Ultimate Interviews

Ultimate Interviews

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Steph Paynes ~ Lez Zeppelin

Rock and Roll has always had this stereotype that women can't rock as heavy or loud as their male counterparts. But in 2004, some ladies from New York picked up instruments and set forth to prove the music world wrong. 'Lez Zeppelin' first made mainstream news in 2005 when SPIN magazine printed an article by Chuck Klosterman where he described the rise of bands such as Lez Zeppelin as a "kind of multilayered cultural phenomenon." He also referred to the ladies as: 
"the most powerful all-female band in rock history" 
Photo by  Pat Benic

A few years later, in 2007, and after touring the US and  Europe, then members, Steph Paynes, Sarah McLellan, Helen Destroy and Lisa Brigantino chose 6 Led Zeppelin songs (and 2 originals) to release on their debut album. Incredibly it was produced by Eddie Kramer, (who had also worked along side Led Zeppelin) at Electric Lady Studios in New York. Their success awarded them invitations to some of the biggest rock festivals, namely Download Festival in the UK, Rock am Ring and Rock Im Park in Germany and the famous Voodoo Festival in New Orleans.

After a lineup change, Steph Paynes, Shannon Conley, Megan Thomas and Leesa Harrington-Squyres went into the studio in 2010 to record their second album. Recorded at Pie Studios in Glen Cove, NY the ladies did an incredible replication of Led Zeppelin's debut album. Staying true to honour the legacy of Zeppelin, they used all the same analog gear and recording techniques that Zep used back in 1969. They also used all the same vintage equipment that the boys did for their album.

I am very honoured for the opportunity to  have the lovely Steph Paynes answer some questions for us for this interview. But first, some introductions.

LZ~UFP: For those who may not be familiar, who is currently in the group?

Photo by Kyra Kverno

Steph Paynes: The group currently features: 

Leesa Harrington-Squyres - drums and percussion

Shannon Conley - vocals/harmonica

Steph Paynes - guitars, mandolin and theremin

Megan Thomas - bass/keys/mandolin 

LZ~UFP: When and what was your first exposure to Led Zeppelin? What was it about their music that made you decide that you wanted to not only be in a band that performed as a tribute to Zeppelin, but an all female band?

Steph Paynes:  Led Zeppelin was and always has been ubiquitous! However, it probably wasn't until the late '90's that I visited it in a certain way - from a musician's point of view, not just that of a fan/listener.  I was struck then, almost 20 years after the demise of the group, by the revelation that this music still sounded way superior to most of what had followed, and even more relevant, fresh and invigorating against the backdrop of so much bombastic and one-dimensional rock that was being lauded as "important".  I was sitting around one day in-between gigs and had the (fateful) thought, "wouldn't it be fantastic to play this music?"  Digging into what Jimmy Page had bequeathed and finding a batch of worthy and willing girls to join me, turned out to be - aside from preposterous - an incredibly challenging, but endlessly rewarding pursuit.

Photo by  Pat Benic
LZ~UFP:  Can you describe your first performance, the reactions/reviews?  After that first performance, was is it all that you had hoped it to be and what gave you the drive to continue playing?

Steph Paynes: I seem to remember that the very first performance of the band was in a small club in New York City called 'The Continental'.  We had spent almost six months in rehearsal before I thought the band could sneak out into the world.  It was around Hallowe'en, so we were wearing some kind of crazy get-ups and as we charged into the second number, my Marshall amp blew a fuse and put a halt to the whole thing.  Luckily, we were able to snatch a replacement amp from the opening band.  Still, despite all this, and the unavoidable roughness of the first gigs, the audience went crazy.  The club owner, a guy I'd known for years who was famous for his disinterest, maybe even disdain, for most of the local groups, cornered me after the show and offered me a monthly residency on the spot.  It was at that point that I knew I was onto something.  Of course, I said no to the residency.

Photo by Pat Benic

LZ~UFP: You worked with Eddie Kramer, who also worked along side Zeppelin, what was that like and do you believe he took your work to a different level? Will there be a follow up to LZ I?

Steph Paynes:  It was quite surreal in many ways to work with Eddie Kramer.  You know, I used to tease the group that "one day we'll get Eddie to engineer our album, ha ha" and then, it actually manifested.  There you have it! But, aside from hearing that recognizable voice coming from the control room, it was a rarefied opportunity to work with someone so legendary and someone from that era.  It was a little intimidating at first - to be certain -- but he was completely supportive and confident in the band's ability to reinterpret the music and bring something fresh and powerful to it.  He didn't try to replicate.  We got more into that with our second album, 'Lez Zeppelin I", where we took pains to record using all of the same vintage gear and in a very purist way to match the vibe, sound and combustion of that original, first release.  That project was intensely musical and brought us all to a much deeper artistic level.  We're very proud of it.

Photo by  Pat Benic

LZ~UFP: You were the first tribute band to be asked to play some big festivals, namely Rock-Am-Ring, Rock-Im-Park, Bonnaroo etc. How did you feel about that, and how did you prepare for the shows?  Did you feel that your own interpretations of Zep's material were received alright?  Was there added pressure for the 2008 Bonnaroo festival, seeing that it was misreported as LED Zeppelin being there, not yourselves?

Steph Paynes:  Yes, we have been incredibly blessed to have been asked to play some of the biggest rock festivals in the world - a first for a band like this.  We're actually off to play the Isle of Wight in June! (Tick that one off the bucket list)  It is something I'm very proud of, but it is also something this band is extremely good at; festivals really are where we shine brightest.
In the case of Bonnaroo, yes, there was a whole media hullabaloo around our appearance as the press release announcing the line-up was misreported by the Associated Press, who published the story that LED Zeppelin was going to headline the festival.  When the correction had to be made the next day in hundreds of publications throughout the world that LEZ -- not LED -- were going to appear, Lez Zeppelin received the kind of press you couldn't buy for millions of dollars. And yes, the upshot was that we were, indeed, a sort of "stand-in" for Led, which was harrowing if you thought about it too much!
Photo by Nick Attaway/Music Allies
But, we chose not to think about it that way. Instead, we focused on how we were going to prove ourselves and play our hearts out.  And, when we came out of our trailer at midnight on that opening night at Bonnaroo, and the lights came up and a cheer from twenty thousand or so came at us as we approached the stage - really, at that moment we were not completely sure we were NOT Led Zeppelin!  We all looked at each other with absolute wonder as if we had walked into a dream.  It fueled us and we played into it and I think it was one of the greatest gigs we ever played.  The crowd was ecstatic through the whole thing and the next day a photo of the group covered the front page of the daily Bonnaroo newspaper with the headline: "It might as well have been the real thing!" Just magical. 

LZ~UFP:  Zeppelin was known for always improvising during their concerts.  From your first show to recent shows, have you tried to change up the performances, and if so, how?  Do you have little rituals you do before getting on stage?

Photo by Michael Strider
Steph Paynes:  Yes, absolutely.  It's the onstage spontaneity and aliveness that really fuels our performances, and it is the focus, really, of what we do.  When we add new songs to our repertoire, we first learn the basics of the recorded version and then always turn to the live performances as the guide for our own improvisations.  We believe deeply that the beauty and power of Led Zeppelin's live shows lay in that rarefied communication between musicians.  This is the point of the whole thing.  It definitely requires a certain type of musician:  one who's able to listen to and play with another in the moment; and one who no longer needs to think about the mechanics of song and technique, you know?  That's the challenge, though.  As for rituals, there are many.  But, most are secretive....

Photo by Reto Toscano

LZ~UFP:  From all the Zeppelin numbers that you perform, what three must be on a setlist, and why?

Steph Paynes: Well, we never insist that any songs must be on the setlist -- or not; well, with the exception of "Stairway", which we refused to play for years!  But, we usually find that 'Rock and Roll', 'Whole Lotta Love'. 'The Ocean', 'Kashmir' and 'The Song Remains the Same' are in good solid rotation.  But, then I could name ten others...

LZ~UFP:  Are there any Zeppelin songs, that you would love to have in the setlist, but for whatever reason, they're not?

Photo by  Pat Benic
Steph Paynes: Not really.  In fact, we often play extremely deep cuts.  However, we do regret that we must often choose between some of our favourites because they tend to be the really long, extended, epic ones, such as 'How Many More Times', 'In My Time of Dying', 'No Quarter', 'When the Levee Breaks' and 'Dazed and Confused', etc.  If we indulged ourselves, some of our shows would probably be four hours long!

LZ~UFP:  If you were asked to describe in one sentence Lez Zeppelin, what would it be?

Steph Paynes:  I think Lenny Kaye did it best on the liner notes of our last album, 'Lez Zeppelin I':

"They are the Other, The mirror image, gazing upon the fairest of all rock bands, refracting reflection into Blakean dualities of light become dark, devil or angel, good bad (but not evil)"
Photo by  Pat Benic

LZ~UFP: I was blown away at your violin bow playing. I also appreciate how elements like the bow and doubleneck are in your show. Do you study the old Zeppelin footage and find things to add to your own show, but with your own special way?

Steph Paynes: Yes, I definitely studied the bow solo at first, seeking insight into the ways and means of what Jimmy was pulling from the ether, as it were. 

But, at a certain point the solo started to take on new shapes that were formed by my own experimentation onstage with volume, echo, effects and the mood and quality of the moment. I believe that the 'bow solo' is better delivered as a cadenza rather something to be learned 'note for note'.  Although, I often include some of Jimmy's signature moments, the solo has definitely become an expression of my own musical persona.  It is endlessly surprising and creative for me in different ways each night and one of my favourite parts of the show. 
Copyright 2013 Edward W. Plain
LZ~UFP: Where would you like to see yourself and the band in the future?  Would it include more original material, Zeppelin material?  You've already been to many countries and involved in big name festivals, is there still one thing you would really want to do, sort of like a bucket list for the band?

Steph Paynes: For years we've always joked that we will not stop  until we play MSG! (Madison Square Garden) I think it's a crazy thought, sure; and yet, why not?  Stranger things have already happened on this wild and crazy ride!  But, in all seriousness, I think really that the ultimate moment would probably be if we could share the stage with one of the guys.  Then we'd see what sort of spells might be conjured.

Photo by  Pat Benic
Just recently, June 14, 2013,  the ladies performed at The Garage. A club in London. In the audience, was none other than Jimmy Page. Thank you to Steph for sharing this great picture of her and Jimmy. Steph, beautiful as always and Jimmy equally handsome. Infectious smiles.
Photo by Judy Totten
Extra special thanks to Steph and the ladies of Lez Zeppelin for participating in this interview. I gained an insight into what makes these ladies rock just as hard, or even harder as any male band out there. They step on that stage with passion, excitement and love for the music.  In their own way they are continuing to keep the legacy of Led Zeppelin alive. Be sure to check them out when they are in your town. 

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