Sitting in a pub in Primrose Hill, north London, Led Zeppelin’s legendary frontman Robert Plant discusses his new solo album Carry Fire, cosmic lines of force (yes, those), his passion for the misty mountains of the English-Welsh borders, his aversion to nostalgia, his weaknesses for triphop, football and jamming, as well as dealing with the latest – and inevitable - Led Zep rumours.
Needless to say, he’s not into that last bit at all…
According to the sleeve notes, Robert Plant’s new album Carry Fire was inspired by a hamlet in Herefordshire, a poem describing England and Wales, The Neck Oil Ale, the El Cosmico Tent and Teopee Hotel in Texas, and the Steadfast Yam Yam, among other things. Got all that? Good.
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The keeper of the white-leafed oak
The 69-year-old singer explains that these references allude to a personal journey of exploration he’s been on in the past couple of years. Plant explains: “Definitely, yeah. I mean, you don't want to deal with them individually, but there's a lot of stuff going on there. I mean, how about the keeper of the white-leafed oak?
Plant delves further into this rather esoteric tale, long-buried in ancient folk myth and memory. “I mean, (it’s) the centre of a huge energy path that was once in the hands of a group of who were the perpetual choirs of Britain - and they sang forever.
“A group of people would sing along these lines that emanated from the white-leafed oak. It was a kind of cosmic line of force. The white-leafed oak from there emanated to the choirs. Every two hours the choir would reach a point along this journey, and then another choir would carry on from there, so that the singing would be forever, ever and ever.
“Always singing down these amazing lines. That's why it's worth mentioning the white-leafed oak, because this is where we all come from here. A lot of it is covered up now, but once upon a time there were these significant, very special allegiances between nature and man.
“So, I figured it was kind of something to do, to pop it on the back of an LP sleeve in 2017.” And next to a snippet of ancient Welsh at that. So does Plant speak Welsh? “Yeah. Yeah. It's medieval Welsh. I’m fluent (he laughs) not. You need to be born there, I’d say.”
Plant believes his interests are a way of giving little hints and passing on information to a younger generation, and to anyone who are genuinely interested. Plant explains: “Well, it’s somewhere for people to go outside of just listening to the music. Yeah, I think there should be more to it than that. Little vignettes. Tiny little indications of my madness.”
Always moving on
Is Plant still travelling a lot? And would he say moving from place to place is in his blood, doing much to make him the man he is? He explains: “Yeah, well, I've got acquaintances both in the form of friends and in the form of places. The (motivation) in me is to work, to sing, to write, to learn, and so I do return to certain places. And I feel the changes. It's a great liberation for me.”
Most of Plant’s albums have strong connections to a place or places significant in the singer’s hitherto peripatetic existence. Carry Fire, for example, points to recent times living in Austin, Texas.
“Three years, yeah,” but Plant reveals: “Austin was just the door - the port.
“Everybody knows it's a great democratic, liberal centre of stuff. But take the roads west from there, and you’re in Comanche country. And then you realise that there was a whole (world) that's been moved out of the way. A whole way of living, a whole understanding and a relationship with the earth that has been superseded. And I found that by living there.”
Why did he leave, then? Was it primarily due to the break-up of his relationship? “I did, yeah. And if you listen to the album you can hear me pouring out my heart to whoever’s interested. Because that’s what I do. And it’s not easy to do that, believe me.”
And this Black Country lad also missed the misty mountains of home. “I did. That's what brought me back, really. That and family, and humour.”
'I prefer to move forward. It’s as simple as that. I don’t want to be stuck in the past.'
How come the singer is so passionate about history, but not in the slightest bit nostalgic about the huge back catalogue his rock leviathans Led Zeppelin created in the past? He puts it bluntly. “Because I prefer to move forward. It’s as simple as that. I don’t want to be stuck in the past, like so many of my contemporaries.”
But there are few people at 69 who still write new material and go on tour. What makes this undisputed rock god – whether he likes the expression or not (and we suspect the latter) - get out of bed and do just that? “Well, my eyes are open,” Plant explains. “It's almost like…sometimes I feel like I've just been born. I go to places, I read it differently, and relationships and friendships; the ebb and flow of life is spectacular.
“I (don’t) like to be stuck in one place for too long. Otherwise I might lose this trick I have.”
The trick being? “I don't know. I have no idea, but I don't want to lose it.”
And the outcome of all this is more dramatic musical landscapes of mood, melody and instrumentation. A musical ménage à trois, of folk, rock and triphop on his latest album. “Yep. A ménage a trois. Well, it's a ménage a plus - many, many, I guess.” Where does the passion for the triphop element of his latest musical output come from? “Well, first and foremost the guys (in the band). There's a drone (sound) and all the beats.”
But Plant’s roots in trance-based soundscapes run deep. He recalls: “I first went to Morocco in 1970. I was 22, so that was quite a while back. And I started listening to Berber music, as opposed to Arabic music. A lot of it is driven by hand drums – Bendirs - the stuff we use on stage. And all of us (were) mostly led to that area by the (triphop) guys from Bristol.
“It’s a kind of trance; the remains of that whole Bristol scene as it morphs. The band: John Baggott, Billy Fuller, Justin Adams and Dave Smith…everybody lives within that kind of zone.
“I live on the Welsh borders. So (the band) are in the middle of a music melange, which is rhythmic, trance-like. From the world of Tricky and Massive Attack. All that kind of angular stuff going on.”
And does the current direction of your music reflect in any way the present state of the world? Plant says: “Yeah. Stuff that's going on. You know, talking about music is like dancing about architecture, isn't it? It's not my quote. But the deal is: it's there if you want to enjoy it. It's not like anything else. We do something different.”
So Donald’s Trump election as US president had nothing to do with Plant turning his back on life in Texas and returning to the old country? It’s a question that had to be asked, given the febrile state of modern world politics. “Oh, no, no, no, I had to go. I had to come back. That's all,” he says. “You know, I miss this. I was there too late in my life to become American. I seem to be stateless, really.
“I love my people here (in Britain). I'm a part of a sort of community that I've been a part of since the day I was born.
“There's a sort of mutual humour. You don't step out of line; you don't become fancy. It's an honest society that I live around, which is very important.”
Doesn’t it bother Plant that modern society seems at times to be hurtling back towards the 1950s - despite all that technology and knowledge we have gained? “I don't think the general man in the street feels that way,” he counters. “It's just the main controls are, you know, in need of a kind of check-up.”
That sounds as if these problems could simply solve themselves. “I've no idea. I'm a singer,” he laughs.
'I’m not a politician. I’m a singer. Of course, I have an opinion - everybody has one. And I tell you mine in those songs.'
But Plant frequently references a sense of history in his tunes. Are people not meant to pick up on this? He explains: “I think there's a large movement in that direction. Don't you think?” But he doesn’t want to talk about it, what’s happening away from music. “I’m not a politician. I’m a singer. Of course, I have an opinion - everybody has one. And I tell you mine in those songs.
“But I don’t feel like making too much fuss about it. It’s just what I think - and if you agree, fine. If you don’t, just listen to something else.”
Plant still sees himself as a travelling spirit. He explains: “Well, I don't think I’m restless, but I am journeying, yeah. I mean, I've got the key.”
But the Led Zep singer’s in-built resistance to nostalgia is never far below the surface. He categorically states he will never publish his memoirs, packed to the gunwhales that they’d be with fascinating tales. “Where does this memoir stuff come from?” he asks. “I'm not being rude, I just think the whole idea of us (Led Zeppelin) - once upon a time we were social deviants - pushed out to the corners of society, quite often body-searched in the street by cops.”
He gives an example – but not one destined for any autobiography, mind you. “(One) Sunday afternoon in 1969, when Detroit was in flames, and looking across the cityscape and seeing smoke and things like that, some people went by in a big Lincoln Continental and they put the window down slowly and spat at (drummer) John Bonham and I - because we were hippies. Because this is what we were - we were representing a challenge to the order.
“So, do we want to chum up and cuddle up to the whole idea of going to a publisher and telling stories? I mean what (and) who for?”
A Robert Plant memoir would be a huge seller - but don’t bother holding that thought. “Those stories: they're locked nicely between my two ever-growing earholes. So forget it, you know. There's a lot in there - and that's where it's staying.”
Football-loving Plant is a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Wolverhampton Wanderers – and he still likes to have a weekly kick around himself with friends. “Yeah, Wednesday nights, five-a-side, in the place where I come from. We have a defibrillator. Just in case. I don’t need one yet. Maybe one day I will. If I do, it’s there for us when we play football.”
Is Plant still vice president of Wolves? “Yeah, I'll be in there tomorrow against Burton Albion.”
How does this avid supporter of a big - but relatively unfashionable - club such as Wolves feel about the modern malaise in top-flight football? That of spectacular sums of money being paid for players, and the increasing gap between a few rich clubs and the struggling majority: the Premier League/Champions League versus the rest? Does he believe his boys from the Black Country can keep apace in this financial circus?
“No. It's splintering, isn't it?” says Plant. “It's like a kind of meteorite that splinters coming into the atmosphere.
“And there's joy in all sport at all levels. Sometimes I go on a Tuesday night and watch non-League football, and it's great.
“I can't get philosophical about it because the world over, money is - you know - the golden god. But who's going to compete with some Russian oligarch or sheikh, putting millions and millions of pounds into it (Premier League and Champions’ League football)?”
And love his football club as he does – and even with more than a few quid in the bank - he’s not willing to play that game. “What? Put my hard-earned money into the Wolves? Are you out of your mind. I’m not mad. Well, I might be, but not that mad.”
Working with Chrissie Hynde
Plant enthuses about one particular cover version, Bluebirds Over The Mountain, which he’s recorded for the new album. He has been playing it live for some time, and is joined by the great Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde on the latest studio rendition.
He explains: “I've known her (Hynde) for about 35 years, 40 years, something like that. Just en passant. And I like the sweetness of the song.
“It's cute and it's a song I used to sing when I was a kid, before I was a singer. It's a sort of nursery rhyme. It's pretty and it's slightly, um, it's asking questions. It's not quite sure of itself. I like that. I like that frailty in it.
“I asked her if she would sing it. I sent her the version I'd done, and she thought it was great. She said it was psychedelic paradise. So, she just did it.”
And Plant is thrilled with the result. “It's good. She's great. She's powerful and she's very positive.”
As he always plays some Led Zep stuff with his band the Sensational Space Shifters, does he have any idea which ones it’s going to be on tour this time? Earlier this year Plant played a memorable version of Kashmir with Nigel Kennedy.
He recalls: “Yeah, it's not a song I would normally do, but I mean, when else to do it but with an orchestra and Mad Man Kennedy? King of the wild frontier.
“Yeah, we did it good. It was good. It was great to have an orchestra around.”
Plant still loves to jam with mates from other bands, such as Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream, whose rehearsal space is round the corner from the Primrose Hill pub where we met. Gillespie has said that every time Plant’s in town, he shows up, says hello and joins them for a bit of a bash around.
“That’s true. They always make me do things. They won’t let me drink their tea for free. They want something in return, too,” he laughs.
Keeping up with current music trends
And how does he keep up with what's going on in the increasingly fragmented music scene? Simple answer: he doesn’t. “Things just go past me. If I was a DJ on the radio, I would get all the new material I could ever wish for. Sadly, I'm not, so sometimes I miss things completely.
“It's a big world, music, now. I don't mean it's a big world music. I mean, it's a big world out there. There's lots of variety and some of it gets to me, and some of it doesn't.”
But there's very little going on in rock music these days, wouldn’t he agree - “Well, that's a bit of a blessing,” he laughs - but the same time people are rediscovering blues and jazz artists who never received the attention they should have in the first place.
“Well, there was no structure for it then,” says Plant. “There were no roots to it. And, also, you wouldn't want John Coltrane doing six nights at Madison Square Garden, would you, really? Somehow it doesn't seem to have the right ring to it.
“I think it's all about time. How things work in different eras. If you were around in my time, you would have been exposed to Howlin' Wolf and, you know, by the time the late ’60s arrived there was a huge movement of those artists coming from Chicago.”
So will Plant be celebrating his 70th birthday in 2018 on the road with Led Zep? Tin-hats at the ready for that chestnut of a question. “A definite no!” There’s his definite answer.
And how does he feel about these rumours that keep popping up about a reunion tour in 2018? “Well, it shows you that people have nothing else to write about, obviously. And that’s kind of sad. All these magazines and internet platforms should be supporting new music and helping new musicians find an audience - instead of dwelling on the old rubbish all the time.
“It’s like there’s nothing new and exciting out there anymore, when in fact there is.
'Stop living in the past. Open your ears and your eyes. It’s not that difficult, is it?'
“Stop living in the past. Open your ears and your eyes. It’s not that difficult, is it?”
Does he find it amusing to read about his forthcoming plans in the press all the time? He laughs. “It is kind of funny, I have to admit. But there are better ways to entertain yourself, believe me.”
Plant firmly believes that with the new album, it’s a case of make of it whatever you please. And if you don't want to burrow away for hidden meanings, then just listen to the music. He adds: “Isn’t that what music's for? That's exactly what it is: it's entertainment. But there are a few twists and turns…”
Robert Plant was talking to Peter Reynolds/The Interview People. Additional material by Andy Stevens.
Robert Plant’s new album Carry Fire was released on October 13, 2017.
Robert Plant UK Tour Dates
Thu 16 Nov 19:00 Plymouth, Plymouth Pavilions
Fri 17 Nov 19:00 Bristol, Colston Hall
Mon 20 Nov 19:00 Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton Civic Hall
Wed 22 Nov 19:00 Llandudno, Venue Cymru
Fri 24 Nov 19:00 Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle City Hall
Sat 25 Nov 19:00 Liverpool, Liverpool Olympia
Mon 27 Nov 18:30 Glasgow, SEC Armadillo
Tue 28 Nov 19:00 Perth, Perth Concert Hall
Thu 30 Nov 19:00 Manchester, O2 Apollo Manchester
Sat 2 Dec 19:00 Belfast, Ulster Hall
Wed 6 Dec 19:00 United Kingdom, Sheffield City Hall
Mon 11 Dec 19:00 Portsmouth, Portsmouth Guildhall
Tue 12 Dec 19:00 Birmingham, Symphony Hall