THIS YEAR'S Tybee Island Pirate Fest is set to be one for the books. They’ve been bringing in a consistently great lineup of artists over the years for the annual festival, but this year is extra special thanks to headliners Great White and Lez Zeppelin.
Lez Zeppelin, an all-girl tribute to the groundbreaking British band, has been touring regularly for 15 years and finding success with their faithful and powerful interpretations of the Zeppelin catalog.
They’re going stronger than ever, coming up with new and exciting shows that revitalize and re-energize the material.
Ahead of the band’s Pirate Fest performance, we spoke to guitarist Steph Paynes, the band’s Jimmy Page doppelganger, about the group’s genesis, what it’s like playing Zeppelin music every night, and what’s next.
How long have you been doing this?
It’s frightening to think, but I want to say 14 or 15 years already!
So how did the idea happen?
Well, it was supposed to be a little fun thing. “Let’s play the music of Led Zeppelin. Ha-ha.” As if that were an easy thing to toss off! I quickly realized that, but sort of persevered anyway because I’m very stubborn in that respect [laughs]. But that’s how it originally started, I just thought I’d put together an all-girl band. It became very obvious pretty quickly that this was an idea whose time had come.
Everyone wanted to hear this. Everybody wanted to hear Led Zeppelin, and everyone wanted to hear girls play Led Zeppelin. And the name of the band sort of threw the idea over the top, you know?
It is this sort of perfect marriage of things that I think people have been consistently interested in.
Yeah! So it sort of started as a whimsical thing, and very quickly snowballed into this super cool band that everyone wanted to hear and hire. We did our homework from the onset, so that by the time we did actually start to play in 2004, it was a good band. I took it seriously, because you can’t just go out and play Led Zeppelin.
Especially when you’re a woman, because everyone’s going to think you can’t do it anyway.
It just took off, you know? Rather quickly. We’ve been doing it in a fairly serious way. We’re working on our third record, and we’ve toured all over the world. It’s crazy.
At what point did you decide to start making records instead of just going out and touring?
I guess it was really a few years into the group. And it was on the heels of the first major lineup change. It all started to come together, and we got a manager and a booking agent. That’s actually interesting, because I haven’t really thought back on this very much. Your question is a good one—what really happened is that things really started to accelerate.
A couple of the original members, they just couldn’t really deal with that. One of them didn’t really want to tour very much, and they couldn’t withstand the rigors of actually getting out there. It really sort of separates the girls from the women, I’ll say. Instead of “the men from the boys” [laughs]. That’s when the first “flesh out” happened, and another group fell into place around 2006. That lineup did a lot. We’re selling out places, doing lots of radio, making records—it’s just amazing what started to happen.
We went and made a record and had the legendary Eddie Kramer produce it. It was released in Japan, we toured in Europe; it sort of merged from this interesting attempt to interpret the music of Led Zeppelin into this, sort of, all-female, gender bending thing thing. It sort of had this other depth that started to reveal itself. Before you knew it, Lez Zeppelin just became this entity and a statement of female musical force.
At the time that you all would have started, there was definitely this weird thing where female bands were kind of seen by some people in a gimmicky way. I never understood that, but I always understood the idea of using it as a platform for empowerment. Do you still experience that frustrating kind of skepticism?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes.
Although, I wouldn’t even call it unfortunate anymore because in a way it works to our benefit. People think that it’s kitsch or that it might be fun, and they don’t really think it’s going to be so serious. And then when they show up, and they get what they get, they’re stunned. We’re consistently hearing that we’re the best they’ve ever heard—boys or girls, it doesn’t matter.
Whoever you are, you can’t play Led Zeppelin like they are. If I tried to put together a band of all men, I promise you that there’d be no advantage in that.
And sometimes people do assume that we’re not going to be as good, which is unfortunate. We have to prove ourselves still.
Let’s talk about the set list. Do you change it up a lot? Does where you play dictate what gets played each night?
We do, according to audiences and according to what we’re in the mood for [laughs].
If we’re in a town that we’ve never been in before, usually we stick to the “classics” that people want to hear. If we’ve been in a place where we’ve been to many times, we can have fun with that.
For example, we sell out Detroit every time and it’s a lot of the same people. When we’re there, we can do full albums, concerts—we’ve done the Knebworth set, we’ve done Song Remains The Same, we’ve done the Celebration Day set list.
Right now we’re working on a show where we’re doing all of Physical Graffiti.
That’s my favorite Zeppelin record.
It seems to be a lot of people’s favorite, because the response we’ve been getting is incredible. And also, it’s hard to do. It’s really hard to do! It’s almost impossible to do with four people, which is why Led Zeppelin didn’t play a lot of the songs on there.
Like, “In The Light.” It’s almost impossible. We’ve figured out how to do it—there are three keyboards involved, there are drones happening—there’s a lot to figure out, but we’re doing it. So that’s really exciting.
That must be the sort of thing that keeps this band fresh and fulfilling for you. Even though “Whole Lotta Love” is a great song, I imagine playing it night after night can get tiring. Do the special shows and projects keep it interesting for you?
Yes, definitely. For us and for everybody. And that’s the beauty of Led Zeppelin, too. The music is so rich and there’s so much to pull from that it doesn’t get boring. Honestly, if it were AC/DC I’d be bored after a year.
But Led Zeppelin is a whole other thing. There’s room to stretch out—bow solos, blues solos; it’s so much more interesting.
Do you have a favorite song in the catalog that you look forward to every night? I always think that a song like “Kashmir” would be so much fun to play. That’s one of those other-wordly songs that make you wonder how humans wrote it.
Oh, sure! [laughs]. It’s very trance-y. That’s one that the audience always loves. But I’d say that the last one we’re working on is always our favorite, because we’re still challenged by it. Some of the Physical Graffiti songs are fun because we're learning them and it's fun to play. But it depends. It can change on any given night, depending on the mood you're in.