Zepparella,
The TVD Interview

When I first listened to Zepparella, I wasn’t sure what to think at. I hadn’t previously given a lot of thought to tribute bands, but I hearing these ladies just crush some Led Zeppelin, I was blown away. I always dug the fact that they weren’t a carbon copy of Zep. They played it close enough to pay tribute, yet put enough of their own flair into it to really stand out.

Currently on a tour of the US, Zepparella had a show coming up at Jammin’ Java, and I was asked if I would interview guitarist Gretchen Menn, and drummer Clementine, the founding member of Zepparella. Their love of Zeppelin’s music goes deeper than your typical horn-throwing rock fanatic, and they are each outstanding musicians in their own right. I jumped at the opportunity, and after sound check was over, I was privileged to sit with Gretchen and Clementine, and among other things, ponder the possibility of a Loverboy tribute band.

What’s the latest with Zepparella?

Gretchen Menn: Well, we are a little more than halfway into this first kind of big, nationwide tour. Busy, playing a lot, driving a lot. Meeting new people. A lot of people have been supporting us for a long time.

Take us back to the beginning. Did it all start as a jam that grew into something bigger, or was the intent to pay homage all along?

Clementine: Gretchen and I were in a band that wasn’t playing as much as we wanted to play. I told her that I had always wanted to learn the catalog of Zeppelin, and she said she had wanted to do that too. We decided that we were going to get together and learn Bonham and Page stuff, and then pretty quickly we said “If we’re gonna do this, we should do it on stage.”

It’s not an easy feat, learning Bonham and Page. You say it very casually, “Oh, we’re just gonna learn some Bonham and Page.”

[Laughs all around]
 GM: Well, part of it is that we knew if we did it on stage, we’d be a lot more accountable. It’s one thing to get together and jam on stuff, but if you really want to go the distance and really make a study of something, it’s really helpful actually, to have the response of other people and the accountability of other people to make sure you’re really taking it seriously.

C: Plus, to be able to play with not just Page, but to play with John Paul Jones’ parts, and Plant parts too, I understand more fully why Bonham played what he did. What he was supporting, what he was hearing at that moment. It becomes really, kind of a deep musical experience.

So, did you feel any added pressure? I mean, if you all had chosen Foghat or Loverboy…

[Both are laughing] C: I love that! Foghat and Loverboy! Those are the two that you go to, that’s great!

Just a couple off the top of my head. [Laughs] This is Led Zeppelin. I mean, did you feel any added pressure to not fuck this up?

C: Oh, I still do. I mean, it’s Bonham! He really affected people in a way that most drummers don’t affect people. You know? People who aren’t drummers or don’t listen to drums, if that’s not their primary thing…they love this man. They love what he played. So yeah, I always…if I get onstage and don’t give like, 4000% when I play, then I’m letting down my hero. Not to mention anybody else in the audience. There’s a big thing that happens when you realize, “Well, I’m never gonna be able to replicate what he did.” He was a virtuoso, he was a magic player, so I just have to try to put my own magic into and realize I will never be him.I just have to do what I can to remind people how great he was. I want them to go buy a Led Zeppelin record.

I think the majority of rock fans, the minute you mention Led Zeppelin, you are now talking about the top of Mount Olympus. We’re not down here in Greece anymore, we’re up in Mount Olympus with the gods.

GM: It’s true.

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Think back to early on—what’s your earliest Zeppelin memory?

C: I remember hearing “Stairway to Heaven” for the first time. That was probably when Zeppelin first got on my radar. I was really young. I remember hearing that song, and just thinking it was the most frighteningly beautiful thing. Like, I remember being, I don’t even know how old, but it just being really majestically magical and kind of frightening because it was so big. Now, when I listen to “Stairway to Heaven,” I’ve heard it four million times, I don’t know that I connect with it in the same emotional way as I did before.

Really? Well, I don’t think you ever connect with a song like you did the very first time.

C: The very first time, yeah. Exactly.

It’s like losing your musical virginity.

Both: Yeah!
C: [To Gretchen] What about you?
GM: It was totally the most straight-ahead Zeppelin story. I was at the Zeppelin gateway age of fifteen, and I had a friend who was into classic rock. She had parents who listened to cool music, so she was sort of my discovery for cool music. Even though my dad totally would have been, but I was more interested in what my friends were listening to.

She had become obsessed with “Stairway to Heaven” and kept requesting it from the local radio station, but they wouldn’t play the whole thing, and it really pissed her off. So she ended up buying the album, and she played “Stairway to Heaven” for me, and I remember listening to it and liking it, but I didn’t connect with it the way she did. She was much more angst-ridden than I was. I just didn’t have the angst yet.

We listened to the whole album, and “When the Levee Breaks” came on, and I was just like “WHOA. Hold on a minute. This is the shit!” The goosebumps, and I’ve never heard anything like it, and it embodied this whole emotional and musical space that I had never heard. It was haunting and progressive, and also classic, like deep delta blues reference…that was the one that made my hair stand on end.

That song, with that huge drum sounds, I mean…

C: It’s the best.

There’s not many songs that can start off kicking you in the teeth that way.

C: You know, it’s like the second-most sampled drum sound ever.

Oh yeah. I remember when the Beastie Boys came out with “Rhymin and Stealin” in ’86. I heard it, and was like “HEY!”

C: Oh yeah!

Were you into Zeppelin vinyl when you were younger?

GM: I have since started collecting vinyl, but I am of the CD generation. It was on CD that I was getting stuff. So, I should have, and I intend to get a really cool…I probably shouldn’t admit that I still need to get a really cool record player. I do.

I think everybody should get a really cool record player! [We both laugh]

GM: I am open to suggestions! I just had to move, so I wasn’t buying anything. I do have an appreciation, and I actually do have, not to the same extent of people who really have the whole record experience, you know “It’s a thing!” It’s bigger than, you know, tapes or CDs or the more nebulous MP3 that’s just a digital file. you don’t have a “thing.” One of the things I liked about CDs was that I liked reading the lyrics, I liked looking at who did what and learning more about the music that way. I have a couple of audiophile friends who have turned me on to the vinyl vs digital stuff.

I still remember the first time I saw a CD. It was like we had just stepped into the future.

C: Yeah, me too.

The first one I ever saw was Ride the Lightning by Metallica. A friend brought it to school. He pulled it out, and we were all like “Whoaaa…what is that?”

GM: Yep! It was all shiny.

Oh yeah. Well I had come from the vinyl generation, so it was strange.

C: The first CD I had was one that I was on!
GM: Really?
C: Yeah! I know, it was really badass. I had a friend who was a recording engineer in New York CIty, and he was recording Handsome Dick Manitoba, from the Dictators, and they needed a female voice. He was doing a solo record, and they needed someone to say, [in a sexy voice] “Oh, Mr. Manitoba, what a cool car! Can I have a ride home?” Then he says, in one part of the song he says, “So she hopped into my car, and she whispered in my ear…” and I had to go, “I need a real man, Manitoba.” [We all laugh] That was the song then I got a CD, and I was like “Whoa!” They told me “You can’t destroy it. It will never get destroyed.” I was so taken, that was the shoe thing with CDs was the fact that you couldn’t destroy it [laughs] [The song was “D.W.I.” by Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom. —Ed.]

Riiiight…[Laughs]

I remember getting out of the cab with it, and being so excited that it fell in the gutter. I was like “Well, you can’t destroy it!” [Laughs]

Were you into vinyl before that?

C: I’ve never been a collector. I’m so not a “thing person,” but my husband, he has a really massive vinyl collection. We had this stuff built in our living room, these cabinets. He has to measure his vinyl, it was like twenty-five feet or something like that, so we could fit it all.

Well, we have to have space. [We both laugh] Not just hard drive space like nowadays, you actually have to have real-world space.

C: I know! But it’s nice to listen to vinyl. I love just sitting there in the evening and putting some vinyl on.

Absolutely. So, when I say the words “Led Zeppelin,” what riff instantly pops into your head?

C: Well, I don’t know, a lot of things…

Well, what just popped into your head?

GM: All of them! [Laughs]
C: I think “The Wanton Song” because I just played it.
GM: Like three at once.

They just all flood in at the same time?

GM: It’s a multi-tasking thing. I had “Whole Lotta Love,” mixed with “The Ocean,” mixed with “When the Levee Breaks.”
C: I think, “White outfit, the van, where are the van keys, where are we staying after the show,” things like that. The perks of also being the tour manager.

I’ll ask this to the both of you, for both Page and Bonham. What was it when you first heard them that really drew you to them? They were such standouts of their instruments, what was it about them that spoke to you?

C: The thing that speaks to me about Bonham is that, well, first of all his feel. He’s never rushed. He always puts it exactly where it needs to be. He’ll play fast—there are songs where it’s like “Holy shit, he’s playing that song so much faster than any other time that he played it,” but he always had this basic meter, and it’s a beautiful thing.

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He always played it as fast as he felt it needed it to be.

C: Yeah, he had a real deep sense of meter, so I love that. Because of that, there’s an emotional quality to his playing which is why I think people connect with it so much. Also, he was a master of tuning drums. Those records sound as good as any other record in the world. Those drum sounds, it’s mostly because he really knew how to play his drums and tune them. I think it all kind of coalesced into the sound, the feel, you know.

Being in touch with his instrument.

C: Yeah, yeah. He was a master.

[To Gretchen] What about Page?

GM: I think, the first things that grab me are the things I still continue to be impressed by, which is certainly the writing. Also the production, the way the album sounded, he was a huge part of that. Specifically, as a guitar player, I love that he was, is, so courageous. There is something so cool about somebody who isn’t polite and persnickety on their instrument. The guitar, as an instrument, has a whole different group of personality types. I’m sure all instruments are the same way, but I can only speak to guitar, because that’s the one I play.

Sure.

GM: You have everybody from the Kurt Cobains to the Allan Holdsworths. They’re almost not even of the same planet. I love that Jimmy celebrated the guitar. He didn’t seem to…he didn’t play self-consciously. I like that he’d leave stuff in. The thing I often think is that, we admire for divinity, but we love for humanity. Jimmy had both, and in the right proportions. I still worship at the altar that is Page, and specifically because he’ll leave something kind of, maybe a little, “Oh, he didn’t nail that exactly perfect!” Yeah, but that’s still perfect.

Perfectly imperfect?

GM: Exactly, it’s the Cindy Crawford mole. It’s that that makes it perfect.

Have you met any of the members of Led Zeppelin? If so, what was that like for you?

C: Mostly Robert Plant. I had a moment in passing with John Paul Jones. I won’t say that I met him, but I did have this kind of magical kind of universe flip there. We have met Robert plant, and he was gracious and funny, and came up immediately and was like, “You play Bonham? Ok, here’s some Bonham stories.” He was such a wonderful person, and so down to earth, that I immediately started interrupting him and saying, “No, ok, I’ve heard that story. I want to know this about him!” [Laughs]
GM: We were like, “Clementine, stop interrupting Robert Plant!” [Laughs]
C: Well, he has that quality, where he is immediately engaging.
GM: He is just a badass, and was totally unfazed.

Was he aware of Zepparella at the time?

C : Yeah, our singer has been friends with Robert Plant for a long time.
GM: We met her backstage at a Robert Plant show. We were both in line backstage and we started talking. We didn’t know that either of us were musicians, so that is how the whole thing happened. He knew she was going to audition for us, so he was like, “What are you going to sing?”
C: He asked her things like, what’s in our setlist, stuff like that. He knows what’s going on.

Think he’ll ever hop up on stage with you someday?

C: He will. I think he will.
GM: I have this dream of him coming up and doing the harmonica for “When the Levee Breaks,” then have him and Noelle sing it together. That would be pretty cool. He’s a great harp player. Kind of underrated. Maybe not underrated, but there’s so much to talk about when you talk about Robert Plant.

Maybe he is underrated, because when you think of harp players, Robert Plant usually isn’t the first one to pop into your head.

GM: His stuff is amazing, though. I’ve seen a number of singers now—we’ve had a few. I’ve seen disciplined musicians, good musicians, take lessons then come back to play it and be like, “This is some serious harp playing!” Reading in one of the biographies, I believe it was Jimmy talking about that one of the things he loved was sitting down and jamming with him on guitar and Robert on harp, that he was just an amazing harp player.

I know it’s 2014, and I’d like to think we’re a lot more advanced now, but have you dealt with any friction based on the fact that you are a group of women? Maybe not necessarily friction, but maybe been held back at all based on the fact that you’re female?

C: I think the music business is difficult for everybody, and for different reasons. Sometimes its a little bit of a pain in the ass, to have people have certain expectations of female musicians, or whatever it is that ticks you off that day, grouchy sound man or whatever, but I don’t think that happens any more to us than it does to dude musicians. It’s difficult from beginning to end.
GM: I see that hopefully, for the few people who have a combination of both bad associations bit also a little bit of an open mind, there are always going to be bigots who are hellbent on disliking things as part of their personality, so fine—we’re not playing for them. Maybe people who do have an open mind…the quickest way to thwart a stereotype is not to be it. If you are wanting to fight a stereotype that women don’t play music well, then play music well. I don’t feel that any of us are playing music specifically for a political agenda, it’s just more that we all happen to really love what we do, and have happened to find a group of us that are all on the same page.

Take a trip to hypothetical land for a moment—say you’re going to start another tribute band, one you’ve not played before – who would it be?

C: I would love to do the James Gang. I love those drum beats.

NICE! Great choice. That is some of my favorite Joe Walsh music, ever.

C: It’s so great, I think that would be really fun. I think that would be the one. That’s the one I always think, like, “I want to do that!” Although I will never be in another tribute band. I think two now is enough for one career. [Laughs]
GM: I agree, I won’t do another tribute band, not because I don’t love learning other people’s music, but because it can become too defining for who you are, musically. Especially because both Clementine and I, what we do most of the time is write and record our own music. Zepparella just happens to be something that’s visible, because we’ve been doing it for a while, and people immediately know what to expect. A lot of times, people ask us—which I think is hilarious—“Zepparella, is that like a Zappa tribute band?” I think it’s so funny that you would go to that. But, the thing I often say is that if there was an all-girl Zappa tribute band, you better believe I probably would be part of it. [They both laugh]

You could just change it to ZAPPArella, go right from one to the other.

GM: Yeah! I’ll just do it, name it that, and piss off the rest of my bandmates. “Gretchen, you can’t do that!” [Laughs]
C: You would never piss me off by doing that. [They both laugh]

You touched on your original music. First, before I get into your individual music, has Zepparella as a band considered writing and moving forward with that, or is everyone kind of separate, musically?

C: Our singer, Noelle, and our bass player, Angeline, they’ve been in the band for three or four years. Before that, we had the band for about six years, and we did put out an original album with the band members. I like it. We did it real quickly. I don’t think anybody’s really heard it.

Which project was that?

C: It was called the House of More. It ended up creating a whole bunch of friction. It’s a cool thing to be in a band where you don’t have the creative possibilities, the creative roadblocks that other bands have. When writing enters the picture, you’re dealing with a lot more ego and emotion.

Oh, yeah. You have four or five creative souls in their own creative bubble, and you have to hope they meet up somewhere in the middle.

C: Yeah, for sure. Everyone has baggage about other projects and being treated certain ways. I think right now, it’s just nice. We’re looking forward to recording. We’re going to record a record of Zeppelin stuff. When we get off the road, we’re going right into the studio, you know, to document what the tour did for us. That’s all for now, I think. Everybody has real varied individual careers.
GM: We have, I think, an openness within that. Like, Clementine and I sometimes do stuff together. On one hand, I don’t feel like there’s any closed doors. Angeline has played bass on some of my original stuff, and Clem and I have collaborated on a few things, so it isn’t like “Oh, we won’t work together creatively,” but I think Zepparella work so well, given how much we work. I think there is that hesitation, of like, let’s not mess with a good thing. We spend a lot of time together, in small environments and everything. We deal with enough in terms of re-creative differences, let’s not up the ante to creative differences.

First, Gretchen. You last released the fantastic Hale Souls in 2011, I believe.

GM: Yep, end of 2011.

That was just an incredible album.

GM: Thank you!

What’s in store for your next album? Last album, you had people like Stu Hamm playing with you. Are you going to go in that same direction?

GM: I’m actually working on my second album right now. I’ve been recording, mixing, and getting pieces of it together. Obviously this tour means that things have slowed down on the album for a little bit. I have some amazing people on this next album. It’s going to be a longer album, it’s quite a bit more compositionally involved. I don’t think it’s going to be a huge left turn from Hale Souls, but it’s definitely…it’s a bigger album in a way. I’ve got some musicians that I’m really excited to have on there, including one of the most amazing violin virtuosos in Italy, a guy named Glauco Bertagnin.

Really?

GM: Yeah, he’s the first violin of this very well-known string quartet in Italy, so he’s been working on the album with me too. He’s really amazing, and I’m honored to have him and everybody else be a part of it. Hopefully the album will be out by the end of the year. I was hoping to have it out by the end of last year, but, you know. It’s going to take as long as it takes for it to be done properly.

Sounds good! Clementine, you have had a number of projects over the years—Bottom, The Solid, Stars Turn Me On. Are you going to return to any of those, or start something brand new?

C: Actually, I’m working on a number of shows in Nashville, and Stars Turn Me On is going to be playing that show, opening for Zepparella. My guitarist lives in Nashville now. I don’t know. I just put out a record, a compilation of stuff I’ve done over the last eight years with different projects. Now, I don’t know. Every day I think of something kind of different, so I’m not quite sure what the next thing is.

That’s cool.

C: Yeah. I know Stars Turn Me On is going to be recording in the next year. We’ve been writing songs, but I’ve got some other stuff up my sleeve. Angeline just came out with her first single, and her first video, which is just unbelievably cool. She’s working on her first solo record, too, so that’s really exciting.
GM: Noelle is also doing a project too.
C: Yeah!

Really?

GM: I think everybody’s going to be having some original stuff soon.
C: Yeah, I think in the next year everyone will release a CD.

Excellent. So then after the tour, Zepparella is looking at an album, then..

C: Then everybody is going to be working on their own stuff.

Sounds good!

GM: It is good!

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PHOTO: RANSOM MITCHELL

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