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Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters

Sensational Space Shifter Liam "Skin" Tyson plays his recent find, a Fender XII, while onstage with Robert Plant at the iTunes Festival in London on September 8, 2014.

Guitarists Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson take us inside the making of Plant’s widest-ranging solo album to date.

Robert Plant and a few of his mates are huddled in one corner of the ground-floor café at the ultra-hip Wythe Hotel on Brooklyn’s Williamsburg waterfront, crafting a setlist for the second of two sold-out nights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Gilman Opera House. Late morning sunlight bathes the front of the room, while early ’80s Genesis cranks over the speakers above the bar. The stylish clientele seems almost oblivious, or maybe just respectful, of the rock royalty in the midst, but no matter—Plant seems perfectly content to bask in the anonymity. It’s a fine-tuned, 180-degree turn from last night, when a packed house showered him with ecstatic cheers, celebrating the front end of what he gets a kick out of calling his “26th U.S. tour.” Of course, that number includes 11 tours with Led Zeppelin between 1968 and 1977.

It’s testament not only to Plant’s resiliency—at 66, he still keeps up a daunting pace that would floor most youngbloods—but also to his lasting appeal as an iconic singer with plenty left to say, and plenty of ways to say it. His latest album, lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar (Nonesuch), is his first stab at original material since 2005’s Mighty ReArranger; it’s also the first to reunite most of the band previously known as Strange Sensation, now recast as the Sensational Space Shifters. Plant describes their collective sound as “country & eastern,” and lullaby… embraces all that and more, including North African desert blues, the Mississippi Delta, Massive Attack-style electronics, American roots music (which he explored with Alison Krauss on 2007’s Grammy-winning Raising Sand, as well as 2010’s Band of Joy), and the distinctly Celtic mysticism that has inspired Plant since the days of his youth, and peppered so many classic Zep albums—Led Zeppelin III and Houses of the Holy in particular.

Flanking him at the center of the sonic maelstrom are the Space Shifters: Justin Adams (guitars, Malian 3-stringed tehardant, and more), Liam “Skin” Tyson (guitars, banjo, and banjitar), Juldeh Camara (on the 1-string bowed riti), John Baggott (keyboards), Billy Fuller (bass), and Dave Smith (drums). With their contrasting but complementary styles, the two guitar slingers define a richly layered, hard-driving sound. Adams is a punk rocker and Clash fan at heart, and an avid acolyte of Tuareg takamba music from the Sahara, while Tyson leans more psychedelic, with a gift for fingerpicked pastoral folk and influences as far flung as Bert Weedon, Johnny Marr, Zep, Pink Floyd, The Jam, and The Church.

“I’ll bring some of my guitar ideas into the studio, but I let somebody who’s a bit more fluent do the proper job, you know.” —Robert Plant

“You could say that I’m the short-haired guitarist and Skin’s the long-haired one,” Adams quips, smiling as he stirs a fresh espresso. “That pretty much nails it, you know?” As a veteran of Strange Sensation going back to Plant’s Dreamland LP, Adams came up in the ’80s and ’90s with Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart, and has made his mark as a producer with Tuareg blues rockers Tinariwen and his own band Juju, with Juldeh Camara. These days his main axe is his prized ’52 Les Paul goldtop, which leaps out of the beautifully textural “Pocketful of Golden”—Plant’s exalted take on life and Zep (with the familiar opening line “And if the sun refused to shine…”). The song conjures a mixture of depth, longing, and mystery that could easily place it next to “Over the Hills and Far Away” or “The Rain Song” from Houses of the Holy.

“We’re seven musicians who like to play,” Adams explains, “so this album could have really turned into a big jam-out, but everything is really about serving the song. That’s one thing that Robert, as a producer, was very strong on. And I think we’ve all got the maturity not to impose our egos. We have unbelievable musicians in this band, so I’m just proud to play my part in it. If that means coming in on the bridge to play three notes, or just a couple of sustained chords during the verse, then I’m well into that. We’re trying to take you on a very particular atmospheric journey.”

For Tyson, the rock vibes come much more naturally, but with his keen attention to keeping his ears open. As a member of the ’90s Brit rock juggernaut Cast, he cut his teeth on power chords and amps that go to 11. When he joined Strange Sensation in 2003, he brought a well-honed sense of adventure and experimentation to the band’s sound that still informs many of the songs on lullaby…, from the trippy slide intro and Page-like riffs that crash the middle of “Embrace Another Fall” (played on his choice ’70 Telecaster) to the sparkly Gibson Robot Les Paul that defines the celebratory mood of “Somebody There.”

“We’ve just got a really good understanding of sonic space and different styles,” Tyson says, a steady gleam in his eye and his Liverpudlian roots instantly recognizable in his voice. “It’s not a straight-ahead record, this one—it’s more of an experience. One minute it’s real down and Crazy Horse, and then the next minute, it’s another country away from that, you know? That’s where the journey comes into it. And playing it live now, it’s changing already. It’s growing into something else. That’s inevitable, because the songs were only made in January, so now they’re starting to turn into their own beings. Let them be free!”

The rigs of Skin Tyson and Justin Adams, backstage at the Brooklyn Bowl.

“We’ve just got a really good understanding of sonic space and different styles,” Tyson says, a steady gleam in his eye and his Liverpudlian roots instantly recognizable in his voice. “It’s not a straight-ahead record, this one—it’s more of an experience. One minute it’s real down and Crazy Horse, and then the next minute, it’s another country away from that, you know? That’s where the journey comes into it. And playing it live now, it’s changing already. It’s growing into something else. That’s inevitable, because the songs were only made in January, so now they’re starting to turn into their own beings. Let them be free!”

Tyson laughs, and as if on cue, Plant walks back into the room. He’s gearing up to see a solo show by rockabilly revivalist Imelda May, who’s playing just down the street at the Rough Trade record shop. “Have you heard Darrel Higham play?” he asks, knowing we’ve been talking guitars. Plant admits to playing on his own quite a bit, especially in the open D and G tunings that Jimmy Page picked up from Bert Jansch in the Zeppelin days. “I’ll bring some of my guitar ideas into the studio,” he says, “but I let somebody who’s a bit more fluent do the proper job, you know. Skin and Justin are two radically different guitarists, but they augment each other, and they never get in each other’s way. It’s ultimately about that great groove, and we’re talking about deep grooves here.”

We chat for a bit about Morocco and the coastal city of Essaouira, one of his favorite places, and then just as suddenly, a quick handshake and he’s off, stepping out into the sun-drenched streets of Brooklyn, on the move once again.

Liam "Skin" Tyson's Gear

’70s Fender Stratocaster
’70 Fender Telecaster
Fender Electric XII
Gibson J-35
Gibson J-45
Gibson Songwriter
Gibson ES-345 TB
Late ’60s Gibson ES-355
Gibson Les Paul goldtop with P-90s

Two ’80s Hiwatts heads with 1x15 cabs (live)
Hiwatt 50-watt SA112 (studio)
Modded early ’90s anniversary Vox AC30 (studio)

TC Electronic G-System

Justin Adams' Gear

1952 Les Paul goldtop
Vintage Harmony H77

Vox AC30 (studio)
Selmer Truvoice Twin (studio)
Harding Deluxe (live)
Harding Rocket 88 (live)

Electro-Harmonix Micro POG

You guys toured together for about a year before you started work on the new album. When did you first get the call from Robert?
Justin Adams: He had a gig in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and Band of Joy, his American band, couldn’t do it, so he asked my band Juju to do it. We did a rehearsal and decided to call John Baggott and Skin, so it became a sort of hybrid band of Juju and Strange Sensation. And then the next thing you know, we did three or four gigs. There was no future in it at that point—it was just, let’s do these gigs, and we had a real blast. We were all really pleased to see each other as friends, and the freshness of having Dave and Juldeh in the band gave it a whole new balance.

From there, we did a South American tour, and in my mind, that’s when the album really started to come together. It was like, hey, we’re coming up with things that are really interesting, and we have a sound that’s coalescing. Robert was already thinking about a new record, and with this sound that we’d created, we were doing cover versions of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” and Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die,” and we turned “Whole Lotta Love” all inside out. From that, a palette started to present itself.

There’s a real expansiveness to how the guitars sound on the album, but you can also hear the detail of what you guys are playing.

Skin Tyson: There’s a range of sounds on it. Some of it was a bit ramshackle—the most horrible banjo you’ve ever seen, like on “Poor Howard,” recorded instantly [laughs]. And then to the opposite end, you’d have a Gibson Robot guitar, with the piezo pickup in stereo giving you this incredible sound. And it’s not a rock album, is it—let’s face it. It’s an album that was made almost off the cuff. “Embrace Another Fall” was like that—the tape’s rolling, and you do your bit. But a few tunes were developed over a long time, and then when we got back together, we had the chance to re-record them—like [the single] “Rainbow.” Justin had a drum loop and I dropped a guitar part over it, and it was on my studio computer for years.

Adams: That was completely different from a tune like “Little Maggie,” or the final tune “Arbaden,” which were both done very live in Real World Studios in Bath. I think it was eight years ago when we put the EBow part on “Rainbow,” and Billy did his bass, and Robert did his falsetto vocal. And then he wrote the lyrics just recently—I mean, almost just the other day, you know? But when the lyrics came on, the whole album came into focus, and Robert’s production choices all suddenly made sense.

Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters performed several shows in New York City this fall, including a midnight show at a bowling alley—the Brooklyn Bowl—on October 9, 2014. Questlove opened the show with a DJ set.

What guitars, amps, and effects from your live show [see sidebar “Robert Plant Live”] made it onto the album?
: My ’52 goldtop is No. 1. It’s got that Memphis mojo about it, with the P-90s and the trapeze tailpiece. It’s also the model that people say you can’t play, and the one that apparently Les Paul said was crap. All I can say is people don’t get it. It’s an incredible guitar. If I want to sound bright and cutting, it’s there. If I want to have a really open sound, or a mellow sound, it’s all there. And it’s equally lovely when it’s clean or really driving—not far off a Neil Young sound. On “Turn It Up,” I can really hear it, and for “Pocketful of Golden,” we did some processing on one of the parts. I played it straight, and then [engineer] Tim Oliver figured out how to give it a pulsing tremolo, which was the sound that Robert wanted.

I didn’t have the Harding amps that I use onstage now. In the studio it was basically a Vox AC30 and my Selmer Truvoice Twin—I used that on “Turn It Up.” It’s got these push-button tone controls that really accentuate some odd and unusual frequencies. The amp has a great dry sound, just straight out of the ’60s.

For effects, it’s really just the EBow. Robert is really into the sound of that, and both Skin and I use it on different tracks. I’m playing it on “Rainbow” and “House of Love,” and Skin used it on “A Stolen Kiss”—just a great ballad. I tend to run it through my [Electro-Harmonix Micro] POG, but apart from that, it’s more about a dry sound for me. It’s cranking up amps, and then the reverbs and delays are often added later. So I tend to go more for a pretty much straight amp sound.

Tyson: I’ve got a beat-up ’70s Strat and the ’70 Telecaster onstage. There’s a lot more, but really the Telecaster is my favorite and ended up on the album. I’ve probably had it since the ’90s with Cast. You just pick it up and you get a riff. I bought that one in London, I think, back in the days when you were signed to a record company and you could get a guitar whenever you wanted!

I’ve been gigging with Hiwatts for over 20 years—two old ’80s heads with the 15s—but in the studio, it was a Hiwatt 50-watt combo [model SA112] and a modded Vox AC30 anniversary amp from the early ’90s. I just turn the volume up full on that one, and it acts like a master gain control. So the more you turn the cut up, the volume comes down slightly but it just gets massive, without having to shred your ears off.

And then for effects, I used the [TC Electronic] G-System, just because it’s a small board, a good controller, and you can roll in and out with it. It’s great for backwards reverb sounds, and the compression is always good with the slide parts. “Somebody There” has a bit of reverb delay off the G-System—it’s part of the intro sound—and then the solo is heavily effected with a sort of Leslie sound over it.

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Skin, you’re also using at least a few Gibson acoustics, right?
: For the set we’ve been playing, we use two. Sometimes we’ll be using four different Gibsons with four different tunings. But in this current set, I have a new J-35, and then occasionally the Songwriter comes out, but other than that, it’s my J-45, which is a ’90s guitar that really plays well for me. I’m used to it, and it’s the guitar I’ve played the longest, of all my equipment.

Speaking of open tunings, “Up on the Hollow Hill” sounds like it’s tuned down to D, which really fits with the dark ambience of that song.
: That’s a DADGAD tuning—and again, that’s recorded on the Gibson Robot guitar, with that sparkly, gritty sound. I’ll go with DADGAD on the ’70 Telecaster too. It’s got mediums on it—.011 to .052—so it’s already quite hard to play. At other times, I’ve tuned it half a tone down, and then it plays as a different guitar again, because you’re getting all the bends, but still with the thick strings on. But the Tele just holds its place really well with different tunings.

I keep coming back to “Pocketful of Golden.” Robert has even said in interviews that he was looking back on his Zep days in that song. How did that one come together?
: I agree with you—on the record, it sends shivers down my spine. It’s so beautiful, but there’s something about that mesh of really distorted looped drums, and the guitar with the pulsing effect. John had the original loop, and Juldeh played the riti over it for like 15 minutes. Robert listened to that whole bloody thing, and he chose a four-bar riff right from the end of it, and said, “That riff, with that loop, that’s it.”

And then Robert and me just sat in the studio and came up with the guitar parts together, but with him very much just singing them until I got close to what he heard, you know? I think Skin and I are both playing the main guitar melody on that. It tends to be either me or Skin who brings the base, and then the other one figures out how to back it up solidly. We have a really good working relationship that way, and I certainly can say I’m a massive fan of his playing. We don’t tread on each other’s toes, you know?

Tyson: That song is just very filmic and movie-like as soon as you hear it. In the studio, I think Justin played the guitars and the chords, and then I played the higher version of the chords, and they’re really just blended into one. Then there’s a melody line underneath—Justin played one, and I played along to it in harmony. Very basic, very simple guitar parts with an underlying melody.

It’s great playing together. And a lot of that feeling comes from the style of music and the scene you’re creating, as well. If it’s an out-and-out rock-blues band, it doesn’t really happen in the same way. You want to keep going and keep ramping it up, but with this type of music, it’s different. It’s something that you have to learn and feel, I think.

Robert Plant Live: The Song Remains (Somewhat) the Same…

Sure, it’s nigh impossible to suppress the reflex to ask Robert Plant the age-old question: Will there ever be a Led Zeppelin reunion tour? Plant understands the need, and he politely deflects it with warmth and humor, even suggesting that he and Jimmy Page might discuss it over “lots of lunches.” But he also readily acknowledges that he’s “still that guy” who sang “Whole Lotta Love,” “Thank You,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” and “Black Dog”—each of which, along with several other Zeppelin chestnuts, makes the current setlist of Plant’s solo tour.

In the hands of the Sensational Space Shifters though, the Zep catalog goes through a rearrangement that fits almost seamlessly with the new material from lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar, to the point where the new songs start to feel almost as familiar as the classics. Before the band even takes the stage, Link Wray’s loping guitar instrumental “Rumble,” made famous in the film Pulp Fiction, blasts over the PA to set the tone. Sometimes the set will kick right into Zep—on their second night in Brooklyn, the band opened with a devastating version of “No Quarter”—but they might change it up for the occasion too, as they did for a hard-rocking midnight show at the Brooklyn Bowl about 10 days later, opening with Howlin’ Wolf’s rollicking “Spoonful,” which just about tore the roof off the club.

Skin Tyson travels with Hiwatt amps and a veritable fleet of guitars, including various Strats, Telecasters, and Gibsons (solid, semi-hollow, and acoustic), as well as a cherry red Fender Electric XII that comes out during “Thank You”—an instant eye-catcher. “I’ve been borrowing that from my friend in the U.K.,” he says. “He tells me it’s gonna be the next hot guitar, because if you get a ’65, which that one is, there aren’t that many of them. I was gonna buy a new modern Gibson 12-string, because it’s got a wide neck and a great push-pull out-of-phase, but I held out and found this one.”

For Justin Adams, his ever-present ’52 goldtop and a vintage Harmony H77 with DeArmond pickups, which he uses on the band’s cover of Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die,” are his main guitars onstage. “There’s an interesting story about my current amps,” he says. “We were doing a gig last year—I think it was in Connecticut—and this young guy in his 20s came up to me.” As it turned out, this was Torey Harding, who studied with amp and guitar tech Mick Johns. “He really liked the tone of my goldtop, and was obviously a gear freak, so he told me, ‘I build amps, and I really want to give you one.’ And I said, ‘Don’t be stupid—you don’t wanna give me an amp!’ Then he contacted me on Facebook. It sounded a bit mad, but he sent me this little pink amp with a 10-inch Jensen in it. And I plugged it in and couldn’t believe it. It sounded incredible. That’s the Harding Deluxe, and now I have the big one called the Rocket 88.”

Adams also plays other acoustic instruments, including mandolin on “Going to California,” and the 3-stringed tehardant (also known, depending on where you live in Northwest Africa, as ngoni in Mali, xalam in Mauritania, and guimbri in Morocco) on “Little Maggie” and “Poor Howard.” Plant describes the instrument as a “twanger,” which is an astute term for the sound it makes.

“I put a little piezo contact mic on it,” Adams explains, “and then we run it through my Line 6 PodXT, which has a graphic EQ inside it, so I EQ it a lot by taking out the lower mids, otherwise you can get this nasty ringing sound. Then I put it through my regular amp with just a bit of drive and delay.”

There’s an infectious energy to the way the Space Shifters dig into everything they play—especially an epic like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” which Tyson opens with a stretched-out nod to flamenco masters like Paco de Lucía. “You really need to have 50 years of sitting in a café with a dancer and a singer to get it right,” Tyson jokes, “but I can have a tickle at it and do my own version.” In the end, what immediately comes across to anyone in the audience is that the band is having fun. And with Robert Plant as your frontman, who wouldn’t?

“That attitude really does come from Robert,” Adams says. “I just feel so lucky to be in a band where things are open and constantly moving, and where every member of the band is encouraged to play in their own way. I mean, I’m the guy who hasn’t bothered to learn every Jimmy Page lick, much as I love them, because I was too flipped-out with trying to work out some little Moroccan thing or an Ali Farka Touré thing, or just figuring out my own weird way to play a Moroccan rhythm on a guitar with a load of distortion. But I guess that’s why I’ve got the gig. The idea isn’t to be a cover band. The idea is to make music with that original creative spirit that musicians like Robert understand and represent.”

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