proves that fact is stranger than fiction
By Naughty Mickie
Photos courtesy of the Dread Zeppelin Web site
This was actually going to be my second interview with the one and only Dread Zeppelin. The group has made their mark, performing high energy shows in outrageous costumes with their own brand of Elvis meets Led Zeppelin meets reggae music. And they have been successfully garnering an ever-increasing fan base over a span of 12 years. They have traveled the world and can be found playing anywhere from concert arenas to local record shops. But they have never revealed their true story. The bios they give to the media (as well as their fans) are pure fiction, so I knew this would be a fun story to tell, but I really didn't expect what happened next.
In the course of scheduling the interview, I was chatting with percussionist/vocalist Ed Zeppelin about the music industry, being in a band and portraying a character. We seemed to hit it off, understanding each other in the strange way only musicians can. Then Zeppelin said that Dread Zeppelin wanted to tell their real story, but it had to be to the right person and that he wanted to share it with me. Knowing how steep the competition is in the media, I must express to the band that I am truly honored and I thank them for the great tale which follows.
We sit in a little office upstairs in Moby Disc, a record store in Pasadena, California, after a terrific Dread Zeppelin set. The band is here celebrating the release of their new CD, Dejah-Voodoo Greatest and Latest Hits'' and everyone is in good spirits.
"Thank you very much,'' laughs lead singer Tortelvis setting the tone.
I ask them about the recent robbery of their gear as mentioned on their Web site.
Tortlelvis explains, "Got broken into- we hadn't even played a show yet, it was the very first day of the tour. The boys of the road crew brought the van out and parked it in a Days' Inn in Dallas Texas. When they woke up, somebody had broken in and taken two guitars, all the cymbals, drum stands, all the T-shirts and, most importantly, the old gold belt-"
"That he had for 12 years,'' interjects Ed Zeppelin.
"The same belt I've used since the very beginning," Tortlelvis continues. "It was a weight lifter's belt with a bunch of jewels on it and has been in about 30 different countries and somebody in Dallas is now running around as the 'heavy weight champion of the world.' We do the song, 'Big Old Gold Belt,' which was off our second album. Now when we do the song, we do it in past tense. 'It used to be a big old gold belt.' The belt is gone, but they can't take the song away from us.''
I look Tortelvis in the eyes and say, "How did you come up with the idea for the band?"
Tortelvis transforms into the man behind the white suits and dark glasses, Greg Tortell; he speaks seriously, although he finds it hard to suppress his ever-present smile. "The real story, the original Ed Zeppelin (Bryant Fernandez) who happened to be the twin brother of the now Ed Zeppelin (Bruce Fernandez). You know what, let me preface it this way, the real story is going to be even goofier than the fake one. The original Ed Zeppelin came up with the name Dread Zeppelin, reggae Led Zeppelin."
steps in, "He (Bryant) was playing drums and he was playing a Led Zeppelin song
with Gary and Carl. And they were playing a Led Zeppelin song and the drummer
kicked into a reggae beat- what he thought was a reggae beat, I guess, and my
brother said jokingly, 'Hey, Dread Zeppelin.' And it was just a joke. Then it
just started to
"They asked me to come in and sing and I tried to sing like Plant, Robert Plant, and that was just too high so I said, 'Let me try my Elvis,'" picks up Tortell. "I had been doing Elvis in another band and so, wow, Led Zeppelin, reggae and Elvis. We started rehearsing the songs and Led Zeppelin fit into the reggae style. Then Plant being a big Elvis fan."
"If you listen to Led Zeppelin's 'D'yer Mak'er,' Bonham was trying to do a reggae beat,'' says Fernandez. "So we played around town," continues Tortell. "His brother was actually in the band for a year. We played around L.A., Pasadena, this was 1989, and then we met up with Kurt Loder from MTV. He saw us at the Palomino and put us on TV and they ran this interview for a week on MTV, like five or six times a day for a whole week. And that was it, we had management calling, all these record companies calling and we signed a deal and decided to go on the road."
Fernandez chuckles, "We never planned on making records, it was something that was strictly done for fun."
"During that first year we actually made a record, so we had a record," grins Tortell. "'Un-Led-Ed' was done and IRS Records picked it up and we decided to go on the road and his brother had just gotten married and decided he didn't want to go on the road so we simply switched and nobody knew, but the road manager."
Fernandez inserts, "I was working for Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics, I was working in his studio as a studio tech, and I got a call one day--"
"We had actually had gone on our first tour, a seven-week tour, and the first weekend (Bryant) hated it. It was really hard for him, which I can understand because after 12 years I started to,'' Tortell laughs. "So he (Bruce) came in, learned the parts and we actually went out and did some shows and our road manager, for about a month, didn't know that we switched Eds. And he goes, 'God, there's something weird about Ed, he's doing weird things.' One of the things was his brother didn't like, you know the dressing room was always crowded and his brother didn't like to change in front of people and would turn and go into a little corner and this guy (Bruce) would take his clothes off in front of everybody."
"Well, not quite,'' Fernandez interjects coyly.
"Anyway, we went on tour and made 10 records and I'm getting ahead of it. More than ten. There's one record which we don't talk about," Tortell stops.
I coax the guys into telling me the sordid truth.
Tortell and Fernandez briefly left Dread Zeppelin in 1993 and remaining members made a disco record.
"They made a record without us and Butt Boy actually sang on it. He changed his name to Gary Bibb and sang 'Saturday Night Fever' reggae style. It's true. This is all true," spouts Tortell.
Sadly, or not, the album is out of print.
Fernandez picks up the story. "We were getting to the point where we were really tired of touring because we were touring most of the year, all around the world. We've been to Asia, all over Europe, South America, New Zealand."
"And the 'Great White North'- Poughkeepsie, New York," Tortell adds. "We've always done our own shows. But we've played with big bands, Stray Cats, INXS and Molly Hatchet we played a show with."
"We played a big festival in Holland, the Pop Park Festival, we played with Robert Cray on one stage and Bob Dylan was on that stage and a bunch of other European groups. That was one of the biggest ones," says Fernandez.
"But Molly Hatchet, come on,'' Tortell breaks into a few lines of Hatchet with his Elvis big voice.
"The funny thing was every time they took a break, they'd come back stage and drink whiskey or Jack Daniels. They were so winded it was funny,'' Fernandez confides.
We share a good laugh and I ask them how has Dread Zeppelin evolved.
"To us, playing here today, it seems like we're doing the same thing we always did," says Tortell. "But when we go back and you look at videos tapes and you look at stuff and recordings you've done, it really has changed quite a bit. In fact, recording-wise we've done a lot of different things, we made an all non-make up record called the 'Fun Sessions;' we made an all original record called 'Spam Bake.' Now the latest one we're back to doing Zeppelin, but we're doing them completely different, they're not really reggae anymore, they're more hip hop with techno rhythms and things like that. Compare it to 'Un-Led-Ed,' put those back to back and they're like night and day. They're completely different.
"In fact, I talked to a guy this week who was busy during the whole time we were coming out and just got turned on to us and the only record he's ever heard was 'Dejah-Voodoo' and he called me and he was like hooked."
Fernandez perks up, "Did he listen to the first record ever?"
"He had never heard that record," Tortell replies. "What hit me was he didn't start talking about 'Oh, it's funny, funny, funny,' he said how relieving it was, how much of a relief it was to hear Led Zeppelin done another way. Not necessarily funny, you know what I mean. He was more interested in the fact we changed the beats and a lot of the songs have harmonies and Led Zeppelin didn't have harmonies."
"They had harmonies in one song," Fernandez states. "They had harmonies in 'Hey, Hey What Can I Do.' At the very last end of the song when it is fading out, there is harmonies."
As I absorb how far-reaching the band is, I test their success by asking them if they need to hold a "day job."
"When I've been in Dread Zeppelin I've never had a second job,'' says Tortell.
"There's too much to do,'' agrees Fernandez.
"There's a lot to do, especially now that I have the Internet thing," explains Tortell. "I spend all my time doing the Web page, shopping cart and the whole thing."
"I do photography, commercial photography. I did the cover of the CD,'' says Fernandez.
"We do everything ourselves," continues Tortell. "Everything is done in-house, the layout, T-shirts, everything. Literally, I make T-shirts in my house. It's that kind of thing. We have an agent/manager."
Dread Zeppelin's agent primarily handles their bookings. He also handles bands such as No Doubt among other projects.
"As far as the art, the music and everything you see, it's all us,"
Tortell says with pride. "We have total control, we've never never had a record company looking over our shoulder and going, 'This is the way it should be.'"
"How do you feel about record companies trying to control artists' sites on the Internet?" I venture.
"They almost need to because people know where they can get their records," says Tortell. "They can go right to our Web site and get a record. So what the record company is doing is they're treating the band like a retailer. I have to buy the CDs from the record company at the retail price or the record store price."
"That's not normally the situation, but that's the deal we worked out", Fernandez adds.
"Well, it kinda is." Tortell clarifies, "In the past, the way I've gotten away with it is we always made our record first and then sold it to the record company. So I always pressed 5,000 copies, so I had them. And then they would take the record and make it and we would sell the copies we had. But with this particular one, they gave us money so I didn't have all these records to sell. So basically, I'm just like Moby Disc here where I'm paying retail and I'm just selling them.
"The problem with that is they haven't figured out a way to
sound scan the records that come straight off the artist's Web site. We can
sound scan the ones we sell on the road, but there's no precedence set for sound
scanning records from the band's site. And that's not a good thing because most
of our sales come directly from the Web site, a large portion and we have to
figure that out. I can understand how they don't really want to do it because
the artist can say, 'Oh, I've sold a
thousand--' you can put in any number you want. The Internet is creating a lot of new problems, but it's the greatest thing that ever happened to a band, especially of our size."
Fernandez nods, "Absolutely yeah. Before we would have to rely solely on press."
"I believe, that after 12 years of doing this, that if it wasn't for the Internet, we'd be completely dead,'' says Tortell earnestly.
"I agree because I think we can't compete on the shelf with somebody like Madonna or Backstreet Boys, seriously we can't," says Fernandez. "But we always have what we are and what we do. We always have that."
"And we also have our fanbase, our fanbase who can see us anytime they want 24-hours a day on the Internet," Tortell goes on. "And that's why it's so important for me to keep that thing up to date and new things happening all the time on it. Because if we don't, you know, when we go back to the East Coast, we hadn't been there in two years, and for two years how could they get their Dread Zeppelin other than buying the CD? They could look at the Web site. It's unbelievable promotion."
"But what make you stand out? I mean, what about your records for someone who hasn't seen your show?" I offer.
"Well, it's a combination of, it's semi-goofy, but the music's good," Tortell answers. "You know, a lot of times you see the goofy 'I'm going to dress up in a big green afro wig' thing and the guys get up there and you're 'Oh, it's funny and everything, but the music.' You know. If you took away our costumes and the goofy stuff we do on stage and just listen to the music, which you do when you buy the CD, good stuff."
"There's a reason we shifted away from comedy to playing good songs and writing, arranging the songs so they sound good to us," states Fernandez. "Because it's no longer really important to us to make a statement, a comedy thing."
Tortell picks up the thought, "Also, I think, this is my personal thing, I think that when the whole Elvis thing exploded when everybody was... I mean there's Elvis, the serious period, when everybody was, 'Oh, Elvis' and then there was the grace period after he died and then there was the comedy period when people started having fun with Elvis, right? Well, that's what we did, we had fun with Elvis. Now it seems to me that has run itself, it has run it's course, and now what we're going to do is take it a little beyond that and not really make fun of him, but use some of the good parts of Elvis to make the music sound better. It doesn't necessarily have to be 'Elvisy' to really work."
"He's a crooner, you know, and he has inflections of Elvis because he's been doing it for a while,'' adds Fernandez.
"On the new record, most of it, I don't sound like Elvis," continues Tortell. "I didn't put on the Elvis persona. But also, in my opinion, we can't totally lose our humor. We haven't made a serious record, whatever that means. What is a serious record? We can't talk about the injustices of the world. First of all, people would probably think it was a joke anyway, but we're never going to lose our humor."
"There are people who put on this record and they probably laugh anyway, whether we made it funny or not, every time 'Stairway to Heaven' is done a different way,'' says Fernandez.
"But look what we're doing to Led Zeppelin songs, we're butchering them up. Just the concept of what we're doing with the music is weird," clarifies Tortell.
I smile, "But some people think Led Zep music is sacred."
"I never thought of it that way," responds Tortell. "It's just something that we do. In the early days we thought we were going to get a lot of flak from the serious Elvis guys, that they would really hate us, but the people that hated us were the Led Zeppelin people."
"But we got Robert Plant's endorsement," Fernandez reminds him.
"Yes, once Robert Plant came out, it got a lot better," says Tortell. "We'd be doing radio interview and people would call us pissed off and we'd go, 'Wait a minute, here's Robert Plant,' 'I love these guys. In fact I've got it in the car,' he said. And people would be, 'Wait a minute, Robert Plant's listening to Dread Zeppelin, they must be cool.' So that helped a lot. One of the reasons we think, you know Robert Plant really did like us, but at the time, he and Jimmy Page were having a little bit of a tiff, so you know."
"That was before they regrouped", Fernandez says.
"They hadn't gotten back together and Jimmy Page hated us then," continues Tortell. "Now he says he likes us. But then he hated us and so we think that Robert Plant was maybe saying that just to get at Jimmy Page. And what happened with Robert Plant was, after three years of all these people saying 'What do you think of Dread Zeppelin? he probably got tired of it, he stopped answering Dread Zeppelin questions. That's a true story, I just found this out the other day."
"He even used to play 'Un-Led-Ed' at his show between him and the opening act," adds Fernandez. "They used to play 'Un-Led-Ed' right before he was going to come on. I think he did like us, he just got burned out on the questions."
Tortell's eyes light up, "There was one magazine where he's in there, he's sitting on the floor and he's got all his favorite singles and he's got three of our singles sitting right next to him, our original singles, so , you know, he was into it."
"We always used to joke about how we started," cuts in Fernandez.
Tortell launches into Elvis, "Well, I was in a milk truck--"
Fernandez returns to his tale, "Our guitar player met Jimmy Page at a festival, he didn't say anything. We wouldn't even be able to use the name Dread Zeppelin if it wasn't okay with them, it's a little bit too like their name."
"No, that's actually not true," interrupts Tortell. "We never had a problem with Led Zeppelin."
Fernandez shakes his head, "Remember we had a meeting and we were told Led Zeppelin had an agreement with their band that if one person out of all their remaining members didn't agree with something, like the usage of their name or the kind of thing we are, it kind of nixes the whole thing. So he must not have been too offended by it because we ended be able to use the name."
Tortell nods, "The weird thing is we never had problems with the Led Zeppelin people as far as lawsuits. The Elvis people are the ones."
"They even did this thing on the first CD where we couldn't show his (Tortell's) face. True story," says Fernandez.
"The second pressing, my face was wiped out. look at me, I obviously look like Elvis," Tortell laughs.
"Then they put dreds on the picture of him," grins Fernandez.
"The management we had in the beginning was very paranoid about pissing these people off and it ended up, that no matter what we did, we never got a hard time from anybody." Tortell goes on. "In fact we never made a video for 'Stairway to Heaven' because we were told we couldn't. We started to make it. Now we do whatever we want to do, nobody's going to come after us for anything. We aren't selling as many records as them so it doesn't make a difference. Another thing is best thing for us that could happen is being sued, could you imagine being sued by Led Zeppelin? All the press. It would be unbelievable."
"What size venues do you prefer to perform in?" I ask.
"I love the little ones,'' beams Tortell.
"I like the bigger ones,'' Fernandez says.
"The smaller the better," explains Tortell. "This show is my kind of thing. You're more personal, you know the people are right in your face. We've played shows in Europe to over 100,000 people and it's like you're playing to no one, it's just a sea of faces and our show."
"It's totally different for me,'' throws in Fernandez.
"It's like you're standing up there, you're rehearsing," Tortell says. "I get nervous if people don't watch because people are right there and they're watching every little move that you make."
Fernandez states his case, "For me it's different because what I do is rely more on audience participation. I'm always doing the audience thing back and forth. The bigger shows work better for me, I feel the numbers are more in my favor. You go, 'Yo!' and there's like three guys who are willing to participate in a room of one hundred. It's not always like that, usually it's pretty good. Also, I run around so much and I'm constantly bumping into him (Tortell). That's why I have the wireless now, which makes it worse, because I'm running into the crowd now."
"But you're not tripping over my chord as much," Tortell says to him. "And there's so much action on the stage that people are running into each other all the time."
"Especially Gary (Buttboy), I never know where he is," agrees Fernandez. "I turn around and he's licking my ear or something."
"With all your travels, you must have a good road story to share," I say.
"We did this show in Oakland we played this place called the Omni, we were still putting our group together," Fernandez offers. "We came into the show and at first people go to the show because that's where everybody's going, they don't really know the group. Well there was this girl walking in. We were in soundcheck and we were kind of joking around and somebody said something like, 'Hey, who are you going to see?' And the girl goes, 'I don't know, Dreppelin something or other.' And we ended up calling our touring company Dreppelin Tours because of it. It was just odd because we ended up using it as something, you know, the real deal. Italy?"
"You want me to give her an Italy one?" Tortell asks.
"Yeah," smiles Fernandez.
"Italy's a weird place," begins Tortell. "I'm Italian, but Italy's the weirdest place I've ever been in my life. So we go to do a show there and they don't have lighting so our road manager literally propped up a broomstick and duct taped a flashlight to a broomstick for lighting. So we do this show and of course everything's going wrong."
"It looked like it was in somebody's house too," interjects Fernandez.
"And at the end of the night we had to pay $500 to get our equipment out of the club," Tortell shakes his head. "That's how they work it, yeah, 'You can't have the equipment unless you have two million lira.' But Italy's a fun and strange place.
"Then I'm walking in Rome, I've never been to Italy before, I'm walking in Rome and Rome's a pretty big city, I'm walking down the street and I hear, 'Hey, Greg, Gregorio.' There's my aunt.'' he laughs. "That's a true story. Come on, Rome's as big as Los Angeles for christsake. I'm walking down there and someone yells my name, in Italy, it was my aunt."
"Do you often get recognized offstage?" I muse.
"If Elvis had a band where he could dress up, he'd still be alive today. If he didn't get recognized so much, he'd still be alive. That's what drove him to drugs, it was all that fame. Think about it." Tortell breaks into character, "If Elvis had my career, ladies and gentlemen."
"Do people recognize you?" I clarify.
"Once in a while," says Tortell. "Since I've been using my real hair and my real sideburns the last couple of years, more people. In the old days, I used to wear a goofy wig and taped on carpeting as sideburns and for the last two years I've been doing the real hair and sideburns. So offstage, more people recognize me, but believe me, it's not that many. I don't have to worry about that."
Just then Buttboy comes to the door with a poster. "There's a young boy who's been waiting out there for almost an hour, a young whippersnapper."
The guys excuse themselves and stop to autograph the poster.
Fernandez proffers another road tale, "We were in St. Louis and we were packing our gear and we were standing at the back of the stage, we played last, and Charlie Haj was signing an autograph for a fan. This guy had the Harley Davidson belt buckle and the John Deere hat and the whole thing, I'm not gonna, but he didn't have to many teeth, let's put it that way. And (his friend) goes, 'You should get Ed Zeppelin to sign.' And he goes, 'Yeah' and he hands it to me and I start signing. Then he pulls it from my hand and says, 'I don't want any road crew signature.' And (his friend) says, 'No, that's Ed Zeppelin.' It's okay," he ends with a chuckle.
"What are your goals?" I query.
"I had one goal, I swear to God, careerwise," states Tortell. "Here's my goal- if I never have to punch a clock for the rest of my life and enjoy playing music, that is my goal. I know it's simple, but that's how is it is. I know friends who are lawyers and doctors, whatever, and they got all this money and all these cars and everything, but where is their life? Honestly, they have everything. We want to be able to do what we do."
"For me, my photography for me is more like part of my inside, it's my introverted side," Fernandez avers. "Dread Zeppelin is my extroverted, you know what I mean. I can perform on stage and that satisfies that part of me. If I would be able to perform for the rest of my life, that would be enough for me. Especially to a lot of people, I get off the extroverted part of me, photography is something all to itself. But that's how it is for me."
Buttboy interrupts again to remind the guys that the Lakers are on tonight and Tortell grabs my recorder and chants into it, "We're obsessed by the Lakers, we're obsessed by the Lakers."
I decide it's time to get to the meat of the interview, "Why did you do this record differently?"
"Mainly, I think, because we've been doing records the same way forever," says Tortell. "For ourselves, we wanted just to mix it up a little. That's basically simple, we just wanted to try something different."
Fernandez explains, "We almost always go into it as a live thing-- live drums and live bass and everybody knows the song that they're playing and they get into different parts of the studio, in closets or whatever, and they play the song collectively and it's a live sounding thing. We started thinking of approaching it that way and then we decided to turn it around it a little bit. Our bass player, who produced the record, Bob Knarley, Howard, he produced a few other things that we did for fun too, but we were just doing something and we turned it into a Dread Zeppelin project. It was much more electronic, it was more drum loops."
"Basically we were recording music and we said, 'Let this be the new Dread Zeppelin record,''' says Tortell.
"That's exactly it," Fernandez agrees. "It came out to be a Dread Zeppelin record because we came back to what we were comfortable with, but we started from a point that was musically very different."
"We put our vocals on top of different drum beats,'' adds Tortell.
"We mixed in some African drum beats,'' says Fernandez.
Impressed with their musical intuition, I ask them about their education.
"College education," replies Fernandez.
"The college of rock and roll pretty much, that'll do it," says Tortell.
"We've all been playing for years and years,'' clarifies Fernandez.
Tortell goes on, "A lot of us come from entertainment backgrounds. Nobody you've ever heard of, but vaudeville actors; Elvis stuff. We're all from entertainment families. I grew up playing music and being a groupie."
"I started playing percussion when I got thrown right in the midst of all this." Fernandez explains, "I had to learn how to play percussion. I do come from a Latin background, I was always around it as a kid. We used to go down to Griffith Park. In the old days they used to have these huge Satana-like parties where everybody brought down their drums."
"He's lying," Tortell teases.
Undaunted, Fernandez continues, "We used to go down right where the carousel is in Griffith Park and people used to bring their guitars, drums and there was these big things and when I was a kid we used to jump right in there and play. That was all I did. I was the lead singer of a group. I sang in a band, where we were together. I had long hair and the whole deal."
During their musical careers, Fernandez has had stints with the groups Public Eye and Rampage, while Tortell did a pop project. Lead guitarist Buttboy was in the Prime Movers which garnered a record deal and a national tour. And, not to be left out, drummer Spice recently scored the music for an independent film.
Despite all these different directions, Dread Zeppelin is still a "homegrown" band, as they all knew each other prior to their project, hailing from the close communities of Pasadena, Arcadia and Sierra Madre. They have managed to stand the tests of time and travel and even the advent of the "ultra-computer age." In fact, they were even considering changing their name to DreadZeppelin.com. But as you see, no matter what you call their eclectic sound, it's still as down to earth as they are.
"We've never done an interview like this where we just sat down and talked about the real stuff,'' Tortell says to me earnestly, then he gets an mischievous glint in his eye and becomes Tortelvis. "My daddy came to Memphis from Tupelo in 1956...."
Dread Zeppelin is Greg Tortell: Tortelvis, lead vocals
Gary Putman: Buttboy, guitar, vocals
Bruce Fernandez: Ed Zeppelin, vocals, background vocals, percussion
Christian Boerin: Spice, drums
Howard Ulyate: Bob Knarley, bass, keyboards, guitar
Dan Bell: Charlie Haj, assistant to Tortlelvis
For more information visit Dread Zeppelin at: www.dreadzeppelin.com
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