What do you get when you combine a group of guys with the desire to play some of the classic tracks from one of the world's greatest rock bands with an appetite for a favorite New York eatery's sandwich? Led Blimpie folks.
Fast forward to 2005 and Led Blimpie took its first flight. I had the great honor of interviewing these fun, hard working guys. They provided me with some entertaining insight into what keeps this blimp afloat.
|Photo by Bjorn Bolinder|
Thor Fields: Guitar
Jon Conver: Vocals
Matt Nonnenmacher: Drums
Joe Nerve: Bass
Frank Picarazzi: Keyboards, Backing vocal (not pictured)
LZUFP~ Can you provide a little history about the band. When you all got together and decided that this is what you wanted to do?
Thor Fields: Led Blimpie is about total passion and homage to the music of Led Zeppelin. We are fans first and foremost. I think that's what people love about our shows. It's not about recreating something from the past. The music is just as alive and valid today as it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. I formed the first incarnation of the band in 2005. Having been in a bunch of original projects, I noticed how the crowd always got SO much more into it whenever we played a Zep tune. I got addicted to that energy; the rapport between the audience and the stage. It's very powerful.
Jon Conver: I can't speak on the entire history of the band...I joined the band about 2 years ago after they were already established with a fan base. I replaced their old singer when I auditioned for the band after a co-worker recommended me to Thor. I've also always wanted to sing in a Led Zeppelin band. I worked in Times Square when I first moved to NY and always caught the tribute shows at BB Kings. I remember seeing a Zeppelin tribute there and thinking I could do what the singer was doing and more. This band just kinda fell into my lap.
|Photo by Cal R. Carter|
Frank Picarazzi: I came into the band at the early stages, in November of '05. At that time, the lineup was completely different, except for Thor, who is really the heart and soul of the group. The group was raw, not as polished as it is now, but from the first rehearsal it was evident that everyone involved loved playing this music and did so with a lot of passion and intensity. For me it was such a treat to play these songs, especially on keys, which at that time was a new venture for me (I'm originally a drummer).
LZUFP~ Who came up with the name 'Led Blimpie'? Is there a story behind the name?
Thor Fields: It was a light bulb moment for me if you know what I mean. You see, when I was about five years old, I lived across the street from NYC's first Blimpie sandwich shop located on 55th St. and 8th Avenue. We had a fire escape with a direct view of the restaurant across the street and every day, I would see this huge, fat man sit at a table by the window and devour a large sub. In those days, the Blimpie restaurants had this cool wallpaper with characters traversing the world in blimps while delivering sandwiches. I used to daydream that the fat man I saw everyday was one of those characters come to life. I became a child-actor, performing on Broadway, television and film. As I entered adolescence and developed a passion for the music of Led Zeppelin, I taught myself to play guitar, learning all the songs note-for-note. Years later while trying to come up with a band name, I happened to be walking past that same Blimpie Sandwich shop where I grew up and that's when the light went off in my head.
|Photo by Shade Rupe|
Frank Picarazzi: My assumption is that it was a take on the word 'blimp', which of course is another name for zeppelin. At some point, silliness took over and the concept was stretched to the sandwich chain 'Blimpie'. It works out well because the iconic sub sandwich can be used in so many different settings; my favorite is the one of a Blimpie sub over the old man's back from Zoso, so instead of hauling sticks, he's carrying a delicious, spicy sub sandwich.
LZUFP~ 'The Sandwich' seems to play an inportant, but fun part of the marketing of the band. Who came up with this concept? Is it in fact a real sandwich and have you tried it?
|Photo by Cal R. Carter|
Jon Conver: I think it was in reference to the original line-up being heavier guys. It was a way of not taking the whole thing too seriously. Also the sandwich looked like the Hindenburg.
LZUFP~ When you decided to use the beloved Zeppelin pictures and album covers with the inclusion of the sandwich, were you worried that you would get some backlash for trying to make a parody out of Zeppelin? If so, what would you say to those who were upset about it?
Thor Fields: Have a closer look. Actually, most of them are not actually Zeppelin's artwork at all. In some cases I've hired an artist to make a similar illustration, like on our 'Zep I' parody and also the Apollo Logo. In others, I've recreated similar artwork using photoshop. Most Zeppelin fans get the joke immediately and the response is almost always positive. Wear a Led Blimpie t-shirt out on the street and you'll see exactly what I mean! I was never concerned that it would offend a Zep fan. I was a little worried in the beginning that the Blimpie sandwich company might try to stop me. But they recently contacted me and asked us to be a part of their 50th year celebration which is happening next year.
Frank Picarazzi: Not in the slightest. Anyone who hears us play, and hears how much preparation and dedication we put into the arrangements and the performances, would know immediately how serious we take the music. The humor angle is just a fun bit of entertainment.
LZUFP~ We'd like to know a bit more about who makes up the band:
Thor Fields: First and foremost, each member of Led Blimpie plays himself. We don't try to recreate the original members of Zeppelin. I knew I wanted to put together a Zep tribute and knew that I wanted to stay away from the "impersonator" aspect that so many bands do. When I go to see a band play live, I really don't want to watch someone posing and playing a role. I want to see the musicians GET INTO the music and make it their own. Are you aware of the term 'the Uncanny Valley'? It's a term used in the field of human robotics and computer animation that describes the feeling of revulsion felt when one observes something that looks and moves ALMOST, but not perfectly, like a natural human being. That's what I always felt whenever I saw a dress-up band. The closer an impersonator gets, the weirder it looks to me.
Each musician in Led Blimpie brings something special and unique to the performance...we just happen to be playing the Zeppelin repertoire. Our fans get to rock out to the music they love while getting to know the guys in the band. It's a win win situation.
|Photo by Bjorn Bolinder|
Thor Fields: Jon's got an incredible vocal range and this huge rock-star personality on stage, yet, so professional and easy to work with behind the scenes. He picked up blues-harp after joining the band and man! He can play that thing like it's a part of his body. Total commitment, focus and high energy.
Jon Conver: "Famous" (chuckles) I like that. I bring an actor's understanding of Robert Plant as an undeniable musical, sexual presence. His androgyny, his fashion sense...there are bits of other singers' mannerisms in my performance as well. Roger Daltrey, Axl Rose, Mick Jagger for instance.
Joe - Who has played with Bumblefoot and his own band 'The Nerve', what do you think is the key element about his playing that brings the magic that John Paul Jones brought to Zeppelin?
|Photo by Bjorn Bolinder|
Thor Fields: Joe has an incredible sense of 'pocket' and a unique way of communicating it. I can be playing something I've played a thousand times and Joe will give me some new little clue and all of a sudden the piece is brand new again! 'Royal Orleans' is one example, for instance.
Jon Conver: Joe brings an understanding of musical style beyond our own. He can tap into funk, punk, metal when he needs to and that helps us shape the groove of the music. He's like the groove doctor who can diagnose the missing element.
Joe Nerve: Jones' ability to write exactly what is needed to bring the best to each song, and to be able to inject feel that you no longer hear in the popular music kids are listening to today. He plays simply when it's needed, and tears it up when it should be torn up. 'Ramble On' is pure genius to me...and learning 'The Lemon Song' brought me to a whole new level of respect. In the breakdown, he does close to 3 minutes of heartfelt soloing over simple 12 bar blues, and never once repeats a single riff or phrase. And he does something different than that live every time also. I love when musicians are continually creating and renewing themselves, and their music. It keeps the music alive.
|Photo by Bjorn Bolinder|
Matt Nonnenmacher: As far as I can remember, my drumming was ALWAYS associated with Led Zeppelin to some extent from the very first time I sat behind a kit. I totally remember that the very first beat I EVER played was from 'You Shook Me' (Led Zep I), when I was 14 years old. Afterwards, I spent entire afternoons working (hard) to learn Zeppelin songs note for note, including the 'Moby Dick' drum solo and these famous bass drum/floor tom triplets, the very staple of Bonham drumming style.
Because this technique requires a very high velocity and endurance of the right foot, I was naturally tempted to switch to a double bass drum pedal - out of laziness - but my parents (and I still thank them for this today) refused to buy me one unless I got higher grades in school. This seemingly unimportant fact had two major consequences in my life:
1) I learnt to play the bass drum triplets with the right foot only, faithful to Bonham's spirit (unlike his own son Jason, by the way, who shamelessly uses a double bass pedal); and
2) I got good grades, obtained a PhD and became a scientist.
As for our association with Joe, it is pretty simple really. Since drumming for all these years has messed up my hearing, I usually do not understand what he tells me, so I just nod to his comments and keep on doing the same thing. It has been working pretty well so far:))
Jon Conver: Matt's unbelievable! He just loses himself within the songs. Bonzo was the anchor of Zeppelin and Matt is the same in this band. I lose myself in the songs listening to him. Bonzo played heavy and tight and Matt is the same. Joe and Matt lock into one another so that Thor and I can improvise, but we always look to Matt to bring us back to the form. I like to think Thor, Joe and I give him license to improvise often also. Zeppelin was all about unplanned magical moments that happened from night to night.
Thor Fields: Matt is the best. That is all. :)
Thor - When did you discover Zeppelin and realize you wanted to learn and play the music? What are some things that you think the other guys would say about you and what you bring to the band?
Thor Fields: I was a teenager in the 80's and I wasn't too keen on the music I was hearing on MTV at the time. I was into the rock of the 60's and 70's. I was 15 when a friend played 'Black Dog' for me on an old 45rpm vinyl single. I remember it as if it was today! I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The energy! The music starting and stopping like that. The call and response! We must have cranked that thing 15 times in a row. There was something hilarious about it to me. The virtuosity and audacity of it all. Being exposed to Zeppelin was like a magical door opening up for me.
The other guys would probably say that I am a bit obsessed.
|Photo by Bjorn Bolinder|
Jon Conver: No one knows the music of Zeppelin better than Thor. I don't think Jimmy Page knows the music of Zeppelin as well as Thor knows it. It's literally in his blood. He knows the story behind any song we play, the form, what inspired it, when it was recorded, the production techniques, everything. What's awesome about that knowledge is that it allows him to make educated decisions about how to approach the songs. We can stay faithful to the spirit of the songs and still find our own arrangements. He can find the formula in the most unpredictable of songs and give you the map. He knows every nuance and sometimes how every part was played. I have yet to see him scared to attempt anything Page ever played. That fearlessness is inspiring.
Sometimes performing as a four-piece band, on occasion, depending on schedules and the size of the gig, they transform to a five-piece band. Enter Frank Picarazzi on keyboard and backing vocals. Frank, a rock & roller at heart, is an accomplished percussionist, vibraphonist and arranger in everything from classical, jazz, fusion to pop. His compositions have been performed from Boston to New York to Italy. He has even played Carnegie Hall!
LZUFP~ There are times you perform as a 4-piece and sometimes with the addition of Frank Picarazzi, as a 5-piece. What does Frank bring to the band?
|Photo by Bjorn Bolinder|
Thor Fields: Frank brings the entire history of music to us and delivers it to us with a drummer's sensibility. He is one of those guys that can play you just about any piece of music that he's ever heard. And I do mean ANY! Classical, Jazz, Fusion. He plays keyboard in Led Blimpie, but the fact that he is originally a percussionist, gives us that edge of having a three piece rhythm section.One thing I love about this band, that sets us apart from most Zep acts, is that as a 5-piece, we can properly perform a lot of the fully orchestrated album versions. Of course, we're gonna put that 'live' flavour to it regardless, but having both keys and bass grooving full-out honours the brilliance of those albums, which are masterpieces. 'Fool in the Rain' is a great example of this. We got keys and bass going at the same time, Jon plays some added percussion as well for the Samba part and I'm playing guitar with a whistle in my mouth. Sometimes we go out as a four piece and Jon plays 2nd guitar, which lends itself to those beautiful harmonized guitars, that 'guitar army' that Page did on the albums. Most Zep tributes don't do that kind of stuff.
LZUFP~ As much as the 'sandwich' is an important 'member' of the band, you have to tell us about your 'mascot' Robert Planet. When did he hop on board the Blimpie and what could a fan expect showing up at a gig and having the chance of meeting him?
|Photo by Kayleigh Morin|
Thor Fields: Planet is hilarious! We had some mutual friends. Someone commented, "He looks like a Fat Robert Plant, you should get him in on the act." Turns out that he is a helluva comedian and clown by trade and also a life-long Zep fan, so it was a natural fit.
Having him around is another way of poking fun at the whole tribute band/impersonator thing. I don't want to give away the act, but suffice to say that if you see Robert Planet at one of our shows, you're in for a treat.
Jon Conver: I think he helps us not take anything too seriously and still play great shows. If you see him at a show he's gonna make you laugh, he'll get you on the contact list and he'll dance with you. What I love about him being there, is that we work really hard to play this catalog of music, and he reminds me to have fun. I forget to do that sometimes cause these songs aren't easy.
LZUFP~ It seems that all of you have other projects, not just the tribute band. Do you seem to keep Led Blimpie more as a hobby and not so much a job? Do you have difficulties juggling everything?
Thor Fields: It's not a hobby. It's a passion. We've travelled as far as Hawaii to play gigs and we're willing to go further. We're currently mixing a nine song Zeppelin Tribute Album that we just recorded. It stands up to any that you've heard. There's a lot of competition in the Zep tribute game and so far, we are totally self-produced, so yes, we each do stay active in other pursuits...get us some representation and a tour and we're gone!
Joe Nerve: Playing music never felt like a job to me. Nor a hobby. Just something I love doing. My preference has always been to play original music, and I'm happiest when I'm playing my own music...but playing Zep comes naturally to me, and there's so much room for improvisation and putting my feel into it, that I never feel as though I'm doing covers. I also can't remember the last time I was in less than two bands at the same time, and I've juggled as many as five. As long as I'm up front with everyone involved, stay true to myself regarding my limits, and keep an accurate calendar, all works out fine.
LZUFP~ What is it about Zeppelin that you think is the reason they are still loved by so many fans around the world to this day? Can you recall your first exposure to Zeppelin and what it meant to you? What was the first Zep song you learned to play?
Thor Fields: Very simple. Led Zeppelin is the very best rock music there is. It speaks to people on a deep, ancient level. The boys were spectacular artists who were able to transmute something eternal into this material world. 'Over The Hills and Far Away' was the first song I learned note-for-note. It took me a few years because I didn't even know how to play guitar at the time. I picked up the guitar for the specific purpose of learning to play Zeppelin.
Jon Conver: I think Zeppelin was the perfect marriage of everything you could want in a band. They came along at the perfect time to fill the void the Beatles left in popular music. There's a superb sense of musicianship and taste to what they did, and it also had a sense of danger and provocativeness to it. What's not to like about it? The first song I remember hearing was 'Stairway To Heaven'. I had heard so much about it, and finally understood what all the hype was about. The first song I learned to play was 'Over The Hills and Far Away'. I drove my mom crazy with that opening guitar figure.
|Photo by Cal R. Carter|
Joe Nerve: I don't remember the very first time I heard Zep (no doubt from my brother's bedroom stereo), but I distinctly remember writing one of the first things I ever did on acoustic guitar, running to show it to my brother and him laughing and playing for me 'Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You' (which is what it was I was playing). It was the first time I consciously heard that song, but I'm sure it was subconsciously etched in my brain from my brother's blasting stereo. Pretty sure I was blasting 'The Partridge Family' at the time. Started liking Zep more than them immediately following that. Hey, I was just a dumb kid before that.
Frank Picarazzi: Plain simple, the music. It just sounds so good. I know this is an overly simplistic answer, but as I've gotten older I've learned not to complicate things. The music of Led Zeppelin was so masterfully crafted and performed, the pieces fit so well together, and the themes are timeless. The sum is greater than the whole of the parts, and those individual parts are top-of-class, so there you go.
LZUFP~ When creating a setlist for a performance, is it easy to pick the songs that you all collectively want to play? Are there some that don't make the list and why is that?
Thor Fields: We fight about it all the time! I always want to play the long epic songs. Achilles, Time of Dying, For Your Life, etc. We love to mix it up especially if we're doing a residency (recurring gig). That gives us a lot of freedom with the sets and sometimes we don't even write a set. We just ask the crowd what they wanna hear. We throw in stuff like 'The Crunge' and 'Night Flight'. One time, a guy walked up to the stage and handed me $80 to play 'Trampled Underfoot'. Of course, we obliged. I like that! But when we play the larger venues for the bigger crowds, you gotta give 'em what they want. The hits.
Jon Conver: We try to tailor the set to the audience, but we sometimes end up performing a song we said we wouldn't because someone requests it.
Joe Nerve: It's tough sometimes choosing between our personal favorities, and what we think the audience will want to hear. We're beginning to simplify the process by just letting Jon pick the songs. He's very respectful of our requests too if there's something we're really feeling we need to play on any particular night. Many nights we don't have any set lists, we let the audience choose whatever they want to hear. It's nice to have enough of Zep's repertoire to enable us to do that.
|Photo by Bjorn Bolinder|
LZUFP~ If you had any of the Zep boys in the audience, what song would you want to play that would pay tribute to them and show Led Blimpie's talent?
Thor Fields: 'Achilles Last Stand' for Jimmy. Or maybe 'Carouselambra'! Zep never performed that one live. They had rehearsed it and were planning on putting it in their set when Bonham passed. Did you know that Page and Jones rehearsed it in 2008, after the reunion when they were considering touring without Plant. It's one of those few Zep songs that gets a bad rap. But I love it and I'd love to play it for the boys!
Jon Conver: I'd wanna play 'Heartbreaker' into 'Black Dog'. Those are the two strongest songs we do.
Joe Nerve: For me it would naturally be JPJ. And I think I'd have to say 'Custard Pie' - probably because it's what I'm feeling at this moment. Ask me tomorrow and I'd say something else. I chose 'Custard Pie' because I feel it's one of the Zep songs we add our own personality to the beat. We don't change it at all, but the funk influences that Matt and I share become undeniable when we're rocking that tune. I think JPJ would be happy to see us putting our personalities in there.
It’s very evident, that the boys from Led Blimpie are doing something they all enjoy and take great pride in. The passion and love of the music shines brightly at each performance. Gone are the stage costumes and wigs. What you get in place of that, is hard work, dedication to get the songs just right, and intensity from the first song to the last. This is a true tribute band who caters to the fans. Sometimes even putting the setlist away and allowing the audience to pick the tunes. It doesn't get any better than that. Not only do they perform renditions of Led Zeppelin's music with extreme precision, but they do so, all while having fun. You will leave a Led Blimpie show knowing that you witnessed not only musicians, but fans of Zeppelin getting the led out. And remember, when you’re out there taking in a Led Blimpie show, keep your eyes open for Robert Planet...you’ll never know what to expect.
Many thanks to Thor, Jon, Joe, Frank and Matt, for taking time out of their busy schedules. Without that, this interview would not have been possible.
Thanks to Cal R. Carter, Bjorn Bolinder, Kayleigh Morin and Shade Rupe for all photos.
Special thanks to Led Blimpie for all artwork.
Be sure to check out the links below to learn more about Led Blimpie, media and to find out when you can take in a Led Blimpie show near you.
Led Blimpie - Official Website
Led Blimpie - Official Facebook Page
Thor's Twitter Feed
Led Blimpie Official Youtube Channel
Follow Led Zeppelin~Ultimate Fan Page on:
LedZep UFP Official Facebook Page
LedZep UFP on Twitter
LedZep UFP on Tumblr