Artist Interview: A Conversation With Steph Paynes of Lez Zeppelin

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Lez Zeppelin, the “she-incarnation” of 70’s rock icons Led Zeppelin, will be playing three shows in Colorado later this week.  Friday night they’re at the Ute Theater & Event Center in Rifle, Saturday night at The Caribou Room in Nederland, and Sunday night at the Bluebird Theater in Denver.  I recently sat down with Steph Paynes, founding member and lead guitarist for Lez Zeppelin, for a conversation about what it’s like to be part of what Chuck Klosterman of SPIN magazine calls “the most powerful all-female band in rock history”.

Rick: Great to see you, Steph. Thanks for joining me… I know we put this together somewhat last minute, and I appreciate you making the time to talk with me.

Steph: Oh, sure. We’re happy you’re covering us so we can get more people to come to our show.

Rick: You guys are getting ready to head out to Colorado for three nights.

Steph: Yeah, three nights.  Usually we head out to Colorado for even longer. We have been touring in Colorado for… I mean, I want to say since 2007, if not before that. And we used to come for a week or two, and hit all the ski towns and all that fun stuff. We have had a following in Colorado for a long time.

Rick: You’re on record as not really liking being called a tribute band. The term you use is “she-incarnation”.  Is that a term you actively and deliberately came up with, or is it something that just sort of happened as you were having to address to tribute band issue over and over?

Steph: Number 2.  First of all, I thought Lez Zeppelin, all girls, all Zeppelin was always enough… I thought that was explanatory and sort of says it all, right.  Kind of.  I mean it says a lot of things, some of which are inferred and may or may not be true.  The all girls, all Zeppelin part is an absolute fact. But she-incarnation, I don’t remember exactly when, but I was searching for something to describe what we do instead of this tribute band moniker, which isn’t really what we are.  And it’s hard to explain that to people because they just say “get off your high horse, you’re a band, you’re playing Led Zeppelin’s music, you’re a tribute band” Period.  Just accept it.” But to me, the idea of a tribute band suggests that you’re impersonating the other band.  That is what I feel we’re definitely not doing.  We’re not impersonating Led Zeppelin. We’re not out there trying to make people think that’s what they’re seeing. We’re out there to present their music, this music that we love, that they love, that is challenging and dynamic and exciting and that we can really get into as musicians and artists, and this is our vehicle of expression.

Rick: I really love the way you frame that.  I know all of you put in an enormous amount of time and energy to make the music as authentic as possible, but as anyone who ever had the privilege of seeing Zep live knows, they didn’t try to imitate their studio recordings on stage.  That’s one of the things I most appreciate about Lez Zeppelin… that you perform with the same kind of “let the music take you where it will” freedom, which I thinks adds to that authenticity factor.

Steph: It would be so boring to play everything the same way every night, and to copy what the guys did, note for note.  I mean, I can see where people might want to hear that, maybe. But that to me would be super boring.

Rick: I saw an interview you did last September, when you were just coming back out on the road, where you described the band’s on-stage demeanor as “raging” due to the pent-up frustration of being isolated for so long.  I’ve certainly noticed that with audiences… they’re just so amped up about seeing live music again.  Now that you’ve been back for a while, do you sense any of that abating?  Or do you believe it’s something that’s here to stay?

Steph: It seems to us that the audiences are just so happy to be there. And we are too.  I mean, whatever weariness that you have – which every band gets on the road because it’s very hard work – this whole horrible episode of fear and being forced to stop forced everybody into an examination of his or her own life. We all went through various parts of that, and we all came through a little differently, but everyone in this band was so thrilled to still be here, and wants to play more than ever.  Everyone is so happy and grateful that they got this thing back. There’s a very deep level of gratitude every time we step on the stage, that we have a stage to step on. And that kind of thing doesn’t leave you, ya know.  And when the band wants to be there, the audience wants to be there too.

Rick: Your 2019 album The Island of Skyros is superb.  What gave you the idea to incorporate a string ensemble, and why in the world is the album named after a Greek island?

Steph: (Laughs) Okay, if you think she-incarnation is obscure, wait till I get to this story. What happened with the evolution of this idea, there was a promoter we had in Long Island that called me up one day and said, “Steph, I have this idea. I know these guys who have a small string orchestra… why don’t we do Zeppelin with strings.” It started as an idea of doing one live show this way, and he was willing to help me organize it. The songs we chose weren’t typical of the kinds of songs you would think about putting strings on. Immigrant Song… who puts strings on that? We did this concert, and we had such a great response, and it was so much fun, so we decided to take the show on the road.  The thing that was challenging, both about doing it live and doing the record, is to somehow get the strings to compete with a powerhouse rock band. And we didn’t want to tame down the rock band.  To me, the idea was to enhance it, not to make this a sort of orchestral treatment of Led Zeppelin’s music. That was a real sound engineering problem, which we tackled, and I think fairly successfully.

As for your second question, The Island of Skyros is obscure, and I was drawn to the name while working with the artist who designed the album cover. Since the song Achilles’ Last Stand was a centerpiece of this album, he started digging around for ideas of how to illustrate it. We stumbled upon part of the myth of Achilles, where to hide him away from being taken to join in the Trojan Wars, Achilles’ mother sent him to the Island of Skyros. While on the island, which is an island of women, Achilles was disguised as a woman.  And it was that idea – of Achilles as a woman – that I liked.

Rick: For my last question for you I want to turn things around.  You do a lot of interviews, and I’m sure you get asked many of the same questions over and over again.  But what question have you never been asked, that you wish you had?  In other words, if you were interviewing you, and you had something specific you wanted to make sure you got to in the interview, what would it be?

Steph: That’s a good question.  Do I have to answer the question I’m about to ask myself, or do you just want the question? 

Rick: (Laughs) No one has ever asked me that before.  I guess the intent was to get you to ask and answer the question, but now I suppose I have to leave it up to you.

Steph: Okay, then maybe I’ll just ask the question.  I think the question that no one has asked me, that I intend to write about in my memoir, is how has creating and being in Lez Zeppelin, being “Jimmy” as it were, in Lez Zeppelin changed you, and changed your life? Or changed you, period?

Rick: That’s an outstanding question. So, one of two things are going to happen now.  Either I’ll have another opportunity to interview you in the future, and I’ll ask you the question then. Or I’ll beg you to answer your own question now.

Steph: I like the first option, because I think it might make you think about how it might change somebody.  Maybe that’s a good mystery.  I will tell you this – I’ll answer it this way – it’s definitely changed me. Fundamentally. Or maybe not so much fundamentally as it’s brought things out that unquestionably would never have been tapped into if I had not done this.  

 

Lez Zeppelin are Steph Paynes (Guitar), Marlain Angelides (Vocals), Joan Chew (Bass/Keys) and Leesa Harrington-Squyres (Drums). Do yourself a favor and check them out at one of their three shows this weekend. They’re an extremely talented group of musicians playing great music… what could be better than that?