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John Paul Jones: Led Zeppelin's heaviest on riff & rhythm.


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John Paul Jones: Led Zeppelin's heaviest on riff & rhythm.

Guitar Player Magazine Feb 1995

In a few hours John Paul Jones will step onstage for his first set of original music since Led Zeppelin crashed 14 years ago. The bassist/producer's mild voice betrays no jitters as he relaxes in a Hamburg hotel room before the tour's opening show, despite the fact that his new group features a very risky lineup: voice, drums, and Jones' mighty biamped bass. No guitars.

While his former colleagues Jimmy Page and Robert Plant relive their glory days via the No Quarter project, Jones is blasting into the future with the boldest and best post-Zeppelin release: The Sporting Life [Mute], a speaker-frying collaboration with avant-diva Diamanda Galas. Long famed in new music circles for her vocal pyrotechnics and painfully intense performances, Galas slices viciously across the elephantine riffs of Jones and longtime Elvis costello drummer Pete Thomas, forging a sound with both the weight of the '70s and the shock of the new.

"Diamanda had the idea that she didn't want guitar," explains Jones, 49. "She'd ask what a guitarist would play and where they'd play it, and more or less covered it with her voice." That's an understatement--her free-form vocalizing often sounds less like a human throat than Jimi Hendrix morphing into Buckethead. If a guitarist had generated the torrential swoops and shrieks on "Skoteseme," for example, the 6-string community would genuflect en masse. "Well," allows Jones, "it certainly is a power trio."

Do we falsely presume the preeminence of guitar in rock?

Well, rock started on guitar, and I do use the bass in a very guitaristic sort of way on The Sporting Life. I also used a lot of 8-string bass, another trick we used to do with Zeppelin. When Robert would stop singing and Jimmy would be soloing, there would only be bass and drums, and the 8-string would fill that whole middle range. It sounds like a guitar doubling the bass. In fact, on "Skoteseme" I use the 8-string bass very much like a 12-string guitar. In the old days I used a Bec-Var 8-string made by a guy who used to work for Alembic. But for this project I had Hugh Manson build me a gorgeous new 8-string.

Your articulation is explosively crisp--do you play through a guitar amp as well as a bass amp?

Yes. I run the 8-string in stereo. In the studio I run the neck pickup into an SWR for the bass end and the bridge pickup into a Fender Twin for the high. Live, I use a new Marshall in place of the Fender. It's a big sound, I have to say.

You've relied on exotic modes and meters since the Zep days. Are you an avid student of North African and Asian music?

I'm an avid student of all music. I'm really fond of North African music and flamenco, which came up from North Africa. I probably came across it first on radio when I was a kid. We lived in southern England and had a good radio, which meant we could pick up Arabic Middle Eastern radio on the medium-wave.

How conscious a source has it been?

Well, leading into the 9/4 bit in "Skoteseme," there's actually a bar of 3/16, just a little turnaround that's very common in Mediterranean music. In Arabic and Turkish music much is made of the strange little triplet rhythm.

Is it the same 3/16 as in "Black Dog"?

Very perceptive! It is, except in the end we played that rhythm over a straight four. It's very common in Indian music, and you hear it--slowed down--in a lot of Greek rhythms. I find bars of 3/16 or 7/4 quite natural. Why limit yourself to 4/4 when there are so many different feels? It's like eating the same food every day. I don't believe you should use some weird meter just for its own sake, though sometimes I'll consciously develop an abstract idea and work on it until it mutates into something I can work into a song.

Your recent production projects--Diamanda, Buttole Surfers, Heart's upcoming acoustic album--are all over the map. What steers you towards a particular artist?

I have to get interested pretty quickly by the music. I put the Butthole Surfers tape on after a whole load of formula rock bands that they'd been sending me for months. After 15 seconds of their distorted noise and amazing swirling effects, I knew I wanted to do it.

Were all the other tapes imitating Zeppelin?

Basically. It makes me wonder whether a lot of bands only listen to the same sort of music that they're involved in. In Led Zeppelin we hardly ever listened to other rock bands. On tours we'd listen to Joni Mitchell, James Brown, Eastern music, folk, all of which percolated through what we did. Whenever anyone asks whether I have advice for young musicians, I always say, "Listen to everything. Claude Debussy, Public Enemy--they all have great relevance." There's a lot of very exciting music in London now among the black musicians who are combining reggae and techno in a form called jungle music. I used to paly in bluebeat and ska bands, and it's been interesting to watch Jamaican music go through the reggae phase and now this half-time beat with really fast techno stuff. The computer chops involved in manipulating the rhythm samples are absolutely stunning. As usual, black music leads the world's pop music. They've always been ten years ahead of everyone else, and always will be. I know there are a lot of different opinions about rap, but as lessons in production and sound sculpture and just getting a vibe, they're peerless.

In the wake of a no-guitar project, are there any guitarists that you'd relish working with?

I don't know. Jeff Beck has always been one of my favorites. Frisell's great. I haven't been taken by that many young guitarists. It's the old Mozart phrase, isn't it? "Too many notes." I prefer more space and dynamics than I usually hear from rock bands. Silence is a very valid musical dynamic. Page used to use space--there was never just a stream of sixteenth- or thirty-second-notes.

Were you disappointed not to have participated in the Page and Plant project?

I suppose I was disappointed that they didn't feel they had to tell me about it. I read it in the newspapers, which was kind of embarrasing. I am a great Led Zeppelin fan. I thought it was a fantastic band, and I'm very proud of what we did. But Diamanda is a stunning artist, and I wouldn't want to be doing anything else right now.

It's amazing to play the new record for unsuspecting listeners and watch them dissolve into the carpet.

It is great fun, isn't it?

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