Robert Plant on What Inspires His New Band, and What He Still Finds Interesting About Led Zeppelin

Robert Plant has characterized the music he makes with his new backing band, The Sensational Space Shifters, as "country and eastern." It's a cheeky bit of stylistic recasting, but if anything, it doesn't go far enough in describing the wide scope of the rock legend's latest album, his 10th solo LP and the first backed by the Shifters. Lullaby and ... The Ceaseless Roar (released Sept. 8 on Nonesuch) has plenty of his Grammy-winning blend of rock, pop and folk, but also Afrobeat, desert blues and dub. There are guitars, basses and drums, but also kologos, bendirs, ritis and sampled loops. The 65-year-old grand-dad, who recently relocated back to his native West Midlands in England after several years in the southern United States, spoke from his home about working with his new band, the current spate of reissues from his old one -- Led Zeppelin -- and how his present musical state of mind informs the songs of his past.

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There is a lot of sonic information within the music on Lullaby and ... The Ceaseless Roar, yet the sound is quite uncluttered. Is that a difficult balance to achieve?
That's a very good observation, and in fact it's not difficult. Onstage with the band it's a bit of a bum fight, but with the record I was convinced that we must make these songs into songs, not just extravaganzas of otherworldly music. There's a notion of letting one sound -- a lute, a sample -- predict the whole movement of what we're doing in a tune, but we keep everybody on the same page. At the same bar. In the same network, if you like.

The LP opens with a version of the traditional Appalachian folk tune "Little Maggie." What inspired you to tackle that song?
I wanted to do something that expressed my absolute connection with the American way -- despite the fact that I'm British, and despite the fact that halfway through I'm going to turn it into some strange sampled dirge that sounds like it's from Bristol, England. So we used electronics, a banjo, African instruments. It's all about getting hold of a song and messing with it.

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Onstage with The Sensational Space Shifters, you "mess with" the Led Zeppelin catalog as well, deconstructing and then rebuilding songs, often with unconventional instruments.
I think it's a way to enjoy the music. We do "Black Dog" and "Whole Lotta Love" and these other ones, and our approach is driven mostly by trance and psychedelia and the musicians' relationships to African music. In each case, one of the guys in the band will take dominance, and that kind of determines where it goes.

The Zeppelin reissue campaign has offered up a trove of previously unheard alternate mixes of the band's songs. Have these versions shed any new light on the music for you, personally?
No, not really. Because it's so long ago. What you're hearing there is mostly work-in-progress stuff. Things on their way to completion, and maybe there's some little quirk or something that led to an either/or moment. But it's nothing relevant, really. Not to me, at least.

You've said that your return to the West Midlands helped inspire these new songs. There's a line in "A Stolen Kiss" about it: "I'm drawn to the western shore."
Everyone that knows me forgives me my madness. (Laughs.) They say, "Oh, there's a feeling he gets when he looks to the west." But it's true. It's very potent for me. I know that my great-grandfather was from here, and my great-grandfather's great-grandfather was from here. There's great resonance in that. However, when it gets cold I'm heading to Morocco.

 

An edited version of this story orginally appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of Billboard.