The subject of Led Zeppelin's new concert documentary might be impossible to ignore, but this month John Paul Jones bids farewell to the past and looks forward to an impending tour with Norwegian improv group Supersilent...
It’s Celebration Day when The Skinny’s call connects to John Paul Jones – five years after Led Zeppelin paid tribute to late Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun with a one-off show (which enticed an estimated 20 million fans to register for tickets), today they’re finally allowing the rest of the world to see it in cinemas. But that’s not why we’re talking; this month JPJ joins forces with Norwegian improv unit Supersilent for a whirlwind UK tour, proving once again that the prolific multi-instrumentalist finds bigger thrills in charging into the abyss than reclining into the rock stardom he achieved decades ago.
His teaming with Supersilent should come as no surprise; since Zeppelin’s untimely split in 1980 the virtuosic, self-taught player has continued to build a broad repertoire of disciplines – perpetually balancing projects that embrace a staggering range of musical cultures, working with everyone from doo wop daddy Ben E King to hardcore punk’s masters of black comedy the Butthole Surfers over the years.
Most recently, Jones has forged alliances with surrealist psych-folkie Robyn Hitchcock and three-stringed bluesman Seasick Steve, as well as founding Them Crooked Vultures – an ongoing LA born desert rock ‘supergroup’ in the truest sense of the word – with Dave Grohl and Josh Homme. He’s never lived outside of London, but he has to be based next door to the airport, surely? “What's that about the bass?” he fires back, misunderstanding the question. “I just hear the word and automatically think of the instrument.” We still hear John Paul Jones and automatically think of Led Zeppelin...
It’s Celebration Day – how are you seeing it in, besides chatting to nosey journalists?
[laughing] It’s always good to talk to people who are interested in what we’re doing. I went to the London premiere, then I was in Berlin for it yesterday and the New York show. It looks great, sounds great – that’s all we’re worried about now. But I really want people to come and see Supersilent…
Let’s talk about the tour – I understand you’ve appeared with the band at a few festivals in Norway and most recently Spain this past summer. How did your paths cross in the first place? Presumably you didn’t meet them at Dave Grohl’s birthday party...
Well I was invited to do a solo piece at a concert in Kristiansand; Arve [Henriksen, vocalist, trumpeter and percussionist] tapped me on the shoulder the night before and said ‘after your piece, do you want to play with us?’ I said ‘well what do you do?’ He said ‘well, we don’t actually talk about it, we just do it.’ I said OK, did my piece the next night, then plugged my computer system straight into a bass amp. The lights went down and we played for 80 minutes.
How did you prepare for that?
I didn’t! [more laughter] And I didn’t know anything about them at all! I just trusted them. There was no preparation whatsoever.
Did you find you had a natural chemistry as players?
Yeah, and it was within the first five seconds! They’re all good musicians and I’m used to improvising anyway. I’ve always improvised; it’s just a matter of keeping your ears open really, and trying to get the whole picture in your mind. Add to the development and don’t screw it up, basically!
What sort of gear will you be bringing to The Arches? Having seen some of the footage of the gigs so far, it’s hard to tell what you’re up to...
That’s the trouble! I have done other gigs with Helge [Sten, electronics maestro and guitarist] – we have an offshoot called Minibus Pimps. One reviewer was waiting for a bass sound – he thought it was all Helge doing everything [laughs], and said I didn’t play very much! When actually, I’d started it all, he just didn’t realise that I was playing. That was quite funny. I shall bring my 12 string bass and my computer system. Be warned, the bass doesn’t sound like a bass!
You see in some improvisational bands that there’s still a rhythm section interacting in the middle of it, at least giving the other players a nod and a cue, but Supersilent’s drummer [Jarle Vespestad] left a few years ago. How do you steer it?
Yeah, there aren’t any cues for Supersilent, but you’re listening all the time. You’re not really in your own bubble – you’re just concentrating more intensely on what everyone’s doing. So it’s not as if you’re just playing on regardless, although if you’re doing a Cage piece that’s what you’re supposed to do, strangely enough. With Supersilent it’s just a matter of listening. I do watch them sometimes, because sometimes you’ve got to figure out who’s doing what.
Supersilent seemed to be on the more abrasive and terrifying end of the spectrum up until Jarle left. Is this the kind of music you’re naturally inclined to enjoy listening to recreationally, as well as play?
Yes it is, but then so is all music that’s good and played by good people. I don’t really care what form music takes. I mean, I was watching Del McCoury – a great guitarist – attacking bluegrass the other day, and it was just fantastic stuff. When it’s good, I don’t mind what it is, it’s all music to me.
The band has gone off into more acoustic and piano based territory with their last two releases. They seem to have taken the change of personnel as an opportunity to try other things, is this where you come in?
Possibly, but I hadn’t been following the Norwegian avant-garde scene at all when they approached me. Of course it’s huge now – I play with quite a few players over there at the moment.
Supersilent itself emerged from a collaborative concert between Deathprod [Helge’s ambient project] and Veslefrekk [a prolific jazz trio dating back to the late 80s], and they’ve merged with several other groups and players over the years. Do you see yourself sticking around with them for awhile?
Yes, I really enjoy playing with them and enjoy hanging out with them as people – so there’s no reason why we can’t do more. But it also fits in with the mantra of writing a classical opera and so I don’t really want to be in a situation where I’m doing lots of rehearsal, writing and all that stuff. Improvising shows really fits in with my schedule. Logistically while literally too.
You’ve played some enormo-domes in your time; is it a buzz to get back to club venues?
I much prefer smaller gigs – any time. When I’ve played with Seasick Steve we’ve done smaller gigs and the odd festival as well, but I do a lot of smaller shows when I play with Robyn Hitchcock, Howe Gelb – and I much prefer that, to be able to see people. But then I only see them at the beginning and at the end. I don’t really notice anybody when I’m hitting that bass!
What’s the status of Them Crooked Vultures at the moment? When we last spoke you seemed quite ready to jump into a second album – is there still talk of that?
Hmmm. Well, yes, it didn’t happen because everybody went their different ways. Josh had another child, so that kept him busy. There’s certainly an intention to do more music together and as soon as all our schedules pan out, that’s what we’ll do. I think we can do that sort of thing pretty quickly. So yes, I’d love to play with them again.
The mainstream music press can’t seem to let the question of whether you’ll ever work with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page again go. It seems a bit unfair to repeatedly project that expectation on the three of you when you’ve clearly got other things going on, Celebration Day or not. Robert's objection during a conference about the film was well documented recently. Is it frustrating for you to deal with?
We’re not a band anymore – haven’t been since 1980, even though we’ve done the odd thing. But everybody’s got different ideas about what they want to do and what they don’t want to do – so it’s never going to move on from there. That’s how it is at the moment; there are no plans for any other thing. As you say, I’ve got plenty to do, and Robert’s out touring, so that’s how it is I’m afraid. It was another time, and it’s great to see it on film now. I’m very pleased with it; it’s fantastic.