JOHN PAUL JONES has no need for further feathers in his cap. The bassist, keyboardist, and general rock & roll badass anchored Led Zeppelin—arguably the most influential hard rock outfit in history—and has gone on to collaborate in too many cool projects to mention (for a few, head to bassplayer.com). When he took the stage at London’s O2 Arena in 2007 with Zeppelin bandmates Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (along with Jason Bonham, son of late, great Zep drummer John Bonham), Jones sealed his reputation as a topnotch performer with deep soul, crisp tone, and killer chops.
John Paul Jones and his massive Manson 12-string.
The 64-year old bass player could easily rest on his laurels, retiring to the countryside with his countless acoustic instruments and giving his ears a well-deserved rest. Instead, Jones has formed one of the most riveting new groups in contemporary rock, Them Crooked Vultures.
A collaboration between Jones, ex-Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, and Queens of the Stone Age principal Josh Homme, Them Crooked Vultures takes the ’70s-era riff rock of Jones’s youth and blends it with punk-rock energy courtesy of drummer Grohl. For his part, Homme taps the sludgy depths of his stoner rock past to create melodic hooks as piercing and direct as gamma rays.
How did this new record come together?
We basically went into Josh’s studio, sat in a room, and wrote and recorded at the same time. It was a very organic process where we’d groove in the studio, working on each other’s ideas. There was a lot of laughing involved as well—it’s amazing we got that much work done!
Prior to these sessions, had you ever played with Dave Grohl?
No, I hadn’t. He’s wonderful, and we get on really great together. He appreciates good grooves and good riffs. We listen to each other and we reinforce each other and we stretch each other, which is the best combination.
Has your concept of tone changed much through the course of this project?
I’m playing with a pick a lot more. You have to use a pick to play multi-string basses, or you don’t get the full advantage of the double crosses.
Do you find playing with a pick compromises your low end?
No, not really. It’s just a different feel— a different attack. It’s a much faster attack, and it gives you more of a rhythmic drive, especially on faster songs.
What strings are you using? Are they the same strings that you tend to go for across the board?
For the multi-string instruments I use Rotosounds with the exposed single coil. For the 4-string I’m using Elixirs. I also use Elixrs on my mandolins.
What is it you like about coated strings?
I like being able to slide around without having my fingers coming to a dead stop, and they sound great.
Ever the multi-instrumentalist, John Paul Jones gets down on his mobile Manson bass lap steel.
What is that wild-looking slide guitar you play on “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I?”
That’s an instrument Hugh Manson made that is based on the Melobar. It basically allows me to play lap steel while moving around onstage. In my early solo shows I used what I used to a bass lap steel, which was just like a lap steel with two extra strings—an 8-string. It goes right down to the low E of the bass guitar. I wanted one I could hang around my neck so I asked Hugh to make me one.
How do you amplify it?
I plug into a Bad Cat Amplifiers BC-50. I also used some of the old amps Josh keeps in his studio for the record.
What basses are you playing?
I’ve got my good ol’ Manson 4-string, plus a 10-string and some 12-strings he’s made for me. The 10-string is in octave courses, tuned EADGC, and the 12-string is BEADGC. Those go through an SWR SM-900 with 4x10 and 1x15 cabinets. I use an identical rig for my bass pedals, which are made by Roland. They span an octaveand- a-half—from C to G, and they’re run through a Korg M3 synth, which provides the actual sound. I also play the M3 for piano and organ parts. On the record, I played acoustic piano and a vintage organ.
With multiple basses, keyboards, slide guitar, and mandolin, you do a lot of changing instruments. Do you find that makes it difficult to get into a groove?
No, I’m rather used to it. I used to do that in the Zeppelin days, as well. I quite like changing instruments.
Tell me about the mandolin you play.
That’s a solid-body electric octave mandolin made by Hugh Manson’s brother, Andy Manson. I send that through the Bad Cat, as well. Like my basses, that has EMG pickups.
How much of the gig is set in stone, and how much is kept open-ended?
The setlist mostly stays the same, but things really change a lot from show to show. A lot of it depends on the vibe of the night, but we’ll often hit a different kind of groove to keep it interesting.
The album has quite a few distorted bass sounds. What effects are you using?
On the record, most of the distortion comes from running bass through Josh’s guitar amps. Live, I’m using an Electro- Harmonix Big Muff . I’d never really used distortion before—it’s a new thing for me. But the bass just sounded too clean when we were first trying things out. Now it fits a lot better with the guitars. Usually I’ll split the signals from my basses and mix them together to get a blend of clean and distorted sounds.
Live, Alain Johannes is playing some of the bass and keyboard parts you did on the album [see sidebar, left]. How much did you work with him to get him up to speed?
Not much at all—he’s a good enough musician to have picked it all up on his own.
Now I have a few questions submitted by readers. First up, is there anything you miss about your old Acoustic rig, versus your current rig?
No … except that it used to catch on fire! It actually caught fire quite spectacularly at the end of one show. I suppose the power amp got overheated. But no, I’m quite pleased with the SWR. It’s got a nice clean, punchy sound.
Have you given thought to writing a memoir or autobiography?
No. Several people have asked, but I’ve just got too much to do. Life’s too short to write about it.
Finally, one reader writes that he always has to crank the low end to hear the bass and bass drum on Led Zeppelin albums. Are you happy with the sound on the CDs, and do you find you have to do the same thing to hear yourself?
I suppose it depends on what you’re listening to. If you’re listening to a re-master, you shouldn’t have to. Plus, I suppose if you compare them to contemporary records with lots and lots of low end, the older ones might sounds light by comparison. But I think there’s often too much low end on records. It gets too heavy, and you can lose a lot of the dynamic range.
Aside from Them Crooked Vultures, do you have any other musical projects you’re working on?
No. This is a full time job at the moment! But I’m having great fun. I’m really happy to be doing this.
ALAIN JOHANNES: HONORARY VULTURE
For Them Crooked Vultures’ live shows, the band has enlisted the talents of Alain Johannes, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and engineer with credits including Queens of the Stone Age, No Doubt, Chris Cornell, and Arctic Monkeys. Alain also has his own group, Eleven. For more on Alain, head to bassplayer.com .
How did you get involved in Them Crooked Vultures?
Josh and I have a long history of playing together, and he asked me to be involved in recording the Vultures record. I engineered “Reptiles,” “Interlude with Ludes,” and “Dead End Friends,” and also tracked some vocals, guitars, and bass. Later, Dave, John, and Josh decided they wanted to fill out the live band to reproduce the sounds on the album, so they invited me in. I had never met John, but I had worked with Dave on the Queens of the Stone Age album Songs for the Deaf [Interscope, 2002].
What do you do in the band?
I sing and play guitar, keyboards, and bass. I play bass on “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I,” because John is playing his monster slide bass guitar. On “Highway 1,” I play bass and synth while he plays mandolin. That song isn’t on the record, but you can watch it on youtube.com. I’d recommend the performances from Cologne and Paris.
How did you learn the parts?
I’ve been playing music since I was four years old, so I have a pretty well developed ear.
What’s your live bass rig?
At first we thought of plugging into John’s rig, but that might get weird with different settings, etc. So I use a DI and play through my guitar rig, which includes Fender Twin and Super Reverb amps. I wanted a bass with a smooth sound through a DI. I ended up going with a Rogue Violin Bass, which is one of my favorite basses. I also play an Airline bass tuned in 5ths. The amps give me all the midrange information I need on stage, and the DI handles the bottom end.
You’ve played bass quite a bit with Queens of the Stone Age. What’s that like?
In Queens, the bass lines have a percolating character I really enjoy. There, I play a Yamaha hollowbody tuned down to C, and an Epiphone Jack Casady. I like the midrange sound of hollowbody basses, and I love being right at the edge of feedback. I also have an upright, a ’60s Mosrite (with the original flatwound strings, which I boil every few years), and a Rickenbacker 4003. I just got an acoustic flamenco bass guitar—an Esteve Contrabass with six nylon strings—tuned an octave lower than guitar. It’s got an incredible sound.
What’s the best part about the Vultures gig?
I’ve been a freak for Led Zeppelin since I was a kid, and I’m realizing more every day how much of that band’s sound came from John Paul Jones. The chemistry in the group is such that it’s constantly morphing and improving. Everybody’s having an amazing time—it reminds me of my first band in high school!