The “She-incarnation” of Lez Zeppelin

Steph Paynes describes a classical approach to playing Led Zeppelin's music.

Posted Oct 17, 2019

“Slipping off a glancing kiss
To those who claim they know
Below the streets that steam and hiss
The devil's in his hole”

From “Achilles Last Stand” by Led Zeppelin

What is the true essence of Led Zeppelin?

Led Zeppelin will forever be one of the greatest bands—if not the greatest band—in hard rock history. The heavy, ferocious and tuneful music of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham has set the bar forever, period. And their influence can be heard from the supernatural imagery of heavy metal to the buzz saw guitar of punk rock to genre-bending fusion of Hip Hop and Rock. Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins may have summarized it best when he said, “Led Zeppelin’s influence is so severe – almost everything you hear from hard rock … is descendent from Led Zeppelin.”

 Tom Ryan
Lez Zeppelin
Source: Tom Ryan

And as you can draw a direct line from current Rock music to Zeppelin, so too can you connect Zeppelin’s music back to American Blues. In their eponymous first album, also referred to as Led Zeppelin I, they play existing songs such as Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” as well as their own overtly Blues influenced numbers such as “How Many More Times,” referencing Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years.” All in all, they dove deep into existing music and came out with something new and exciting.

It is in this context that one can best appreciate the music of the band Lez Zeppelin.  Lez Zeppelin plays Led Zeppelin music.  And in my conversation with Steph Paynes, founder, and guitarist of Lez Zeppelin, she explained her band’s approach which evokes not only Led Zeppelin’s reverent take on the Blues but also a classical musician’s rendering of a concerto. “If you listen to Led Zeppelin I, a lot of it is taken from here and there. But somehow when these four guys came together…it became an entirely different thing. Led Zeppelin’s music is so amazing, so rich in dynamics, in influences, it’s like a classical piece. It’s got parts where you can improvise. It has light and shade. It was quiet and intense. ‘Dazed and Confused’ is like a small symphony in and of itself,” Paynes told me. “A classical musician—a violinist—will play a violin concerto, and leave nothing. Just put her entire self into it. That’s what you do with Led Zeppelin’s music. You absolutely fall into it and it becomes this channel for your own expression because the music is rich enough for that. So the music becomes a classical repertoire and you are the artist presenting it. And so you create something that’s new out of music that’s 40, 50 years old.”

While Paynes' respects artists who write original material, she sees a particular challenge with trying to make existing music sound novel and exciting. Paynes explains Lez Zeppelin’s approach to achieving this goal – a method she calls “she-incarnation.”

“Everybody copies. This is what they did with the Blues guys and the Blues guys copied someone else. And this is what painters do when they apprentice. Bob Dylan copied Woody Guthrie then went off. This is the natural artistic progression,” Paynes said. “The only way to progress if you’re playing somebody else’s music and not so much writing your own, is to find that place where you can channel your own artistic self through this music. So the first thing you do when you’re playing this music is you attack it technically. You get comfortable enough that you don’t have to think about the next note in ‘Whole Lotta Love.’ Then forgetting about the notes, and it’s that forgetting about the notes that open the door to all the other stuff. Then the real playing is what it’s about. And I feel like what Lez Zeppelin does that most of these other types of bands do not do - because they’re into imitation more than reincarnation - is she-incarnation.”

Paynes explained how Lez Zeppelin utilized the “she-incarnation” approach when Lez Zeppelin remade Led Zeppelin I—Lez Zeppelin I. “Led Zeppelin I is practically a live album. It’s the four guys—they made it in a week or something. And that’s where a lot of the energy comes from too. Because when you’re playing live, it’s different than if you’re laying tracks and recording it,” Paynes recalled. “We decided to go into the studio and do it exactly the way they did it. And we did that with the same equipment that they used, which was super interesting because you realize what they were working with. It’s like taking the tools of the artist from another era basically, and then trying to master them.”

Paynes feels that using this she-incarnation approach allowed her to appreciate the dynamics—or dialectics—in Led Zeppelin’s music. “Jimmy (Page) called it light and shade. I think what you’re really talking about is a dialectic. One reflects on the other. You can’t have one without the other and have it be any good. The best art—painting, music, dance—it has to have these dialectics going on,” Paynes described. “If it’s singular, it’s like something being shallow or something being deep. You need the light to make the shade sound so intense. You need the shade so when it lightens up it’s beautiful and it just sends you.”

To achieve the dialectics Paynes describes, Lez Zeppelin added string accompaniment where it is least expected on their new album The Island of Skyros (out November 1st)—featuring the songs “Immigrant Song” and “Achilles Last Stand.” “We wondered whether adding some live orchestration to the full band might allow us to illuminate and explore some of the less obvious sonic possibilities of what we consider to be the classical music of our time. The goal was to highlight the richness and interplay of the music and preserve the intensity—not to tame or soften it,” Paynes said. “In keeping with this spirit, we chose songs that were strident and perhaps not so obvious for string accompaniment such as “Immigrant Song” and “Achilles Last Stand.” These were epic enough in their own right, but we found that when given the ‘string treatment’ they became supercharged—even more heroic! And we went in and played it live. I think we did it in one take.

“We sort of stunned ourselves.”

Paynes and Lez Zeppelin are looking forward to continuing the she-incarnation of Led Zeppelin’s music so that their audiences have the opportunity to love and appreciate Led Zeppelin in a different and unique way.

“Led Zeppelin’s music is very magical. I know it sounds a little flaky but it is. It’s magic music. You can’t play it for very long without it having a great effect on you. It changes you to play this music. And it changes the audience. And that’s what’s so special about it,” Paynes explained. “And what happens when you really play it the right way, is that you are surrendering to something that comes through you, that’s expressed by you. And when players do that in front of you, it’s an incredible experience for everybody – for the player, for the audience. It’s not just one or the other. You’re not in a zone by yourself. The audience is somehow connected and they’re with you.

“You can’t fake that.”

Listen to "Achilles Last Stand:"