by G.W. Mercure
Lez Zeppelin, whose current members include Marlain Angelides, Leesa Harrignton Squyres, Joan Chew, and Steph Paynes, will be performing at Provincetown Town Hall Memorial Day weekend in a show presented by Payomet Performing Arts Center. But don’t call them a “cover band” or a “tribute band.” Paynes, the lead guitarist and founder of the band, prefers “The She-incarnation of Led Zeppelin.” And what cover band or tribute band wouldn’t claim to transcend the convention? But over the course of a highly enlightened and unexpected interview, Paynes proves it, and then some.
G.W. Mercure: Do you find that you relate to the songs as a fan, as an interpreter of the music, or some other way?
Steph Paynes: I need to think about that for a second. Because the answer is probably “in some other way.” I think it’s closest to “as an interpreter.” Fandom is certainly involved otherwise I wouldn’t have been doing this at all. But it goes way beyond being a fan, of course, and even beyond “interpreter,” because interpreting is kind of like you’re thinking about the music as if you were a classical soloist or something, or a conductor, and you’re thinking, “Well, this is what the composer meant…”
And I think there is some of that, but I think that what happens is even more mystical and organic than that. We’ve been playing this music a long time and the music becomes very much part of yourself. It’s like we take this music, almost as if we’ve written it, which is different than interpreting it because you’re a step away from it. It just takes you over, and you play it differently every time which you wouldn’t do if you were just interpreting.
It’s almost as if you know you’re the She-incarnation, you get so into it that there’s You in it as well as the original music. And you bring something to it which is kind of an added and even unpredictable dimension. And that’s where most of the fun is.
GWM: In the Talmud, there is a tradition known as Bat Kol, the feminine voice of God visiting people in the manner of a muse, and speaking through a person and all that person has to do is record what they are being made to say.
SP: I think that that’s it with Lez Zeppelin, that mystical element, however you want to define it, of some other powerful forces. The thing that you described is exactly what makes that music so powerful. And I think that the four guys in Led Zeppelin had it, or at least Jimmy (Page) had it for sure. But I think that there’s an enigma that nobody can put his finger on, and it’s what makes the whole thing so extraordinary. And it’s always been the thing I’m after.
That is so important, in my mind, to what the band does and it’s hard to really describe it, and most people love it but they don’t really know why, or they’re moved by it, or they’re commanded by it or they’re obsessed with it, but they don’t really know what. And they can’t imitate it if they don’t understand that, even if they’re the best musician in the world.
GWM: Is it about achieving something in the music that is intangible but isn’t necessarily perfect?
SP: Yes. Without a doubt, yeah. And there are people that look at Jimmy Page as, oh, he’s sloppy. Or you’ll hear stuff like Robert (Plant) singing a little off key on “Tangerine,” for example. Why would a modern-day producer leave that on? But I think that that’s exactly it, and it’s not so much that you don’t recognize them as being a little bit off or something; it’s just that the overall effect – the feeling of the music in the moment it’s created – is really what’s important.
But that kind of stuff like “Oh, Jimmy’s into black magic,” or whatever it is. I mean, yeah, there’s mysticism involved. And I think that that’s what it is. It’s a willingness to be in that realm and to throw yourself into it, no matter what the cost.That’s when it gets special. That voice, if it’s coming from Bat Kol, or whatever, that’s what we want to hear. We want to hear that. I mean, I know I do.
GWM: What can be expected from the show at Town Hall?
SP: Hopefully a little bit of what we were just talking about. Because I think that’s kind of what’s surprising about Lez Zeppelin: It’s not what people expect. They’re expecting to hear all the songs that they love, played the way that they know them and played well. They don’t know what else. But we do what we do, we do it naturally. We pick a set list, it’s always a little different, and then we explode into it. And we don’t really know where it’s gonna go.
And it’s so intense for us, even though I’ve been doing this band for nearly 20 years. Led Zeppelin were only around for 11 years, but it still remains amazing and fresh. It’s like a prayer, I guess, if you want to use the metaphor. Because there you are again, and your prayers aren’t always the same. And I think the audience is not ever expecting to be sort of in the presence of that kind of endeavor, of complete surrender to the music, and it’s very powerful, and people are kind of stunned. So, that’s, I guess, an answer to your question: People should expect what they didn’t expect.
GWM: When that happens, how much of it is Led Zeppelin’s music and how much of it is your approach?
SP: It becomes a kind of channeling. But is it Jimmy I’m channeling, or is it what Jimmy was channeling, or is it a channeling of the Bat Kol, or is it channeling Steph? I think it’s all the above. Hopefully that’s when it’s really spectacular.
We just did a gig and we launched into “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” and I had some trepidation about it because we hadn’t played it in a while and it’s really…it’s heavy. I take it seriously. And something just moved in the right way. By the time I got to the solo I was almost hysterically in tears on stage. It just took over. And I was completely lost to the emotion. And there was no thought whatsoever about what I was playing. It was just completely organic at that point.
And that’s what separates Lez Zeppelin. I think that has always been what’s most important to me. And I’ve tried to foster that through every incarnation of the band. And that’s what we do. And the musicians up there on that stage, they’re so good. That’s the real thing, playing with each other in the way that Led Zeppelin played. That’s the whole point. I think it’s more interesting and better. I would hope the audience does. I think they do, but I don’t think they’re expecting that.
I studied jazz first. I’m not saying that’s why, but I definitely grew up as a musician on that idea. It’s really weird, but I feel like it’s served me well to do it that way because so many concepts and ideas were drummed into me at a very early age.
There’ll be plenty of solos of Jimmy’s that are almost like they’re composed. But if we’re talking about blues, or we’re talking about the jam, and “Whole Lotta Love,” or “Dazed and Confused,” I really believe in that as a place to put yourself as a musician, and it’s very ballsy and it’s very presumptive, but you know, if you have a band that’s good enough to do that, that’s when it’s really cool. Really great. You jump off the cliff and you don’t always land cleanly. I mean, you have to be willing to jump and land on your face, which has happened, but that’s kind of the only way, I think.
Payomet Performing Arts Center presents Lez Zeppelin in concert, Saturday, May 27, 7 p.m. at Provincetown Town Hall, Commercial St. They will be joined by special guest opener, Erin McKeown. For advance tickets ($25-$40*/Members $22-$35) or information call 508.349.2929 or visit payomet.org.