John Paul Jones was known as “the quiet one” in Led Zeppelin. While Jimmy Page and Robert Plant preened at the front of the stage, the bass player hung around at the back, close enough to feel the whoosh of air from the drums as John “Bonzo” Bonham hammered them.
Jones was the least godly of the gods of rock – the least extravagantly coiffured, the least intoxicated, the least chased by groupies. Yet he has turned out to be Zeppelin’s most adventurous and intriguing musician. Since the band split up after Bonham’s death in 1980 – Jones found his bandmate’s body – the multi-instrumentalist has pursued a range of projects that stretches from the weirdest fringes of avant-rock to bluegrass and opera.
His latest excursion is typically bold. This month he will embark on a brief UK tour with Supersilent, a Norwegian trio that only plays improvised music. At a Norwegian festival a few years ago, one of them tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he wanted to perform with them. “I went, ‘Er, yeah, what do you do?’ ” Jones remembers. “He said, ‘We don’t talk about it and we don’t rehearse.’ ” So, the next night, Jones joined them on stage, plugged his bass in, “and that was it for the next 80 minutes.”
You can see the results on the internet: Jones bent intently over his guitar, creating a hypnotically abrasive racket with the three younger improv-jazzers. It looks like an alarming high-wire act, inventing music on the spot in front of an audience with three musicians he barely knew. But Jones, 66, denies feeling remotely apprehensive: “No, not at all. I’ve improvised all my life. It made perfect sense.”
Our meeting takes place at Village Underground, the Shoreditch venue where he will be appearing with Supersilent. Actually, our meeting is on top of the venue, in an old London Underground carriage that sits surreally moored on the building’s roof, used as office space. Jones has close-cropped grey hair and an oblique, amused manner. In stray moments he taps his leg and hums, as though tuning into a soundtrack that only he can hear.
His tour with Supersilent coincides with renewed speculation about Led Zeppelin. This month sees the release of Celebration Day, a live album and DVD of Zeppelin’s reunion show at London’s O2 Arena in 2007. Twenty million people applied for tickets for the one-off gig, proof that Jones’s old band remains among the biggest of rock’s big beasts.
The presence of the original trio together promoting Celebration Day, alongside Bonham’s drummer son Jason, has sparked hopes that a full reunion tour might finally be on the cards. Jones, however, pours cold water on the idea. “There are no plans for a Zeppelin reunion. Basically there isn’t a band. We’re not that band.”
It is inconceivable to him that he could simply turn up on a stage and jam with Page and Plant as he will with Supersilent later this month. “No. It’s a whole thing that has to happen and everybody has to be in the same frame of mind. Before, once you got on stage you’d focus and that was the joy of the band. In those days we had a manager in Peter Grant who just kept everything else away; we could just do whatever we wanted.”
Life in Led Zeppelin, he explains, “was very open and free. We found that the recipe for success was to make the music that we wanted to hear, to please ourselves. ‘I’ve just got a new mandolin, let’s do a mandolin tune.’ ‘I’ve just got a synthesiser, let’s do a synthesiser tune.’ That’s how it was; a big playground.”
The playground had other connotations. In their 1970s pomp Led Zeppelin were infamous for their Caligulan lifestyle of excess and depravity. It was darkly rumoured that Page was a Satanist who had made a pact with the devil; lurid stories circulated of notorious goings-on in the band’s entourage involving sharks and groupies.
Jones cut an anomalous figure at the centre of the storm. In 1965 he met his wife Maureen, with whom he lives in west London; they have three daughters and six grandchildren. Somehow he maintained a stable family life throughout his years in the world’s biggest rock band. “Well, I suppose I had an unstable childhood,” he says. “Stability was important.”
His parents were variety performers from Kent. At five Jones was sent to boarding school, “a dumping ground for everybody who didn’t fit in anywhere else”. During holidays he stayed with his grandmother in Deptford, south east London, while his parents were touring.
“In those days it was quite a busy port. On a foggy night you could hear all these foghorns over the river. I used to lie there just listening to all these fantastic sounds, great big soundscapes, you’d hear the horns, then you’d hear the echoes: little ships with little horns, big ships with big horns.”
He taught himself music, experimenting with an old harmonium he found in his grandmother’s basement and bunking off school to go to organ recitals in London. He became a choirboy and was also a church organist, improvising the music except for the hymns. As a teenager he played bass in a double act with his pianist-father, travelling around the south coast performing Tin Pan Alley standards. The elder Jones nicknamed his son “Mingus” after the bass-playing jazzman Charles Mingus.
By the time he joined Led Zeppelin in 1968 he was established as a top session musician and arranger. Although he and Bonham – a builder’s son from the Midlands – came from contrasting backgrounds, they formed an instant bond. “Bass players and drummers recognise each other immediately,” he says. “From the first eight bars. It was, thank God for that, somebody I can work with.”
Although Zeppelin’s songs are mostly credited to Page and Plant, the groove Jones and Bonham brought to the band was crucial. “These different influences are what made Zeppelin as interesting as it was. Basically it was a soul rhythm section with a rock-and-roll front line,” he says.
Since the band’s 1980 split he has made a series of solo albums, worked with acts ranging from avant-garde shrieker Diamanda Galás to bluegrass band Nickel Creek, and formed the hard-rock supergroup Them Crooked Vultures. He has scored music for the choreographer Merce Cunningham, collaborated with the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and is currently writing an opera based on a Strindberg play. “I’m probably the world’s greatest chancer,” he says.
His improvisations with Supersilent inhabit a different musical universe from his jamming with Led Zeppelin. “Lots of people will hate it,” he says drily. “But it’s the same really. It all boils down to keeping your ears open and not messing it up.”
You can still detect the boy who lay awake at night listening to foghorns on the Thames. “I’ve got so much music going on in my head all the time that when I go on stage I just continue into it,” he says. “When I come off stage I’m still thinking about music. Everything’s continuous.”
John Paul Jones and Supersilent open their tour at Birmingham Town Hall on November 14