was 14 years old when John Henry Bonham
, his father, died on September 25, 1980. The young Bonham struggled for years to understand and cope with the passing of his famous dad and it wasn't until the Led Zeppelin
drummer's death that Jason actually began playing the drums. He turned from a life of riding motorcycles to a career sitting behind a drum kit with his own bands, Foreigner
, and others. He'd play on Jimmy Page
solo album and do the tour and even performed with Zeppelin several times including 1988's Atlantic Records' 40th Anniversary and Zep's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
In 2007, Led Zeppelin reunited for a one-off show at the O2 Arena in London, England, an historic performance that featured Jason on drums and really set the wheels in motion for his latest project. When no follow up concerts were planned, he went through a bit of cold turkey and there the seeds were planted. Jason Bonham's Led-Zeppelin Experience
is a multi-media concert that will include video, lights, pre-recorded tapes, and the drummer himself talking about his father's life and legacy. There are 30 dates planned so far to roughly coincide with the 30th anniversary of the elder Bonham's passing. Young Bonham has assembled a stellar band for the tour though he's keeping the details close to his vest. But he was more than willing to talk about everything else and here is what he had to say.
UG: You performed with Zeppelin for their one-off reunion show on December 10, 2007. Did your desire to put together the Led-Zeppelin Experience grow from that one show? Can you describe what that moment felt like?
It's hard to describe in words. It's one of those things when you've been a part of it for such a long time in some form whether it be [on the] sidelines watching your dad be with them. For me it was just a dream come true to sit in that seat as an adult and be kind of treated as an adult with them. I didn't feel like a kid anymore. It was monumental. I mean the reviews say it was good. Obviously there had been things in the past where things hadn't gone as well but this time everyone was prepared; we were all very, very prepared. And really, really hungry to do it and wanted to play and I think everybody, not only myself, wanted to prove something. I think everybody wanted to prove something.
You bring up an important point, which is the reviews of the show, were glowing and the audience loved it.
Everyone was on top form and on top of their game. For me, I'm looking forward to I hope one day they release the DVD of that or the CD. That would be a wonderful thing for me to have officially something with my name on it that had Led Zeppelin above it would be any drummer's dream. Whether I'm related or not, I've had this conversation with quite a few different drummers in the world and I say to them, You know first and foremost I'm a fan. I became a fan of their music after dad died which was a shame. It was OK when I was a kid; it was a band that dad was in. It wasn't until he passed away that I really wanted to listen to his work and go, What have I missed out on here?
So you really weren't that aware of what your dad did until after his passing?
For years I kind of listened to it with blinkers. I always said I listened to it with beer goggles if you know what I mean? And it was in my sobriety that I really felt that I listened to it in a whole different way. I could hear things that I'd never heard before and made notes and didn't take anything for granted. And did my work and did the show to the best of my ability.
You've talked about how your mom had said that one show wouldn't be enough for you and that you'd have to do more. Was she right?
For me when it suddenly stopped, as my mom says, Can you walk away after one show? and I'm like, Yeah, yeah, I'll be fine. Yeah, it was tough when it wasn't gonna go any further. I felt like I'd pulled the sword from the stone and then it was like, Oh, sorry, you've got to put it back. It was like, But I pulled it out. And it was, Yeah, put it back. But I'll take that one; if it is just the one, I'll take it.
You weren't very old when your dad passed away.
Well, one of the differences that I have and one of the main things that makes it OK to be talking about him in a current situation is I lost him at 14. I hadn't gone through the adolescence of me kinda having the arguments and kind of being the teenager that rebelled against his parents. I lost him and he still is on that pedestal; I wanted that reassurance; I wanted his knowledge. I wanted him to go, That's fine; you're doing good. So I think my entire life has been that search for that. To get it from them [Zeppelin], if I can't get it from him then the closest thing to him was his band; they knew him inside and out really. If anyone knew him, I think they probably knew him or knew one part of him maybe that we didn't know. So I was thirsty for knowledge. For me that goal, was not only to play drums with em but to get to know my dad.
Zeppelin have always seemed to be so supportive of you. Jimmy Page is incredibly protective of what he does and yet he's embraced you from the beginning in a number of projects that were sort of Zep-related. And then to bring you in as the drummer for the reunion show was huge.
"That would be a wonderful thing for me to have officially something with my name on it that had Led Zeppelin above it would be any drummer's dream."
There's a huge belief that I had that I knew without being too confident, that I'm the only guy for the job. I was strongly committed in my head. I really didn't believe anybody else could do it; I didn't care who it was. Because it's not enough knowing the song: you've got to know them. Anybody can learn the song; you've got to learn the people. You've got to know where it's gonna go; you've got to know how they tick and what they think. But it took me a long time; it took me way longer than dad to figure it out. I read an article, an interview with my dad that I found in my scrapbook that I kept as a child while I was putting together stuff for this Experience. I found my childhood scrapbook and there's an interview in there with dad from 1970. He talks about how long he's been playing the drums and he'd only been playing drums six years in 1970. You know? So in the weirdest way, he'd only been playing drums for four years when he did Led Zeppelin I. Unbelievable.
That is extraordinary when you put it in that context. Do you remember the first time you heard Led Zeppelin?
One of the weirdest things as I talk about it in the Experience, without really knowing what it was at the time [because] it was something I kinda figured out afterwards, but my first memory of Zeppelin was Your Time Is Gonna Come. I heard the intro and I was awakened in the middle of the night as a two-year old by this church organ blastin' in the living room. And dad was playing side two of Led Zeppelin I. He got the test pressin' and I don't know why it does it but every time I hear it it reminds me of an image walkin' into a hallway [and] cryin' and going [in mock baby voice] Dada, what's up? It just freaked me out without really knowing what it was. That was my first sort of memory.
Any other early memories?
When I was 13, I actually jammed with them when they were recording Presence; I jammed at Musicland with them in the studio. I was just there hanging out and I think it was John Paul that said, Do you want to have a play? And I'm like, Yeah, man, cool and then Jimmy came out and jammed with me and Jonesy. So they've been really supportive throughout. They were never like, Oh, please keep the kid off the stage. Jimmy said, Not only should Jason be here because of his ability, but he is part of the family. He's been somewhat attached with Led Zeppelin since the beginning and has played with us on numerous occasions. So it's kinda cool. And Jimmy was always very, very supportive of me.
You actually played on Outrider, Jimmy's first solo album back in 1988, and even did he tour with him.
On the Outrider tour, I was only 22 years old and I remember being kind of cocky and confident because we played he Philadelphia Spectrum. And I said, Check it out: dad didn't play here until he was 23. I'm 22 [laughs.] Yeah, boy, that one bit me in the ass.
Was that the first time you'd done any kind of work with one of the Zep guys?
Well, I think it was the first time that I'd been on an album. From a very young age, when Robert was doing his first two solo albums, I used to go and play when he was in between drummers. On the first album [Pictures at Eleven] he used Cozy Powell originally and then I came in and did the demos and then Phil Collins came and played the ones that I played on. And I did that again on the second one, The Principle of Moments. I went in there after Barriemore Barlow. So there was a certain level of confidence that they had in me right at the beginning and was giving me the encouragement to play.
Weren't you also a serious motorcycle rider at the time?
To be honest, it wasn't really [my first choice.] I was a motocross rider; I was gonna be a motocross rider. I was good at that; I was British Championship material and could have done the world circuit racing. That was my goal and it was about two years after my dad died that I suddenly put the bikes back, put them away, and suddenly went, I want to play drums. I want to really concentrate on the drumming again. Because I'd switched off really; drumming was just something I could do. I never remember being taught I was so young so the motocross to me was a challenge. Nobody in my family did it and I got good pretty quick; there was something there. And it's something that I still adore and follow and I've got some fantastically talented friends who I've got to know over the years through my musical ability. I've got to actually hang out with some of the people that I treated like heroes who are probably now 25 or 30 years younger than me. Some of these kids are definitely 25 years younger than me who I look up to as these great athletes on motorcycles who do these fantastic races and I go to the Supercross with them.
So you didn't just walk through the drummer's door that was opened by your dad?
There was definitely something else. I made a definite decision after a couple of years and I said, You know what? Because dad said something to me and many times I've gone over this. It was a sixth sense and it's a strange thing to say and I don't really talk about it but the day before he left, he said to me, Promise me you'll start playing the drums again. And that was, you know, that was that weird moment that was like, Yeah, yeah, right. And I never saw him again. I think that kept biting me, that talk we had before he left. I kept repeating it cause there was a stage where I kept thinking I imagined it. I was like, No, I didn't imagine it. So, yeah, it was a burning desire to prove something and almost threw it away many times by trying to emulate the wrong John.
You were aware of your dad's battle with alcohol?
Somebody said, You're just like your dad. When I drank, I took it as a compliment. I took every kind of [drug] and I wanted to be him; I wanted to do everything he did and be the bombastic and boisterous. If you could be compared to him in anyway, to me that was a compliment no matter what.
In a strange way, if your dad hadn't passed away do you think you'd still be riding motorcycles and not playing drums?
Well, I'd a been retired by now. As I was saying, there aren't many 44-year old motocross riders. It's one of those things where there's a lot of ifs, and buts, and coulda, shoulda, woulda, couldas; I don't think I'd trade anything now. I've been very lucky: I have a fantastically supportive family. My wife's seen me through thick and thin, through the hardest of drinking and partying times to almost 10 years of sobriety now. My kids, more than half of their lives, I've been sober and to me that's a really good achievement. They didn't get to really see the old person; they don't remember the old daddy. They really didn't pay much attention. I was only thinking the other day when I pick my son up from camp and he's 13 now, coming 14 very shortly, I was his age when I lost my dad and I just kept thinking, What would it do to him?
The Led-Zeppelin Experience is obviously about commemorating your father's legacy but it must also bring up a lot of deep memories for you.
"I became a fan of their music after dad died which was a shame."
When I kind of thought about it at first, I never imagined myself doing it. So when I committed to do it and do it this way where it's a very personal storyline part storyteller/concert with how Led Zeppelin's affected me I ended up delving into the past and mind you it's been very, very emotional. Stories of certain songs I play and give a reason of why I'm doing them and what I remember about it or what was so special about it or some anecdote. So it's not just, I'm gonna go and play Led Zeppelin music. I ended up delving into the past and it's been way too emotional really for a 44-year old guy to sit there and go through stuff and go, I can't keep doing this.
So it's been like therapy for you.
My mom said, Jase, for five or six years, you never cried once. You didn't cry at the rehearsal. So it's been hard going through it all but fantastic going through and finding stuff again. One of the things in the interview I found of dad's was I wouldn't have gone searching for stuff like that if I wasn't doing the show. So to read things about me when I'm three or four in dad's interviews when he's going, Oh, my son plays drums or He's gonna be good, is encouraging.
As you were putting the Led-Zeppelin Experience together, how did you choose the songs? Were they your favorites? Your dad's favorites?
I basically had a list that I kinda like would have liked to have done and I was hoping that when I found the right singer he'd be able to do all of them. I was even thinking about getting three different singers. One of the greatest things about Led Zeppelin was Robert did change and not in any detrimental way; I think he was one of the successes of the band as well. The fact that he was different at all different periods. If you listen to him on I or II and listen to Physical Graffiti or Presence, he's still fantastic in a slightly different way. When you think about Nobody's Fault But Mine and then you go back to Babe I'm Gonna Leave You it's just phenomenal. The list of songs that I had that represented each album as I went through each album because there was so many I'd want to do more. I mean we've even rehearsed more than we need and we change at different times; some nights we'll do other ones from other ones. So I mean I just chose ones that really meant something to me where I still put on now and go, Wow! It really just still takes my breath away.
I still watch that Danish TV special which is phenomenal to watch. When you watch Dazed and Confused on that and there's these young guys just out there groovin' and dad is just on fire.
Your dad was amazing on that.
Yeah, he really did stand out. So picking among others, I hope as the fans go through them when you put on a show like this, you try to make everyone happy as well as yourself. I told the singer, Whatever happens I'll only do the songs that I believe you sing. I've got to believe it when you sing it.
Can you run down some of the songs that you will be playing in the show?
Umm, yeah, I'd like to keep some surprises but as I said a few times, Babe I'm Gonna Leave You is definitely one in the show. Kashmir has to be in there. I was so grateful that when I found the gentleman who will be singin' in the band that was kind of his audition. I sent him an mp3 or Kashmir and said, If you can sing this, I'll hope you can sing the rest. And it was just fantastic and that's the clip I put on the website. I didn't want to tell anybody who was in the band; people were asking all these questions. So I said, Well, listen to it first and then at a later date I'll tell you who he is. So that's one of the only reasons why I put the music up there. I didn't intend to record a Zeppelin song and try and do something with it. It was just purely to say, Listen, if you're gonna come and see me, this is us doing Kashmir' and this is what you're gonna kind of expect. There will be definite things like Whole Lotta Love and we've done something very interesting to Friends. It's not just without drums anymore; it actually has drums now which was something I never intended to do. But I started fooling around with it with the guys Jimmy and John and Robert and I remember Robert saying at one point, Oh, if we ever did that, we should do it that way. So it inspired me to go, You know what? I'm gonna pursue those kinds of grooves.
What has the reaction to Led-Zeppelin Experience been like so far?
The response has been wonderful; I couldn't ask for anymore. The ticket sales have been phenomenal; it's kind of overwhelming. There's the haters in the world, there's a few, but there are a lot more embracers than that. There are a lot more people that want it than not.
You don't want to divulge the details of the band but can you talk about it in general? Two guitars? Guitar and keyboard?
It's a five-piece and we have a great guy who plays a multitude of instruments from pedal steel to keyboards to guitar; you name it. A handy man.
So he handles all of John Paul Jones's parts?
Yeah. I always say to everybody, We don't do anybody; we attempt to play at the best of our ability and represent the people the best way we can. I said, Listen, it's not gonna be fun if you feel you're just playin' by numbers. I want you to feel it. One of the key things Zeppelin had was emotion; they never virtually played the same way twice. There's that type of loose thing; the jam element. It can go left; it can go right; it can go up; it can go down. Dynamics and everything. I always say, I didn't wanna play the numbers game. I've looked through different versions and in my head when we do certain songs, I'm thinkin' of the other versions and not always the album version. I have huge resources from my friend who runs the Zeppelin website of some the greatest bootlegs there ever was and he's been through them all and listened to every show ever. So he did a lot of the hard work for me. He would send me stuff and go, Check this night out. Check this one from '72. Check this one. Even from '80 their version of Kashmir from the last ever tour in Europe was phenomenal and much slower than they ever did it.
That must have been pretty cool to hear all of the bootlegs.
It was inspiring. For the O2 [Arena show] it was like that; I did a lot of research and was reminding them of different versions which I got credit for but it really was a lot of help from my friends at the website.
As you were learning the songs, did any one of them stick out as being particularly difficult to get a handle on?
"For me that goal, was not only to play drums with em but to get to know my dad."
I was very tempted to do Four Sticks but it's a lot harder than it looks; the feel of it. It's not just picking up four sticks and banging on a drum. It's a whole different feel. In the end, I wanted to do When the Levee Breaks so much but it just never sounded right. I just said, Well, I'm afraid dad's gonna have to do it with us. All of a sudden it kind of felt right when that thunderous beat was there as the main groove and I'm kind of playing along with him and I'm doing the fills and he's just the main groove.
So there will be some tapes and pre-recorded music used as part of the show?
Yeah. Suddenly I'm going, You know what? I get to play with him. I've done this thing now where I've started out with a concert on guitars at the Guitar Center where I did a drum solo with dad and that was put together pretty quickly. So I've been thinking of that over and over again as to how we're gonna do it and what we're gonna do when we've got the interaction thing with the Moby Dick solo and that's pretty cool. Because there aren't that many pro videos of that solo and so I chose to use stuff from the Albert Hall and then The Song Remains the Same. And it was cool doing that one and playing together.
Did it make any sense to pull out any of your dad's actual drums and used them for a song or two?
No, there's no need. Most of the stuff I use now is just the newer version of it. Ludwig has actually reissued the old way of making the drums again which I'm using on the tour. There will be a few surprises and I should say this: there's more than one drum kit. So there are a few surprises and there are the key songs but then a few from left field that they never did live; they never did Levee live and they never did, like I said, I'm gonna keep a few surprises. There are a few stories in the show too.
On a different subject, can you talk a little bit about the Black Country Communion project with Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, and Derek Sherinian?
I'm having dinner tonight with Joe and Glenn and we will be discussing what we have planned for the rest of the year. It came together very, very quickly and I didn't really take it at first that seriously because it was just kind of a session. I was gonna be in LA and the next thing you know two days later we've got half an album finished. And kind of then we were planning the next visit, which was a month later after Kevin Shirley [producer] had finished Iron Maiden. So we just went back in again and two days later the album was done. And we did another week [and it was] mixed. It's kind of been fast and furious. When I got sent the final stuff about six months after I did it and I hadn't heard it since we did it, it was a very pleasant surprise. Cause there was no learning of the songs; there was no demo. That is the demo; we never did it and then recorded it. We recorded the first time we were going through ideas. And when I look at it that way, it's an incredible album. Even without that it's a great album because these are just first takes.
Just to close here, I was with Zeppelin in '77 and spent about 11 days with them on the road and on their plane and everything. I never met your dad but I did see him play a lot.
I was with them in '77 in Florida and New York. I got to go on that plane back then. Yeah, I experienced that for a little bit. Not many family members were allowed to experience the plane [laughs.]
Your dad would be proud of what you've done and what you're doing with the show.
The one thing I never meant to do was ride on the coattails. But what I will say to everybody is as I'm learning all about this, I'm filling in the gaps. Now it's kind of a medicine in a way. It's been closure and moving on.
Interview by Steven Rosen