Robert Plant and Shifting Spaces

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Plant extralargeDennis Elsas knows how to get the stars taking and put them at ease. To wit, when he casually invited John Lennon in 1974 to stop by sometime for his Saturday afternoon shift at WNEW-FM in New York City – the legendary album rock station where Elsas was heard on the air for over a quarter century and also served as music director – the former Beatle ended up spending hours with Dennis sharing his favorite songs and even reading live commercials and the weather report on air… plus talking about whether the Beatles would ever reunite, his struggle to stay in America and much more regarding his life and music. Over the years he’s conducted intimate and revelatory interviews with such iconic artists as The Who’s Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, Ray Davies, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia and numerous others.

The tradition continues today at New York’s WFUV-FM, where Elsas keeps the progressive album rock radio tradition he helped create wonderfully alive on his 2-6 PM weekday afternoon shift. Dennis also shares his memories and extensive knowledge of rock music on Sirius/XM’s Classic Vinyl channel every Friday and Saturday evening. You can listen to many of the interviews from his archives at www.denniselsas.com.

Not long ago, Robert Plant called Dennis from England to talk about his time exploring the backroads of America while living in Austin, TX for a number of years with then-girlfriend Patty Griffin, his return to the English Midlands where he was raised, his love for football – or soccer, as we call it here – and his then-new album lullaby and… the Ceaseless Roar (on Nonesuch Records), and most recent band he recorded the disc and recently toured with, The Sensational Space Shifters.

Dennis Elsas: You did a promotional video in advance of the album and on it we see you driving in a car and you say “These songs are an ode to life and love and the fragile adventure that you set out upon unknowingly and unwittingly,” which kind of sets the table for the idea. It certainly set the table for this beautiful visual representation. Are you in the English countryside?

Robert Plant: Yeah. Well right now I’m in the city of Worcester, which was one of the hotbeds of the great Civil War between Cromwell and Charles the First, and I’m surrounded by Cromwellians as I speak. Uh, yes, of course, I mean that’s what I came back to. I came back to everything I’d thought I left. I mean talk about coming and going fast. I was raised not too far from here and I travel all around the place, going “Baby Baby” all the time.

Related: Plant’s new album, Carry Fire, is coming in October

So I got to a point down the line where I thought, well, maybe now I need to change cassette, change places just see what it’s like in another culture. And I was welcomed into America not just as an entertainer but as a friend and a sort of a yeah with so many musicians and stuff. And I finally had time to absorb America, kind of off duty if you like. But as time went on, I started missing my family and I missed lots of… the climate to be honest. I missed so many things. I missed the ancientness of my own culture.The antiquarian elements of the Welsh borders of Britain, and that’s how you see it. I didn’t want to become too detached. And I was welcomed back and everybody said, “Planty, you’re back. It’s time for cider.” And got the old apple juice out and now I don’t know what I’m talking about. (laughs)

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DE: Well you’re back with a terrific album. It was interesting as I was listening to “Pocketful of Golden,” there was no way to avoid the fact that there was a line in there that harkened right back to a song you had written. In fact, I think it was the first song that you wrote all of the lyrics for for Zeppelin.

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DE: “If the sun refused to shine” in “Pocketful of Golden,” were you referencing the “Thank You” song?

RP: Yes. I wanted to start off with something that would arrest people and go, “Oh gosh, he’s got nothing left to say.” And then of course from there on the story elaborates so it’s not just a teen ballad anymore. It’s a sort of extension of what you give, what you get, and what you pay to get where you are.

DE: Radio people like myself always like songs about musicians and bands listening to the radio. And there’s a wonderful song in here called “Turn It Up.” Which seems to be part of a journey in which you’re driving in perhaps Mississippi.

RP: Yeah, that’s right.

DE: Tell me a little bit about that song.

RP: Well I had time in America where I had no calendar and no diary, and I had time to explore. I traveled through West Texas and down into the Mexican borders and stuff. And I traveled to see my friends in town there by Tutwiler [MS] and Clarksdale [MS]. I came out of the hill country on the Tennessee border and made my way from Como [TN] in the hill country and dropped down into the flat lands there, which I’d read about and heard about and listened to songs about since I was 14. I‘ve read all the [folklorists] Alan Lomax stuff and Samuel B. Charters, listened to Studs Terkel interviewing Son House, and all that kind of stuff. And I’ve always been intrigued by that culture of Afro-America, and the huge struggle, and the sort of development and a new dignity, I’d like to hope.

So I was driving now as a total voyeur rather than a musician on a tour, and I was just writing down what I thought and I felt. And it was the first opportunity that I really had to do that – drive through torrential rain like I was back in Wales… but I wasn’t. I was nowhere near the Welsh thing. Nowhere near the British thing. I was right in the middle of post-Africa America.

DE: I was fortunate enough to see the show that you did with the Space Shifters in Brooklyn [at] “Celebrate Brooklyn” in Prospect Park.

RP: That was great, yeah.

DE: I loved that performance and I realized as I was watching it – I’ve seen you all through the years including with Alison Krauss and Band of Joy on several times – but it seemed as if now, being back with the Sensational Space Shifters, there were no boundaries. There was this wonderful free mix of whatever it is that the new album is a reflection of, and as you said, when you would sort of give a little shout-out to your past, you could move easily in and out of that. So I think the audience that had come to relive their past a little bit was made comfortable, and then you were just taking them on this new adventure. Is that the game plan?

Space Shifters

RP: Yeah, I think it’s a mélange and every artist has that will or wish, and you have to go about building it with everything considered. And you have to make sure that, ironically and selfishly, the first thing you consider is yourself. So I just found that by melding with these guys, there’s a sort of humor and a sort of humanitarian crazy sort of ambience about everything that we do, so sometimes we can dwell on the song with great drama, sometimes it’ll be a crescendo within the song. Sometimes it’ll go to nothing at all, just leave me singing by myself against nothing. And then maybe Dave [Smith] plays a little thing on the hi hat. Because he thinks I can’t keep time. Drummers do that. Yeah, it’s just a freedom. Freedom with a great deal of history that I have to and am very happy to acknowledge and show respect to.

DE: So basically the Strange Sensations have morphed into Sensational Space Shifters with the addition of a few additional musicians?

RP: Yeah, Strange Sensations [Plant’s 2001-’07 backing band] have morphed and our original drummer [Clive Deamer] during the interim when I was with Patty [Griffin] and with Alison Krauss and with Buddy [Miller] and so on, and he went off and worked with Radiohead for a year and everybody did different things. And when I came back to the UK, I called [multi-instrumentalist] Justin [Adams] and I said “I’ve got to wail again, man. It’s time to wail.” And so he brought in his drummer that he’d been working with, Dave Smith. Dave, at the age of 18, saved all his money and flew to West Africa and went full-in to learning West African rhythms. So not only can he play tough, sort of rock-infused music, but he’s got this kind of poly-rhythmic thing which works great with Juldeh [Camara], as you saw, you know, the West African thing. He’s right there. It’s not like getting an average drummer and teaching him how to play that stuff. It’s really… the crescendos and the detail is amazing, but the effect is even better.

DE: So America has suddenly fallen in love with soccer, and I think you at least have to tell us a little bit about the Wolverhampton Wanderers and your involvement with them.

Wolverhampton_Wanderers_FC_logo_(1996-2002)RP: My involvement with them has been millions and millions of hangovers, thousands and thousands of tears. Girlfriends who have left me because I had to make a choice… because I had to go to the Wolves… or to the dogs. So I just love the idea of this community of crackpots, crazy guys and women who go week after week, month after month, year after year. I sit next to the same guy – I think he’s got cystitis – and he goes to the toilet and the Wolves score a goal and he comes back feeling deflated but feeling better. It’s just the comedy of life, and the irony and the sort of pain of it all. It’s just great; you know what it’s like. It’s just like being married, except you marry a bloody soccer team, which is nuts.

Listen to the original audio interview on WFUV here.

Dennis Elsas
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  1. Flowerpower
    #1 Flowerpower 30 September, 2019, 15:21

    Yes! This. Real. Raw. Craving for more.

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