Interview (and mp3): Lez Zeppelin

You can pretty much judge this book by it’s cover – there’s not a big surprise with what you should expect to hear by a band named Lez Zeppelin. The all-female (duh!) four-piece has made a career of playing Led Zeppelin tunes, not note-for-note the way Messrs. Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham played ‘em, but, by bringing the passion and feeling to each song.

MP3: Dazed And Confused (from Lez Zeppelin I)

On Friday night, the ladies of Lez Zeppelin are going to bring that passion and feeling to Columbus as they’ll help Rock on the Rangers get pumped up for the big weekend-long hard rock festival at Crew Stadium. For my money, the pre-party to celebrate Rock on the Range’s 5th anniversary is better – and more diverse – than the festival proper.

Guitarist Steph Paynes, who started Lez Zeppelin in 2004, realizes her band has their work cut out for them as they are one of the few female acts taking part in Rock on the Range this year but she’s ready to blow minds with her Page-like guitar playing. Seriously, the ladies do an incredible job of paying homage to the real thing – it’s as if Led Zeppelin is being fronted by Roberta Plant instead of Robert Plant.

Paynes took a little bit of time one evening last week to answer some questions.

Does Lez Zeppelin do regular touring or are you just playing festivals such as Rock on the Range?

We have been touring endlessly for the last six years. I’m sort of changing the paradigm a little bit and try to get more bang for the buck and do bigger theaters and festivals. There was one year where we played more than 150 dates. The festival thing … this band is just tailor-made for things like that.

What’s your vibe on the Rock on the Range pre-party?

It’s really a different flavor than what comes afterwards. There’s this HEAVY stuff that fills the two days. I think the party thing is an interesting way to spin it, it should be really great. People should come and they’ll get psyched to get the weekend started.

Do you think of Lez Zeppelin as a tribute band?

When people talk about tribute band, I’ve always maintained that Lez Zeppelin is not a tribute band. When I started the band, I had no idea what a tribute band was. As naive as that sounds, it’s true.

In my mind, a tribute band is a band that goes all the way in the sense of trying to impersonate the original act – creating an illusion, if you squint your eyes, it’s like you’re seeing the real thing. That sometimes involves suits and wigs.

What we do is something different. We don’t impersonate Led Zeppelin. We’re all girls. As girlie as they were at times, nobody is ever going to think Shannon is Robert or that I’m Jimmy. What we really do is take this music – it’s just so incredible, I consider it the classical music of our times – and we bring our own musicianship to it.

With a band like Led Zeppelin, there was a lot of spontaneity and improvisation in their live shows which is really what we specialize in. We don’t do note-for-note recreations of their albums live. Live we do what they did live. There are four of us on stage and whatever that instrumentation allows at any given time is what we do. Sometimes we’ll jam on a song, like they did, for 20 minutes. You’re really creating in the moment that atmosphere and passion and feeling of what Led Zeppelin were.

I think that’s much more effective because you’re giving people the experience like what they would have had if they had seen a Led Zeppelin show.

I started listening to Led Zeppelin in high school – they were one of those bands that all of my friends, regardless of music tastes, would listen to. I never really stopped listening to them but as an adult I “rediscovered” them and really started to appreciate their music.

I had the same exact experience. Led Zeppelin has been gone for 40 years. We all heard this music, it’s still being played consistently. I heard Led Zeppelin when I was a kid and listened to it and liked it to a certain extent. I started to relisten to it. The impetus was that for a holiday present I got the box set of the remastered CDs in the late ‘90s and I was so struck by it and blown away. Listening to it again … as a more mature person and as a musician, I started hearing all the stuff they were really doing and started really appreciating it. I was just stunned. I was like, “This is just so beyond what I realized it was.” That’s when I became really obsessed with it. It just sounded so much better to me than anything else even though it was “old” music. It just sounded really relevant and held up against grunge.

When did you gain enough confidence in your Zeppelin playing that you were ready to take the next step and form a band and go out and play in front of people?

Sometimes I’m still not sure I can do it. Every night is an adventure. I still don’t think I’m good enough and I hope, in a way, that I never will because I think that’s the minute you die as an artist. It took a while to wrap my head and fingers around this music. I didn’t grow up playing Jimmy Page so to get my head around everything he was doing, it was a lot, there’s so much going into everything he does. It took me a while before I really felt comfortable enough to just let it go and play.

I interviewed the singer from ZOSO last year. He told me that the band rehearses regularly because they know that Zeppelin fans are very critical and expect every note to be played the way Zeppelin played them. Do you every worry that fans will call you out for playing the wrong note or “going off script”?

I can’t worry about that. Who even knows what they played? When we made the first record with (producer) Eddie Kramer, one of greatest things he ever said to me – it was great but was dissing both me and Jimmy (Page) at the same time – he goes, “You know, you’ve really got Jimmy down. You even play his mistakes.” He was jabbing at me. But, that’s part of it. The beauty of music like that is that it was of the moment. There were nights when they just weren’t good.

I believe deeply in the spontaneity and the momentness of being a musician and that live performance. Sometimes I don’t bother to learn something that well because it’s exciting for me to get up there and kind of see what happens. Believe me, I’ve fallen on my face a lot. But when you allow that moment, things will come out of your instrument that could not come out if you just study and it becomes a rote exercise of just spitting out some exact thing. There will be moments when your playing will just take you to places that you can’t imagine.

You’ve put out 2 CDs of Led Zeppelin covers, including your newest release which is your interpretation of Led Zeppelin 1 – song-for-song. Do you make any money off CD sales or do you have to pay it all back to Led Zeppelin for covering their songs?

We pay publishing royalties. For every song we record for every album, we have to pay something like $.08 a song for every album sold. They get a publishing royalty for every album we sell. But we don’t need permission to record that music. It’s hard to make good money at all on records these days. Our first record sold pretty well so we made all our money back. It was kind of an expensive record to make – we used big studios, we recorded the old fashioned way with a famous producer, and we recorded to 2-inch tape. Bands don’t do that anymore.

Do you keep tabs on bands like ZOSO and other Led Zeppelin tribute and cover bands?

Honestly, I don’t keep track of those bands. I’m aware of some of them. Some of them play the same places we do, that’s my business so I have to know that. But, I’m not really concerned with what they do.

I’ve always felt like Lez Zeppelin was it’s own entity. I had people that really wanted to package us with other tribute bands. There’s a whole circuit you can play but I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to steer us towards more of an original band course. There could be big money in the tribute band thing, but I’m not concerned with that.

Ultimately, it’s served the band well. We’ve done things that tribute bands have never done. We were the first so-called tribute band to play festivals like Download and I’m pretty proud of that.

The special Rock on the Range pre-party is free for Rock on the Range weekend ticket holders and takes place at Crew Stadium. Red Line Chemistry kicks off the show at 7pm, Lez Zeppelin follow at 7:45, Danko Jones plays at 8:35 and Steel Panther closes out the party at 9:30.

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