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Speaker 2: Somehow this Zeppelin spirit gets sifted through Steph and Marlene and Joan and Lisa. And yet, the four of us, when we are on the stage where us like I’m sort of partially Jimmy, but I’m also partially Steph.
June Thomas: Welcome back to working. I’m your host, June Thomas.
Isaac Butler: And I’m your other host, Isaac Butler.
June Thomas: Isaac, it’s lovely to see you again and I am utterly intrigued by what I heard at the top of the show. Who was speaking and what was she talking about?
Isaac Butler: We heard the voice of Steph Paynes. She is the founder of Les Zeppelin, which is an all female Led Zeppelin. Look, she hates the term tribute band, so I’m going to say experience and as well as founding the band. She is its guitarist, so she’s its Jimmy Page, if you will.
June Thomas: Well, so I must know, are Lez Zeppelin an LGBTQ group or is that just a clever punny name?
Isaac Butler: It’s totally unclear to me, in part because they’ve had a bunch of membership change ups over the years. She, I think, is the only founding member who’s still in the band, and that’s a question that she declines to answer in interviews.
June Thomas: Got it. Well, I am very excited to hear this interview. But first, I believe that you have an extra segment for Slate Plus members. What will they hear?
Isaac Butler: Yes, it’s one of my favorite Slate Plus segments that we’ve done. In a while, we will hear about Steph Pains, his real life friendship with the real life Jimmy Page and what it’s like when that real life Jimmy Page just shows up at one of your gigs sometime.
June Thomas: Oh, my God, that’s amazing. And if I weren’t already a member, I would definitely sign up for Slate Plus to hear that. Fortunately, it is incredibly easy to join and as a member you’ll get no ads on any of our podcasts. Unlimited reading on the Slate site. You will never hit the paywall, and you’ll also get member exclusive episodes and segments from working the show and also from other Slate podcasts like The Culture Gabfest and the wait. To learn more about becoming a Slate Plus member, go to Slate.com, slash working plus.
June Thomas: All right. Let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with Stef in.
Isaac Butler: Steph Panes. Thank you so much for joining us today on working.
Speaker 2: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Isaac Butler: So how would you describe what it is that you do?
Speaker 2: Magician I don’t know. As opposed to a musician. Because when it works, it’s magic and quite extraordinary, right? I think what I do is I. Bring a very revered, beloved bunch of compositions. Alive with a band and that we bring it to people so that they can revisit earlier times when they listen to this music or they can get exposure to this music that they’ve always heard about and experience it in a way that’s alive and exciting.
Isaac Butler: Do you do you use the term, you know, tribute band in your marketing and stuff like that? Is that sort of the shorthand for what you do? Is there their preferred nomenclature, as they say in The Big Lebowski?
Speaker 2: We hate the term tribute band.
Isaac Butler: I thought you might because I didn’t find it anywhere else, but I was like, I bet Led Zeppelin does not like the term tribute band.
Speaker 2: The tribute band, in my mind, is a band that impersonates another band. So. You know, like an Elvis impersonator is is the ultimate tribute. But what we do is not impersonate so much as, I guess, reincarnate or she incarnate. Like. Like she.
Isaac Butler: Embalming. I love.
Speaker 2: That. Yeah. Take the essence of what we feel Led Zeppelin had to offer. And. Sort of run that through our own systems, our own sort of group dynamic, and then present that in in a way that, you know, I think is very Zeppelin ask. But yet is not trying to be them, you know, not trying to fool anyone into, oh, if you just squint a little and it looks all fuzzy, you’ll really think it’s Led Zeppelin on stage, right? No one’s going to think that we’re girls anyway.
Isaac Butler: Well, that’s what I was about to say, is, like, it’s not like the option of a literal representation is open to the band in the same way. Because you’re for women, right?
Speaker 2: Exactly. I mean, having said that, of course, Led Zeppelin were quite girly in their time. Yes. So they were gender bending as well. And where? Gender bending from the opposite end?
Isaac Butler: Mm hmm.
Speaker 2: Whereas sort of guy like, you know, we’re girls out there with our long hair, but we’re sort of strutting around and poking our pelvises out at people. You know, there’s it’s definitely a swagger, you know? And the guys, if you look at early Led Zeppelin, I mean, you know, they’re prancing around and and mincing and throwing their hair back. And Jimmy is like the selfie sort of belly dancer, you know? I mean, it’s very interesting. You know, somewhere in between we meet.
Isaac Butler: Mm hmm.
Speaker 2: And just blur the lines all together. Yeah.
Isaac Butler: For our listeners who aren’t, you know, familiar with the band’s history, can you talk a little bit about the origin of the band and how you decided to get, you know, a group of women together to do to channel, let’s say, channel to channel Led Zeppelin?
Speaker 2: I like that. I like the channeling. I mean, I could say that, you know, Jimi put a spell on me and I woke up one day and that was it. I had two them. I was obsessed with Led Zeppelin, but it was a little like that. I mean, I just I was in between gigs myself and I had actually been playing with Ronnie Spector. May she rest in peace.
Speaker 2: I just wrote a piece about her as well, but and I was just hankering to play heavy music and get my guitar skills in order and maybe take them further. And I had been listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin, you know, they had reissued the masters of all their albums. And I had that set and I was just absolutely addicted to it. And so I thought, you know, quite naively, oh, let’s just get a bunch of girls together and we’ll go down and play a bit of Zeppelin once a month and get our $50 from the, you know, bar we’re playing and, and go have a beer and that’ll be that.
Isaac Butler: Right.
Speaker 2: And you know, what I realised rather quickly is one where am I going to find girls? Because I thought, you know, the marketer in me thought it much more interesting if it’s girls. So that was a sort of given. But then I just thought, where am I going to find anyone that can play this music and forget about? The Pool of Women was so much smaller to begin with. So I realized I must be crazy this. But somehow, miraculously, I found these girls through word of mouth, one by one. And then we tried to play the music. And it’s not like I’m saying we were not good musicians. It’s just that for anybody, I don’t care who you are to sit down and try to be Led Zeppelin. Well, good luck. That’s all.
June Thomas: Right.
Isaac Butler: Well, this is this is so great because this is such a great creative challenge, right? Because the songs, they’re not just the chords. They’re not just the words. There’s the ineffable, inimitable style. Right? The soul of the band. So how do you go about figuring out what that is on like a technical level as a musician and how to recreate it?
Speaker 2: Well, that’s just it, because it’s not really the soul of the band does not lie in the technical level of the band. Hmm. The essence of it is something else. It’s that magical thing that happens when they play together, and it’s bigger than the sum of its parts. And it’s bigger than the little guitar lines and the mass of drum parts. It is an alchemy.
Isaac Butler: And is that just about spending time together or are there specific exercises? Like I come from a theater background and actually a lot of what you’re talking about kind of rhymes with that experience, right? Because the text is fixed. It might have been written hundreds of years ago. You know, you’ve got to create an ensemble that can channel its soul and listen to each other and interplay. But like, if you go to acting school, like there’s exercises you do to learn how to do that. I guess like for you in the band, was it just spending time together? Was there specific techniques you developed to kind of figure out how to maximize the chemistry between the players?
Speaker 2: Or it happens in a rehearsal, but a lot of it also happens like. Like. In other words, it’s it’s it’s a kind of organic thing. And usually it can only happen live really for a band like ours. I mean, we have gone and we’ve made records and some tracks are more magical than others. But the thing that happens live when you’re playing and you’re presenting this music and you’re getting into it, you just kind of have to do it.
Isaac Butler: Mm hmm.
Speaker 2: A lot. With the awareness that the key thing is to play together and to go to the middle of the stage and to huddle together and to throw riffs back and forth and to listen, you know, to really listen and also to let it go. It’s like if you just read the words, you know, you’re just reading the words of the play and you’re copying exactly the way the actor before you read the words of the play.
Speaker 2: Well, maybe you’ll be as good as the actor before you with any luck. But you’re you’re not necessarily going to add anything to it. You’re not going to make it come alive. Most likely to make it come alive. You, Isaac, have to come across and just bring something. You know, that somehow this Zeppelin spirit gets sifted through Steph and Marlon and Joan and Lisa. And yet the four of us, when we are on the stage. Where are us? Like, I’m not really. I’m sort of partially Jimmy, but I’m also partially Steph. I’m never going to sound exactly like Jimmy. I’ve already accepted that.
June Thomas: And that’s okay.
Isaac Butler: Did you try, though? Is there a period of time you’re like, I have to get a Danelectro 30, 21, and I have to watch videos of him strumming so I can strum exactly like a hammer, you know, whatever it is.
Speaker 2: Absolutely. Yes.
Isaac Butler: Was that an early phase of doing the.
Speaker 2: Yes. Yes, definitely. And I have all those guitars and I work very hard to match the sound because the sound is very important. Like if you can’t play your Les Paul through it like a marshall 900.
Isaac Butler: Right.
Speaker 2: Just to give you an hour because it’s going to sound like AC DC, right? Not like Led Zeppelin, because that fuzzy sound is going to be there, and it’s wrong. Mm hmm. So those things are technical. Those are really technical. You got to I think you got to get that right. But that can only take you so far. You then have to play the guitar in a way that is very like how he played and that takes studying.
Isaac Butler: Yeah, I was about to ask, what was that research process like? Or you, you know, like I have friends who are like huge Grateful Dead fans, right? Who are guitarists. And so they’ll watch YouTube tutorials on how to solo, like Jerry or whatever, you know. But when you’re starting the band in 2004, I don’t even remember of YouTube existed then. So what was your research process like? Are you watching videos of him live or reading interviews to figure out like, what was it?
Speaker 2: Actually, you’re right. So in when I started the band in 2004, basically. There was nothing like that. And there was very little life. Led Zeppelin. I mean, basically all you had was the song remains the same.
Isaac Butler: Right.
Speaker 2: So if you go back and you see all these, quote unquote tribute bands doing Led Zeppelin early on for, you know, before that time period and even after everyone’s dressed like the song remains the same.
Isaac Butler: I think you’re right. Yeah, I never thought about it that way, but you’re absolutely right. The dress, everyone is recreating the look and feel of this one specific sliver of the band and.
Speaker 2: Instantly go look at these tribute bands. You know, you’ve got Robert with his jeans and his, you know, Jimmy in that black suit. I mean, it’s this because that’s all you had, right? And what happened, luckily, and this is part of the magic, I believe that they did this specifically for me, is that, you know, how the West was won. The Led Zeppelin DVD came out in 2003.
Isaac Butler: Hmm.
Speaker 2: Now, that DVD had a bunch more stuff on it. Had the Earls Court. It had Royal Albert Hall. It had, you know, Long Beach. I mean, it had a bunch of. Videos. Performances that no one ever seen. And lo and behold, we had all this other stuff to watch. So I was able to watch Jimmy play. A lot more than people before me would have been able to do. And I personally learned a lot by watching a guitar player. I can learn a lot by doing that. Just seeing the physicality of how somebody plays.
Isaac Butler: Like how how are their fingers moving on the neck? Or what’s the strumming pattern and how do they affected? Or.
Speaker 2: Yep, exactly. Body movement. You cannot play like Jimi Hendrix unless you watch how he moves and you do it with your guitar. What he did. Yeah. I’m telling you, because I studied him, too, and I couldn’t sound like him until I was standing one day. I spent, like, four days up in my parents house in the Berkshires, locked myself in and was watching Rainbow Bridge or other things like that. Standing in the middle of the room with a Strat going like, why can’t I get this? I got the notes, but why is it not sounding? And I’m watching Jimi, you know, flail the guitar against his hip and move with it and strumming it.
Speaker 2: So I just started imitating him. And playing and suddenly. It was like, that’s it. It’s just there was just this this little meter that clicked over just enough to give me that Jimi Hendrix c sound that I was after.
Speaker 2: And it’s the same, you know, you need to, like, really studied guitar players, movements, stuff like that, how they played together. But then, you know, you have to listen and listen and listen and then just do it and do it and figure out why you’re not sounding like it. And it’s so intense.
Isaac Butler: Hmm.
Speaker 2: The best education for that, actually. And this is way after the band started in 2009, 2010, we recreated Led Zeppelin one. In the studio. We rerecorded the whole album, which was nuts, but we did it in a studio, in an analog studio. We did it with the same amplifiers. It was like a science project. We had the soup rows we had and the guy that was recording us and producing it was a friend of Jimmy Pages, so we were actually calling Jimmy. What did you use on this? And he could tell. He would tell us. So we had, you know, he was partial to the experiment.
Speaker 2: Mm hmm. Oh, yeah. You know, I use the, you know, the harmony, the, you know, the 200 or whatever. But which one? The one with this fridge or that. And he would tell us and this guy happened to have it because he was a vintage guitar dealer. So he’d go into the shelves and pull the same guitar out. I mean, so it was nuts. So we had the luxury of matching all those guitar sounds, all those drum sounds, all those been okay. But that was only step one then. We recorded it live together, the basic tracks, because that’s the only way to do it. You have to do it live because there’s no way you’re going to get the energy of that record unless you do that. And then. There were the solos and everything else.
Isaac Butler: Were you recreating the solos note for note, or were you doing your own improvisations in those moments?
Speaker 2: Both. So you had to make a judgment call, like for something like a communication breakdown. Most of the solo was the same. Okay. Because it’s this beautiful, neat little song, right? But for other songs it was completely improvised. So how many more times or something like that where you were really it was right to take it out?
June Thomas: Mm hmm.
Speaker 2: It would have been sort of stilted not to. But for example, with something like communication breakdown, there’s just that basic riff which everyone plays, which sounds easy. Did it. And it ended at the end and. So we recorded it and we’re listening back to it. And we’re looking at each other like, there’s something wrong. The sound is right. The riff is right. The notes are right. What is it? What is it? And the more we listen, the more we listen. We realized that there was an up stroke. Not a down stroke. So in other words, he was going, da da da da da da da.
Speaker 2: And then up stroke, da da da da. Okay. So the, you know, there were two up strokes instead of down. And unless you do that, it’s not going to sound right. Okay. So this just like, you know, this crazy studying of this minutia, but it makes a difference in the end. So that’s how you do it in a in a completely obsessive compulsive way.
Isaac Butler: No, I mean, this really sounds like what, you know, people who are super into Shakespearean performance and that’s how they specialize, you know, what they do? They’re going to break down the the language and the rhythm of the language. There’s a whole movement to pronounce Shakespeare’s words the way they were pronounced in the late 16th, early 17th century. You know, people will go and get specifically deer leather gloves because the gloves of the costumes back then would be deer leather. So. So I totally get it. But, you know, that’s still creative, though.
Isaac Butler: I guess I’d ask you like what to you was the most creative part of that because you’re still like interpreting in the midst of that, right? So what for you felt the most creative part of that process of recreating that album?
Speaker 2: Well, it was creative to. Dig really so deep into a piece of music that you become this incredible expert in a piece of music. And then somewhere within that, you find where you need to bring yourself to that. So. Once you figured out how to get the sounds and the feel and everything, then you really need to go in and perform it right? And the performance of it and the the spirit of that. Performance. And the music is something that’s just you.
Speaker 2: You know, that that’s the individual part. If I go in and play the hell out of a whole lot of love or since I’ve been loving you or some like heavy blues song, if I can go in with all of that framework, all of that studying where I know how to sound like Jimmy, where I know how to rip into my guitar in a certain way that is so on the edge. And then I go at it and I completely explode into it. I’m really being Steph. I’m not being Jimmy.
Isaac Butler: But just within this framework, right?
Speaker 2: It’s within a context. But then the ultimate sort of musicianship is really who I am and whether I can reach that level of bringing something exciting and powerful to it.
June Thomas: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation. Steph Pains.
June Thomas: Listeners, we want to hear from you. Whether it’s to ask us for advice on a creative problem, tell us the guest you’d like to hear on the show or share your own creative triumphs. Drop us a line at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at 304933. W. O. R. K. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts.
June Thomas: Now let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with the Steph Payne’s.
Isaac Butler: I have to ask, after you’ve done that really granular dive into everything from which direction the pic is going in, which amp it’s moved into. How is he doing this, you know, little filigree in the song or whatever. By the end of that are you like, All right, I just need to not listen to this song again for like three weeks? Or do you find yourself like. Like the obsession never ends and you’re more deeply in love with it than ever before.
Speaker 2: Wow. I think it depends on the song. But then there’s. You forgot, like going out and finding the right clothes. Then you can just go do that.
Isaac Butler: Right, right, right, right. Totally.
Speaker 2: Wait a minute. How am I going to wear my hair now?
Isaac Butler: How am I going to get the violin bow at the exact right?
Speaker 2: Oh, the the violin blow. That’s a interesting point, because the violins both solo, which I do. Is never what Jimmy does. Hmm. That, to me, is like the place where I just. It’s just going to be me.
Isaac Butler: Right.
Speaker 2: So I take that bow solo, and I’m like, okay, I’m now Steph. I’m doing what I want.
Isaac Butler: Your band is famously a force to be reckoned with live. Can you talk a bit about developing kind of your live show and because that is a different creative process than recreating the songs in the studio, you know, figuring out how to be great live, you know? What is that like for you all?
Speaker 2: Well, first of all. To play this music for an hour and a half or whatever and go through these sort of pyrotechnics of it, if you will. Most people have to just stare at their fingers and make sure they’re getting it all right or focus so hard like you’re in an exam, you know? Yeah, I have to remember everything, and I have to make sure that I don’t you know, there are so many moving parts.
Isaac Butler: And it’s physically tiring, you know, especially for your drummer. Right. I can’t imagine what it’s like to, you know, drum like John Bonham for an hour and a half.
Speaker 2: It’s a gymnastic, physical Olympian event. I mean, it’s exhausting. But I think that once you get past that, then you the job you have is to bring that without thinking about what you’re playing. And that takes a couple of years to get to that point where I don’t look at my fingers on the guitar anymore. I stopped doing that about 15 years ago. I just look at the audience. I look at the other band members. I strut across the stage. I’m not I’m not looking at my guitar at all. That took a long time.
Speaker 2: It also took a couple of years to get the guitar lower and lower below my pelvis so that it could be the proper instrument of, you know, sexual force that it needs to be. And that’s part of it. I mean, it’s a very sexual performance, but that’s what Led Zeppelin is. You take that element out and it’s not that anymore.
Isaac Butler: And another challenge on top of that, because you’ve talked about how important the kind of ensemble dynamic the group dynamic is, is that you’ve changed band members a few times over the years. And so how does integrating a new member into an already existing kind of framework, you know, how do you tackle that?
Speaker 2: It’s a process. Usually, you know, there was one time when the entire band changed and that was its own little nightmare in and of itself. But more frequently it’s like the singer changes or one person changes at a time, which is less problematic.
Speaker 2: But the singer in particular, I think I think it’s a whole thing, you know, trying to be Robert Plant in whatever the essence of Robert Plant is, is no easy feat. It’s just there are so many things. He’s sexual, he’s got four octave range. He’s he’s girly, but he’s masculine. He’s this, he’s that. You know, there’s just so many things to what he does. So you have to really get into that.
Speaker 2: Mm hmm. And it’s it definitely, you know, you have to get together as a band and and do it. And I find myself egging everyone else on. So that’s partially how you do it. I’ll strut around and I’ll get myself in the face of the bass player, you know, or the singer and basically attack them, you know, just just sexualize them. And it works. It works, you know, and and before you know it, the whole band is turned on and everyone’s doing it. And then everyone is and you know, and that’s kind of what makes it happen.
Isaac Butler: I mean, it strikes me that, you know, a lot of the you know, for the person in the Robert plant Rose Marlene Angelina’s that they also have a very particular chemistry with you. Right. Because, you know, you think of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, you know. Yes. And so I’m just, you know, interested in how you kind of develop that, because Marlene’s not the first lead singer of the band. You know, in the audition process, are you trying to figure out like, hey, am I going to have good chemistry at this person? Do you, I don’t know, go out to lunch to talk or whatever it is, you know, you know, figure out, like, what is that dynamic going to be and are we going to be able to summon some channel, some version of what page and plant do?
Speaker 2: Oh, yeah. You know, I think the Jimmy Roberts thing is definitely a tension and a playfulness and a a dance. How about that? It’s like it’s like a sexy dance. I will say that as women, we have a little bit of free rein because we can be very free with each other. You know, I think women can be more playful with each other sexually on stage than men can.
Speaker 2: You know, everyone you know, maybe these days it’s a little different, you know, in the last couple of years than it has been. But if two guys get together and start, you know, rubbing up against each other, I don’t think that’s going to go over the same way. Mm hmm. Robert and Jimmy never quite did that. They used to hang on each other a little bit and communicate, but Marlon and I were like. Will hang all over each other. I mean, you know, there are Thurman solos where I’ll basically mount her on the.
June Thomas: Stage so.
Speaker 2: I can do that. And it’s fun. And she plays along and we have, you know, groaning sex sessions on stage where it’s just fun, a little overboard, and the audience loves it and we’re having a great time. You know, it’s just. It’s playful. Mm hmm. But the music is very sexual, so it’s very natural. I mean, the whole thing is like that.
Isaac Butler: You can’t have a chaste Led Zeppelin show.
Speaker 2: Well, yeah. I mean, I suppose you can, but it’s not very interesting.
Isaac Butler: Right.
Speaker 2: I think most of these tribute bands that you see, that’s what they do. It’s chaste and and sort of robotic.
Isaac Butler: Are you changing up the setlist a lot from night to night or is it the same, you know, do you rehearse a sort of fixed set that you then take out on the road?
Speaker 2: It depends. You know, like, for example, we we take physical graffiti out on the road.
Isaac Butler: We write sometimes.
Speaker 2: Like the album, and that’s really fun. And we love that album because it’s so diverse. But yes, we’ll change up the set all the time.
Isaac Butler: How do you think about I’ve always wondered, you’re our first, you know, like rock act that I’ve interviewed in a while that does a lot of of live performance. So how do you figure out a setlist? What makes for a good setlist for people who are maybe starting bands right now listening to the show? What tips can you offer them for the.
Speaker 2: Okay, well, we’ll argue about this a lot. Even like, you know, with our sound guy, we’re always arguing. We have a legendary sound guy who has been with us for, oh, my God, I don’t know how long. 12, 13 years. His name is Night Bob, and he’s a legend, but he has an idea of what a great setlist is. For example, he thinks you should basically hit them over the head with the hits like you need to build it. And then once you get to that point, you should peak out, you know, somewhere two thirds in and then pummel them all the way out so that there’s nothing they don’t you don’t give them a minute to just sort of breathe and go to the bathroom, as it were, you know, so.
Speaker 2: But, yeah, you know, you might argue, well, no, there are lots of mountains and valleys where, you know, Led Zeppelin, for example, they’d play for 3 hours and then they’d have a half hour acoustic set in there, which is arguably when everyone goes to the bathroom, you know, but then some people love it. So I think for us it depends. You know, we like to when we are playing the same venue, we like to bring a different set of songs because a lot of the same people will come. So we don’t want to just give them the same thing. And we know that certain places, for example, Detroit, where they’re completely into rock and zeppelin and stuff, we can throw obscure stuff at them. And they’ll love it.
Speaker 2: Whereas if you’re going to kind of a theater, you may not have been there. People may not have seen you before. They don’t know who you are. They want to hear Led Zeppelin. You know, you have to play a whole lot of love and black dog and rock and roll and the ocean and heartbreaker, you know. You just have to give them a lot of that stuff or they’re going to be lost. You know, what was, you know. Right. You have to kind of, you know, tease them in. So I think, you know, we just sort of massaged it. And then, of course, it’s what we want to play, too.
Isaac Butler: Right. Right.
Speaker 2: If we are learning something new, we want to play it, you know.
Isaac Butler: So in I think it was 2019, you released the EP, Isle of Skye Rose, which seemed to sort of almost announce like a slightly different direction with the band because you had original string arrangements on songs that did not have strings on them on their original albums like Immigrant Song or Kelly’s Last Stand, and who would.
Speaker 2: Put strings on that writes It’s crazy.
Isaac Butler: Exactly. Can you talk a bit about kind of, you know, I guess, opening up those songs and deciding to add something new into them and. Yeah, because it’s not a radical shift in what the band does, but it’s a bit of a shift, you know. How did you come about doing that?
Speaker 2: One of the promoters came up with the idea of doing a string concert and we loved it. We jumped at it and it wasn’t like with an orchestra, which has been done. But which didn’t really interest us. First of all, it’s a whole production, but we didn’t want to tame down the music so that it was, you know, happy, fluffy, Led Zeppelin with the entire orchestra. What we wanted to do was increase the ferocity and the dynamics and, you know, the depth of the music.
Speaker 2: So we decided let’s have a, you know, a smaller quartet or something. So so we had these unusual arrangements and originally the island of squirrels was supposed to be just a marketing tool for the string show. But of course you can’t go in the studio and take it lightly. So it became this whole album that we actually spent time and money on to create something as good as we could.
Isaac Butler: Did that affect kind of not that you’re touring with a string quartet now or anything, but did that affect kind of your approach to the music afterwards or the direction the band has taken? I mean, after your forced hiatus with the pandemic and everything, you know, did did have you felt like a sort of change in how you think about our approach to song since doing that?
Speaker 2: Well, we would like to get back to doing string concerts. We actually were supposed to be in Australia a week from today, but that just got postponed till July because of the floods in Sydney. We were going to do a whole tour of Australia, so we have a promoter there who basically is pulling on the string shows. So we’re going to do a whole orchestrated tour in Australia and he’s actually going to add to the strings, not just a quartet but maybe, you know, 8 to 10, 12 people on stage with some horns and everything.
Speaker 2: So yeah, I think that it’s something we definitely will get into doing. And you know, we’re basically I think we’re playing lots of different things like we love to do physical graffiti, we’d love to do the string shows. So there are different types of presentations of the music and then sometimes just a flat out rock and roll bash, you know? I think what happened since the pandemic, it was a big sort of come to Jesus moment of do we even want to do this anymore? Can we even do this anymore? Is there going to be live music? And if there is, will there be room for us?
Speaker 2: You know, and happily, I think the answer to all those questions was yes. So we’re just happy to to play our guts out or our hearts out. I think if anything’s changed, what’s changed is the ferocity of what we’re absolutely ferocious now on stage, which is great.
Isaac Butler: Well, Steph Panes, thank you so much for joining us on working to talk about your process.
Speaker 2: Hey, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for having.
June Thomas: Me.
June Thomas: Isaac. That was a full on amazing interview. I haven’t seen live music in years, but I want to go see Led Zeppelin immediately, if not sooner. I also have to tell you that as soon as I finished listening, I went to YouTube and I cued up some classic Led Zeppelin.
Isaac Butler: Oh, I did the same thing. And like, as soon as that interview was over, I was like, All right, we’re digging in now.
June Thomas: Yeah, exactly. You can’t resist. And I have to say, I was really quite moved by Steph’s explanation of Lez Zeppelin mission, which is allowing people to see Led Zeppelin’s music performed live, which, other than a few memorable reunion concerts from the surviving members, hasn’t been possible since 1980. So Led Zeppelin get to rock as musicians, but they also get to share this music in a way that isn’t available from the actual band anymore. That really is kind of magical.
Isaac Butler: Yeah. You know, one of the reasons I wanted to have someone from a band like Led Zeppelin on the show, and actually Cameron and I were sort of looking for the right person, and I think he was the one who came up with stuff painted. It just seemed like such a great idea is I wanted to find out how they see their work and what is that works. Creative mission because I just knew it couldn’t be as simple as like, Hey, it’s cool to live the fantasy of being an Led Zeppelin because that’s not going to sustain you over the years of a career. And I think your work is going to be less interesting as a result. And I think that Stefan, the band, have figured out something that is really meaningful to do with that work.
June Thomas: Yeah. And not to go too far down the philosophical rabbit hole. But while I accept completely that Led Zeppelin is not copying or reproducing how Led Zeppelin looked and how they behaved in concert, I’m also aware that they’re kind of turning back the clock like they’re serving 1970s LEDs that not 2007 Led Zep. Although honestly to me, the band looked and sounded better in 2007. Some people do get more attractive as they get older, and I think that’s true of both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. But that’s by the by. Anyway, I hope philosophers are aware of this wizardry.
Isaac Butler: Well, one of the problems here is the John Bonham Led Zeppelin’s legendary drummer and probably the best British rock drummer of that generation, died in 1980, famously asphyxiating on his own vomit after a day long drinking binge and the group disbanded rather than try to replace him. And in the intervening years, people’s vocal cords age and changed. So Robert Plant does not sound today like he did in the seventies. It is impossible to fully recreate the Led Zeppelin sound of the seventies. And what’s great about Led Zeppelin’s all female lineup is to some extent that’s acknowledged formally, you know, like they’re giving you that experience. But it isn’t an exact sound for sound recreation because Led Zeppelin themselves can’t do that on the reunion tour. You know, that is not actually possible.
Isaac Butler: So if you want to get philosophical about it, Led Zeppelin touring in 2007 is as much, if not more of a quote unquote tribute band than Led Zeppelin today. And so there’s a way that, you know, that’s going to get you closer to a specific kind of the experience, because they’ve studied that live footage, because they’re trying to recreate what they can of of what that was like.
June Thomas: I have to say that I was glad that Steph kind of brought up the sexual part of the performance.
Isaac Butler: We can say as a male interviewer, I wasn’t going to break that. Yeah, I mean, that would be a little like let’s talk about the sexual but like that was never going to happen.
June Thomas: Yeah, quite right. So I would, I still I was glad because part of the time traveling dimensions of the band is taking us back to a time when sexual mores were different. What performers did it on stage was different. There’s something almost disturbing about the level of raw sexuality that was on display in those 1970s Led Zeppelin concerts. I almost like I felt weird watching it. I don’t know if we’ll ever have another episode of working either in which someone else’s the words I meant her on the stage in the ceremony solo like that’s quite a combination of words and I thought your comparison to accurate Shakespearean performance nerds was very apt. And obviously all of that is stuff that has to be negotiated in the audition process. It’s really tricky.
Isaac Butler: Totally. And I also want to say, if there’s any creative types out there who need an assignment, please create something where you can say the line I’m out or on the stage in the Ferryman solo in an interview on working and pitching to us. And we’ll try it out. We’ll try to get you on the show. But no, seriously, rock music is sexual. I mean, there are bands that play against that or don’t engage with it really. Like it’s hard to imagine. John Flensburg mounting. John Linnell during a They Might Be Giants accordion solo or something but when we are talking about our. W.K. Rock music sex is a big part of it, but as in theatre or any other kind of performance, you have to make sure that your colleagues, because they are colleagues, it’s a job, it’s a workplace. You have to make sure that they’re comfortable with whatever it is you’re doing.
Isaac Butler: Famously, Tina Turner was not super comfortable with a lot of the extremely dirty things she had to do with the microphone during her time as part of ACON Tina Turner. And she’s not the only one. So, you know, it is a thing that has to be negotiated or that, you know, you have a co-worker who’s going to do that and also that you can discuss it with the coworkers in a way that isn’t itself harassment. Of course.
June Thomas: Yeah, totally. I loved the discussion of the intense study that went into Led Zeppelin’s recording of Led Zeppelin one. There are so many occasions where in creative people engage in like really deep, deep research and contemplation, and it almost feels a shame that you can’t get like a Ph.D. in loads at one or, you know, I don’t know the history of Russian theatrical technique, perhaps.
Isaac Butler: Well, you can’t get a Ph.D. in that.
June Thomas: Okay. Okay. Good to know.
June Thomas: Have you ever found a use for absolute rabbit hole mastery of obscure minutia, sort of equivalent of whether riffs involve strokes or strokes?
Isaac Butler: Well, I used to be extremely good at pub trivia that, you know, so there’s that. But in a more practical level, I think that it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen with all that knowledge, you know, all those facts, all those concepts, all those ideas you pick up over time. Yeah. What I like to think about is that it’s like it’s lying dormant in your subconscious and it’s just waiting to be jolted awake by some new thing. And that new thing’s going to come along, and it’s going to connect with that thing, and that’s going to create inspiration.
Isaac Butler: I’ll give you a really silly example. I love the Larry Sanders Show. I have watched the Larry Sanders show all the way through probably three or four times. And among the other things that show is, it’s a brilliant time capsule of who was famous for what and what was in the discourse in the 1990s. And so when discussions of stuff in our pop culture today come up, sometimes my brain is like they talked about that on the Larry Sanders show. So that was also a thing in the 1990s. Why don’t you go look up what the New York Times had to say about it then, and you’ll discover some forgotten connection or story that way.
June Thomas: That’s crazy. Hey, you know, hey, now, I. I also enjoyed your conversation around set list philosophy. Where do you come down, Isaac? Should it be a massive build with no release or build, build, build and then 20 minutes of acoustic twiddling? What’s your ideal setlist scenario?
Isaac Butler: I’m so glad you asked me this June, because it’s something I think about a lot, but it does depend on the band. And let me tell you, there are bands whose setlist philosophy is I know very well because I have lots of live recordings of them where I nerd out about these things with friends and it’s different from a mixtape, or as the kids call them today, playlists where you know, you want to start off with a banger and then you get an even bigger banger and then you do a slow third one that’s more sincere, right?
Isaac Butler: So like Yo La Tengo, my favorite band, they have a very particular way of constructing their sets around peaks and valleys. And then the final run of five songs or so is usually building ever larger and larger peaks. And it culminates in a last song that is one of about eight very loud, long, distorted guitar jams like the story of Yo La Tengo or I Heard You Looking, things like that. If we had our colleague Seth maxing on on here, they’ll you know, he and I could geek out about how Trey Anastasio constructs the set list for Phish is, which is like a very clear art, etc.. So it really depends on the band. I bet you’re a fan of acoustic noodling, right? You’re just using all acoustic noodling all the time.
June Thomas: All acoustic noodling all the time. And I am way back home while that’s happening because I ain’t sitting there for that.
Isaac Butler: I do think you shouldn’t do more than two slow songs in a row because then the audience just goes and gets a beer.
June Thomas: Yeah, totally. I mean, which, you know, if you get a share of that fine noodle all you like, but they never do. So no.
June Thomas: I was super interested to hear about Les Zeppelin’s string arrangement shows because I am one of those very weird people who actually likes it when strings show up in rock performances are actually not just rock. One of my very favorite albums in this world is the one the great flamenco artist Cameron Eisler made with the Let Me Change My Pronunciation technique, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. And I’m sure there are people who think that’s complete heresy. But that version of Sophie Turner is one of my desert island discs. It might even be the one that the only one that I’m like queen. I’m. So Isaac, where do you stand on orchestras or string sections playing with musicians from other genres?
Isaac Butler: I love it. Under certain circumstances, it really depends on the arrangements and it really depends on how many musicians we’re talking about. Yeah, you know, I think there’s a higher level of success if it’s like a string quartet or a small horn section and they’re drawing them on stage. I remember I saw at Central Park SummerStage many, many moons ago, I saw Belle and Sebastian touring right before Dear Catastrophe Waitress came out, and they had a string quartet on stage with them. When I saw Janelle Monae at the Apollo, she had a string trio and a horn section that were jobbed in for that show. And you know, that’s wonderful. I love that stuff. I’d much rather that than tons of synthesizers and backing tracks.
Isaac Butler: But I do feel like when an orchestra specifically gets involved, the arrangements very quickly tend to get very cliched and uninteresting, as I think, frankly, maybe you see on the Led Zeppelin official orchestral album. Part of what makes the Led Zeppelin approach work is that they collaborated with actual composers to come up with interesting arrangements, and those folks were going to do really wild stuff.
June Thomas: Oh, I got to check that out. So one final question. If you were putting together a tribute band, who would you want to channel?
Isaac Butler: Oh, yeah. There’s no question about a talking heads. Hmm. I mean, there already is one, though, so who knows? But I love Talking Heads. They’re one of my favorite bands are very formative and I think I do a pretty mean David Byrne impression. So here. Hello. I have a tape I want to play you. Right. That’s pretty good. It’s the beginning of stop making sense. That’s all right, isn’t it?
June Thomas: Yeah. How good am I at pretending I recognize that?
Isaac Butler: Yeah.
June Thomas: Sounds great.
Isaac Butler: You know, there’s going to be six of our listeners who will get a little thrill up high. I got a tape I want to play.
June Thomas: And the three who live so Kitano will be will be applauding me right now.
June Thomas: Listeners, we hope that you’ve enjoyed the show if you have. Please remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. That way, you will never miss an episode. And just one more reminder that by joining Slate plus, you’ll get a free podcast. You’ll get extra segments on shows like Slow Burn and Big Mood, Little Mood, and you will never, ever hit a paywall on the Slate site. To learn more, go to Slate.com, slash working quotes.
Isaac Butler: Thank you to Steph Payne for being our guest this week and extra thanks to our producer Cameron Druce, who is like the John Bonham of producers, minus the substance abuse issues. We’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with rural librarian Jessamyn West. Until then, get back to work.
June Thomas: Is that David Byrne? I really don’t know.
Isaac Butler: Yeah, yeah. No one.
Isaac Butler: Hey there, Slate. Plus, Isaac Butler here. Thank you so much, as always, for everything you do to support the work that we do right here on working. This is one of my favorite slate plus segments we’ve done yet, so I hope you enjoy it. You know, I read this story somewhere in one of your interviews, thanks to our lovely researcher, Kevin Bendis. And I wanted to hear you tell it. You actually met Jimmy Page and he came to one of your shows, right? Yes. Unexpectedly, maybe. But I think you didn’t know he was going to be there. Could you just tell our listeners the story of having Jimmy Page actually show up at one of your gigs and what that was like for you?
Speaker 2: Yeah. So that hands down was the most frightening gig I’ve ever played in my life. So it wasn’t exactly unknown. So I had met Jimmy a couple of months before at the the premiere of Celebration Day, which was the film of their concert at the O2 in 2007. And that whole meeting actually was a story in itself. But Jimmy and I, it was just like love at first sight, you know? He knew who I was, which was amazing, because if there’s anything that’s going on with Led Zeppelin anywhere in the universe, Jimmy will know about it. So he was a fan of the band already, and he’d heard, you know, heard all the albums, and it was just an amazing thing. So he had, you know, we were talking and he came around the room again.
Speaker 2: And one funny thing I will say about that initial meeting is when someone introduced us, he looked at me as like, Oh, ba, ba, ba. We hugged and stuff. And I turned to him and I said, Jimmy, I just want to tell you, it’s really hard being you. And it’s just like. Because it is. I know, right? I’m like, yes, it is. And we just because yeah, it’s hard. We just had this hilarious moment where it was this. Yeah, it’s hard to be you. I know.
Speaker 2: So anyways, so we talked and I told Jimmy that we’d come to England and he goes, Oh yeah, I would love have tried to come see you last time. I’d love to come see the band. So I organized it right on cue. I organized a tour of England and brought the band over and we actually had played at the Isle of Wight the night before, and then we were going to play in London and I had notified Jimmy’s office over and over. I hadn’t actually heard from Jimmy, so I didn’t know if he was going to be in town. His office said, We think he’s in town. And they were forwarding the messages and I was leaving a way to get in touch with me and all this stuff.
Speaker 2: So we had just played the Isle of Wight, which was crazy enough to begin with, and we were on our way to England. I’m in London the next day and we’d taken the boat. We were exhausted. We were driving up to this place called the garage in Islington. And we’re in the van. And I look at my little flip phone and this message comes up. And it says Love Jimmy XO. Xo. So I’m reading through this message. Hey, how are you? How’s it going? Blah, blah, blah. I’d like to come see you. I’m in the studio. And I’m like, Oh my God. And I’m trying to text back, you know how you have to press ABC and then you got to move and they got to go to the arm. Horrible, right? So I’m like, poking at this phone and the phone rings. So I answer. The phone is like, hello, is Steph, you know?
Speaker 2: Yes. Oh, it’s Jimmy Page. Right. So, you know, fantasy number one, Jimmy Page is calling me up. Okay, so this is great, right? So he’s just lovely, right? We already had lovely conversations. And how are you? How’s it going? As of as the Isle of Wight, blah, blah, blah, blah. And we’re having this conversation because, well, I’m in the studio late, but I’m going to try to come. Yeah, I think I should get out. What time are you on?
Speaker 2: Because. Well, could you put me on the list? Plus one. So we used a fake name and we put him on the list. So we weren’t sure that he was going to come. Completely sure, but we had a good idea that he was going to try. So. This was the moment when, you know, we were about to go on stage and I realized I had two choices. I could either freak out completely. And not be able to play. Or I could just be. Well, I always play as if Jim is in the audience anyway. So if he’s there, what difference does it make? And I just said, let’s go out there and just play like give it everything we’ve got, you know, just really. And so we went out and we ripped. We were just played as if our lives depended on it and apparently. Jimmy walked in at some point, about a half hour in during my Beau’s solo.
Speaker 2: Okay, so the girls were onstage. I’m in the bow solo. And they all knew he had come in. He was at the back of the hall and they were like, Don’t tell Steph, don’t tell stuff. So at some point, you know, of all things to walk in on the Bo solo, right? It’s crazy. At some point, I didn’t know he was in the audience, but we’re still we’re going through the rest of the set. I look back and I see this shock of white hair at the back. And it was at that point that I realized he was there, but it was already like, you know, we’re already well into it. So we were just playing our balls off, you know.
Speaker 2: And at the end of the show, you know, the crowd was going nuts. Thank God it was a good gig. They went nuts. At the end, Jimmy and his friend just be lined to the stage door, at which point nobody else was let in. And he came in and he was I was gone after. And you have to understand, I had given it. I was completely spent. I don’t think I was present after that. My I had just gone to Mars somewhere where I was sitting by myself on Mars.
Speaker 2: Okay. But Jimmy came in and he he just loved it. He was like, this is how it should be done. This is the way this music should be done. He was so excited because he wasn’t expecting to see this. Passionate. Completely balls out. You know, like we weren’t playing it note for note. We weren’t just imitating them. We were just. In the rock and roll just orgasm.
Speaker 2: Right. And he just thought, that’s it. That’s you get it? That’s exactly right. That’s what it should be. And that’s the very end of the night. It was just him and me in the club. He didn’t even leave. And at one point, you know, we had to be cleared out of the club. He turns to me. And because, you know, because it was it was like it was so sexual, like. As if he’d never realized it before. No, that was like. Well, yeah, I mean, yeah, I was sort of stunned. Like, it’s it is sexual. What do you.
June Thomas: Think? You know.
Speaker 2: But it was so interesting because I guess he’d never watched himself. You know, he never watched Led Zeppelin. Right. We were bringing this so super sexually charged performance that he was just sort of stunned by it. It was fantastically interesting. But it was it was an amazing, amazing moment. It was almost like, well, what do we do now? It was almost like no where to go from there.
Isaac Butler: Yet to get to the next gig, I.
Speaker 2: Guess. I guess that’s what we did. Yeah.
Isaac Butler: Well, thank you so much again for coming on the show.
Speaker 2: Oh, my pleasure.
Isaac Butler: All right. That’s it. Thank you so much. And I’ll see you next time right here on working.
Isaac Butler: So.