By Shane Pinnegar
After being shunted back and forth by the call operator, Deep Purple legend Ian Gillan came on the line exasperated and mildly annoyed – though thankfully not at us! Throughout the interview he remains in high spirits and ready to talk about his band, Deep Purple’s tour of Australia in March of 2013, and their forthcoming new studio album, though signs of his tetchyness show through once or twice – especially when I raise the subject, unwittingly, of modern technology and pigeon-holing his band. First though, with the loss of Purple’s ex-keyboard player Jon Lord to cancer recently, I wanted to offer my condolences to Ian.
Yeah, hello mate. Gah, what a procedure that guy is, I’m telling you!
[laughs] Yes, he pronounced your name as “Ayan” or something to me first off, so…
I know, he’s been calling me Jillian all day…
[laughs] Bless! Thanks very much for your time today, anyway.
No worries mate. No problem.
So firstly, commiserations on the passing of your friend Jon Lord earlier this year.
Oh bless you, thanks.
It’s a big loss, I think, to the music world. And the outpourings of grief have been nothing but loving and very positive. Is that a mark of the guy that he was?
Yeah, absolutely. Jon was a great character; wonderful. I mean… you know, he’s not been in the band for nearly 10 years but we were still in very close contact. And Jon was kind of like… we all looked up to him. He was there when Roger and I joined the band ’69 and he had a lot of… he was a fun guy; very bright, great sense of humour but he had gravitas as well.
When he… when we got the news, we were in Nashville in session there and we kind of expected it but it was still a terrible blow. And so it all went quiet for a while, needless to say, and then we started recalling the good times – as you do. His spirit is very much in the record; in the music. In fact I remember writing a line at the time: “Souls having touched are forever entwined.” And that got into one of the songs and so he’s there in the music.
I don’t think he’ll ever be away from it really, because he created the foundation of Purple. I mean… there was so many influences coming in but his… a bit of rock and roll, soul, blues, folk music and all that sort of thing but his input of orchestral composition and jazz were profound, to say the least.
And his sound… that big Hammond sound was completely unique.
Yeah, absolutely. Well we still have that with Don and so that lives on. It was unique at the time because it wasn’t just that Leslie cabinet with a Hammond, but he also combined it with a Marshall amp as well which had never been done before. And so he had the power as well as the subtlety; a wonderful, wonderful sound.
So you must’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve come to Australia by now?
Oh I don’t know! [laughs] Seven or eight times I think. I remember going there in the late 60s, early 70s… ’70 I think was my first time. And yeah, I enjoyed it a lot. You know, the first time you go anywhere you do a lot of sightseeing and breathe the air and see what’s what. And over the years, I’ve got so many friends there that most of the time now I’m out having a drink or a bite to eat with pals.
So you’ve got Journey on the tour this time around. How did that double bill come together?
I don’t know what the machinations are behind the scenes but I was thrilled to bits when I heard about it because that’s one of the really top class packages that we’ve been involved with. It’s great to have another great band on the bill and I’ve got a huge amount of respect for them. In fact when I heard I thought, “Well I’d buy a ticket for that for sure!”: I want to be in the crowd!
I’m going to be on the stage but…
It’s a great double bill.
It’s wonderful. You know, I’m really thrilled. It’s a good balance too… the contrast in music styles is, I think, going to be really good.
Excellent. You’ve gone on record in the past… I remember some years ago reading a Classic Rock Magazine interview with you and you were quite dismissive of the actual term, “classic rock”. Are you able to look on it more as a compliment now, or do you still think that it carries those negative overtones?
[Emphatically] Well, no. It’s a bloody tombstone round your neck, isn’t it? [laughs] It’s as simple as that. I think from a musician’s point of view, once you’re branded with [the label] “Classic Rock” you might as well stop. And of course we didn’t because we’ve been working underground. We didn’t like any of the labels that were given to us. I mean… it started with “heavy metal”; that was nothing to do with us and it doesn’t… then you get all the insulting ones like “wrinkly rockers” and “dinosaurs” and stuff like that. And eventually they settle on “Classic Rock”. I realise now it has become a broader term but at the time it was… I didn’t like it much at all.
I mean we’re all working still, you know? We’re near the end of an eight week western European leg at the moment and we’re playing here with 10,000 people every night and [the label] “Classic Rock” doesn’t mean anything to them either as far as we’re concerned. So it’s one of those things. If you’re a “Classic Rock” thing in the States for example, they’ll only play anything up to the 70s; there’s no point in making records – they won’t play them. So yeah, it did irritate me quite a bit; I’m not fond of the title, although I’ve got over it now. [laughs]
[laughs] Mostly anyway.
[Wryly] Yeah, pretty much…
So you’ve recently finished work on a new studio album. What can you tell us about that?
Well not a lot. It’s being mixed as we speak. We’ve finished recording. It’s a new tone, it’s a new direction, it’s fresh stuff. I think it was all written and recorded in Nashville, and the reason we went there – not to make a country record, but because Bob Ezrin, our producer, lives in Nashville and so it made a lot of sense because he had all the studio facilities and back up and everything else. So it made it really easy.
It was a great environment to record in and yeah, there’s a bit of diversity on the record. There’s some sort of… defining music is just so hard; it’s just really… it’s hard to define. If you think of a solo artist, you normally know them by their name; you don’t normally describe their kind of music, you just say, “It’s so-and-so or it’s so-and-so.” But with bands everyone feels an obligation to categorise then. I think when you’ve been around the block as many years as Purple has and a lot of other bands, you just listen to see what comes out. It’s not the same at all. So it’s kind of hard for me to describe it. I can’t compare it with any other album either, as far as I know. It will obviously find a niche somewhere when it comes out in April, so I’m looking forward to hearing it. [laughs]
I’ve forgotten most of the songs already.
[laughs] And will you be playing some of the new stuff on the tour?
No. Christ, you can’t, can you? You play one song, it’s out on YouTube in five minutes, so you can’t do it. And that’s the whole bit that spoils it for everyone. But no we won’t. Anything… the new stuff we play every night is contained in the improvisation. The band is jamming; there is still a lot of jamming going on.
Cool. So members have come and gone over the years and certainly, on the face of it, Deep Purple seems a happier band to be in now than it was in the past. How’s the creative process now? Are you finding other ways to create that… to get that creative frisson going?
Absolutely. Oh believe me, there’s tons of frisson without any doubt. [laughs] You’ve never seen a more disparate bunch of characters in terms of political leanings, for example, and social attitude, let alone sporting affiliations. [laughs]
So it keeps things lively then?
Absolutely. Yeah, there’s always something going on.
So as a band, and don’t take this the wrong way, but as a band you guys have always long had a reputation for enjoying a drink or two. I think we’d be naïve to suggest there wasn’t a bit of dope and some coke floating around in the 70s and what-not…
You’d be totally wrong! But ask your question and I’ll answer it…
How is it that Purple, at least while you’ve been in the band, has managed to avoid that whole addiction, celebrity rehab road?
Well, you know, it’s not all like that and I can tell you with a completely straight face that I smoked my first joint when I was 38 years old.
[laughs] That’s a surprise!
And that was with some buddies because I really was intrigued to see what the effect was, and I thought it was great, to be honest. But it’s never been my cup of tea. We grew up as a pub band so our poison was beer, basically. We used to drink beer and whiskey. That’s a good thing because you wake up with a bad head, you don’t drink for a few days and so we grew up with learning to measure that fairly well. Yeah we enjoyed a drink, for sure. We were served a few too much without any doubt but I didn’t think it was really going to hurt us too badly or put us in rehab. And we watched it happening to a lot of friends and a lot of buddies but it never crept into us.
That’s good. After playing some of these classic songs of Purple’s live for more than 40 years, how do you keep it fresh for both yourselves on stage and for your audiences?
It’s a fantastic question and I’m going to give you an answer that Pavarotti gave me when I sang a couple of times with him. He said to me one day, “Look, I’ve seen you sing Smoke on the Water about six times now and every time it’s different.” He said, “It makes me so jealous; you drive me crazy. If I did that with Nessun Dorma they would crucify me because they expect exactly the same technical and emotional performance every time.”
Well, you know, we’re on the road, you know? A lot of the fun is in the improvisation, so the songs are there, the words are there, the tunes… the words, I change the words occasionally whenever I feel like it. You know, then the idea of the solos and the groove. I mean sometimes it’s laid back, sometimes it’s driving and… yeah, it’s fresh every night.
You know, I think it’s… how can you describe it, really? The audience is so involved in all of this but you’re inspired to stretch yourself. I always think of those songs as… like if a motorbike or a horse tethered up outside and you just want to hop on it and, you know, get out of the office or get out of the home and just ride and feel the wind in your hair, and go through the forest or down the road. And it’s the same old machine, it’s the same old horse but it’s still exciting, you know?
Do you think that there’s any artists out there writing songs now that are going to be held in the same reverence and esteem in 40 years’ time, as Deep Purple’s repertoire is now?
It’s going to be tricky, isn’t it, because I think even from the simplest points of observation and analysis, you’ve got to say we were lucky at the time that we came out because there was so little of it going on. Plus it was really a turning point in music; so many things were happening. Musically, The Beatles had started writing their own songs; we were never allowed to write our own songs in the early days of recording. And Jim Marshall came along and, you know, it was just one of those things that… everything seemed to happen at the same time. It had never happened before and it started to go international.
It was an amazing thing and now it’s a different world. There is so much music and obviously there’s just as many, probably twice as many people with the same amount of talent but it’s not just that that counts, it’s the circumstances and… the ability to make a mark on people. Things are very transitory now, almost in every aspect of life. Disposability is built in and so it’s going to be tricky for anyone, and I think it would take a remarkable… I think probably a soloist; a solo performer. It’s very difficult for a group with a band to establish a long term repertoire… a long term allegiance. I think people are much more fickle now than they used to be. They used to be… you know, fans for life, so to speak, you know?
I have this theory, too, that back in the 60s most of the people, not necessarily all but certainly most of the people who formed bands and wrote songs that are defined as classic now, they went to art school, they were educated whereas nowadays it seems to be the high school dropouts that start the bands.
That’s one point, too. The other point is that there’s an air of nonchalance about. There was no commercial awareness or desire or ambition. I can tell you categorically, none of the bands I knew at the time had any skills in that direction. No one was media savvy in those days and the idea of improving your band was to steal the guitar player from the band down the road because, you know, he played the blues better, or the keyboard player because he had better equipment or he had a couple of Jimmy Smith’s records. [laughs]
And the idea of this… basically it’s just get as much fun out of it as you could. We still don’t have any ambition; I find that hard to express and people find it hard to believe but we never did have any ambition in that sense, we just got… we just enjoyed the music. I think probably, that’s why we weren’t touched by a lot of the phases that people went through over the years, and we’ve remained as our manager likes to say, “under the radar”. [laughs] No matter what we do, we don’t get caught up in the sense of passion because we realise that, by definition, if you’re fashionable today you’re going to be out of fashion tomorrow. So we just stick to what we do and keep it fresh from the inspiration within the band and from the audience. We’re lucky people, very lucky.
And still playing to 10,000 people a night, which is fantastic.
Yeah, and they’re all kids. I mean obviously there are some people as old as me and they have seats for those in the… [laughs] around the edge of the wings you’ll see the more mature audience and then all the energised kids are down the front giving it hell. And that is a wonderful atmosphere, absolutely superb.
How’s your charity going? The Who Cares charity… I see that they’ve started building in Armenia. [Gillan and Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi run the WHO CARES charity, working towards building a music school in Armenia after devastating earthquakes there]
Fantastic. Yeah, I just got the new set of pictures. Their construction is underway, they’re stopping this week, I think, because it’s going to be a bad winter; they don’t work on construction over the dark winter months but they’ll commence again in March. I think for the opening ceremony, Tony and I have been booked for some time in September so we’re very excited about that.
That’s great. And how’s Tony going, his… health wise? [Iommi has been fighting lymphoma for the past year or so]
Yeah, I think he’s going well – touch wood – he’s on the mend or in remission or whatever they say. I heard he’s going back to work again so that’s a wonderful… he’s been through a really rough time. You know, it’s pretty rough, the treatment for these things and so I’m glad to hear he’s on the mend.
Hey that’s great. Look, Sabbath are due to play here in May so we’re hoping everything goes well according to that and he soldiers on for many years to come.
Yeah, absolutely. He’s a great bloke, Tony, I love him.
Awesome. And are you planning on resuming your solo career after the next Purple album comes out?
Well it never really stopped, I just do that on Deep Purple holidays. It’s like my idea of having a break! [laughs] So I’ve got about 30 or 40 songs at the moment, which have not been released and which are in various shapes and forms. So yeah for sure, when I get… I’ve got to spend some time with my family and then… yeah. I haven’t really got anything planned but for sure it’s going to happen, yeah.
Oh that’s good. I saw you solo when you toured here. It must’ve been the early 90s I guess? [We’re interrupted by our operator again, telling us we are running over time] No problems Ian, I guess that’s for us to wrap up. Thank you very much for your time.
It’s been great talking to you, thanks very much.
You too mate, and we’re looking forward to seeing you March.
We’re looking forward to it. Bye bye.
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