This interview was originally published in 2010.
Too many 60’s rock icons lost their vision somewhere along the path of excess and failed to arrive at the palace of wisdom. These players, though classic in their own time, have failed to adapt and grow, and still sound the same today as they did in their prime. How different does Keith Richards sound now than he did when he wrote Jumping Jack Flash? When was the last time you heard Tony Iommi play anything besides power chords? And even though Carlos Santanas latest album was a stroke of genius, was his guitar work on Supernatural that much of a departure from anything off Abraxas?
Alas, most of the warhorses of Led Zeppelin have fallen victim to the same affliction. Jimmy Page is still playing Heartbreaker onstage, albeit with the Black Crowes. But one of Zeppelin’s soldiers has refused to stagnate, refusing to cling to the past as emphatically as he once refused to succumb to vapid pop music trends.
Since the final detonation of the mighty Zep, bassist John Paul Jones has maintained his iconoclastic aesthetic, and has produced, composed and played on records by acts as divergent as Brian Eno, Butthole Surfers, Mission UK, Marc Bolan and Cinderella. His 1994 collaboration with Diamanda Galas, The Sporting Life, was innovative and experimental, and it was just a shadow of things to come. His most recent album, Zooma, his first ever solo project, is musically adventurous and emotionally stirring, blending rock, jazz, blues, world music, and avant-noise into a fascinating cauldron of sound that speaks volumes even without a single lyric.
Guitar.com: Zooma is very experimental and takes your musicianship to a different level. How did you develop the chops to do something so free-flowing? Were you listening to lots of jazz?
John Paul Jones: No, it’s always been there. I’ve always listened to lots of jazz. At the time when Zeppelin started, I was always listening to jazz and rhythm and blues and classical music. The only rock I listened to was Jimi Hendrix. So, I actually came to rock late. I listen to everything constantly — everything from rhythm and blues, drum and bass techno, Latin music, salsa, meringue, and some rock n roll. Bass-wise I keep listening.
Guitar.com: Does that allow you to constantly grow as a player?
Jones: In composition and playing, everything at a basic level is about questions and answers. You have musical questions and you have to get the answers, which is basically what composition is about. How does the piece start and then what happens? You’ll get a musical idea, then you have to realize it. And in the realization it’s just about those questions and answers. How does it finish? What will make it interesting after we’ve done one thing for a while? All music has the same questions and answers. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is, whether its pigmy music or Mongolian stuff. It’s still, how do you make a musical idea, how do you make a tension release? And everything you listen to can come in use as reference material for your own questions, for your own music. Listen to as much as you can because there’s something absolutely everywhere to be found.
Guitar.com: A lot of people listen to blues, jazz, country, world music, whatever, but they can’t combine the different techniques.
Jones: Most people gravitate towards music they like. If youre a blues player, you only play the blues. So listen to everything else and then play the blues. You’ll find that you start playing the blues in a different way.
Guitar.com: How do you feel about what your former bandmates have done with their respective careers? Page and Plant did Zeppelin songs together for a while, and now Page is doing Zep stuff with the Black Crowes. Do you think maybe they’re not expanding their vocabulary and reaching out the way you have?
Jones: No, they’re not reaching out the way I have, because I’m me and they’re them. I haven’t heard Page and the Black Crowes. He could be playing a whole load of blues for all I know. I heard Page and Plant’s Walking into Clarksdale, and was disappointed that there wasn’t more Page on it. I like to hear lots of Page. But they’re doing what they’re doing. They ain’t bothering me.
Guitar.com: Do you keep in touch with them?
Jones: Sure. There’s lots of Zeppelin things we attend to. We attend releases.
Guitar.com: Atlantic released The Best of Led Zeppelin, Volume 2 earlier. Did that concern you?
Jones: Well of course it concerned me. I wasn’t very happy about that, but it was a democratic process, just two to one and I was the one. But the BBC Sessions I was very happy with. To me that was very valuable. It was great to hear the band in a well recorded situation, because normally when I heard the live stuff I was either standing right next to Page or it’s a horrible bootleg. So, to be able to sit back and not do anything and be able to hear all that he’s playing, that was a treat for me.
Guitar.com: Why didn’t you want the Best of Vol. 2 to be released?
Jones: It’s been done before. I couldn’t see why, you know? I mean, the first remaster, the box set, was good because Atlantic went through the original Zeppelin release campaign kind of quick and didn’t really spend too much time with it. In fact, when we were collecting stuff for the box set, we found that some of the masters they used were actually second and third generation, and they put them on CD. The sounded really dull. They didn’t seem to have any life. So, the chance to remaster them, to bring them to life again was valid. But I couldn’t really see the point of the Greatest Hits records that came out last year. We were always against Greatest Hits album traditionally from the word go. It may have been a hang back to the fact that in the days when we started, you had singles bands, you had pop bands, and then you had albums bands. They were completely different things. So, I just didn’t see the point and I said so. But as I said, it was democratic and they thought differently.
Guitar.com: How and why did you put Zooma together?
Jones: Basically, I wanted to play live again. And of course, I needed something to play. I tend to need motivation to do a project. I’m not somebody who would just write things for no reason at all. I’ll work on a project and I’ll commit myself to it. But if I’m not actually working on it, then I’m just as happy to sit down and play instruments and not write anything. So, I need motivation but I didn’t want to join a band. If you’ve been in the best band in the world, what do you do? I knew that if I did an album, I’d be obligated to promote it. So, I knew I couldn’t just go, Oh well, I’ve done the album. That’s it. I knew that it would force me on the road, which was what I wanted to do originally. So, I trapped myself into it. But it was really a positive experience.
Guitar.com: So, what possessed you to say, Man, it’s time to get out there live again?
Jones: It’s funny, Diamanda Galas [who I recorded the album Sporting Life with in 1994] said to me, that she’d done collaborations with composers and various people. And she just said, I realized one day that if I’m going to put this much effort into my music then I think it should be my own. And I took those words to heart. I figured I’d worked on everybody else’s records since 1963. It’s about time. And I’m fortunate to be in the position I’m in. I had my own studio. I don’t have to work to eat. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis, who knows?
Guitar.com: So, playing with Diamanda was what inspired it?
Jones: Yeah, I think so. And writing material for Diamanda. She got me playing steel guitar, so I could have a voice on stage. Cause I always used to play steel guitar in hotels. and she saw it in the studio and had never heard one before. So I started playing, and she immediately wrote a song. And we put it on the album. People were like, “Wow, this is new, different.”
Guitar.com: How did that collaboration come together? How did you know her? Did you know her from years back?
Jones: I knew her from her work. I had one record by her at that time, Wild Women with Steak Knives, wonderfully titled. And the voice was just like, Whoa! A mutual friend said she’d be interested in doing a rock record and he thought that I’d work well together with her. I like the idea because I wasn’t into normal songs. She called them homicidal love songs. It was a case not so much of, “My baby’s left me, I’m going to throw myself out the window.” It was, “My baby’s left me, I’m going to throw him out the window.” I found her whole approach quite refreshing. And we hit it off immediately. We’ve both done lounge gigs, believe it or not, in our time. We used to do The Lady is a Tramp in soundcheck, which worried a few people. Nobody knew what to make of that. And we also found that we knew the entire Motown songbook. And we’d sit sown and play Stop In The Name Of Love. We had respect for each other as musicians.
Guitar.com: Why was it a one time thing?
Jones: Well, she has a serious career. She follows what seems to be good at the time. And it was, because it led me to this.