When you go to Essouira in Morocco, or the Welsh coast… when you go to these borderlands here, get out of the car and just sit there and take it in, it’s the very pulse of life. All the old gods are long gone but still… I don’t wanna say that they’re in the hedgerow because somebody will come and take me away. But there’s something of the old magic that’s still around.
“I got nicked for speeding in Morocco, Tuesday last,” he continues. “Two cops said I was doing whatever it was. I said, in French, ‘I don’t think so. The sun was in your eyes.’ They said, ‘It’s 500 dirham. Go and sit in the car.’ It was 45 degrees. They dealt with everybody who came through the checkpoint. Finally, they called me over into the coolness underneath a stanchion and said, ‘How much do you want to give us?’ I said, ‘How much do you think you should be taking from me?’ They held the 500 that I’d given them and said, ‘Take what you want.’ I said, ‘No, you give me what you think you should.’ They’re looking at each other going, ‘He doesn’t seem like a bad guy.’ So I said, ‘The sky is blue and everything in the world is fine.’ As soon as I said that, 300 dirham came straight back. It was great, those moments where you’re just playing with people and they’re playing with you.”
For all Plant’s splendid travels round the world – more of which later – returning home to a setting he has known since childhood has turned out to be propitious. In the company of his latest musical collaborators, The Sensational Space Shifters – a regrouping of the Strange Sensation band who accompanied him on the Dreamland and Mighty ReArranger records – Plant has recorded lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar. It is an album, he says, that he believes to be explicitly linked to this mystical terrain itself. “It’s a blessed relief to be reconnected to a very familiar landscape I can read quite well. Having been around it for 65 years, you start to get the hang of it. Whereas the brittle, harsh limestone Texas hills were slightly hostile to me. So I came back to this. The thing is, you only need to spend a couple of minutes here. It’s formidable and beautiful. But the Shire, of course, it resonates as a name. Yet in reality, you have to study the smaller parts to make it one, composite emotional force. That’s what I’m doing. I’m thanking all the gods that I have landed safely.”

It’s market day in Ludlow, a picturesque town deep in the Welsh Marches. In the busy Castle Square, stallholders are out selling everything from garden plants to artisan cheeses. Walking past the stalls, Robert Plant is dressed appropriately for this hot spring day in a blue t-shirt, red and grey striped shorts and plimsolls. Clearly, this is a place Plant knows well. As he guides Uncut first round the market and then off on a meandering tour round the town’s side streets, Plant explains that his grandparents used to bring him here as a child. “I lived as a boy in a terraced house in Tipton,” he says. “It was fantastic, because the spirits there were great. My granddad and all that lot, who were all bonkers. My grandfather, who was called Robert Shropshire Plant, was the founder and leader of a Black Country brass band. They were a pretty serious, renowned band. They were also known as the Dudley Port Drinking Band. He played trombone, then he played violin in the orchestra pit behind silent movies, and stuff on the piano.”
We come across a poster for the Ludlow Arts Festival that’s Sellotaped inside the window of a butcher’s shop. Plant pauses to examine the line-up: Showaddywaddy, David Essex, the Bay City Rollers, Ken Dodd. “I’d come and see Ken Dodd,” he nods, almost to himself. “You can’t stop him. He played for three and a half hours once.” Eventually, we find ourselves in a gastro pub just off the market square. Prints by local artists line the pastel coloured walls, and the floor is tiled with dark flagstones. “We may not be gods but our pizzas are heavenly” is written on a chalkboard hanging from a wall, while another sign advertises “Live music every Thursday and Saturday from 9pm”. Plant mentions that he recently saw a local band called Grey Wolf play here. “The whole pub was singing along to ‘In The Pines’,” he says grinning at the memory.
Today, Plant is accompanied by an amiable, soft-spoken soul called Trace. It transpires the two have been friends since the late Seventies, when they played football together on a local pub team in Kidderminster. This is typical of Plant’s modus operandi. Even when Led Zeppelin were in their pomp, playing multiple nights at huge venues, he would still find time for a five-aside kickabout at his local. Much of Plant’s career has been about balancing the fantastical with the down-home. But equally, much of his musical history has been intellectually and musically exploratory. As we settle down in a shady corner of the pub garden, Part reflects on the beginnings of his ongoing musical journey. It just might, he concedes, have something to do with an early interest in philately.
“Maybe it was all those stamps that told me about other countries and postcards I picked up of ruins and castles and hilltops and iron-age forts and all that stuff,” he muses. “But most of all it was the music that crackled through the radio from American Forces Network back in the early ‘60s that beckoned America.”
Plant himself didn’t leave the UK for the first time until September 1968, aged 20, on Led Zeppelin’s first concert tour (though for contractual reasons they were billed as the Yardbirds). “I’d only travelled on this group of islands until then,” he remembers. “We flew to Denmark. John Bonham and I had never seen so much cutlery in our lives as on that aeroplane. We couldn’t get enough of it into our bags to steal it to take home, because we had been eating hand to mouth up until then in the Band Of Joy.”
Perhaps the journey that left the biggest single legacy on Plant was his first visit to Morocco in 1971, when he was 23. “It’s a very unnerving place sometimes, Pre-Saharan Morocco,” he clarifies. “It’s fascinating, full of wild men and fools. ‘Achilles Last Stand’: ‘Into the sun, the south, the north, at last the birds have flown, the shackles of commitment fell in pieces on the ground’. It’s all that thing about going back to the desert.
“I remember one time, the Algerians were financing the Polisario in the Spanish Sahara, so there was this pretty savage guerrilla thing going on in the Seventies,” he continues, setting off on one of his characteristically expansive travel yarns. “I suggested that Page meet me. My wife Maureen went back, she left as Jimmy was landing. Then we headed south. We managed to get down into the salt flats past Tan Tan Plage where all the pink flamingo colonies are. Phew, that was some place. Amazingly desolate and yet… beautiful. We were gonna spend the night on this salt flat. I remember we had a Primus stove you pumped up, so in the desert darkness there was just this glow to cook an omelette or whatever. Suddenly coming in from everywhere, beetles, phosphorescent insects popping out, it was amazing. Then the Moroccans, it’s their job to be funny, said, ‘There are mountain lions here.’ I said, ‘No, that can’t be true, there’s nothing for them to eat.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ So I went, ‘Oh!’ Got back in the car and drove back to Guelmim or somewhere like that. It was amazing down there then, once you got through all the machine gun nests and that. ‘Cos the army was parked right across, east to west.
“We stayed in Guelmim, the Salam Hotel. I remember calling my wife and having to book the call three days in advance. Fortunately, she was in when I called. One morning, we woke up. It was a Friday or Saturday. The camel market was out the back. I opened the windows. We were listening to The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, it was real Cheech And Chong shit, and I said to Jimmy, ‘Fuck this, let’s get out of here I want a pint of bitter.’ We drove straight to Tangier, we got the boat across to Algeciras, then we went to Torremolinos. We went to a disco and we stood in the middle of the floor with two pints of Watney’s Red Barrel, with all the lights and music.”
Plant’s stories are satisfyingly mythic in scope, but laced with plenty of self-effacing humour. Thankfully, their potency remains unchanged, regardless of whether he’s talking about scrapes in Morocco with Page, or events that took place quite literally just up the road. For all the importance of North Africa, another key touchstone in Plant’s narrative is Bron-Yr-Aur, the 18th century farm cottage he first visited when he was 7. “It’s pretty remote up there,” he says. “I haven’t been for ages because they want me to buy it now. They’re so pissed off at everyone going there from Japan or somewhere to pay homage. The remarkable difference between the history of the English and the history of the Welsh, and the poetry of the English and the poetry of the Welsh, is there’s a longing. I think in Welsh it’s called ‘hiraeth’. The whole thing about parts of Wales is it’s like the blue note in a progression. Like there’s some doleur… not quite sadness, but a remote, untouchable, yet-to-be-sorted out thing. I don’t have any medication to deal with it, and neither should I, because it inspires me and it means that everything isn’t revealed for me. I’ll never know. I know it sounds silly and strangely abstract, but I find something in those physical places that is unexplained and unfinished, and it’s beautiful.”
Plant took Page there in 1970, after Led Zeppelin 2. While at the cottage, the pair wrote songs that appeared on four of their later albums. Crucially, the trip proved instrumental in the development of the band’s aesthetic – adding texture and folky restraint to the bulldozer riffs of their first two albums. Looking back on his early song writing, Plant admits, “When I started, I was jammed into Dion And The Belmonts. You take that, and a few Chuck Berry lyrics, and Howlin’ Wolf, into 1967, ’68. That’s what Zeppelin won, that’s where I come into it. I was very young when I was making records, and I was really mostly concerned about sounding good. You know, ‘Oh baby!’ I just wanted to sound like somebody you should be frightened of,” he laughs. “I probably succeeded!”
Out of the writing sessions at Bron-Yr-Aur came the beautiful, mournful ballad “That’s The Way”: a significant breakthrough for Plant as a lyricist and a pivotal song on Led Zeppelin 3. “I was growing up, lyrically,” he explains. “I’m concerned about Vietnam, I’m concerned about Paris in flames, I’m concerned about everything. I’m a dad for the first time in my life. But I don’t know how to express myself. I was fumbling into trying to say something proper. If I’d been living in the Bay Area in San Francisco, I’d have got it down years before, because out there they had such prolific, virile, social commentary on the times. But not so in the new blues-rock movement, which was basically people singing like black kids did in ’62, ’63. It was brilliant, but it was expressive rather than lyrical. I was surrounded by the finest guys who could play like mothers, but I didn’t really have the state of mind or awareness to start talking about stuff. It came in, late on, in bits and pieces.
“At Bron-Yr-Aur, I think I finally realised I was part of something, a contributor. It had really good legs. It was going somewhere and we were able to move through the spheres. Around us, a lot of people got a groove and stuck with it, so the idea of creating different shades and colours seemed to me to be very fortuitous. If we’d have only carried on from where we’d left off with Zeppelin 2, it would have been a big strong record but it wouldn’t have shown that we had any intuition. Later on, after Zeppelin 3, it was a juggernaut. But Percy could escape into the Misty Mountains, not covering myself in talcum and sitting in Istanbul in a knocking shop. But getting back, getting your fingers into the ground and the soil again. Touch the earth. Ho, ho. But seriously so, you know?”
Did Plant ever feel that the extravagance and superstardom of Zeppelin at their peak was a distraction from his questing imperative?
“No, I didn’t feel it then, I didn’t feel it at all. Driving up to Bron-Yr-Aur in an old Jeep with a blue-eyed dog hanging on for dear life and a piss-pot tied to the back by the gas tank and your wife and your baby. You’re off!”
The idea of disappearing into the hills – or certainly, changing locations and perspectives – seems central to Plant’s peripatetic nature. It is also implicitly connected to Plant’s desire to avoid, at any cost, what he calls the “tedium of repetition”. A case in point is the Priory Of Brion, the folk-rock band he formed around the millennium with Kevyn Gammond, an old friend from the original Band Of Joy. Plant describes it as a direct response to his dissatisfaction for the tour with Page to support the Walking Into Clarksdale album in the late-Nineties. “It was basically a glorious, silly knee-jerk reaction to doing one huge indoor ice hockey arena too many with Jimmy. We were already on the same old chunter round the big venues again. You didn’t know where you were, who you were, what was anything, what it was all about, and was any of it coming from the soul. So I made a break for it. I played in restaurants in Oswestry, coming through the emergency exit while people were having their strawberries and cream. I was singing Billy Fury covers at the time, so I didn’t expect anyone to be enamoured by it. I was just on the run. I escaped.”
As Plant repeatedly makes clear during our time together, “There would be no point in any of it if it was just falling off of the conveyor belt, spewing.” Indeed, if anything, the trajectory of Plant’s career has been about fulfilling his insatiable artistic curiously. Even during the Zeppelin years, the group’s blues-rock foundation was supplemented by folk music and the kind of exotic North African influences that have continued to inspire his solo career. In the early 2000s, he recorded a pair of albums with Strange Sensation that drew heavily on desert blues and West Coast psychedelia. “I needed my music to be a long way away from everywhere I’d been before,” tells Plant. “Otherwise, it’s like you’re a jobbing musician and you’re gonna do the same thing forever. I wanted to go to some new places. Through Transglobal Underground and their endeavours I met [Strange Sensation guitarist] Justin Adams. I think that was a major turning point for me, to find a guy who could be so lyrical as a guitar player, and to have such amazingly beautiful roots of appreciation of music, and to have already been out there in Mali recording the first Tinariwen album.”
Seven years ago, of course, Plant found himself with an unexpected runaway success on his hands. Raising Sand, another marvellous excursion, this time into American roots music, recorded with Alison Krauss and producer T-Bone Burnett. “It was an instructive time for Plant: “I was singing for the first time ever with another voice,” he confirms. “That opened a whole portal for me. I had to learn restraint. I had to remember when harmonies were coming.”
For a follow-up, Plant convened a new iteration of the Band Of Joy, whose line-up included Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller. Plant continued to explore American musical history on their self-titled 2010 album. “It’s very difficult for me to explain to you what it’s like to have spent this time working with amazing American musicians, who took me to a totally different place and exposed me to amazing music,” Plant reflects. “I was very young when I started playing and singing, and found an alternative to accountancy. I was very driven by the music of West Coast psychedelia, delta blues and all that stuff. I never even thought about this other side of white American music. I now have to listen to George Jones once a day. Amazing singer. What a singer. So the American time for me was a revelation. I was learning about music that I’d never even touched. So why would I want to write in that genre? All I wanted to do was sing those songs. But Buddy and I have written a separate album, which is on a shelf somewhere, with [Band Of Joy drummer] Marco Giovino, of all original songs. We recorded it at Buddy’s house. It’s strong and powerful music, but I didn’t see it as having the same life expectancy as a project.”
During this period, Plant took up with Griffin, splitting his time between the UK and Austin, Texas. He seemed, perhaps, to be settling into comfortable domestic and musical arrangements. “I’d been in the same village most of my life, and I’d never really struck out,” he says. “I really did like the whole idea of West Texas. It’s such an amazingly deserted and yet darkly and sometimes sinisterly beautiful place. Down on the Mexican border, down into Big Bend National Park and across into Marfa and Fort Davis, where they’ve got the huge parabolic telescope going on.”
Plant moved back to the UK permanently last September, leaving his relationship with Griffin behind. It’s possible Plant’s decision to return to his roots was motivated by a desire not to let his Americana adventures become repetitious. But it seems there were other factors at work, too. Plant talks about how, during his days in Texas, he would often find himself speculating about what his former cohorts in Strange Sensation were up to. “I came back from America a few times, and when I got back I went to see Justin [Adams],” Plant elaborates. “He was playing in JuJu with [ritti player] Juldeh Camara at the Hay on Wye festival along with [bassist] Billy Fuller and Dave Smith on drums. I went, ‘Wow!’ I loved the joy in this. I missed that. Because I am pretty much of an expansive guy, I shall probably just one day explode and turn to dust and crochets and quavers. So, yeah, I came back. I said, ‘I’m back and I’ve gotta be back. I love my kids, my grandchildren and I like to laugh. I drink apple juice until I can’t see…’ I’m not a particularly profound guy. I just tried it and embraced it.”
Plant is understandably generous when discussing his current band mates – now reborn as The Sensational Space Shifters. “There’s no real boundary to where we can and cannot go,” he enthuses. “There are cues within the songs and yet the contributors are all the players. It’s not like a band, where there’s a guitarist and a bass player and a drummer and singer. The give and take and exchange is magnificent.”
The first sign of activity in the Space Shifters camp was on May 8, 2012, when they played a 400-capacity gig at the Gloucester Guildhall, followed by a show in London and one at Womad, then two in North America and 12 dates in South America. Plant is typically effusive as he recalls those dates. “I enjoyed seeing Juldeh flying and swirling with that ritti, and thinking to myself, ‘I can sing in the middle of all this and I can get some of the old voice. But at the same time, I gotta laugh.’ And I laughed and laughed. It was like none of us had been away from the font. We just had so much fun.”

Read more at http://www.uncut.co.uk/blog/the-view-from-here/all-the-old-gods-are-long-gone-but-still-an-interview-with-robert-plant-4474#zj12k7qKcyuVx4Vk.99

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