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Brad Tolinski: Jimmy Page is a Complicated Interview

By Published: October 19, 2013
For more than two decades, Brad Tolinski has been the editor in chief of some of the most popular and successful music magazines in the world: Guitar World Magazine, Guitar Aficionado and Revolver. In 2012 these three magazines were purchased by publisher NewBay Media and shortly after that he was named Editorial Director of the Music Group, that also has several other U.S. music titles, including Guitar Player, Bass Player, Electronic Musician, Keyboard Magazine and Mix Magazine. Over the years, he has interviewed Led Zeppelin's intensely private guitarist Jimmy Page more than any other journalist and he has compiled those insightful and enlightening interviews with his own insights into a book titled Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page. It also includes interludes of conversation with people like Jack White, John Paul Jones, Danny Goldberg, Paul Rogers and more. This book is a work of art and a great aid in the understanding one of the most enigmatic and most gifted musical figures of our time.

All About Jazz: What prompted you to collect your interviews with Jimmy Page over the years in a book?

Brad Tolinski: After 20 years of regularly speaking with Jimmy, I realized my interviews told an important story. They explained the creative process of one the great musicians of the 20th Century.

AAJ: When did you realize you had enough material for a book with interviews? When did you first think of doing a book with interviews with Page?

BT: I started seeing that other books were referencing my material without any proper context. I wasn't interested in the sensational story of Jimmy Page, I wanted to tell the musical story. I think that when it comes to Led Zeppelin and Jimmy's work in particular you find that there's a disservice to it in the music journalism community. It seems that all of the focus has been on the exploits of the band and the more sensational aspects of their life. I mean, Led Zeppelin is the second largest rock band of all time in terms of sales, only behind The Beatles, and it really bothered me that no one was paying attention to how important and how interesting the music was.

AAJ: What has been the significance of Jimmy Page to you both as a guitarist and a fan?

BT: He is not the fastest or cleanest player, but he is certainly is one of the most original guitarists and composers in the history of rock. The chords voicings on "Dancing Days" and "No Quarter" for example, are completely outrageous. I really can't think of anybody else that could've concocted "Achilles Last Stand" or "Stairway to Heaven." Jimmy is a really great producer, his compositions are incredibly interesting and complex and as a performer and as somebody who went down to the details of taking care of what the band would look like visually and artistically, I don't think there has ever been a more well rounded guitarist in rock history than Jimmy.

AAJ: You are in a unique position of being both a music journalist/editor of a guitar music magazine and a guitarist yourself. How has the experience of working in these different domains informed your understanding of the other?

BT: Knowing how to play an instrument and understanding the recording process was why I was able to connect with Page. My skill as an editor and write allowed me to accurately convey the flavor and flow of the conversation. I think Jimmy, and other musicians that I talk with appreciate both.

AAJ: Please talk about the concept and how you structured "Light and Shade" with the interviews and preludes.

BT: Jimmy is a complicated interview. He only reveals what he wants to reveal. I felt I need a few other voices to complete the entire picture and provide some outside perspective. I thought of the structure of the book as something symphonic: introducing different themes and then creating variations on them while never losing sight of the original idea.

AAJ: What steps do you usually take in researching before doing an interview with an artist? What sources do you draw from for research purposes and how much time goes into research, information gathering and fact-checking in general?

BT: It all depends. With Jimmy it was very important to be as meticulous as I could be with research. He would sour very quickly if I had inaccurate information or made wrong assumptions. I discovered that even if I thought I knew the answer, I always allowed him to speak first, and then comment afterwards. That said, research is not always about finding the facts. If you want to have a great conversation, you want to bring some of your own ideas to the party, so it's also important to be really think about the art and have opinions.

AAJ: How did you prepare for the interviews with Page on the subjects discussed?

BT: Hours and hours. When I put together questions, I tend to think thematically. I think a lot about what it is that I want to find out. You know, you can go anywhere with somebody. I think a lot about where I want to go. It's like doing a dance. With Jimmy Page, I wanted to know about the music and not about his escapades.

AAJ: What is the basic understanding with an artist that you have before going into an interview?

BT: There are no ground rules. Everybody is different and you have to be sensitive to their responses. It's like musical improvisation: it's fine to know how to play over the chords, but to be any good you have to listen and respond to the flow of the other musician.

AAJ: Page is known as someone that shies away from interviews. How difficult or how easy it was to talk to him about his past?

BT: I answer this pretty thoroughly in the book's introduction. Essentially, he was fine if you did your homework and focused on the music, and very, very tough if you didn't.

AAJ: What are some surprises that you've come across while interviewing Page over the years?

BT: What I found endearing was just how excited he is about his music and legacy. He has real enthusiasm for his work in the Yardbirds and speaks vividly about every era whether it's Led Zeppelin, The Firm or his collaboration with P. Diddy. He's told me lots of good stories, but the information I had to work hardest for was specifics about guitars and amps. He would always say, "If I tell you what I used, somebody will go and buy them all up and I won't be able to find what I need!" But eventually I'd wear him down. I think I was surprised how much he loved and used Vox Super Beatle amps! Sorry, I know that sounds a little nerdy...

AAJ: Can you remember first hearing the music of Led Zeppelin? What did it signify for you when you first heard this music?

BT: I was in my early teens when I hear the first two albums. I'm sorta old, so I actually heard them when they first came out! I really flipped for how cinematic they were, although "Dazed and Confused" initially creeped me out. I grew up in a quiet suburb of Detroit, Michigan that was probably much like many Midwestern suburbs in the United States, filled with fast food outlets and K-Marts. In other words, boring. The music of Zeppelin had this exotic appeal—it painted pictures of something otherworldly and I loved it because it took me out of my pimply, humdrum teenage existence. It's little surprise that I was completely psyched when the band released their fifth album, Houses of the Holy (Atlantic, 1973) on my 14th birthday in 1973. It was almost as if an alien spacecraft flew by and deposited its strange cargo just for me. Houses is their best recorded and most sonically adventurous album, and remains my favorite Zeppelin album to this day. Filled with bizarre Day-Glo textures and power chords, "No Quarter," "Dancing Days," "Over the Hills and Far Away" and "The Song Remains the Same" are wonderfully surrealistic.

I saw Zeppelin perform later that year at Detroit's legendary Cobo Hall arena, and they were, of course, great. Over two decades later I mentioned this to the band's iconic guitarist Jimmy Page. He startled me by quickly asking "The first or second night?" as if we were talking about something that happened last week. I told him I couldn't remember, but I had a faint recollection of an extended jam where Robert traded vocal licks with Jimmy's Theremin. Page responded, "Oh yeah, that was the second night. We probably went on a bit too long, and as soon as we came off stage, our manager Peter Grant scolded us and told us to never do that again!"

AAJ: To your opinion what differentiates the music of Led Zeppelin compared to other artists in its era or any era?

BT: Jimmy Page's production, like George Martin's with the Beatles, made all the difference. He is a really great producer; his compositions are incredibly interesting and complex. He is somebody who went down to the details of taking care of what the band would look like visually and artistically.

AAJ: The interviews go into detailed probing on most of Led Zep material but In Through the out Door (Swan Song, 1979) is a subject less discussed as is Coda (Swan Song, 1982). What is your take on these swan song creations?

BT: I'm not a huge fan of either...but they have their moments. "In the Evening" is fantastic. One of these days I'll chat with Jimmy about those albums. We just never had the time. In some ways, I see the book as a work in progress.

AAJ: The book gives a great first account of his career as an artist told from his own viewpoint. But since 1998 he hasn't recorded any new material and the projects he has worked on are Led Zeppelin archival ones. Where do you think Page is at now as an artist and performer?

BT: In some ways he's been pretty busy. He's done a great job on the various Zeppelin-related projects like How the West Was Won and the re-issue of the movie Song Remains the Same. His art book released through Genesis is really impressive and innovative, and so is his website. He was involved in the Celebration Day soundtrack, he recently re- issue the Lucifer Rising soundtrack and the Death Wish II soundtrack, and there is a poorly kept rumor about another ambitious Zep reissue series, so there has been activity.

I wouldn't be surprised if we heard some new music from him in the upcoming year. Regarding his "career," I'm sure he will take his music wherever he wants, which is fine by me. He's got incredibly high standards for himself, so embarking on a new musical project is a pretty big deal for him.

AAJ: What is your take on other books about Zeppelin?

BT: I've read a lot of them, and I think most of them are fine. I haven't found much original thinking about the band in almost any of them, and most tend to put too much emphasis on the sensational aspects of the band. Anybody can have sex and do drugs, but very few people can write something like "Achilles Last Stand." The music and creative process is what's truly interesting. That's what I tried to focus on.

AAJ: There is an influx of music biographies and autobiographies. How do you see the relationship between popular music and literature? How do these two different creative practices interact?

BT: I think due to social media our current culture is more interested in real human behavior than building icons. That's why the current spate of superhero movies make their characters flawed in some substantial way. If you notice, in my book, I didn't focus on the myth, I focused on the very real sweat and blood process of creation.

AAJ: Journalism and writing have changed considerably over the past few years. What, do you feel, could—or should—be new forms and formats for music journalism?

BT: While it is true delivery systems are changing, the essentials remain the same. Good stories rendered vividly will always have a place in the world, and people will pay for it.

AAJ: The music industry has been shifting dramatically in recent years, and so has the world of the print and publishing. What do you see for the future music biography writing?

BT: The question is, will there be anybody worth writing or reading about? To be real honest, I'm not really sure where it's all going. I've got a few new ideas for future projects that people seem enthusiastic about, so I think things are okay. But people are going to have more options in how they want to consume it. A tablet version does figure prominently into my next book, and I welcome the possibilities. If writers and entertainers embrace the future as presenting new creative opportunities, they'll do just fine.

Photo Credit

Page 1: Ross Halfin

Page 2, 3: Brian Rasic

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