Robert Plant exclusive: "I don’t want to be stuck in the ’70s or the ’80s"

Iconic rocker keeps turning down millions to reunite Led Zeppelin. He tells us why the future's more fun than past

Published December 13, 2014 12:01AM (EST)

Robert Plant      (AP/Joel Ryan)
Robert Plant (AP/Joel Ryan)

Last month a rumor hit the Internet that Robert Plant had turned down $800 million from Virgin Group founder Richard Branson to reunite Led Zeppelin for a proposed 35-date tour. It would have been an easy near-billion -- who doesn’t know the words to “Stairway to Heaven”? It may have been eventually shot down as merely an invention of social media, but that astronomical figure doesn’t seem too far out of line for the best band to ever rock a stadium, especially one in the midst of an ambitious campaign to remaster and reissue its formidable back catalog.

Nor does it seem out of character for Plant to reject that offer. Aside from a one-show showing in 2010, which produced the excellent live album “Celebration Day,” the singer has shown no interest whatsoever in revisiting those old songs or reliving previous glories. A solo artist for three decades now—that’s three times the tenure of his former band—he has produced a large and multifaceted catalog that ranges from the pop-oriented sounds of his early albums to the retro-crooner stylings of his sole Honeydrippers release to the American roots rock of 2002’s “Dreamland” and 2007’s “Raising Sand.” The latter, a collaboration with bluegrass artist Alison Krauss, went multiplatinum and won approximately all the Grammys.

Plant could easily have settled into a career as a roots musician, but he has changed course dramatically. His latest release, the oddly titled “lullaby and … The Ceaseless Roar,” sounds like all of his previous records played at once. Musically omnivorous and beautifully sung by a man who at 66 still has one of rock’s most expressive voices, these songs move from the foothills of Appalachia to the dancefloors of Bristol, from the avenues of New York City to the plains of Africa. It might have been a mere exercise in musical cross-pollination if the songs themselves weren’t so sturdy and mysterious, full of graceful melodies and spiritually generous sentiments. As such, it’s one of the most adventurous albums of 2014.

Plant has always been a man on a journey, even as far back as his days with Led Zeppelin, who in the 1960s and 1970s proved themselves imaginative synthesists of transatlantic genres. Many of that band’s songs recount dangerous treks across forbidding landscapes, whether away from some great battle or toward some unknown destination. “They choose the path where no one goes,” Plant sang on “No Quarter,” which anchored the band’s recently reissued 1973 album “Houses of the Holy.” “They carry news that must get through.” Plant has been living up to those lyrics ever since, restlessly moving from one sound to the next, navigating by instinct and with no set destination in sight.

In a year when oldsters like Springsteen and U2 have embarrassed themselves with shoddy albums (so much so that Rolling Stone apparently felt compelled to rescue them), Plant has emerged as one of the few artists of his generation intent on seeing what’s over the next hill or past the next horizon, and that determination lends “lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar” a sense of musical and conceptual urgency. During a recent stop on his American tour with the Sensational Space Shifters, Plant spoke to Salon about his new musical obsessions, his favorite band from Duluth, and his ongoing quest to keep moving.

The album begins and ends with the same song, “Little Maggie.” What drew you to that particular folk tune?

I think it was about 2006 when I was invited to appear at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame presentation in Cleveland with Odetta, Harry Belafonte and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The event was to celebrate the life and work of Leadbelly, and that’s how I got to know Alison Krauss. There had been some talk of us playing that TV show “Crossroads” together, which involves two artists coming from absolutely opposite ends fo the track. What better place to find out how we would get on together than a show that would require just three or four songs? So I met Alison in Cleveland and we rehearsed and played some Leadbelly tunes and had an amazing night. I had asked Los Lobos to come and play with us, but only to bring their acoustic instruments. It was a bit like “La Pistola y el Corazon,” that great album they made, and it was a great experience. Then Alison and I went on to shoot “Crossroads,” and we really did fit together well. So we started preparing an album. “Raising Sand” really surprised us both, and during the making of that record, we tried to record “Little Maggie.” I guess you were wondering when it was going to get around to your question.

How did it go?

We didn’t really give it a lot of time, so we made a real hash of it. It was very funny, a complete mess, and we laughed a lot and just left it. But I thought there was something there in that song. I liked the idea. I liked the lyrics. There are so many throwaway lyrics in American music from a particular period, all those murder ballads and songs like that—“Frankie and Johnny” and that kind of thing. But “Little Maggie” is fantastic. “Little Maggie sitting by the sea, with a .44 all around her and a banjo on her knee.” The idea of a woman sitting there like that is quite evocative and quite funny for an English guy. If you’re in her way, it could be quite unfortunate. I figured the best thing to do would be to spend at least four or five minutes checking that out as a piece of music and see how we would approach it with the Sensational Space Shifters. Nobody’s claiming that we’re great bluegrass banjo players or anything, but we are scallywags and thieves. I liked the idea of visiting the song again, especially since it’s a standard—a piece of American history championed by the Stanley Brothers in the 1940s and so many artists who have passed through Nashville. Which is of course where I had been spending quite a bit of time.

I’m guessing it went better this time than it did during the “Raising Sand” sessions.

It took us the better part of about 10 minutes to record the track. I liked the idea of starting off the album with that song and that sound, then turning it into something far more British, with that Bristol trance beat. It seemed like a good sort of introduction to the album, and also a good finale. For this collection of songs, I thought it was appropriate that we go out the way we came in. The second version is much more of a British-meets-West-African kind of thing, with Juldeh Camara singing in Fulani, the language of West Africa. It’s even more trance, even more far out. They’re bookends, and within all that lies the bed of the structure of the songs and the story of my time.

That song plays like a nice pivot point from your previous couple of albums, which were all confined to American soil, to this new album that explores a more global sound. It immediately announced a new set of stakes.

Exactly. I just wanted to drive a stake through the heart of the whole thing and say, I love this music but here’s another way of looking at it. And it’s so infectious to play live. It’s a great audience moment really, when even the most subdued audience member can be returned to life, given a pulse, and made to get excited.

I appreciate that you’re compartmentalizing these sounds. It’s not like there’s the Bristol trance song, the West African song, the Americana song. Everything flows together more organically.

It’s a mélange. The tabernacle of bluegrass and the tabernacle of world music, all that stuff… to me it means nothing. To me it just represents a lot of great ideas, and sometimes they need to have a shotgun wedding. I think we represent a lot of different experiences in the Sensational Space Shifters. Justin Adams produced the first and third Tinariwen albums and played with Sinead O’Connor and Jah Wobble. The avenues he’s chosen to go down have always been stimulating and exciting. Everybody in the band has got a story that isn’t just going right down Main Street. We compressed a lot of stuff on the record to make it sound more junkyard, more calamitous, but we do our best to build a sturdy shed onstage every night.

How did the Space Shifters come together?

We had played together already in the early 2000s as Strange Sensations, up until I ran off with Alison. Now “Sensation” remains part of the name, but our previous drummer went off with Radiohead, so Dave Smith took his place. And Juldeh brought in those ritti and kologo cross-rhythms. It’s become a really big churning space machine, really. So we’re out there and I’m working this record because I don’t want to end up being compartmentalized along with my peer group. I don’t want to be stuck in the ’70s or the ’80s. I just keep moving. That’s my intention. That’s my stimulus. Otherwise, I’d be at home doing the garden.

And your solo work has always been so forward looking. Even when you’re looking backwards, as with something like the Honeydrippers, you make a point not to repeat yourself.

I’ve been listening to music with an attentive ear for 50-odd years, so there’s always something new coming around the corner. There’s a lot of dross, of course, and a lot of opportunism and a lot of crap and a lot of people who stay with one thing too long. But if you’re born into this great game, you have to stimulate yourself. You have to stay lightfooted and keep moving.

I’m a restless guy who’s happy to be restless. I find that I’m always inquiring and I’m always in the middle of new situations. It’s just life experience, I guess. But I’ve been around quite a while. I realized that sometimes I move so fast I don’t even see where I’ve been with any great perspective. I look into the now and slightly into the future, but rarely into the past. Searching and querying and mining the great terrain of life and relationships is where I’m at right now. I’m pretty furtive, and I guess this record comes at a time in my life we’re I’m having to stop and regroup lyrically. I’m not singing about chicks in truckstops.

With that in mind, have you been reapproaching some of your older solo tunes with the Space Shifters?

We’ve been looking at “Like I’ve Never Been Gone,” which is a beautiful piece of music [from 1982’s “Pictures at Eleven”]. The actual chordal and musical construction is very different from what we’re using now, but when we’ve played it recently it’s been very emotive and evocative. But at the same time it can be very spare. But I don’t like to reinterpret myself. I’m not postmodern. I’m actually very pre-modern, I would say.

It sounds less like a reinterpretation than an artist having a conversation with his younger self.

I did hear a Joni Mitchell selection recently called “Travelogue,” and she did a track called “Amelia” and another called “Woodstock,” which is a song that you wouldn’t think could have any new life breathed into it. But she breathed more life into those two songs that you could possibly imagine. It was absolutely stunning, because her voice has changed from the days when she sang in ’67 or ’68 and they rearranged the songs accordingly. It was a revelation. She had to go back and visit those songs again. It was brave to record. Doing them live is one thing, but orchestrating them is brave. I wouldn’t want to make a career of it, but it’s great stuff.

You sound like someone who follows your musical obsessions wherever they might lead. What are you listening to lately?

Would it be that I could. I did go to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Natalie Merchant and some other people perform with the Kronos Quartet. It was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch Records, and I must say that some of these areas that Nonesuch has been exploring are new to me. So I’ve been checking out some new zones since I signed with them. It’s similar to the adventures of Jac Holzman with the Elektra Explorers series. I remember stealing a lot of it in the early ’70s with Page.

And of course, one of my great loves is from Duluth, the group that is whatever it is that is called Low. On the "Band of Joy" album, we cut two tracks from their “Great Destroyer” album. Their most recent album, “The Invisible Way,” is excellent, too. I follow them because I think their dynamism is amazing. It’s supermusic. I saw them in London at the Barbican. It’s the complete other end of the scale from what I do, because there’s so little physicality to the music. There’s just this great portent. It’s all about mood.

You’re also someone who surrounds himself with good musicians, whether it’s the Space Shifters or Alison Krauss or the Band of Joy. How important is that collaborative aspect to your craft?

It’s all important. These people are all great players, but more than that they’ve all got great spirit and warm hearts, which allows us to be out there on the edge of space and time. In the great fantasy of super uber fame, that’s not always a good place to be. It can be quite a prickly place to be, in fact. I’ve been there. So I have to choose my bedfellows very carefully. It has been paramount that I have a great society—if I can use that term—that is healthy musically, personally, and socially.

“Little Maggie” is one of the only covers on the album. The rest is original songwriting, which seems like a new development compared to your last few albums.

You’re right. “Poor Howard” is a Leadbelly song that was brought over from the United Kingdom. It was a kids’ song in the early nineteenth century, and it had a very different theme but the same melody. The rest I can’t really tell you about. As you keep moving, you come up with ideas and topics and themes: musicality, drama and texture. The previous two records with Band of Joy and Alison Krauss were basically me leaving my gift at the temple of great American music, I guess. Some people leave a harmonica and a bottle of whiskey at Sonny Boy’s grave. I just left my voice in some beautiful American songs.

By Stephen Deusner

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