Exposé caught up with John Paul Jones, accomplished bassist and keyboardist with Led Zeppelin in support of his live tour for Zooma, his first DGM release. Jones wore many hats in his Zep days as well as since those golden money making years. Since his last appearance with Page and Plant at the Princes Trust in the early nineties, he's expanded his resume by doing arrangements for artists as well known as REM and unknown as Elephant Ride. Somehow during this interim, it became clear that the man had his own musical statement and identity to put forward. Just how to do it was part of the question set I passed by the very friendly Englishman late last fall .
by Jeff Melton, Published 2000-10-01
Expose: Your new album fits into the aggressive instrumental mode vein than most other new releases. How did you find players to do the album live?
Jones: [Elvis Costello drummer] Pete Thomas moved to Los Angeles and Trey Gunn had got King Crimson commitments so Robert Fripp suggested Nick Beggs, who used to play with Roddy Frame. He's a got a varied background. That's what I like about instruments like the touch guitar. Players who use is usually got to it by thinking differently than using traditional guitar. In fact, the stick is probably more suited to what I'm doing than the touch guitar because it really is a two in one instrument. So (live) I'm playing the basses, Nick is playing the guitar parts, which we will continue to change in the show. People seem to be blown away by the dexterity, since the reception has been tremendous!
Well, you definitely have the surprise element on your side. DGM is a good independent label, but radio airplay for new instrumental albums is difficult.
I do radio interview, and Zeppelin gets a lot of radio airplay, which is still amazing to this day. After the interview is over, I do ask them to see if they would play a track from my album. You have to be realistic: give them a few Zeppelin things and maybe they'll play a few "Zooma" things. Having decided to do this, I wanted to avoid doing any coat tailing. The rhythm section is similar, but the works with John Bonham are similar, it couldn't be more different.
What's it like to lead your own ensemble?
It's nice for me, with different tours in the past you're not in control as to who is on the road with you to make it as pleasant as possible. It's a nice team now and we're all pulling together. In that respect, it's fantastic since it makes everything that much easier. Part of the plan is to get it right. There has been tons of press and lots of work doing the album, and getting the equipment together. But it all comes together on the stage.
Aren't there some built in challenges doing an all instrumental set and no vocal as a counterpoint?
Nobody seems to have missed it. I do all of the album, a couple of soundtrack pieces and four Zep pieces. No one seems to notice the lack of lead guitar. I play bass lap steel on a stand too. It's not so rare; it's like a lap steel guitar. It's a great blues instrument and I've got extra strings.
You're occupying a lot of the low register with these tunes. And radio is only now playing aggressive low-end music (like Primus).
I wanted it (the album) to sound of the time. Like it was made last year and not just something drug up from twenty years ago. All the weird sounds on the album are made by the Kima sound system. I came to a point about ten years ago when I was looking for a high-end computer system - there were a few DSP systems. Looking through computer music journal I found it- it's just a box of processors in a nineteen inch rack. It's got an iconic front end and I run it from a laptop. Unlike all the classic synthesizers, you can do anything with this software in real time. It waits for me. I program the entire show with triggers, when I'm ready so I don't play with clicks (tracks). There are couple of samples, which go into loops. It's still an experimental show though. I hope to use more and more.
To balance that you also have an acoustic live set:
It's mostly traditional music done on traditional instruments. I like to use technology too. When I was in Zeppelin, I used analog synthesizers like the VCS3, but we didn't tell anyone about it. I've always been interested in experimental music and music Concrete. We're skiing through the trees sometimes (in the live set) plus if something doesn't work it's over in a minute.
How did you whittle down which Zep tracks to do?
Well, "When the Levee Breaks" was made for steel guitar. I actually tried it live when I was touring with Diamanda Galas.
As an arranger you have to wear a different hat, how did you take what you do on the album and apply it to the studio?
The impetus for this album WAS the live show. I was thinking about doing the album for a long time. If I do an album, I will have a reason to go out and play it since it's designed to be played live. I spread the basses wide in stereo and it's quite a big sound on stage. Between the two of us (Nick Beggs) we cover a lot of territory. He even does string parts on stage as well.
The disc does not come off heavy-handed.
I look at the full album as a composition, from a micro level to the macro level. I arrive at everything the same way. You have compositional questions to answers and you just have to answer them.
You don't just start from a rhythmic state and work up the tracks from there?
Normally I just start with a walk. The album started from the three heavier riffs. I had to work out what I play. I like to play blues based rock, I'm not a jazz based player and not an experimentalist. Having to work out three of the heavier riffs and walking helped to determine what I needed.
What inspires you?
Pretty much everything. Nature does, literature and other forms of music as well. It will just set me off in another direction. I like how that happens. Not a lick or someone else's song necessarily; often times I like the way someone else has answered their questions. Like when I wrote "Black Dog". There was a track on Muddy Waters album, "Electric Mud". "That's a really nice construction", I thought. In that way I was inspired by that, but "Black Dog" sounds nothing like it.
Is it cathartic for you to write?
Not specifically, but I can play something to get out of a bad mood.
Besides touring around your new album, licensing on DGM is just the beginning of some plans going forward?
We're going to Europe, UK, Japan, then come back to the US and go down south. You can't go everywhere since we didn't know what to expect at all. People don't about you, you know until you get there. When we toured with Diamanda, people said they wish they'd gone. Your representation follows you, not precedes you. Then after that I want to make another album. I've already got more ideas from this album and tour.
Picking a label is tough situation — why not Atlantic Records?
They asked me tricky questions such as "Where is the single, where is the video?" In the old days we had Peter Grant to chase them all away. There's really not that much to understand business wise - you either get paid for your albums or you don't. We didn't even have a contact Peter Grant. It was done on trust. Obviously this works both ways. "What happens if you don't get paid?" Plus on DGM I like the policy of the artists owning their masters and license. They can still own their copyrights. There is nothing more soulless than losing the ownership of your work. It kills some artists (I won't mention any names) they can switch off for five years. It happens. The approach Fripp is taking is commendable. Plus DGM likes the album. And they are in touch with the Internet. He's the label leader, which is kind of funny.
How did you meet him? Having tea?
In a newspaper article in the lifestyle section "Our first meal" of the UK: They ask you what did you have to eat... I had some salmon last night. We did it for the engineer.
How did you manage to do some producing and arranging for REM?
They came to me - Scott Litt (producer/engineer) liked my stuff. I received a hand written a two-page hand written letter from Michael Stipe. Basically, I directed the sessions to ask if the musicians could come in about half way through. I came to Atlanta and used their symphony and had some good food. They paid my fair plus I enjoy getting paid and meeting interesting people.
You've worked with some developing artists such as Elephant Ride:
They were nice guys; I think they are disbanded now. Somebody re-mixed that album. And I told them that the voice is very delicate. If you lose the voice it will sound like some thin noise. I thought the singer had an interesting voice; please try to keep it clear. The label spent the whole of the budget on this remix. I thought, "Why am I doing this?" I thought we made a great record. I've remained friends with Paul Leary ever since. I put a lot of work into my productions. I beat them (the band) through pre-production. I told them "You're paying for this, not your record company, you're going to work? It was a sheer waste of time.
Budget nowadays goes to high profile artists.
Labels also decided the Buttlhole Surfers are strictly 250,000 unit act, that the band can sell up until that amount. Paul went out and bought their own promotion then they sold another 500,000. The company wasn't that interested. They would rather be working something, which make them multi-platinum. I'm happy not to be part of it. I know producers who are happy to just sit by the phone. I'm pleased with that, I'm notorious picky - you wouldn't believe who I've turned down.
Your work ethic is still intact from the early session days: When you were trying to get started, how did you decide you were going to be a session player?
I was in a major band when I was 17. In those days it was Duane Eddy, and surf bands. I got booked by a couple of people. I was a Motown cover artist. I was employed to make the artists sound American. Then I started to do arrangements and I connected with the Rolling Stones management. My father told me: never turn down work. That's how I got into it.
About how many sessions were you doing?
Two to three a day, six to seven days a week. All sorts of styles, country in the evening, swing from eight to nine; from nine to ten we'd do two commercials. Page got out earlier and joined the Yardbirds. I thought he was completely crazy. I couldn't spend all the money.
How did you switch over from sessions to Zeppelin?
My wife actually - she read that Page was forming a band. He said he was going up to Birmingham to try out a singer, considering, we had talked to Terry Reid first. Robert Plant was earning 40 pounds a week. We put him on wages for a while to start. I booked him on a PJ Proby session to get him some money. I booked Robert on Tambourine to get him on the session.
There is such legend about the Zeppelin chemistry during the early recording phase - you knew you hit on something so quickly.
It was a matter of timing as well. Cream just ended. We knew it was a good band. Page and I knew how to put together a good band. Plus it was the time of FM radio. You could actually hear bands such as the Buffalo Springfield on the radio. Radio played us to death. Live we started out opening for Fillmore East and West. Also at the Boston Tea Party: Arthur Lee and Janis Joplin. They couldn't believe us because we were pretty intense.
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