By Jason Roche
Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant returns to town this week with his newest backing band, the Sensational Space Shifters. The lineup features members of his early-'00s band the Strange Sensation and has Plant revisiting both blues-rock and world-music influences; this after exploring Americana the last few years through collaborations with Alison Krauss and Band of Joy. We spoke with Plant about this new project and what keeps him motivated to continue pursuing new musical endeavors.
Westword: After exploring Americana music the last few years, what drew you back to classic blues and world music?
Robert Plant: I have had an amazing education the last few years. The time I spent around all of those men and women was an eye-opening experience. The thing about working with musicians in Nashville is that they generally are always moving on to the next thing. [Plant's partner and singer-songwriter] Patty [Griffin] went to work on her solo record and [guitarist] Buddy [Miller] went to produce the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
I decided that I wanted to get back to something resembling a "British condition." I looked back at the Strange Sensation lineup I had worked with before Band of Joy. I called up [bassist] Justin Adams, who had just gotten done touring with JuJu. We decided to get together to try something out. It just had such a strange and unusual way about it. We brought in a musician from West Africa [Juldeh Camara], who had already been playing in the U.K...but then we stick in my voice and bring in [keyboardist] John [Baggott] from Massive Attack with his insanely powerful drum loops and crashing, crunched up sounds.
We've got a new drummer [Dave Smith], a real good young kid who is big on the jazz scene here [in the U.K.]. It's proven to be a great passport for fun and power. I'm able to get the "R.P." voice back out there again. I don't have to be so concerned about making sure I am in harmony with anyone else since I'm mostly singing alone this time. I won't have to worry about Patty glaring at me when I fuck up this time!
Can you tell us more what you mean by "the British condition"?
There's a historical point of reference with the people I've worked with since I began my adventures with Alison Krauss. The reference points in that world in the United States are very deep and loaded with history. Whether it's the music of the Mississippi...whether it's the music that found its way into Nashville in the '40s and '50s...whether it's from the Carter Family or Roscoe Holcomb or Lead Belly.
The guys I work with in the U.K. have more of an urban British thing going on. If you compare Led Zeppelin to the U.S. bands of the time, like the Electric Flag, we were like a train wreck. We masticated American music, grabbed it and swung it around wildly, as kids do.
The British thing is to get to a different place. Artists like Tricky, Portishead and Massive Attack all came from Bristol. Three or four of the guys I'm playing with now come from that town. There's something about it that inspires a more techno way...techno elements, samples, big "fuck off" drum loops that fry you sometimes. It's a complete dynamic juxtaposition to what I was doing, but they are both equally rewarding as musical adventures.
What are your reflections on Led Zeppelin being honored at last year's Kennedy Center Honors?
I knew we did a lot of damage to people's brains and ear drums, and I knew we wrote some great songs, but it was a very humbling experience. When I saw Heart perform "Stairway To Heaven," I just couldn't believe that song had anything to do with this 64-year old man that was sitting next to John Paul Jones. I thought to myself, "This is me...How did this happen?"
The charm of the people involved in the project, from the president and across the board...it was mind-altering. I've been thrust in front of royalty all over the world, kings and queens and princes...but these guys were actually having a good time! The three of us were amazed that that sort of thing happened. That wouldn't happen with Prince Charles!
What still motivates you to keep pursuing musical endeavors in 2013?
The sound of a new project. The sound of music developing. For the last year or so I've been writing quite a lot, and I like the way my voice sounds now. It's not the same as it was years ago. I'm not a castrato anymore but I've learned to get down into that pocket and have it sound good. So here I go again...Over the years, I've seen all of these artists that I respect that are able to create all of these amalgamations with other artists.
I've watched the way John Paul Jones has worked throughout his life as a musician. I have great respect for him. He's right in the middle of writing an opera right now, and people are taking him seriously as a writer in the classical mode. But he can also play in Them Crooked Vultures and play mandolin with Seasick Steve. I've learned that it's good to keep moving and keep smiling!