In the Light: Lez Zeppelin’s metaphysical ‘Physical Graffiti’

Steph Paynes meets me under the awning at the Gramercy Theatre, where the marquee smugly declares that Lez Zeppelin’s performance of Physical Graffiti tonight is sold out. She certainly looks like a rock star: long black hair, leather pants, sunglasses inside. She radiates cool. I feel conspicuously uncool standing beside her, but the bouncer gives me a guest pass anyway and I follow Steph into the auditorium, where a gaggle of roadies are setting up the stage rig. We trade handshakes and hellos and head downstairs to the greenroom.

The Gramercy has a tumble-down glamour about it, with that weird patterned wallpaper which could just as easily be an artifact of the psychedelic decades or the Victorian era. We make ourselves comfortable on the couch, already chatting. Steph is easy to talk to, and while I set up to record the interview, she tells me a story about how she once forgot to turn her tape recorder on while interviewing Ian Anderson—for Playboy, of all publications. “At the time they were a real magazine,” she says. Back then she was doing what I’m doing now: writing about music.

“I was working as a guitar player while I was writing for a long time,” she explains, when I ask how she got from there to here. “I was playing with Ronnie Spector, and I was a Ronnette, basically… odd but true.” Around the same time, she was rediscovering her love of Led Zeppelin. “After hearing so much music and playing so much music, this music just stunned me again with how really, truly great it was… So I just thought, oh it’ll be fun. I’ll get a bunch of girls together and we’ll just play this music.” Originally, her aspirations were modest; she didn’t expect to be playing more than one or two gigs a month, for “fifty bucks [and] a couple of beers.” A decade later, Lez Zeppelin has a jam-packed touring schedule and fans all over the world—including Jimmy Page. But more on that anon.

“I realized, If I’m gonna do this I really need to do it the right way,” she says. “Because if you do it badly, especially as a female musician… boy, you’ll not only be embarrassing yourself, but it would be bad for female musicians period.” Fortunately, Steph is no slouch in the rehearsal room, or as a recruiter. Finding the right women to join her on the Lez Zeppelin venture and passionate devotion to the project turned it into a phenomenon that soon surpassed her expectations. “The second we started to play out, people just lost their minds, because they really, really wanted to hear this,” she says. “And hearing it from women, who were delivering this power, was really unexpected. It was shocking people.”

But Steph has never shied away from a challenge. She’s as ambitious as she is dedicated to her craft, which are the basic qualifications for playing anything by Led Zeppelin—never mind all four sides of Physical Graffiti. “It’s been my dream since I started this band to play [it]. It just seemed like one of the tops of the mountains,” she tells me when I ask the obvious questions: Why this? Why now? “This record sort of ties together pretty much all of what they did… there’s funk stuff, there’s intense blues stuff, there’s beautiful, winsome, elegant songs like ‘Ten Years Gone.’” But that versatility brings challenges.

“It’s hard to do with four of us. See, we don’t expand,” she says, when we start talking about “In the Light,” one of the toughest and most exciting songs to play. “If we had two or three more people it would be easy, but Joan here”—she indicates Joan Chew, Lez Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, who’s joined us in the greenroom—“she’s on three keyboards, I’m stepping on drones, it’s the only way to get close to the atmosphere of the song. And that’s the thing about Led Zeppelin,” she adds. “Playing this music, you make a choice: you either are gonna play it live like they did—the records have so many layered parts to them that you can’t replicate that—or you’re gonna try to like add a bunch of people and try to replicate the album. We always felt that the whole point of doing it was to really get into the music as a live band.”

And Physical Graffiti might just be the best way to showcase musicianship. As Led Zeppelin’s only double album, it gave the band an unprecedented opportunity to experiment with sound and style. This is, Steph insists, the biggest challenge and the greatest joy of playing it live from beginning to end. “There are so many styles,” she says. “To be one band, and to… y’know, swim amongst all these styles is very very challenging and really, I have to say, it just demands a very high level of musical intelligence in that way because everyone has to be supple enough to do that, to move that way, and to be able to play it well.” That virtuosic versatility is, of course, partly what gives Led Zeppelin such remarkable staying power. “They’re not just a rock band,” Steph says. “It’s so much deeper than that.”

This is also partly what makes Lez Zeppelin so electrifying to watch. This is a real band,” she says, not an imitation of one. “The band is playing as a unit, they’re feeding off each other, there’s a great amount of individual musical creativity and skill… and I feel like when the audience gets to witness that, then they feel like they’ve been at a Led Zeppelin event… They’re not tricked that they’re seeing Led Zeppelin, that’s never the intention. And being women has freed us from that a little, thankfully.”

That doesn’t mean playing Zeppelin is easy for four women—and their musical ability has nothing to do with it. “I realized from the very beginning that having all women play this music, everyone would be skeptical,” Steph says. “As a female musician, let’s face it, you’re coming up against that in rock music.” The sexism directed at Lez Zeppelin ranges from garden variety mansplaining (they all agree sound guys are some of the worst culprits) to outright rage that women dare do such a thing. “People still openly tell us, ‘guitars are not made for people with vaginas,’” Joan says. “Things like that.”

However, where some people might see an obstacle, Lez Zeppelin sees an opportunity to challenge stereotypes and change perceptions. “People come to our shows who haven’t seen us with this idea that it’s kitsch… it’s not really gonna be powerful like Led Zeppelin,” Steph says. “When they realize they’re getting the real thing, that they weren’t expecting, they do transform. You know, they’re like ‘Oh my God, I was skeptical, I admit it, I admit it, but holy shit.’ And then you’ve won over another potentially sexist person.” Joan adds, “To help get it better and better for future generations, we’re just going to continue doing what we do, and not respond to those sexist remarks, because there’s no point, and action is louder than words.”

Is there some satisfaction in proving people wrong? Of course. But there’s surprisingly little bitterness about it. “We’re all a little used to it at this point,” Steph says. “I can’t take it seriously anymore.” When drummer Lisa Harrington-Squyres walks through the room, Steph asks if she has anything to add about sexism in the industry. Without breaking stride, she sums up the silliness of it in one perfect soundbite: “I rarely use my penis to play the drums.”

Interestingly, the gender disparity often works to Lez Zeppelin’s advantage. “I thought girls can probably do this better anyway,” Steph says, only half joking. As anybody who’s logged a few hours watching Led Zeppelin play live can attest, there’s a provocative androgyny in everything from Robert Plant’s girlish vocals and camp gestures to Jimmy Page’s penchant for elaborate embroidery and glittering chokers. (I won’t do it here, but I could write entire essays on their hair.) “In essence what we were doing was taking on male roles onstage. It was Victor/Victoria, though,” Steph explains, “because we were taking on males who were taking on women… the whole thing was a little circular, but it made total sense.”

At the same time, Lez Zeppelin’s own version of Victor/Victoria “shed light on the power of female sexual force.” As anybody who’s ever seen them can attest, they’re not shy about their sexuality. “That kind of exhibition… is never considered female,” Steph says. “Because what people think of as female sexuality is more of a come-hither kind of sexiness… This is the complete opposite.” The rest of the band agrees, you can’t play Zeppelin without tapping into that sex drive. As vocalist Marlain Angelides remarks, “If you read the lyrics, you’d think it’s just all about that.” But it’s not explicit—or at least not as explicit as popular music today. “It’s all implied very strongly and continuously,” she says. “And then just with the way that, you know, Robert Plant expresses it vocally, too. It comes from that place… you just have to go with it.” They all agree: it’s not something you can half-ass.

Playing with gender and sexuality as an element of performance has also helped Steph explore uncharted territory of her own artistic identity. “For me it was a personal journey,” she says, of learning to take on one of her hero’s persona. “Taking on Jimmy Page… suddenly showed me all sorts of different things about myself which seemed to come out, and that is when it gets really interesting… It’s bending the whole thing backwards, you know, and making you wonder what does this really all mean? Is this really how men act, is this really how women act, is this really how men play, is this really how women play?”

Interestingly, it seems to be a two-way street. Jimmy Page—who often turns up in the audience at various concert venues around London—came to see the band play when they visited. “Even now it’s hard to talk about, it makes me nervous,” Steph says, with a laugh. “The performance was good—I won’t say it was our best—but we pulled it out and we just gave it everything we got, that was all there was to do, and he loved it.” After the show, the two guitarists took a walk through the club together. “And he turned to me and he goes, ‘“Whole Lotta Love,” it was so sexual,’ and I sort of looked at him like, Well, yeah!… And then I realized, you know, he’s never seen Led Zeppelin, he’s only been in it, he’s only been on the other side of it… Feeling and experiencing it [from the audience]… was totally different.”

Of course, there’s more to it than sex appeal. “It’s magic music,” Steph says. “It really is. It changes you, when you play it. It has to. If it doesn’t you’re not doing it right. And I feel like it has to have that effect on the audience, too, or you’re not doing it right.” For a little while we parrot Page at each other, discussing his critics and his own admission that he was an impassioned player if sometimes a sloppy one. “Not that you should hack at the music,” she says, “but, to me, I’ve always been bored by super-technical music and super-technical players… Almost anyone can do that, if you just work at it and you’re somewhat coordinated. That doesn’t interest me because, so what? It’s much more difficult to really just put yourself out there and let it go and soar into something when you know you might trainwreck, but I’ve always maintained that that’s really where the excitement is and really where the musicianship comes in.”

But there’s a catch, when it comes to impassioned improvisation in a band with four people: you have to do it together. When I ask how that works onstage, Joan explains, “First you have to learn the language of what [Led Zeppelin does], which means you play their stuff pretty much note-for-note. But after you learn the language you have to learn to interact with each other. That’s why I think this band is different—in the sense that sure, if you want us to play note-for-note we’re up to for the challenge, but that’s not organic or…life. Simply put, life.”

Still, there’s another element nobody’s mentioned yet, and—perhaps unsurprisingly—it’s frontwoman Marlain who brings it up. “I’m going to add in the element of the audience,” she says. “There’s always an improvisational aspect with them… they inspire us to do different things as well, so it’s just like living in the moment, I guess.” Joan nods and says, “They’re as much a part of the show as we are.” Steph adds, “That communication is just so special. You know, they say you feed off the audience.” But that’s not all there is to it. “Led Zeppelin’s music is kinda not like other music,” she explains. “It’s really important to people. I mean, we see people, they’re in tears… it’s very intense. When you have that coming at you from the audience, it’s great.”

All this made me curious what it’s like when they don’t have an audience to work with, so I asked about the studio album they just released—Island of Skyros. My first question: why that title? Marlain, who hails from Cyprus and Greece, gently corrects my pronunciation (that y makes a long e sound, not a long i sound) before Steph tells me that originally they planned to call it Achillez—“Which is like the obvious thing to call it, because one of the major songs on it is ‘Achilles’ Last Stand’”—but were instead inspired by their graphic designer to make a nod to Greek mythology and the legend of Achilles’ mother hid him on the titular island to keep him from being called upon to fight in the Trojan War. The twist: he was disguised as a woman. “And we just thought, how perfect is that? That the greatest warrior… appears as female.”

My second question is, of course, about the music. Why these six songs, cherry-picked from across the Zeppelin oeuvre? “We had done one or two string shows, which we thought was so wonderful, and originally this was supposed to be just a teaser so we could maybe book more string shows,” she says, with a laugh. “I mean, it was a very innocent little beginning to this record, and then of course like everything else it started getting more serious.” The temptation was just too great to continue experimenting with Led Zeppelin songs played with a string section—and not necessarily the songs you would expect. “Immigrant Song” stands out as a particularly bold choice. “We just thought this is more interesting, let’s see what kind of space we can find in a song like this and what kind of accentuation would strings provide,” Steph says. “And to our surprise, what ended up happening was that the strings and the arrangements for them… tended to highlight things that you wouldn’t ordinarily hear, which I thought was really marvelous, because now it’s a little bit of a different spin. The strings come in on parts where you’re hearing harmonies and you’re hearing layers that may have been in the song to a certain extent originally but were not emphasized. So it sort of takes your ear in different directions, and the music is rich enough to lend itself to that.”

By now we’ve been in the greenroom for almost an hour, with members of the band and crew coming and going and chiming in as the conversation ebbs and flows. Everyone’s got the itch, bristling with energy and ready to make some magic onstage in a few hours’ time. But I’m obliged to throw one last question at them. With so many irons in the fire and their trajectory moving steadily upward, I wanted to know what comes next. “We’re hoping we’ll at some point tour the album,” Steph says. “A string tour—which was the original intention—needs to happen…We’ve got that show, which is fantastic, and this show people really seem to want, so we’ve got these two special things and we’re working to a point where we’re expanding the production and we’re making it a more immersive experience.”

Production designer Frank Coleman, who’s been hovering in the doorway, describes his objectives as “a visual accompaniment” for the performance, with “a little sly humor here or there.” I corner him after the show behind the merch table to talk a little more about it, at which point he describes his process in a little more detail: “With any project you start from the general and you gradually move to the specifics… so I try to kind of just get a general sense of the types of imagery that they were associating with the songs, just very very broadly, and then also listening to the songs myself and I would get, you know, an idea—‘That reminds of that scene from, you know, this Danish silent film from 1924.’” All this audiovisual imagery comes together in a series of projections which remind me Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets tour, which made homage to the band’s acid-warped residency at the UFO Club in the late ’60s. It works just as well for Lez Zeppelin, and the work they do wafting the mists of the past into the present.

“Led Zeppelin has always been into the idea of mystery and digging a little deeper and not being so obvious—that’s a ’70s thing,” Steph says. “It’s more in the spirit to throw something out there and hopefully people go, ‘Why?’ And maybe they’ll try to figure it out. So yeah. Hidden meaning.” Maybe that ineffable quality is what makes Led Zeppelin “the classical music of our time.” During the Met’s Play It Loud exhibit last year, the curator told her, “‘This music is what will be remembered from the 20th century—more than the art, more than the painting.’” While the music curator might be a little biased, everyone else in the room agrees when Steph says, “The impact culturally of this music is immeasurable.” Lez Zeppelin plays a vital role in keeping it alive, not only because of their dedication to doing it right, but because of their determination to challenge gatekeepers and outdated ideas about who’s allowed to play it loud. And if we’re lucky, they’ll be playing for a whole lot longer.

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