What now?! Ian Gillan’s (Deep Purple) interview, of course!

Fifty years’ career is quite a feat. Few bands have managed to last so long with so few interruptions. Yes, in a way, Deep Purple have been cheating a little, and endless line-up reorganizations – no less than eight – have at times turned it into a whole different band. It was the case, for example, of Mark III and Mark IV, with Glenn Hugues and David Coverdale. And yet, it’s no small surprise the band has always managed to land on its feet, especially after the difficult last years with Ritchie Blackmore.

In this respect, the joining of Steve Morse was a blessing. His talent, his amazing personality, but as a human being and as a musician, and his enthusiasm – just look how happy he always is on stage – have brought a new youth and new inspiration to Deep Purple. Purpendicular, released in 1996, was particularly remarkable and fresh. Since then, Deep Purple have remained as solid as a rock – despite the loss of Jon Lord on the way – and taken obvious pleasure in touring. So much so that they even forget where the studio lay since Rapture Of Deep in 2005…

Now Deep Purple are finally back with the ambitious Now What?!, totally in phase with the band’s taste for improvisation. We had the opportunity to talk to the very nice and talkative Ian Gillan. The singer doesn’t hide his enthusiasm regarding this new album, but he can also show firmness when it comes to the band’s integrity.

« [Producer Bob Ezrin] reminded us that we were primarily an instrumental band, making music, and not songs. »

Radio Metal : Your new record, Now What?! will be released very soon [note: interview conducted in April]: could you tell us how it was recorded and written ?

Ian Gillan (Vocals): Firstly, two or three of the guys had a writing session in Germany in May 2012 for a few days. The record was then written in America, in Nashville, Tennessee. It took about four weeks to write it. It’s been some years since we made the previous record: the atmosphere was fantastic and the circumstances were very good. We weren’t really in any rush to make another album : that was only when we suddenly got certain things in focus about what we were going to do. Our producer, Bob Ezrin, had us all mentally organized for the recording process: he went to see us live in February 2012 in Canada and reminded us that we were primarily an instrumental band, making music, and not songs. He said that our first records had only seven tracks on them and it was alright to make a six, seven, eight, nine or ten minutes song, because that’s what we used to do. We thought: “Oh yes, of course” and we realized that the formula, introduction – two verses – chorus – guitar solo had maybe become a bit boring, so there wasn’t any real sense of adventure in the songs. As Bob lives in Nashville, we started to work there with his engineers in his recording studio that he knows very well. The temperature was hot – it was a hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit – and the atmosphere was great: everyone was really excited! Since the last record, we’ve been working constantly, which is good, because the band’s become very close and the improvisation that happens on stage every night is almost second nature. You never know what can happen but there’s a kind of empathy between the guys.

Did you somehow try to find the musical freedom you had in the 70’s again?

Yes, it was inherent in the studio’s atmosphere. There were no rules. We started with nothing, except the right attitude, that’s all. Everyday, it was the same routine: the guys walked in at noon and we all worked until 6 o’clock on the writing sessions. We just stopped at 3 o’clock for a cup of tea. After 6 o’clock, we would go home, have a shower, some dinner and go to bed early even if I’m always up in the middle of the night, writing lyrics. We start at 10 o’ clock the next morning when we’re recording. But the writing is always noon until six. It starts with nothing. Ian [Paice, drummer] and Roger [Glover, bassist] would start jamming, playing for an hour non-stop and trying out some rhythms or grooves. They would stop and say: “No, that’s not good”, then start something else and say: “Remember that, maybe on Thursday we’ll try this again and maybe it’ll be a song”. Everything emerged from jamming sessions.

It seems that all the stuff you had written was done instinctively…

It’s always that way. The compositions have always been free and easy, but when it comes to the arrangements, perhaps we’ve fallen into the trap, in recent years, of being too predictable. Now, we have complete freedom both in the songs and in the arrangements. When I write a tune, it sometimes drives me crazy, because it’s like riding on the back of a wild horse: I don’t know where it’s going. It’s like: “Why this extra bar and a half here? And the key change? Why this unrelated key? How can I sing if this is not normal? Of course, we don’t want to be normal, right…” I’m fitting in somehow and picking up again on the next version and somehow it works. On Now What?!, it’s been fantastic, but for sure, there has been a change in the attitude with the arrangements.

« When I walked in the studio, on the first morning, after hearing the sound check, I nearly cried: it was so wonderful. »

How many songs were written for the record?

Probably 30 or 40. They all didn’t reach completion because they weren’t satisfactory or good enough. We expected to put 9 or 10 songs together, as they were long. When vinyl finished, the optimum time for sound quality was 38 minutes, and this for technical reasons. When the CDs came along, you could make an hour or longer of music. Everybody was like : “I want an hour of music! I want value for the money!” And quantity sometimes prevailed on quality. We only put the songs that were up to standard.

What is the original meaning of Now What?! ?

The original meaning is: “Why are you interrupting me? Now what do you want?”. That was the attitude, really, behind the title. We were quite happy touring, we were having a great time: it was like being in heaven, because we were touring constantly, with no interruptions from the record company or the management. And one day, the phone rang: “Now what ?!” OK, guys, we’ll make a record! We spoke to Bob and everything went well.

Are the question marks in the title a way to address yourselves to the people who, in a way, questioned your ability to make another record and bring something new?

That’s an interesting thought, because with such a short title, it can mean anything to us or to you. Basically, it’s a sort of grumpy question: “Now what do you want? Leave me alone!”

Bob Ezrin, one the biggest producers in the rock scene, worked with a lot of bands on many rock classics…

And classical music and jazz. He’s right across-the-board. He’s a great producer…

Do you think that Now What?! was begging for such a prestigious name?

Mostly, the record was begging for a good sound. In my personal opinion, we have never, ever achieved what we should have achieved, in terms of sound quality. Music, lyrics and performance are different stories and have been satisfactory. The idea of Bob Ezrin, a top class producer, was fantastic for me. When I walked in the studio, on the first morning, after hearing the sound check, I nearly cried: it was so wonderful. I was so happy to hear clearly the power and also the perfect balance between the guitar and the Hammond organ, which has always been the distinctive sound of our band. There’s a part of the sound spectrum where they overlap quite a lot and that’s always been a problem because then you get distortion for example. They fight with each other for space: so you either bring one down to give the other one dominance or separate them stereo wise in which case you loose the punch and power. Somehow, he managed to solve these problems, I don’t know how, and that’s why he’s an expert producer and why his studio is so fantastic. He had separation and power. It was exactly everything I had dreamed of. From that moment we were in complete confidence. Bob Ezrin’s name is of course significant, because he’s very successful. Obviously people are fascinated with his history. But again, mostly it was a question of sound.

« The mayor of Moscow offered us a fortune to have all the past members of the band playing at The Red Square. […] It’s a nice idea, but for music, you need to have integrity. »

There’s a song, on the album, about a famous horror movie star, Vincent Price. It’s probably the darkest on the album and could have been recorded by Alice Cooper. Is it an attempt to write an horror tune ?

I think you could call it humorous comedy. When I had this idea, I was working with Roger on this particular song. We had this working title, « Vincent Price », because it sounded like a movie soundtrack, without the voice. It sounded sinister, so I said: “Imagine you’re a movie director back in the 60’s, working with Vincent Price, what would be the ingredients you would want in the movie ?” You’d want creaking doors, rattling chains, vampires, howling dogs, naked girls, thunder and lightning, sacrificial altars, zombies: that’s the lyrics of the song! (laughs) We just made a list of what you’d want in a horror movie: it’s just a comedy, but in a satirical comedy way. We all knew Vincent Price. We met him, so it’s kind of personal too.

“Above and Beyond” is dedicated to Jon Lord. Did you write it before his death or after?

I wrote all of it before he died, except one line: “Souls having touched are forever entwined”. Ian Paice came into the studio one day, where we were all working, with the news of Jon’s death. We were expecting it, but it was still shocking. So, we were quiet for a little while and then we started talking about the old days, about some anecdotes concerning Jon and reminiscing some humorous stuff. The mood was very light: it wasn’t dark. Jon’s spirit was filling the room, we could feel his presence. That’s why I wrote that line. “Above and Beyond” is about physical and spiritual departure, but I didn’t have a clear focus on the exact meaning of this departure. Suddenly, when I wrote that line, I realised it was about death and all the rest of the song made complete sense. All of a sudden, it was Jon Lord singing the song to us. It was absolutely perfect.

Deep Purple is known for its different eras. Would it be completely out of the question for you to sing songs from the periods you weren’t in the band, like for instance, Glenn Hughes’ and David Coverdale ones?

No. I couldn’t do them justice. That wouldn’t sound right and I don’t like them either, so what’s the point in doing this? (laughs) I am not being nasty, it’s just that they were designed for another voice. We’re very selfish: when we were kids, we played to please ourselves. We play what makes us happy. For instance, we didn’t want to do “Hush” either, which was the first hit Deep Purple ever had in America back in 1968: it was Steve Morse who forced us to do it and it’s now turned into something wonderful. Basically, we like to play what we enjoy doing and everyone in the band has to feel good about the song. I’ve never even thought about it.

Would it be possible to organize a Deep Purple concert, where all the past members would play together?

For what reason? It would be for money, not for the music. We’ve already been offered millions and millions to do exactly that. For example, the mayor of Moscow offered us a fortune to have all the past members of the band playing at The Red Square. We instantly said to him: “No, thank you”. It would be like a circus. Everybody in the band has no interest whatsoever in doing this. It’s a nice idea, but for music, you need to have integrity.

« We survived, because we’re family and we don’t mock around doing circus tricks. »

Is it hard to replace in people’s mind the classic image that people have of Deep Purple with Ritchie Blackmore?

He left the band twenty years ago. We were playing up to 2000 people a night: the band was in a free fall, in a disaster. Nothing was happening, we were near the end. Jon Lord, Ian Paice, Roger Glover were all sad. I was fighting with Ritchie every night: he used to walk off stage in the middle of the show, so less and less people came to see us. When he left, the rain stopped, the clouds disappeared and the sun came out. Jon Lord stood up and his aura came back, Ian Paice started to play jokes and drums properly again, Roger Glover’s personality emerged again: there was peace and the start of a new chance. So I think that very few people want to go back to those days and it wouldn’t happen anyway. We survived, because we’re family and we don’t mock around doing circus tricks. We also don’t follow the rules of the business. We’re not tempted by money. We’re healthy again and the band’s in good shape, making good music. I don’t think many people would find that very tasteful to have Ritchie back.

After more than 50 years of career, what future do you see for yourself and Deep Purple ?

I’ve never once in my life thought about tomorrow in terms of professional things. I do think about tomorrow, sometimes, but not next week. We don’t know what is going to happen. Although things are very physical when you’re young, because you think you’re immortal, and become more spiritual when you get older, as you’re nearer to death, the end is obviously going to happen one day. Someone will die or be unable to perform anymore, so you must make the most of what you got. I didn’t expect to still be in Deep Purple now. My hobbies, outside Deep Purple, are writing and things like that. If I lose my physical abilities, I’ll stop singing. But hopefully it won’t be for another year or two !

Are there still things that you’d want to explore, artistically ?

There’s no point in doing the same thing over and over again. We didn’t make another record for many years for that reason. Sometimes, a door opens and you say: “Ahh, that’s interesting”. It’s important to get off the rock’n’roll highway and not to go along with the crowd. I’m not saying: “Oh, I wish I had done this or that”. I don’t have any frustrations even if I’m too old to play football for the Queen’s Park Rangers anymore! There are things I can’t do anymore because I’m too old for them. But I’m better at writing than I was before. Also I think I’m not as aggressive as I was. I’m a more peaceful person now. Hopefully I’m more balanced.

Interview conducted face to face on april, 18th, 2013 by Chloé
Questions : Spaceman & Metal’O Phil
Introduction : Spaceman
Transcription : Jean Martinez – Traduction(s) Net

Deep Purple’s website: www.deep-purple.com

Now What?!, available via ear Music/Edel

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