ZoSo: The working life of a tribute band

by Patty Templeton

If you’ve never heard of Led Zeppelin, you don’t know much about rock ‘n’ roll. Go stream “Immigrant Song.” Thunderous drums, provocative vocals – basically, it’s everything exquisite that came out of the ’70s. Regrettably, you’re never gonna hear Zep live. Lead singer Robert Plant has turned down offers of over $14 million for one-night reunions.

Enter, ZoSo: The Ultimate Led Zeppelin Experience, the best damn, world-traveling Zeppelin tribute band out there. ZoSo, named after Zeppelin’s fourth album, personify the classic Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham lineup. They’re hitting up Animas Theatre on Friday, Nov. 10.

DGO talked to lead singer, Matt Jernigan, about what creative life is like being on the road in a tribute band.

How obsessive do you get over mimicking Zeppelin? You get the clothes custom made, so that is as close as it can be. What is far more important is the execution of the music. That comes first. Emulating or acting comes second. If the music isn’t there, nothing else matters.

When you go on stage, are you you anymore? We’ve been doing it so long, 22 years now, that it is like a light switch. I am conscious that I am supposed to be in character, but I would say I’m like any other musician. I am focused on the musical aspect of thinking ahead to the next song but carry a double focus of staying in character.

Have Zoso’s after-parties ever reach Zeppelin magnitude? (Laughs) Well, probably not that level.

So no mudshark-groupie-sex? Zeppelin is in a league of their own on that one. That’s a legend that can’t be matched or beat.

Do you think your band builds on history or showcases it?People tell us, “You’re keeping this music alive.” I think it already has a life of its own. Rock ‘n’ roll is such a departure from everything that came before it, that once it was ingrained on the publics’ psyche, it wasn’t going to go away. It is still here. I do feel that we get to expose it to two or three generations that didn’t get to experience it.

I think that what we are doing and the whole genre of rock is a vanishing art. People, especially the younger generation, have no idea of what they’ve lost. They hear myths and stories, but they really don’t have the kind of music heroes that I had coming up. There’s no bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Beatles, The Stones, Black Sabbath. There aren’t rock gods, anymore.

Arena rock has kinda disappeared. It’s more arena pop or hip-hop now.If you think about it, the last band that I think reached arena status and then stayed there for decades was U2. There’s not a whole lot of bands, rock or of any genre, that once they reach that level they can maintain that popularity.

It’s sad for me in a lot of ways because those renaissance men, they’re dying or not active anymore and there’s no one to fill that void, not like that.

How do you insert your own creativity into a moment when you are embodying somebody else’s music?To me, it’s like acting. An actor is never playing themselves, but they bring deep parts of themselves to a role.

How did ZoSo start?When we started this, it was the record companies who didn’t want new music. They still don’t. The writing was on the wall back in ’95. A management company suggested this to us. We thought about it for four months before we undertook it.

I looked at it and said, “It’s a no-strings gig. It’s Led Zeppelin, man.” If it was a band that was a drag to make a paycheck with, I would’ve said no. I love the music. You adopt it. You have to embody it in so many ways that it becomes a part of you.

What were the downsides that made you deliberate the gig for four months? It wasn’t standard practice back then. You had Beatlemania and Elvis impersonators. There wasn’t anything like this. The first thing was, “Could I even do that?” when thinking about the acting involved.

The main thing that overshadowed the idea was the critiquing we would deal with. Rightfully so, but still, people saying, “This music is sacred,” or “How could you do this?” or “This is Led Zeppelin, man. You’re not supposed to touch this.” That is similar to the way we thought before we started the band. People hold the music in such high regard. Because of that, you will have a lot of people, a lot of the time, with their arms crossed staring at you saying, “Impress me.”

Those were the two main things, getting into an area we had never been in and the critiquing. If it was a bar band playing a song, that’s one thing. People don’t take it to heart. When you want to recreate a band completely, that is a different thing.

What’s the difference between ZoSo and other Led Zeppelin tribute bands?Some of these Zeppelin bands that are out there have six members and say, “We do the studio cut.” Well, Led Zeppelin had four members. They say, “But it’s so hard.” It is hard to recreate it with four guys and make the sound that full.

There might be a slight difference in us to Zeppelin, but the sound is where it should be, and it’s hard to do. Zeppelin is a tough band. It is a band with massive dynamics. We can go from 90 dB to 102 in two notes.

Why pay 40 bucks to go see a band that has six to eight people and isn’t true to the original? That natural flow of things, the performance, the live, raw energy, it isn’t the same as the original. You might as well go see the symphony version of Led Zeppelin or listen to the album at home.

How did you know you had the swagger to become Zeppelin?We didn’t know what we could do until we tried doing it. There is always second guessing yourself – “I don’t know if I can do that.” But we tried, skinned our knees, and got up and tried again. You go until you feel like it is what it is supposed to be.

Is there competitiveness or community within the realm of tribute bands?(Laughs) It’s never been a damn community. Even the big-time guys. They would pal around but in the end it is about who is or can get bigger. Competition is rampant, but we didn’t pay attention to other bands, especially when we were coming up. We just wanted to play.

Was starting a tribute of Led Zeppelin different than starting an original band?We had no connections in the business. We didn’t have money … Our band is from the ground up like any other band that would go out there and live out of hotel rooms with two rooms and four band members, eating one meal a day, a hamburger or whatever, for two years at a time. You’re on the ramen noodle diet. Plus beer. It’s no different. You’re still a band new to most people every town you go to.

Do you mind that you’re portraying a 1970s character and there are smart phones across your audience breaking the vibe, recording you?It doesn’t bother me. In the old days, people used to take an 8MM to the show. They would bring their tape recorders. I think big-time artists don’t like it because people can see them for free, that’s what it’s all about … Why should they get mad if people who have already paid to see them decide to record? Everyone in the world can’t see you on a 40-date tour. They say, “Oh, well, we’ll release a live DVD and phones recording us ruins that.” That is absolute greed. In the old days, when bands were in their prime, people still recorded them. Not as much, the technology wasn’t as available, but it existed. They didn’t care because they sold out the show and sold albums. Why care about it now?

Have you ever met anyone in Led Zeppelin?Unfortunately, no. We’re always playing and they’re more elusive guys now.

Would it be terrifying if they came to a show?I would love it. I would love to meet them. I don’t think I would be as intimidated as when we first started. We’ve been doing it so long. I hope I do get to meet at least one of them.

People come up to us all the time and say, “Hey, man, check out this picture of me and Robert!” And I wanna be like “Come on! Get away from me, man!” [Laughs] I’m always working and I can’t go to events they do.

After 22 years and over 2,400 shows, what still charges you up about ZoSo?I love being a musician. I love being a performer, period. I love it. I loved it before I knew the corruption of it, the drugs, the drinking. I’m a purist at heart with it.

I am fortunate, very, very fortunate and I’ve worked to put myself in the position of being fortunate, that in the year 2017, I am playing in a rock band. This is an anomaly. I get to be in a rock band and play great music with great musicians in front of receptive people. One night it is in front of 2,000, the next night 500, the next 1,000. It doesn’t matter the size; I get to be a musician. I am living something a lot of musicians don’t get to, the dream of making a good living out of music that I enjoy playing … What’s there to be an asshole about? You get to play rock ‘n’ roll every night. It’s awesome.

Interview edited and condensed for clarity.Patty Templeton


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