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Throughout my conversation with John Paul Jones, one word kept popping up again and again: “freedom”. Creative freedom, the freedom to create as one pleases, freedom from preconceptions and expectation, the freedom to be your own person in your music. John Paul Jones exploded on the music scene over thirty years ago as the bass and organ player for Led Zeppelin. Unlike many rock stars of the 1970s, however, Jones has not rested on his Zeppelin laurels. Since the supergroup’s demise in 1980, Jones has led a wildly varied and exciting career as a musical director, producer, and composer. He has composed film scores for such films as Scream for Help, Risk, and The Secret Adventure of Tom Thumb, worked with Brian Eno and Diamanda Galas, and even composed the beautiful string arrangements for R.E.M.‘s acclaimed Automatic for the People.


As of late, John Paul Jones has taken his virtuosic talent into the studio for his own solo releases. In 1999, he released Zooma and in 2002 is upping the ante with the release of The Thunderthief on Disciple Global Records. The record is a dazzling display of Jones’s varied and expansive musical talent. Ranging from the prog-rocker “Leafy Meadows” (aided by King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp) to the quiet, traditional, mandolin ballad “Down to the River to Pray”, The Thunderthief shows that John Paul Jones knows no musical boundaries. Listening to this record, you get the impression of a man unafraid to experiment and take chances. Unlike the tame music of many other ‘70s superstars, the music of John Paul Jones is wildly eclectic and positively un-classifiable.


PopMatters caught up with him in New York City during a whirlwind promotional tour for The Thunderthief, which hits store 8 March 2002.



PopMatters:

Led Zeppelin disbanded in 1980, yet you didn’t release a solo album until 1999. Why did you wait so long?



John Paul Jones:

I spent all my time producing, arranging, starting classical composition. I was just working on everything else I suppose. I never really got around to it.



PM:

Are you happy you waited so long?



JPJ:

Huh! Interesting question. There are times when I though maybe I should’ve done it earlier but then I don’t know whether the climate was right, in the 1980s especially. I think I would’ve felt like I had to fit in a bit more. Whereas now, I don’t give a shit [laughs]. There are no rules now. In the mid-eighties I did the Scream for Help soundtrack. I suppose the seeds for a solo album were being sown at that time.



PM:

If you had recorded a solo album in the early eighties, would it be anything like the records you’re putting out now?



JPJ:

Probably not. On the last Zeppelin record [In through the Out Door] we were starting to go in slightly different directions with the drums and synthesizers. Who knows what it would’ve sounded like? In hindsight, it might have been a wonderful thing.



PM:

What prompted you to work on Zooma?



JPJ:

I had been producing and arranging for many years, but one project in particular struck me—a collaborative project with Diamanda Galas. With that, we took it out on the road. Suddenly, I remembered what going out on the road was like; how much fun it could be with just a small outfit. Also, she got me playing the lap steel guitar again. I knew I could probably do keyboards, but the lap steel guitar seemed to me more a rock and roll solo instrument that you could just change the color with.


You can’t really lead a band from the bass. You need to be up at the front, either singing or with some high instrument. I just started putting all these possibilities together. I thought, “Now wait a minute. If I could find someone to play the bass while I was on the steel guitar . . .” That’s when I came up with the idea of having a Chapman stick player.



PM:

What exactly is a Chapman stick?



JPJ:

It’s a plank of wood with about eleven strings on it. It has two sides and you tap it with two hands. Basically, half of the instrument is like a bass and the other half is like a guitar. It’s also got mini-pickups on it so you can then run synthesizers through that. So if I’m doing the bass, then the Chapman stick player can do a guitar part or the synthesizer parts. But then sometimes, as we do onstage, I’ll stop midsong and switch to the steel guitar and he immediately takes over the bass part. We’ve got this great flexibility.



PM:

So when you’re onstage you start off on the bass?



JPJ:

Sometimes. There is actually one number we do where I start off on a blues mandolin solo for two choruses and he’s playing the bass and then I can move over to the steel. It’s great since I don’t have to have a bass player and he doesn’t have to get up and change instruments. It’s all there.


There’s a song on Zooma called “Snake Eyes” where we use the London Symphony Orchestra. Towards the end there is this whole string part. What happens on stage is that by that point I’ve moved from the steel guitar to the keyboard (already having done an organ solo!) and then I switch to a string patch. He switches from the bass he’s been playing to a string patch as well and we end up with just a whole string orchestra.


When we do “Ice Fishing at Night” [from The Thunderthief] I’ll do a piano sound on the synthesizer (you can’t lug around two grand pianos on tour!) and then he can do the other piano sound on the same instrument. It provides me with great flexibility.



PM:

Do you see significant changes between Zooma and The Thunderthief?



JPJ:

There’s a progression. From Zooma, which was obviously instrumental, the idea was not to remake Zooma but try and take it somewhere else. I wanted to put counter-melodies with all the bass riffs. About halfway through, I thought it would be really nice to hear some vocals. More for timbre than anything else. Of course I then realized that if I want to hear them I’ll have to sing them. So I acquired some lyrics from a friend of mine, Peter Blegvad, a singer-songwriter.



PM:

How did that come about?



JPJ:

He’s a family friend, as well as a cartoonist and illustrator. I asked him if he had any lyrics that he hadn’t already put to music and he showed me about half a dozen poems. I chose “The Thunderthief” and “Ice Fishing at Night.” I set them to music so I had something to sing. I now had the materials to start my experiments with singing.


Then I thought, ‘We can’t just have two vocal tracks. This might be the time to see if I can write any lyrics myself’! I had one track already that I’d written around a guitar solo. Adam Bomb, a guitar player from New York City, was coming through London and called me up and I went down to see him play. I was so impressed that I came back to the studio and just put a track down with a bass mandolin and a drum machine. I called him up the next day and said, ‘Bring your guitar. I just want you to solo over this’. So he came and did that whole thing and went away. I sat down and said, ‘Now what am I going to do with this’? Just the right time to start my lyric writing career! That’s where “Angry, Angry” came from.



PM:

What about the other vocal track on the album, “Freedom Song”?



JPJ:

I always have instruments laying all over my house. One day I was just playing the ukulele and starting on this little riff, this little African thing. I thought it’d be nice to put a little melody with it.



PM:

It’s almost a ditty.



JPJ:

It is. It’s strange. It’s got this African, almost choral feel to it. It has the African form: instrumental interlude, a little bit of singing, instrumental interlude, and just keeps going on like that. I always liked the sound of that. The actual melody is kind of Celtic. The lyric is kind of . . .



PM:

The lyric is kind of something all its own!



JPJ:

Yes. I just liked the juxtaposition of these various elements.



PM:

You play the majority of the instruments on The Thunderthief. What is the studio experience like?



JPJ:

Well, generally I layer everything. I lay it all out on the computer, just so I can move stuff about and build the song. I have freedom—I can change key, change tempo, and just generally have everything in its most malleable form. I can stretch it and pull it until I feel that it’s right.



PM:

Do you generally work alone?



JPJ:

Yes. I engineer everything by myself.



PM:

Do you think your experience as a producer and musical director has prepared you for that? You’re used to being the person behind the controls.



JPJ:

Yeah. But then again, somebody asked wasn’t it hard to concentrate on the music while you’re concentrating on the engineering? Actually, especially when you’re recording, the moments happen when you don’t feel as it you’re actually doing it. It’s almost as if you’re a listener. The best moments, you just sort of sit back and let them happen. The moment you try and think about it, it’s elusive, it flies away.


I’ve found a technique, especially for recording solos, to make my playing very spontaneous: I’ll turn into an engineer. I’ll be checking my levels, checking the programs, and usually by the time I’ve watched and checked all that, the piece is done! It’s kind of played itself. I’ve taken my mind off the actual playing. It works quite well. I like the process—I really enjoy it. I’ll spend a whole day on a solo, as I did with the organ solo on “Shibuya Bop” [on The Thunderthief]. Using a Leslie cabinet, pulling out the Hammond organ, hanging mikes here, there, out in the hall—seeing what sounds good.



PM:

Do you miss the spontaneity of a band experience in the studio, such as jamming on tunes on the studio floor as you did with Zeppelin?



JPJ:

I’ve done an awful lot of that [laughs]. I probably will do some more in the future. At the moment, however, this is quite fun way to do it. I don’t have to think about anyone, I don’t have to explain anything to anyone. I could just try it, or not. I don’t feel as if someone if waiting for me to try out an idea. I can waste two days on something—if it doesn’t work, forget it! I’ve got my own studio, it’s my own time . . .



PM:

You’re actually very lucky. You’ve got the time, you’ve got the skills, you’ve got the opportunities—you have the freedom to do what you want.



JPJ:

Exactly. I can say to myself, “I wonder if I can put a rock and roll koto on this track”, and just try it, do it, see if it works [on The Thunderthief, John Paul Jones plays the koto, a Japanese instrument, on “Shibuya Bop”]. It is quite fun.



PM:

Do you see any continuity between the music your making now and the music you made while a member of Led Zeppelin?



JPJ:

It’s all part of the same thing. When I was in Zeppelin I used to use the experiences of the session world I was in before that. Everything is useful. In Zeppelin, I used techniques I learned as an organist when I was fourteen or fifteen. Like the intro to “Thank You”—that came from experience I gained as a church organist. You had to improvise in church since you didn’t know how long it would take a procession to get around the seats, around the aisle, around the altar, etc. There was a lot of improvising. I use everything all the time.



PM:

How do you feel about Jimmy Page’s deep involvement with all things Zeppelin after the group’s demise?



JPJ:

The Remasters [produced and organized by Page] I thought were good. They sounded awful on those first transfers over to CD and record companies just rushed to put all their catalog onto it. You can just see them scratching their heads, saying, “Well, we don’t have a master, but there seems to be a tape here that says, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ on I—why don’t we use this?’ I heard the first CDs and thought, ‘Oh, this is awful!’


I was very happy when Page said he’d remaster everything. That was great and he did a really good job. It brought them to life again. I was so happy they were finally on CD in a listenable and exciting form. So, yes, he’s willing to put all the work into it, he knows where all the tapes are—he’s happy to do all that stuff. We’re happy to let him. I think it’s good that he’s the keeper of the flame as it were.



PM:

But when he goes out on the road with the Black Crowes and plays a full set of Zeppelin songs, that’s something you have no interest in?



JPJ:

No. I mean, I do a couple of Zeppelin songs in my show because I like playing them, I wrote them, people like to listen to them, and I’m not there to give a lecture on music. It’s entertainment. It’s a show for goodness sake! It’s fun. You can put them in the set, balance the show.


That something we always did in Zeppelin: work out the dynamic to a show. We’d really work on a setlist and refine it over the first few shows of a tour until everything was in its right place. The whole show had this great shape and form with tensions and release—just like a song, but in a macro-form. I do that with my show as well. The Zeppelin songs fit nicely into the whole scheme of things.



PM:

So you don’t feel bitter or resentful about being in Led Zeppelin? Do you find it insulting that a lot of people don’t know you as anything other than the bassist from Led Zeppelin?



JPJ:

No, no, no. People wouldn’t know me without Led Zeppelin. There’s no reason to be resentful. I’m very happy. I can call up people and go, “Hi, it’s John Paul Jones, from Led Zeppelin” and they go, “Oh, yes! Hi, how are you doing?” The interest in my solo stuff is based a lot on my being in Led Zeppelin. People just wouldn’t listen to it without some form of reference.


I’m very proud of the music we made—I always thought it was the best band in the world. I thought we broke a lot of barriers, the music stands up still—it’s great stuff. No reason to be resentful—I would not be in this position without it! I’m very thankful.



PM:

What are your plans for the future?



JPJ:

I’ll probably tour this record. I like getting the stuff the together: rehearsing, working out the arrangements, etc. After that, I really want to go further with the vocal experiments and song-form experiments. Like “Ice Fishing at Night,” for example, is in a strange song form. There’s just one verse, one long instrumental, and another vocal part—nothing is repeated. I like the idea of seeing where it can go.


Again, there are no rules. There’s no one to say, “Oh, you can’t do that.” I try it and if I feel that it works, it’s on the record. It’s as simple as that. The next record will probably be an amalgam of the styles on the last one. Again, it will be kind of experimental. Provided that the results are interesting and entertaining, I can experiment in public. It has to get past me first and I’m pretty harsh. I can hear what I want to do, so we’ll see.

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