JOHN PAUL JONES: GETTING THE LED OUT

By Paul Freemanís [1994 interview]

As we caught up with John Paul Jones, he was promoting his collaboration with Diamanda Galas, ďThe Sporting Life.Ē

Best known as Led Zeppelinís bassist, Jones (born John Baldwin, January 3, 1946, in Kent, England), has collaborated with a diverse roster of artists, including R.E.M., Jars of Clay, Ben E. King, Peter Gabriel, Foo Fighters, Lenny Kravitz, Brian Eno and Paul McCartney. One of his more recent projects is Them Crooked Vultures, a super group that also features Dave Grohl and Josh Homme.

The talented Mr. Jones is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, songwriter, arranger and record producer.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
How did the connection with Diamanda Galas happen?

JONES:
I was familiar with her work. Diamanda had expressed interest in doing a rock record, or at least working with a rhythm section. And as soon as someone suggested it to me, I literally heard it in my head. At least parts of it, the heavy rhythm section with that voice on the top of it.

PCC:
What was the process of making that record?

JONES:
We met very briefly one evening, in London. And then she went back to New York. And we basically swapped tapes. I sent her the fast numbers and she sent me the slow ones... with the organ, of course.

A few months later, she came over to England. And for two weeks, we just put all the songs together. And then rehearsed it for a week and recorded it for the next two.

PCC:
What was it about her style, vocally, and in terms of the songwriting, that intrigued you?

JONES:
The voice, the passion, the sensibility, everything. I mean, sheís a stunning artist. And we had lots in common, we found, once we met and we talked about music. We both have a love of blues and jazz and classical. And Mediterranean music. Actually, everything. So it wasnít difficult to work with each other.

PCC:
When youíre designing what youíre going to do with the bass lines and the rhythm section as a whole, how much are you thinking of a balance with her voice, how much is just serving the song itself?

JONES:
Basically, I just wanted a really tight rhythm section that would give her a lot of space. I had an idea of her speaking and/or singing, doing what she does. I wasnít sure what the lyrics were going to be. That was the only thing I was worried about, actually. If itís rock, what on Earth are you going to write about? Rock records arenít really the height of intellectual activity, lyric-wise. Then she said, ĎOh, well, maybe love songs... in a homicidal sort of way.í

PCC:
Were you surprised at what she came up, in terms of love songs?

JONES:
A little bit. But I was very happy. [Laughs] The lyrics are very fresh. The whole ideaís fresh, I think. That was the only thing I was worried about, as I said before, so I was really pleased. I mean, I knew they were going to be good, because sheís an artist of integrity. So I knew they would be interesting and different. I think live it translates into a very exciting show. We do tend to pin them against the back of the wall. Itís fairly loud. Audiences are pleasantly surprised.

PCC:
Do you find that audiences these days tend to be a little more open to different kinds of sounds than theyíre used to?

JONES:
Well, some audiences are. I mean, Iím always a little surprised if thereís any Zeppelin fan who doesnít like it, because, to me, itís sort of an extension of what we were doing, sonically, with the rhythm section, and what Page and Plant used to do with guitar and voice, Diamanda just kind of does it with her voice. [Laughs] Sonically, it shouldnít be that much of a surprise, except for the intensity with which it is delivered. Itís pretty intense. And the album has quite a mixture. Thereís blues on it, as well. Thereís little country numbers. Weíre having fun with it.

PCC:
You seem drawn to diverse projects.

JONES:
Well, I try to stay awake and interested. I love what I do. I I donít want to kill it by just producing bands forever or going on tour forever or any one thing, doing it to death.

PCC:
Did you have much formal training?

JONES:
Oh, no. I started on the road at 16. Actually, my parents were in vaudeville, so I was on the road since I was one. Iíve given up the road about five times. The one thing I hadnít done in the last 14 years was play on stage. Yeah, I did the reunions and Live Aid, but that was only a couple of numbers. I had fun then and started thinking about doing something a bit more serious.

But I didnít want to start up a band and do all that again, having been in the best one.

PCC:
Are you at all surprised by at the lasting impact Led Zeppelin has had, reaching younger generations?

JONES:
Well, I always knew the music was good and thereís no reason why it should date or wane. But, especially in America, yes, it is a little startling. [Chuckles] You forget when you leave and then, when you come back, just piles of people at the airports and stuff like that.

PCC:
Are you interested in any future Zeppelin projects? Or is that behind you?

JONES:
Thatís behind me. Iíd just like to keep doing what Iím doing, which is lots of different things. And they usually seem to find me. I donít have to go out and look for them either.

PCC:
Whatís the key to deciding which new challenge you want to take on?

JONES:
Well, usually the idea or the band or the project will excite me really quickly. I usually have a sense very quickly as to whether it will interest me or not. Iíve spent this summer in Seattle doing a live album with Heart, producing and arranging. And it wasnít just a regular studio album. We did five nights down at a club. I played mandolin and bass and piano. We had a string quartet. And Iíd never done a live album before... so that was great. Quite different from Diamanda.

PCC:
When youíre producing an artist whoís well established, has an impressive body of work, is it challenging to try to find a fresh approach to their music, without making it too much of a departure?

JONES:
Yeah, it is. I think so. And I enjoy that. But you can do what you want and play if you want and do anything. So thatís something you canít really pass up, isnít it? [Laughs]. Plus the Wilson sisters are really nice people. And Annís a great singer.

PCC:
So does the artistís personality enter into your decision to work with them?

JONES:
Well, you donít really know till you get there. I mean, I produced The Butthole Surfers, without really knowing what they were like. It only took 15 seconds of listening to their music to know I wanted to do it.

PCC:
And what was that experience like?

JONES:
They were great. They were really hardworking. Everybody says, ĎOh, that must have been really wild.í Well, no. Theyíre in the studio and theyíre professionals. They know how to make a record. Theyíve been doing it a long time. Itís only perhaps the young bands who get into the studio and go, ĎDuh, what should we do?í type of thing.

PCC:
I guess R.E.M. was a case of a band that definitely knew what they wanted to do?

JONES:
Exactly. I always seem to work with very professional musicians. And that makes it easy, because you donít have to explain things. You all know whatís needed, whatís required, and how to go about it.

PCC:
Generally, whatís happening on the music scene, do you find it more corporate and less creative?

JONES:
Generally, itís not that creative. I did a radio station the other day and they wouldnít even play the record. I thought, ĎWell, why am I here?í ĎOh, sorry, we canít play that kind of thing.í Why not? Itís bizarre. It wasnít the d.j.ís fault. He just said, ĎThe program director wonít allow that sort of thing.í ĎI thought, ĎOh, well. Youíll be the death of radio, not me.í

PCC:
It really has changed from the Ď60s, when almost anything could be played on mainstream radio.

JONES:
Oh, yeah. Well, theyíll drive everything onto the internet. So I donít care. Iím online, so Iím ready for it. [Chuckles]

PCC:
What about the film scoring? Is that something that particularly fascinates you at this point?

JONES:
Yes, I supplied the themes for ĎThe Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb.í And ĎRisk, which was an independent film out of New York, Naked Eye films. Itís quite a small film.

PCC:
Some composers find film scoring kind of limiting. With others, itís just the opposite.

JONES:
Yes, I find it just the opposite. Itís really hard to say, ĎOkay, you can do anything you want. Now start.í With a film cue, you might have 90 seconds to score this out and make it come to life. And thatís much more interesting, I think.

PCC:
Do you subscribe to that theory that the best film scores are those you donít notice? That they should never call attention to themselves?

JONES:
Right, thatís true. Itís to point up the drama. Itís to supply whatís not on the screen or in the dialogue. It underscores the emotion, really. So the whole thing should get to you, not any one moment. Itís like you shouldnít notice the acting. Or the script even. The whole thing has to work.

PCC:
At this point in your career, having accomplished so much, is it difficult to find new challenges?

JONES:
Well, as I say, things tend to find me, so itís not too bad. Iíve always got a lot of projects on, that Iíve been meaning to do, if nothing else comes up.

PCC:
So the real problem is just not having enough time to do everything youíd like to do?

JONES:
Thatís right. Yeah. I think Iím getting closer to maybe doing a solo album. But so far, somethingís come and saved me every year. [Laughs].

PCC:
Is that a daunting prospect?

JONES:
Itís a very difficult prospect, because itís hard to know what to do. If I just played guitar in one style, itíd be easy, because then Iíd know what Iíd be doing. But as it is, do I make a rock album or a classical album or a dance album... or a bluegrass album, for that matter? Because Iím interested in all of them. So actually just working out what is the voice Iíd like to... I mean, you canít put them all on the same record.

PCC:
Well you could...

JONES:
Yes, well, come the internet, you could put bluegrass out one week, computer music out the next week. So, maybe my time hasnít come just yet. [Laughs]

For news on John Paul Jonesí latest projects, visit www.johnpauljones.com.