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"John Paul Jones Flying Solo At Last"

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"John Paul Jones Flying Solo At Last"

by Howard Massey

from AllMusic Zine Sept 13 1999

Long after his last thunderous riffs with Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones explains why rock is about attitude, not age.


At the risk of stating the obvious, Led Zeppelin was the seminal heavy-metal band. Formed in 1968 by Jimmy Page from the ashes of legendary blues-rock band the Yardbirds (who in earlier incarnations had Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck filling the lead guitarist seat), Zeppelin took the world by storm in the '70s, defining a new genre of rock distinguished by bombastic power dripping with raw sexuality. While Page and lead singer Robert Plant stole the spotlight with their posturing and preening, bassist/keyboardist (and former top London session player) John Paul Jones and drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham were the anchors, providing a rock-steady foundation for Page's high-flying solos and Plant's feverish moans and groans.

It all came crashing to a halt in 1980. The accidental death of Plant's young son preceded Bonham's alcohol-induced demise by a few short months, and in the wake of tragedy and bad vibes, the three surviving members decided to call it a day. In the intervening years, Page and Plant have reunited to produce a series of unusual albums that have met with limited commercial success, especially when measured against Led Zeppelin's utter domination of the sales charts. (To this day, "Stairway to Heaven" continues to be one of the most-played songs on many radio stations.) But, apart from a fairly well-publicized feud with his fellow bandmates a few years back, little has been heard from Jones, the "odd man out"-- until now.

It's not that Jones has been out of the music scene since 1980; it's just that, like his role within Led Zeppelin, his activities have been low-profile. You might be surprised, for example, to learn that it was he who arranged the strings on R.E.M.'s hit "Everybody Hurts" as well as several other tracks on the band's "AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE" album. He's also played with Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and Heart, as well as producing albums for a number of not-quite-household-names such as the Butthole Surfers, Diamanda Galas, and Elephant Ride. Jones has also dabbled in the worlds of film and TV scoring and multimedia in addition to participating in a handful of artsy festival projects. OK, maybe these aren't the kinds of things you'd expect an ex-rock star to be occupying his time with, but it's also a far cry from living the empty life of a wealthy country squire.

Now Jones is back, with a vengeance. "ZOOMA", due to be released Sept. 14, is his first-ever solo album, and it contains a wealth of surprises. It's not Led Zeppelin revisited, it's really not even hard rock in the purist sense. Instead, it's a unique melding of diverse musical styles into a hard-edged avant-garde stew -- definitely not background listening material. Jones also demonstrates a surprising degree of showmanship on "ZOOMA"; his bass playing is flashy and mixed way up high, and you can clearly hear him pushing his guest drummers to the kinds of propulsive limits that Bonzo regularly visited back in Led Zeppelin's heyday.

I first met John Paul Jones in 1981, soon after Led Zeppelin's breakup. I was working in a retail music store in London at the time, and was given the rather dubious assignment of learning the rudiments of playing a Chapman Stick (a notoriously difficult instrument to master and, in this case, the first one imported into the country), then taking it up to Jones' mansion to demonstrate and, hopefully, sell it. After two weeks of struggling, I worked out how to play a handful of chords and scales - badly -- and found myself awkwardly displaying my feeble skills to the fabled bass player in his state-of-the-art home studio (16 tracks!). Jones listened politely to my fumbling, then took the instrument and proceeded to blow me away by firing off a series of complicated licks and chord changes -- and, yes, it was the first time he had ever picked one up. Want the definition of a consummate musician? Jones is it.

Now, some 18 years later, we meet again, this time in a New York hotel suite. Still soft-spoken and somewhat self-deprecating but with a healthy dollop of dry English humor, Jones was honest enough not to pretend to remember me, but nonetheless was gracious enough to chat at length about the new album and upcoming tour plans, as well as providing a candid look back on his glory days with Led Zeppelin.


So what took you so long?

(In silly Monty Python Gumby-like voice.) I'm a really slow-w-w worker. (Back to his normal voice.) No, no. It wasn't the (right) time (until now). I didn't want to join a band after Zeppelin. I built myself a great [home] studio, had some kids, but in the meantime I did some productions, did some arrangements, some composition. I did a whole lot of things, but I couldn't really see a way to play again in a live situation, though I was always playing at home and recording.

Surely you had offers.

No, not really. Not that I would have taken up any of them: What's the point of being with another band after having been with the best one in the world? I've done that. So what else would I want to do? I got some of those super-group offers: Someone suggested a band that was going to be like Asia or something, you know, picking out other people who have nothing else to do [laughs] and putting them together. But I wasn't interested in that. I got into a lot of classical composition at the time, also. I just needed to musically experiment, I suppose, and not record much, not have it out there. I did bits of film music, TV music, little bits here and there -- just seeing what fitted, really. In the '90s I did a collaboration with Diamanda Galas ("THE SPORTING LIFE"), and that got me back onstage. I went, "Aha, I remember this! This is good." And it seemed like this was the right time. I thought, maybe now, now I should do the album I always promised myself (I'd do) and then take it live, play it on the road.

"ZOOMA" certainly is out there. It's traveling a path few people are going down these days.

Yeah, it's pretty quiet around there [laughs]. Nobody else seems to be doing anything in this area. Nobody else seems to be using live musicians in instrumental rock. Particularly drums -- everybody's doing it programmed.

The interesting thing is that the genre you're working in tends to lend itself to programmed drums, yet you chose to use a live drummer.

Yeah. Because no matter how much programming you do, I find with sample-based music, when you need a song to change gear and go to the next place, you kind of have to add samples. But in fact it's very easy just to play with more intensity, or bring a guitar solo in, or bring a steel solo in, or play harder. It's actually easier if you get good musicians. I think a lot of the sample boys are going to find that there's a point where you're going to put so many samples on, it's like, where do we go now? How do we get that extra push? You've got all this stuff on, now what do you do? Well, bring a solo in!

Were the bass and drums recorded at the same time?

There were overdubs. I put down the bass and drums at the same time and then replaced the basses, because I just get better separation that way. But we played together; the drummer always played to my performance.


(The interview is briefly interrupted by a Fawlty Towers-like comedy of errors involving a Manuel-like waiter. Waiter brings me a Coke, forgets JPJ's espresso. Waiter brings JPJ's espresso, forgets sugar.)

He's only doing this because he thinks you'll give him a separate tip each time he appears.

(In Python-like mock outrage voice.) He's not going to get a tip from me!

He should know by now that English people don't tip.

(Still in Python voice.) Absolutely not! That's what we're all about. We didn't rule the world by tipping people!

(Waiter finally brings sugar amid much bowing and scraping.)

I'm surprised he didn't bring it one lump at a time.


Do the songs on Zooma date back some years or are they all recent compositions?

The oldest one ("B. Fingers") dates back to the Diamanda Galas sessions. I tend to write my music away from instruments. The good thing about that is that you're not constricted by the instrument. I find when I sit down at an instrument, I wind up forgetting that I'm supposed to be writing a song and I instead start playing. The downside is that you might come back and find that you can't play what you've written (laughs)! That's what happened with "B. Fingers": I couldn't play it as fast and as intensely as I wanted to. A year or so after the Diamanda sessions, I wrote "Zooma" whilst producing Elephant Ride, funnily enough working in a studio on Zuma Beach. I just liked the sound, the feeling of the word, but I didn't want to spell it with a "u." Then I went home, thinking, how is this going to fit in with some avant-garde, soundscape ideas I had? There's this rock-and-roll riff right in the middle of it, then I suddenly remembered "B. Fingers." I put them together and thought, ah, this looks like a direction (to go in). Then I wrote another riff to balance it and I thought I'd play some more steel to get another voice in it, 'cause otherwise it's all bass all the time. So then I thought, steel? Blues? OK, that gave me the balance I wanted against the intense riffs. So it kind of all came together like that, took on a life of its own.

When you say you write away from instruments, do you score in conventional "dots-on-a-line"?

Yeah, I've got a little pad of manuscript paper which I take around with me. It's quick.

It seems that there are no computers on "ZOOMA".

Well, I recorded all the tracks on digital tape, but all the overdubs were done on computer (on the Digidesign Pro Tools 24-bit system).

Do you do a lot of chopping up in Pro Tools?

Not a lot. Little bits, mostly. I did the main edits in Pro Tools. I'm pretty ruthless with my own music. If a thing goes on too long, it gets cut, simple as that. I'll just cut the whole track and throw stuff away. But it's great for things like reducing the gain on a note that sticks out. Instead of hitting it with the console automation, you can just squash that one note. Stuff like that, it's brilliant for. But I try not to clean everything up, because then it just sounds clean, and that's not the idea at all.

On the other hand, all the sound design, all the weird noises, were done on computer, on the Kyma system. There's a hardware and a software side to it; the hardware is just a four-unit rack full of processors. The software is either Mac or PC -- I use a Mac. It's an iconic system that allows you to build whatever synthesizer you want, all in real time. On "Goose," for instance, on the second verse, a sort of phantom bass part comes in. That's actually Kyma doing a live frequency analysis of the bass part and then resynthesizing it -- live. If you give it restrictions, it forces it into this strange harmony part. Notes it can't hit, it has to go somewhere else, but it's all related. So you can have it play along with you -- it's all in real time, it's that powerful. It's amazing stuff.

Some of the instrumentation on "ZOOMA" is also quite unusual. What is a "bass lap steel"?

It's a lap steel with extra bass strings. I seem to have a penchant for inventing instruments with the word "bass" in them [laughs]. The guy who makes my basses -- Hugh Manson, of Manson Guitars -- he makes my eight-string, ten-string, and 12-string basses, and he made my bass lap steel too. His brother Andy (Manson) makes my acoustic basses. Remember that triple-neck acoustic guitar I used [with Led Zeppelin]? Andy made that, and he makes my mandolins as well. He's just made me a double-neck which I'm going to use on the road. Anyway, the bass lap steel has just got extra bass strings so I can play low riffs, but also it gives me a high lead voice as well, which makes, I think, a nice contrast to the low bass stuff.

It took me a while to figure out that you were playing the low and high parts at once on the title track.

I am. Again, it's part of the whole live thing of, how do I do this live? For example, in the B section of "Zooma," where it sounds like there's a lot of guitars overdubbed, there isn't. Basically, I just hit a pedal and it brings in the effects. There are so many high harmonics and weird noises going on with a multistring bass, that if you process all that stuff live, it seems to generate a very rich sound; it just picks up all of those squeaks. I'm kind of a messy player in that respect: I hit everything in sight when I'm playing. And all the squeaks and all that, when they get reprocessed, the sound bed just gets huge, which, again, fills the thing out. You don't need extra guitars.


Which bass players have influenced you?

My influences: From the jazz days, Charles Mingus had a very forward way of playing, of pushing a band -- again, he was a bass player/composer. Lots of other jazz players, too numerous to mention. James Jamerson from Motown. Carol Kaye. Duck Dunn, from Stax. Then there's people like Willie Weeks, (Paul) McCartney -- McCartney had a great, simple, melodic style, just played the right things. Jet Harris, from the Shadows, was a big influence in the early days.

How about contemporary players?

Contemporary ones? Hmmm. Flea, I like. I liked the guy in Morphine (Mark Sandman), but he's no longer with us, he died recently. That chap in Tool (Justin Chancellor) is good. Victor Wooten; I'm a serious Victor Wooten fan. Bass playing and bluegrass -- my two favorite things. I've never seen him live, but I've got quite a few of his records. It's the sort of bass which people say, "Oh, you won't like it because it's just like lead bass, it's fast." But you just hear his musicianship roaring through; it's bloody marvelous. It doesn't matter what instrument he plays, it's great.

What sort of music do you listen to these days?

Pretty much everything. I play Dark Star quite a lot, actually. Underworld, in the car. Chris Thile, who plays bluegrass mandolin with the Nickel Creek Band: young, probably 18 or 19; fantastic musician. I play Ruben Gonzalez (of Buena Vista Social Club), Cesar Rivera, pretty much everything. I suppose this makes no sense whatsoever.

It's an eclectic mix. Kind of like the album itself.

Yeah, I suppose so.


Is the Pete Thomas on Zooma the same Pete Thomas who played with Elvis Costello and the Attractions?

Yes, he was also on the Diamanda Galas album. He's a great drummer. He's also hilarious, he's so funny.

I've never heard him hit the drums as hard as he did on this record.

He hadn't heard himself hit the drums so hard! He said that during the Diamanda sessions too. He said, "I don't play like this! I just don't play like this!" But I put him on the spot and gave him hard things to play, so he had to get off the stump.

What are the touring plans behind Zooma?

We'll be playing major cities in the States for about three weeks in October, then Europe, then Japan, then after Christmas, come back (to the States) and do it more extensively. So it's quite a lot of touring.

Who's going to be in the live band?

Nick Beggs, for sure, from Kajagoogoo, on Chapman Stick.

I'd like to think I had something to do with that.

Indeed you did (laughs). While I'm playing steel guitar, he'll play the low parts, and then he'll switch to the high parts when I'm playing the bass guitar. So between the two of us, it's covered. I think he's getting a MIDI Stick made as well, so we hope to do the string parts also, between the two of us. And a drummer, who has not been fixed yet.

So it'll just be a three-piece?

Yes, just a power trio, so we'll have plenty of room to stretch out. Also, if you have a guitar player or a keyboardist and there isn't a part written for them at a certain point, then I don't want them playing something because they're there. I like the space in it, I like the room in it. I mean, we'll fill the space, don't worry (laughs)! It won't sound empty. But it's nice to have that space. In a way, there's a bit of that feeling (I had) when I was playing keyboards with Zeppelin. When I was playing keyboards with Zeppelin, there was nobody playing bass, so I used bass pedals. That meant I was kind of half of the band at any one time. And when Page was soloing, between Bonzo and myself, we could actually take anything harmonically anywhere we liked, because I had the bass and the keyboards -- Page would just have to, like, follow on as best as he could (laughs)! So it's great to have that freedom -- if you want to go here, go here, because you've got the melody, the harmony, and everything.


Looking back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently?

Not career-wise. I might have done this album a little bit earlier, but then it would have been a different album, so that probably wouldn't have been a good idea. Really, I've pretty much done everything, and I've got loads more to do, a ton of stuff more to do. (Pauses.) I wish I'd have taken up piano lessons -- my Debussy is appalling, and that saddens me (laughs).

No, I think I'm happiest now. It's very exciting, the thought of doing this tour and doing this music. It's a little bit frightening, because there's a lot riding on it for me. I've got to organize everything, think of what the backgrounds are going to be, work out strings, synths, try to think of what's going to sound good onstage. It's all down to me, down to making sure the album cover design is what I want, and that it sounds right. I mixed the album, engineered all the mixes except for three, so it's been a lot of work, it really has. But it's a labor of love, so I wouldn't have it any other way. And I don't think I'd have been ready for it before, to be honest. I'm happy it's happening now because I feel very comfortable with the way I'm playing rock and roll at the moment and the way the album has come together.

Having been a rock and roll star, it's not like you need to prove yourself again.

Not in that area. But I'd like to feel that I've still got something to say, and that's why I'm doing this. And also, it's nice to try and bring all that's influenced me before and just try to get it nicely mixed up together and move it forward into something different. I've got a bit of a free-playing area here at the moment, and it's quite exciting. I can actually go anywhere I like with this. It's nice, you don't have to convince anybody else that it's a good idea (laughs)! It's only me I have to convince. But I'm quite hard to convince, I'd have to say.

Did you feel creatively stifled in Led Zeppelin? Were there things you wanted to express that you couldn't?

No, no. There's always things that you maybe want to do differently, but then there's stuff in Zeppelin that I wouldn't have done on my own, which were good. So there's room for both. But I've done the band thing -- with the best band in the world -- and I feel that now's the time, I'm ready to do this. OK, so it's a little late in coming (laughs), but I've already got ideas for the next album.


Hey, better late than never.

Absolutely. It's strange doing it at this stage in maturity, basically playing young man's music. But on the other hand, jazz players are allowed to mature and so are classical players and composers. You are considered a mature musician, and that you've learned a lot. Provided you can keep going with the energy and the actual rigors of doing it, there's no reason why you shouldn't actually be better now than you were then. I think I'm playing better now than I was then.

That's an interesting point. Rock music is so youth-oriented, but every other genre of music supports players and composers of all ages.

Exactly. This is the only one you're not allowed to grow old in, which is a shame. On the other hand, there's no precedent. There were only the '50s and '60s before us. Who knows how long we can rock for? And who cares? As long as we like to do it. I'm not trying to recreate lost youth or anything. I'm playing, I think, in an adult way, and playing rock and roll in an adult way. Before, those two terms were mutually exclusive. But I think you can make adult rock without it being the "adult-oriented" type of thing -- you know, nice and calm and not too frightening. I think you can be scary and grown-up as well. I mean, why not?

It makes you think about what must be going through Pete Townshend's mind these days, having written "Hope I die before I get old."

Yeah. Well, if you write lines like that, they'll come back and bloody haunt you unless you carry them out! Fortunately, being an instrumentalist, I don't have anything to fear from that side.

But there is the curse of bass players in bands going out and doing solo albums which are commercial failures.

There is.

McCartney seems to be the only one who has had success.

Well, yes, because he sings. But a lot of bass players that I've heard do solo albums tend to approach their albums from a bass player's point of view. "ZOOMA" is a composer's album. The composition, the production, the arranging, the writing, the mixing, everything is part of a whole, the way the album fits together. It's an album; it's meant to be played from the start to the end, that's how I envisioned it. You'll find that the songs will balance each other out and take you on a journey. To me, that's what it's all about. It's a whole album. It's not just a bunch of tracks that I couldn't think of anything else to do with so I put them all on an album and stuck it out. The whole thing's been very carefully designed and planned, and I hope it stands up as a whole.


Your press release for this album is somewhat controversial in that it states that you are "the only remaining Zeppelin member to progress and experiment with new styles and directions."

I didn't say that. I don't write my press releases. But if that's what somebody thinks...(laughs).

Do you disagree with that statement?

It's not really true. Page and Plant experimented on "WALKING INTO CLARKSDALE", I suppose.

What did you think of "WALKING INTO CLARKSDALE"?

"WALKING INTO CLARKSDALE" didn't really get me going. I'd have preferred to hear much more Page, to be honest. I was looking forward to hearing him do some good stuff, and he just didn't seem to do very much, that's all.

So what's going on between the three of you now?

Well, relations are cordial. We meet for Zeppelin business, but I've never really asked them why they called their first album "NO QUARTER", for a start (laughs). At the time, I was a bit upset that I read about what they were doing in a newspaper rather than anybody having the courtesy to call me up and say, "We're doing this and you'll probably read about it everywhere." Apart from that, we have gone our separate ways, shall we say. And I'm really pleased, because in the end they've done me a favor. Because they probably pushed me into deciding it is about time I did this solo album. So I'm happy.


Perhaps we can talk a bit about your relationship with Discipline Global Mobile.

It's a very interesting label. I wasn't really relishing the thought of working with a major. One of the reasons why I wanted to get out of producing was because of things that happen at labels to bands. For instance, when the A&R guy that signed the band gets fired at about the time of the release and nobody wants to know the record when it comes out. I didn't want to deal with any of that stuff; I don't need to. You work very hard at something and it goes out the window somewhere, for no sensible reason except for administration or this or that.

I share a manager with Robert Fripp, and I asked him, "What does Fripp do?" He said, "His stuff comes out on Virgin, but he has his own label." And it's unusual -- there are no contracts and the artists always own their own masters and copyrights. So I thought, well, that's a good way to go. But, I asked, "Can they sell records? Can they get records to people?" And I found out they have really good distribution: Rykodisc in the States, enthusiastic distributors that like what they put out. They have a good Internet presence, and mail order, and I thought, fine, I'll go with that. Sounds like a good thing to support anyway. They have a lot of artists that only sell a couple thousand here and there, so I'll be a big act for them. They're really enthusiastic about the music, it's come at a time when they've thought that they want to grow and change gears a bit, think about the future.

Do you have any plans to distribute "ZOOMA" over the Internet?

There's been some discussion about future digital delivery, but there are all sorts of things happening, so who knows? But I'll be at the front there, with whatever happens.

David Bowie's done pretty well with direct Internet distribution.

Has he? I've been too busy actually doing the album to work out [who's been doing what]. At the moment, I decided to stick it on a bit of plastic-covered metal and do it this way. But I'm definitely interested in that whole thing. I was very early onto the World Wide Web; in fact, it didn't have any graphics when I first got onto it, it was a Telnet number. And the guy said, "If you wait six months, we'll put some pictures up, too!" I said, "OK, that sounds good!" So, yes, I'm very interested in all that. And it will all change. Everything will change big-time, real soon. All these technologies will merge, for a start.

How do you think it will change?

I don't know, I just know that it's going to change. Streaming, probably, somewhere along the line. [it's] hard to say. MP3 sounds horrible, but it's a stage in the technology. Who knows?

Have you given any thought to an interactive presentation of "ZOOMA"?

People can be hardly be bothered to program their video machines, so I don't know why they'd want to remix your songs. On the other hand, it would be nice to do something. I'm going to have a Web site coming up [www.johnpauljones.com], and I want to experiment with that. It's going to be a non-commercial Web site, just some fun for somebody out there who wants to poke around. Hopefully it will be up in time to coincide with the album release.

Can you give us a preview of what will be on the site?

It's still in the planning stages, but stay tuned to this station. It will probably start with the informative stuff, tour dates, bios, things like that. But I want to experiment a little, maybe end up with webcasting one day, have my own radio station, or whatever comes. Again, get in the flow and see where it goes.


You were the only person I ever met who knew how to program a VCS3 (synthesizer). What keyboards are you using now?

I still use a VCS3; I put it through Kyma as a front end. I'll be taking a Korg Trinity on stage. They're great. In my day, I had to use a Mellotron; God, I hated them so much.

These days people are playing samples of Mellotrons -- essentially, second-generation samples.

Oh, no. I can't imagine why anyone would want to sample a Mellotron. But I'll be using some Korg stuff, and I'm taking a Hammond XB2 with me, through a Hughes and Keltner [pedal]; it sounds just like a bloody big Leslie, sounds absolutely great. It's got one tube in it, you drive the tube and it's a great rotor sound. All these years, we used to hump those Leslies around. So it's just a couple of keyboards, 'cause there aren't a lot of keyboards on the album. The album is string-based, I suppose, so (there will be) lots of strings onstage.

What bass amplification will you be using?

The basses are all in stereo, with neck and bridge pickups, which gives me a huge range of sound. I use SWR (amps) for the bass end (the neck pickup), and Fender ToneMasters for the top end (bridge pickup). They sound fabulous. It's all state-of-the-art tube amplification.

Were the basses on "ZOOMA" recorded through that amp setup?

Yes, except that I used Matchless amps for the top end. It was a mixture of amped bass and DI.

As I'm seeing him next week, is there any message you'd like me to pass on to Andy Johns?

I remember him from Headley Grange [the studio in Wales where "LED ZEPPELIN III" was recorded]. Well, please say hello. And tell him his brother was the worst engineer in the world (laughs)!

Any recollections from those sessions?

Yeah, loads, but none that are printable. There are no big stories, actually. Studios were workplaces, a lot of the time. I mean, you have fun, but there were no big things going on.

I think it was Bono who said that a record is like a sausage -- no one really knows what goes into making it.

(Laughs) That's pretty good, actually.

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