Robert Plant has gone from megastardom with Led Zeppelin to what he calls “a good garage band” – and he couldn’t be happier. On Mighty Rearranger, Plant tries Celtic ballads, employs North African rhythms and belts like his American Delta-blues heroes, backed by his latest group, the Strange Sensation. Much of the music was recorded in its most primitive stages: “How much more real can you get?” says Plant, describing the drum part of “Takamba,” recorded in a garage, and the crackling campfire that bleeds into “All the King’s Horses,” which the band nailed during a trip to the Welsh countryside. In June, Plant, 56, will launch a twenty-two-date U.S. tour. “It’s not some serious moment — it’s exactly as it should be,” he says. “We’re not looking for any hike back to great glory.”
What is your best vocal performance? Can I name two, from different eras? I’d say that on [Led Zeppelin’s] “Rain Song” I sounded best. I’d reached a point where I knew that to get good I couldn’t repeat myself. The high falsetto screams had become quite a kind of calling card. Nowadays, I learn new techniques on my trips to Mali and southern Morocco. I know about restraint and power and using my voice to insinuate. I got it right on [Mighty Rearranger‘s] “Another Tribe.”
If you were stuck in the desert, what CD would you bring?
Forever Changes, by Love. Because it’s confrontational and it soothes. Tracks like “Old Man” give me a bit of hope for our time, our condition. And I might take a little Vaughan Williams or Elgar to remind me that I’m English.
What’s the best desert music to have sex to?
I don’t think I could do it. I mean, I can do it, and without a tablet! But perhaps a little Rachid Taha with Steve Hillage — those rhythms alone would be very interesting. Those counts in five and six could send the ladies crazy!
What music are you into now?
I’m very happy listening to the Black Keys. They’re Akron’s most feted sons, and they owe a lot to Skip James, as do I. So I listen to a lot of desert stuff, some very old blues like Lemon Jefferson, and the Black Keys.
So you dig the two-piece guitarist-drummer trend?
I’d love to play bass with them for a bit. In truth, I was an occasional bass player. It says so on Zeppelin I, next to my name: vocals, harmonica and occasional bass. Very occasionally — once, I think, since 1968. How in God’s name that ended up on the cover is so funny. I’m sure Jonesy [John Paul Jones] didn’t like it [laughs]. But I suppose every time he fucked up he could say it was me.
How do you refer to Zeppelin IV, Runes, Zoso . . .?
Just “the fourth album.” That’s it.
Ever sung karaoke?
Yeah. In Playa del Carmen, which is on the Yucatan Peninsula, and once in China.
What inspired those performances?
Vodka. In China it’s a big deal, so I said, “Let me do ‘It’s Now or Never,’ by Elvis, so I can really bring the house down!” But this guy from Taiwan was better than me. He did “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. When he was done I thought, “Fuck me!” I was outdone by a Taiwanese guy singing Tony Orlando.
Do you remember Zep’s first gig in America?
It was right in the heart of Denver, on the 26th of December, 1968. I remember pulling up to a theater and the marquee said, Vanilla Fudge, Taj Mahal And Support. I thought, “Wow, here we are: Support!” [Laughs] That’s a great name for a band, too — especially if you’re getting older.
What scenes from Spinal Tap hit home?
Getting lost on the way to the stage. That was us, playing in Baltimore. It took twenty-five minutes to do the hundred yards from our Holiday Inn through the kitchen to the arena.
What photo of yourself in action do you like the most?
There’s a lot of absurd ones. A lot of chest hair, or the beginnings of it. I like the one from Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.
The bird landing in your hand?
Exactly. It wasn’t glued or strapped on for a photo moment, it just happened to see me and feel my sincerity. So I felt his ass. It’s such a ridiculous photo — a cigarette, a bottle of Newcastle Brown and a bird in my hand. When I see it I notice that the crowd looks crazier than I do.
What’s the most awful thing you’ve done to a hotel room?
I think just taking a cordless drill to pry through a dividing door to interrupt one of my friends who was practicing that time-honored tradition of premature ejaculation.
Just to have a look — I was twenty years old — and give a round of applause. There was one guy named Ariel Bender [of Mott the Hoople] who is featured in that old video Groupies. He was rumored to have had the smallest appendage, y’know, whatever it’s called . . .
. . . since the beginning of time. So we always tried to find out. I’m sure it wasn’t true. It must have been the weather.
When you think about John Bonham, is there a certain image that comes to mind?
There are several. Here’s one: We’d been playing Madison Square Garden for five nights, and I said to Bonzo, “Fucking hell, my voice is gone.” And he said, “Nobody cares about that. Just go out and look good” [laughs]. That was great.
Why didn’t you go to the Grammys, where Zep got the Lifetime Achievement Award?
I was in Milan, promoting the new record. I think it was a fantastic tribute, but . . . [smiles]
You wanted nothing to do with it.
Oh, absolutely! I would have put my robes on and my crown, my scepter! With Jim [Page] and John Paul — what a way to spend the weekend! It’d be nice to get together to see if we have anything to argue about!