Robert Plant's Good, Big Life

We talk to the former Led Zeppelin frontman about his near five-decade career, and what exactly it means to be Robert Plant.

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Oct 2 2014, 2:33pm


Illustration by Dessie Jackson. Click here for high-res.

Dressed in a slim gray shirt, tight blue jeans, and cowboy boots, Robert Plant is standing before a small group of twenty-somethings. He’s telling a story. The three kids work for a television station; they’ve wrapped a video interview, and now they’re just listening, standing in a bit of awe, laughing at phrases they typically wouldn’t laugh at, smiling because they don’t know what else to do. Because, there he is, it’s Robert Plant. And he’s talking to them.

“Yeah, I think I had a little something to do with that movie,” Plant says, laughing. The group follows and chuckles. He’s talking about Almost Famous, longtime Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe’s fictional but pretty true story of adolescence and coming of age in the early 70s, the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll. In the film, a teenage kid gets the assignment to go on tour with one of the biggest rock bands in the world. In real life, Plant says he remembers that kid—Crowe—running around while Led Zeppelin was touring. Plant is a guy whose life is so interesting that there's a famous movie about someone writing about how interesting his life is. “The girls," he says about Crowe. "They looked after him.”

It’s a recent Friday afternoon in September and we’re in the penthouse suite at the Bowery Hotel. I’m here to interview the English musician about his new record, Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, which he made with his band Sensational Space Shifters. In the build up to our chat, I’m told by his team multiple times to not ask about a Led Zeppelin reunion. But what I really can’t stop thinking about is the fact that Robert Plant is wearing cowboy boots. He looks fucking great.

When the 66-year-old Plant was my age, 27, he was in the midst of his career as the frontman of Led Zeppelin. It started when he was 19. It ended when he was 32. During that time, he recorded some of the most influential and popular music of the past five decades. “Whole Lotta Love.” “Immigrant Song.” “Black Dog.” “Going to California.” “Kashmir.” “Fool in the Rain.” “Tangerine.” And more—way too many more to list. Regardless if you enjoy the music the band produced, Led Zeppelin produced what would become the backbone of modern rock, arriving on the tail end of the British Invasion, becoming hedonistic gods in the eyes of virtually anyone with an ear. What’s more is that, nearly five decades later, Led Zeppelin’s music still resonates with mass culture—just walk down the hallway of any freshman dorm in the United States. You’re bound to see a Zep poster pinned to a door or hear some kid play some clumsy cover of “Stairway to Heaven” on his acoustic guitar. You can also buy their 1977 tour shirt at Target.

And after Plant did that, he went on to have a successful 30-plus year solo career, which is very much still alive. Lullaby doesn’t aggressively rock like “Ramble On,” but Plant’s aged gracefully, growing into a sound that’s more finessed and even, at times, elegant. These aren’t the recordings of some old dude lost in a music studio messing around with the funny-shaped knobs on a mixer. Plant’s still got it, using his experience and vision to blend sounds of the world with blues to form music that’s weirdly cohesive and progressive, all supporting his distinguished and defined voice.

At this point in the hotel room, the stories have wrapped and the TV crew finishes the clean up and leaves, and Plant and I venture to the terrace, which is perched upon one of the tallest buildings in the East Village. We sit. His curly blonde hair falls around his head. He looks like a lion. To our left, you can see a rooftop garden. His manager brings us each a cup of coffee, and we begin our conversation. I want know what it’s like to be Robert Plant. So I ask him.

Noisey: It’s an honor to speak with you.
Robert Plant: We’ll see.

The record has been out. You’ve done this before. How are you feeling right now?
It’s like fostering a really nice dog. You get very attached to it. It understands you, and you understand it. And then you give it to somebody and you’re not sure whether they’re looking after it right, but you can’t really impose because somebody else has got it, so you’ll end up crawling up the walls at times. All the usual shit, you know? We’ve given birth to it, and now we have to let it roll.

How did the record come about?
I came back to the UK and started touring with these guys and we made this record over a period of about 12 months of playing all around the world. Big festivals in South America and something in Japan and something there and there. Gradually we found all the small components that then began to make up these songs. So to finish my point, basically, I could feel that with these guys and the fact that we already had a history and we knew how we worked together and spoke the same language, from the same islands more or less. We knew that we wanted to get on some kind of long-term situation for playing and recording and thinking and laughing.

Are you happy with it?
I’m ecstatic with it. Miserably. I really am. I think this is an amazing place for me to end up.

What’s it like coming back to the creative well so many different times? How are you able to tap into something that is new and excites you?
The well doesn’t remain the same. The well is constantly morphing, because I hear so many different things. I hear the use of a vocoder in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco with a woman singing and a guy playing a fiddle and somebody playing a hand drum, and it sounds like Cher on acid. And I hear that, and that goes into the back of my head and I think, how does that voice work like that? Somebody pushes a button and they get the Cher warble, but look what it’s doing to that form of music. Berber music is spectacularly mournful and beautiful and very rhythmic, but they’re fucking with it. And that’s what I want to do with the music of my life, really. So chronology’s got nothing to do with it. Time and age mean nothing. It just means you’ve got to keep good company and keep life footed, because otherwise you get on the same old ferry going backwards and forwards from your past, to the bank.

How do you not get on that ferry?
Well, check my career out, you know? You just don’t buy the ticket.

I don’t know what it’s like to be older. Nobody knows what it’s like to be older.
I never did. I have no idea.

But it seems like creative people just have this need to go forward and do, whatever it is that they do. It’s interesting to hear you talk about this, because it’s like creating wasn’t even a choice.
The reason some of the high points of my involvement with other people are still resonating through the American world is because they were always different. From 1966, two years before I was in Zeppelin, till now, I’ve very seldom repeated myself in any company. Because just singing to keep everybody cheery is a dumb gig. The most important person to please is me. And if I ran out of stimuli, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. That’s the only thing you need to know. The things that I’m really famous for are always different. It’d be a pretty dull life to be a musician and live in the repeat zone.

How do you feel on stage now versus ten, 20, 30 years ago?
I have no idea of the comparison, of course, because it’s an existentialist gig to be the frontman, the sharp end of a band. So maybe I’m probably more reckless now, because I was learning the game all the way through—still am, really. And you’re new to what you do, the concept of the machinery of your gig is new, and it’s resonating in a new world. But music doesn’t go away. It just morphs and morphs. What I was doing was almost animal in the beginning; I was mimicking, borrowing, stealing, and creating a personality physically, visually, and musically. I don’t know if it was good or bad; it’s just what I did when I was your age.

Did you think you’d live this long?
Nobody knows, really. I never even thought about it. I just thought people over 30 smell of wee-wee.

They still do, don’t they?
I’m alright at the moment. But I have got a bunch of sirens who clean me down with a hosepipe.

Is it weird being famous?
[Laughs.] Well, you must have interviewed other people in this position, no? Well, I’ve no idea what it’s like. It’s circumstantial. I’m not very famous in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

Do you feel like that is a reason you’re attracted to that kind of music—does it give you a sense of anonymity?
No. No, no. It’s the musical scales that got me there. And the culture. And the color. It’s another world. And it really is another world.

What do you feel like that world has taught you?
It’s taught me French, Arabic. I can speak quite a bit of Arabic. It’s taught me to never underestimate anybody. It’s taught me to keep my eyes, really, with plenty of peripheral vision. It can get a bit twitchy sometimes out there. But it’s great.

You’ve seen basically every movement in music over the past 40 years. What’s it like witnessing a world today in which an 18-year-old from Brooklyn can put a song on Soundcloud and it becomes the biggest song in the country? The internet changed everything.
Well, you know more about this than I do. I can tell you straight away that it’s a question that you have far more perspective on than I do. All I know is that if you’re talking to me about my record and my career, I can tell you exactly what you tell me—that Soundcloud can do amazing things. But it won’t be doing it for me. So I know what’s going on, and I know that the rhythm on the street is far out, but not far out for me. Because I can listen to Górecki, a classical composer from Poland, and cry. I can listen to classical music from the southern part of India and just get blown away. I can go to Berlin and hear people juggling chainsaws. I got a lot of stuff I can do. But I can’t really tell you about a rapper from Brooklyn.

Tell me about juggling chainsaws in Berlin.
That’s what they do. They have to be very clever. It’s a dying art.

I’ve never seen chainsaws juggled. I saw flames in Union Square once.
That’s all come back from Thailand. That’s what they do on the beaches over there.

Have you been all over the world?
Yeah, pretty much. But there are loads of places I want to go.

Where do you want to go?
I want to follow the Silk Road. [Laughs.] You guys don’t know anything about this shit, do you?

The Silk Road, to me, is the dark internet. It’s where you sell and buy drugs on the internet.
Well, check out this other Silk Road.

Tell me about it.
No, no. Check it out yourself. There’s no point in me giving you a history lesson. It’s more or less the same thing. You’d probably have to go in an armored vehicle if you’re lucky. But it’s just an amazing passage.

I’m very fortunate that this music has given me a passport to more or less anywhere and everywhere. The Soviet Union and Russia and its great empire collapsed at one point, and when it collapsed we were suddenly able to go to so many places with our music, you know? It was safe-ish. So many countries were suddenly open for us to peddle our songs, and then so many places weren’t open anymore. You couldn’t go into Afghanistan, anymore. You couldn’t… all these things, the Great Hippy Trail, all the stuff that you have no idea about because you know about the rapper in Brooklyn—your Silk Road and mine are in collision. Which is great! You can have yours, or your awareness.

I think, really, what it was was that I was raised in a very gray Britain in the 1950s. We were pummeled during the war. A lot of our cities were wrecked and smashed up and as we came out of that, we were baby boomers there; we didn’t have the candy apple red; we didn’t have the big chrome decals; we didn’t have Elvis. So what we did, we came out ferocious. We came out kicking and spitting and it was a reaction to the gray and depletion of our islands, you know? We were really on the back foot. I think Germany rebuilt itself and its economy faster than Britain did, but we were supposed to be—along with you guys—the victors. So it was a tough course, but out we came, big and firing blanks. So you got that whole deal, and I came in on the end of that British Invasion. You know? Passed the clock and on into the future, right on the back of Jim and the Doors. I was suckered by Janis Joplin. She used to look after me.

Really?
Yeah. So I was in the middle of all those trips, which are now null and void in your world. But for me, they were mind altering, in every respect. What you got in that record of mine now is the culmination of all that, mixed up with urban British music now, and Africa. It’s not polite. It’s not charming. It’s as dark as the Silk Road.

When you’re writing and creating, do you still channel that mentality you got coming out of England?
I write about what’s happened to me. Some people write about chicks in bars. Some people write about the blue highway. But at this point in time I had a bit of a roll call with my senses, trying to bring them all into line. I said to myself, did anything amazing happen to you lately? And I said, you bet. Check this out. Because this is not always pain free. But it’s also not the meanderings of a bloke who’s about to retire.

Do you have any fear of that going in to writing?
No. [Laughs.] I mean, I wonder what the fuck I’m going to write about initially, but I write all the time in a book. The front of the book is for detailed information, and the back, if I flip it over and open it up, tells me all the sorry little culips and things that I notice that are humorous, mostly, ironic quite often, and desperate, occasionally.

I don’t take myself that seriously. I’ve just had a good, big life. It’s a big one.

Is there anything that you fear?
[Pause.] No. No. I don’t think so—I mean, there probably is. But I can’t think. The inevitable is right around the corner.

Are you afraid of death?
Well, I do like to feel the wind around me. My eyes are still operating in the right way. I like to see what I see. But it’s inevitable.

When did you hit a point where you view the end in such a matter of fact way?
It’s been an interesting journey, and I’ve had some real, strong kicks in the groin along the way—along with all the tramping success. I went through some tough stuff along the line. I lost a child when he was five. I was wheelchair bound for some time. My best friend, the drummer in Zeppelin, died. So you pick yourself up, pick yourself up, pick yourself up, and bit by bit you shape into something. In the end, you are the kind of print out of all these events. There’s no time to lose so there’s no point in harping on anything at all. Sage like, I need humor. And certainly, I need to banish hierarchy and all that shit. Fame is a great thing, but it doesn’t always work for you. I’m in that place where it didn’t always work for me, you know? There are other things that people might want of me. Your grandfather would be ecstatic.

What would yourself now tell 19-year-old Robert Plant?
Well, my granddaughter is a 20-year-old and she’s making music on SoundCloud. It’s stunning. And what do I tell her? Don’t panic. Be good. Be truthful. And look at the exit sign when you’re singing. Don’t look at the fuckers in the front. Just look out ahead there, and kick ass.

Are you still looking at the exit sign?
Yes. I’m looking at the number of people who get up to get popcorn when I sing a song they don’t know.

Is that an obstacle in your career that you’ve felt at all, people expected something?
I haven’t got a career. This is the permanent vacation that Aerosmith sang about. You know? What more could I wish for? Look where I’m at. I haven’t even had a nap yet today; it’s fantastic. And no stimulants, nothing at all. [Points to the apartment building next to the hotel] Somebody got a green garden on the 38th floor there, and I’m not in it. I’m not taking care of some guy’s garden. This is not a career. This is some sort of an award.

Is there anything at this point in your career about which you feel misunderstood?
[Laughs.]

How many times have you been asked that question?
Never. [opens door to hotel room, yells at manager.] Hey Nicki! How many times in my career have I felt like I’ve been misunderstood? [Laughter from other room: “That’s a great question, have you ever been asked that before?”]

That’s my manager. Well, of course, I don’t understand you and you don’t understand me. How much time do we got? No time. People want to know why I’m not doing what they think I should do. My grandchildren want to know where the fuck I am; it’s the weekend tomorrow, let’s go to soccer. I’m not there. They don’t understand. I can be trite. I can be heavy. [Laughs.] Misunderstood. Professionally, I’m sure the world wants to know why the fuck I do this. In 1982, somebody said to me, “Haven’t you done everything you want to do now? Why don’t you just quit?”

What’d you say to that?
Bollocks. Which is an English word that means…

Bullshit.
No, it’s your testicles.

I always thought it was bullshit.
No, no. I mean, a load of bollocks. It’s a colloquial term.

What is the best drug?
Cheap perfume. [Pause.] And sweat.

You’ve been through so many different relationships in your life. What has that taught you about love? What would you tell a 27-year-old about love, and what does that mean?
Don’t ever use the word. Not for a long, long time.

Why?
Because you can hurt people. It’s a very powerful word. It has quite remarkable effects.

When did you learn that?
When the first piece of silverware flew at me. When I wore the first piece of furniture.

[Laughs.]
You think I’m joking.

I don’t; that’s what makes it great. Do you believe in luck?
Well, I’m not really—yes, I suppose I do. It’s good and bad. In the end, I think you have to rely on your own personality a hell of a lot, to know whether or not it’s luck or if it’s tough, hard work, and being in the correct circumstance. Happenstance.

Is it more hard work or more luck? Is it a wash?
Yes. It’s probably all written. There are those people who say it’s already pre-ordained. This is too cosmic for me, really.

Do you believe in God?
Several of them.

Any specific religion?
No, I follow the old ways of the islands I come from. And that is pretty intangible. Ask a Comanche. Go to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Ask them about God.

What’s there?
The Comanche Nation.

What is it?
I don’t know. Ask them. I’m very impressed by the religions, the followings, the obvious connections between homo sapiens and the elements, and the respect between man and the surroundings. Those are the old religions. In essence, we don’t own anything and don’t have the rights to anything—but we’re in it now. So in a more, perhaps, ideal time, you and I would be in the pot boiling.

Let’s do one more question, and then I’ve got to call England.

Okay. What is life about?
Fucking hell. [Opens door, yells at manager.] What is life about? What should I tell him? A tuna melt?

It might be. Life might be about a tuna melt.
[Pause.] That’s a fucking weird question, man. It’s a very funny question. You’re asking a guy who’s 66 years old, who’s been immune to penicillin that many times. I can’t tell you an answer to that. I can just say live it, be kind, do your best, don’t hurt anybody, and don’t fake orgasms. From a man’s viewpoint, that’s pretty impossible. [Laughs.]

But no, no. Skip the orgasms. Let sleeping dogs lie. Have you heard that? That was a great quotation from when the British were dominating the planet. Robert Walpole had a problem, and he said, “We have problems everywhere, but let sleeping dogs lie.” Don’t let anybody bite ya. Don’t kick ‘em, because they’ll bite ya. In Latin, it’s quieta non movere.

Eric Sundermann is Managing Editor of Noisey, and he can fumble his way through the intro of "Stairway to Heaven" on guitar. Eric Sundermann is on Twitter.

Dessie Jackson is an artist based in Philadelphia, and says her dad really likes Led Zeppelin. Dessie Jackson is on Twitter and Instagram.