Interview Date: 02/18/2009
Run Date: 03/30/2009
Ian Gillan is the distinctive voice of Deep Purple, and although that band has had significant recordings with other singers, Purple is what he is going to be associated with the most despite impressive solo efforts and a brief but memorable stint in Black Sabbath. During an engaging 30-minute interview, Gillan spoke with Bullz-Eye about his love for Robert Mitchum’s music, his brief exit from the music business in the ‘70s, his work on “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and his excellent new solo album, One Eye to Morocco.
Ian Gillan: Where are you calling from?
BE: I am calling from Chicago.
IG: Well we’ve got 3 o’clock in the afternoon in Prague.
BE: I thought you were in the U.K.
IG: Nope, I am in Prague tonight, Buenos Aires tomorrow, and then in Chile after that.
BE: You’re doing a (Deep) Purple tour right now, right?
BE: I am a longtime Purple/Ian Gillan enthusiast, so there are some questions about your storied history that I would like to ask first. Is that okay?
IG: Sure, mate.
BE: Of all those early acts you were a part of – Moonshiners, Javelins, Wainwright’s Gentleman and Episode Six – which do you have the fondest memories of?
IG: Well, I think the first of anything is always the most exciting because it is all a journey of discovery. The first time of jumping up and down on the furniture with acoustic guitars with missing strings and biscuit tins and knitting needles for percussion instruments was probably the most exciting time in my life. I had grown up with music. My granddad was an opera singer and my uncle was a jazz pianist and I was a boy soprano in the Church choir. When we heard Elvis Presley, everything changed (laughs).
BE: Was the Moonshiners your first band?
IG: That was the name for about three days, yes. I’ll tell you where the name came from. Let me think. “The Ballad of Thunder Road” by Bob Mitchum. [Yes, the late, great actor Robert Mitchum not only wrote the script and produced the movie “Thunder Road,” but he also wrote two songs for the movie and released “The Ballad of Thunder Road” as a single, which hit #62 on the pop charts in 1958.] Have you ever heard Bob Mitchum sing?
BE: No, I don’t recall ever hearing him sing.
IG: You know Bob Mitchum, the film actor. He did a lot of Westerns and stuff like that, but he was a pretty good singer.
BE: I had no idea.
IG: He did some obscure country music and there was an album that we were all crazy over, and there was a ballad on it called “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” which is about smuggling moonshine during prohibition. So, we took our name from that, the Moonshiners.
BE: That is a cool story. Your work on “Jesus Christ Superstar”(1970), did you ever think at the time that you worked on it, that it would have the kind of longstanding appeal it has maintained over the years?
IG: In commercial terms, no. It was at a time of the days of satire in the U.K. Many skills and talents were being brought together. There was a club called the Establishment, founded by Peter Cook, and the Frost Report and the beginnings of [Monty] Python and that sort of thing. The title track had all ready been a hit. Commercially, I could imagine it being successful in the short term. No, I had no idea it was going to go on to sell 38 million units. You could tell in terms of the music that it would have longevity in terms of musical appreciation, so to speak. I am talking specifically about the “Garden of Gethsemane” [actually titled “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” on the album], which was the part I was first introduced to. I thought it was just so beautifully constructed lyric and a great tune. I was given the opportunity to improvise over. I am not very commercially minded, I never can tell what is going to be successful or not, but you do know a fine piece of work when you hear it.
BE: My research indicates that it didn’t take you very long to lay down your vocal tracks for that work, is that true?
IG: Well the whole thing was done in three hours. Everything in those days was booked in three-hour sessions. That was the traditional way of recording. My first recording with Episode Six was you set up, did a sound check, recorded the A-side, B-side and did the mix in three hours. That was the standard. The only thing I had to go back into the studio for a second session was the sayings from the cross. I found those much more difficult than the singing part; because of the character I was dealing with (Gillan played the part of Jesus on the original rock opera recording). We broke for coffee and Tim Rice said to me, “Don’t think of Jesus as a religious figure; think of him as a historical figure like I did. Imagine you’re singing about Napoleon or whatever, and the words won’t weigh so heavily on you.” Having no experience as an actor and speaking words was much more difficult than singing.
BE: When you stepped out of the music business in the early to mid ‘70s after leaving Deep Purple you did mostly “non-artistic” things, like run a motorcycle manufacturing company and a country-club hotel. What was the most interesting thing you did when you were out of the business?
IG: It was actually a motorcycle racing team. We designed and manufactured a small bike as well. My primary interest was racing bikes. I had lived for what had seemed like an eternity, which was actually three or four years, in hotels; it felt like I couldn’t do without one. I also had an interest in building, so I found a derelict building and restored it to its former glory and it is actually still a successful business to this day. It’s called The Springs and is in Oxfordshire (The Springs Hotel and Golf Club). But I am no businessman. That’s one thing I did get out of it (laughs). I also had my recording studio in London, fortunately, because that was still there when I came back into the game.
BE: Was it your lack of business acumen that made you decide music is your real calling and `I need to get back into the game’?
IG: No, not at all. In fact I was thinking of going back to my studies and going back to university. What really happened is I got a call from Roger Glover who was doing a thing called the “Butterfly Ball” (1975) at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Ronnie (James) Dio pulled out at the last minute – that’s another story by the way –on the basis that he was told by Ritchie Blackmore that he would be fired (from Rainbow) if he did the gig for Roger. So, Roger is in a panic and he asked if I could sing a song, and I said I would. I wasn’t in the program of course, so when I walked out in front of the audience, I was embraced by a standing ovation that seemingly lasted forever. Vincent Price was narrating the parts between the songs and we were talking backstage, and he said he had never heard anything like it. I realized that my judgment that I had done pretty much everything that I could in music was flawed because I was looking at it from the wrong point of view. I decided that I would embrace failure as much as success. The next day I picked up a guitar and wrote three songs. I made a few phone calls and I was back in the studio the following week.
BE: You mentioned Roger Glover, and according to my research, you have been in more musical projects with Roger than any other musician. Do you have a special musical connection with him?
IG: Roger Glover is the nearest thing I have to a brother. I met him during the days of Episode Six in ’65. He was sort of the underdog, because he was the artist, he just graduated from Hornsey Art College. He was bringing in ideas for the band to try out and it was being met with resistance from the other members. There was no reason for it other than jealousy. They couldn’t do it themselves, but they didn’t want someone else to do it. It was my first introduction to band politics, and it was quite unsavory. I didn’t know anything about songwriting, but I sided with Roger. He introduced me to it. We used to stay up all night and practice it. For two, three, four years, we tried to learn all the engineering aspects of songwriting. It wasn’t just the rhyming of words, lyrics are not like poems. They have to be more musical. There’s little things like the percussive value of words – you wouldn’t use a high note with an `ew’ sound because singers don’t like that.
When we joined Deep Purple, it’s like going to a party alone. It takes a while to assimilate, to fit in with the crowd, particularly with strangers. But if you go with a mate, you are already there. You all ready have someone to talk to and you fit in like a wedge straight away. So we arrived in Purple not just as a singer and a bass player but as a songwriting team, and we were together for all that Purple stuff and wrote lyrics and tunes and everything else. I guess we drifted apart over the last couple of years on the lyrical side and the songwriting side because Roger has pursued his ideas as a musician and he has improved, I would say, twofold or threefold as a bass player. I suppose as you grow old, older, ancient, you change. To digress for minute, we all met up at the bar last night here in Prague. We’ve been off with everyone doing different things for the last couple of months: I was touring around Europe doing this promo thing last week; Ian Paice was doing a drum clinic in Moscow; Don Airey was playing in a jazz club near Brussels; Jon Lord was doing a performance of the Concerto in Germany. All of us have not seen each other for a couple of months, and we meet up in the bar and everyone is asking, “How is the dog?” and “How is the family?” and we talk about the football teams and the weather and everything else. I went to bed and realized we didn’t talk about music, and I realized that is how it is with Purple, really. It is a family with more interests than the core of the music. Anyway, Roger is the nearest thing I have to a brother.
BE: I really appreciate you taking these questions; they are ones I have probably wanted to ask you for 20 years.
IG: (Laughs) We have a time limit, mate.
BE: I know, on to the new album. On One Eye to Morocco, it sounds as if you are having the time of your life. I just wanted you to know that the pure joy of that absolutely comes through in the record. How did you arrive at this time in your life to put out this record now with so much enthusiasm?
IG: I really appreciate what you just said, because you really hit the nail on the head. These songs were not written for any project at all except for one. I have accumulated them over the last three or four years. Writing with my mates, Steve Morris in particular, who would say, “Can I come down for a few days?” We would spend a couple of days in my home studio. We would drink some beer and then he goes home, and we would put three or four songs in the library. We had such a joy in writing these things without a purpose for them. They were just written for the sake of writing a song. We leave them almost finished. The arrangement is there. The tune is there. The key is set and the melody is there. The words are almost done; I sing gibberish, so I can get all the phrases in like what I was describing earlier with the songwriting process.So it’s almost there so you can take it into the studio, and you really just have to put the final flourishes to it. So this gap happened when Roger’s Mom died, and we cancelled a couple of tours last year. I went to Buffalo, New York and we had to start the selection process because I had 38 songs in various states of completion. Can you hold on a sec?
IG: [Has conversation offline] I do apologize, that was my assistant. The Tour Manager left all the passes in the bar last night and I picked them up (laughs). We have to get special seals on them because we are opening this ski resort and a lot of heads of state and everything will be attending. Anyway, we got into Buffalo and recording everything in three days – the basic backing tracks. The joy of rehearsing for a week and getting the musicians into this idea that there was not going to be a rock rhythm section, there was not going to be one improvised guitar solo. These songs were going to be radically different to Deep Purple recording sessions, where nothing is ready and everything is written on the spot. Everyone gets involved in the Purple thing. This is more of a song album. I think it is less thrusting, so to speak, more intimate and a little more seductive, maybe. I bring home all the records when I finish a project and I can never judge them. They’re all like my kids, bad or good, ugly or beautiful, I love them all. You have to, because you’ve given birth to them. The objectivity creeps in over the while. The first to hear them are your intimate circle, your family and friends and they seem to have taken to this a lot. When I was doing a photographic session in Milan a couple of weeks ago, all the folks are around, like the hairdressers and the makeup people. The record company guy put the record on a boom box quietly. No one was paying attention and the girls were all chatting away but I noticed all their bums were moving. I thought, “Ha, cool, they’re dancing to it and they don’t know it.” (Laughs) Mission accomplished. So, yes I had a really good feeling about this and it shows my roots, really.
BE: I had read the liner notes of a Roger Daltrey greatest hits compilation that he deliberately tried at least early in his solo recordings to record material that didn’t sound like the Who. He didn’t want to sound like the Who, which is a real challenge to do when you are the voice of a band. At the risk of sounding like I’m sucking up, I have to give you this second compliment; I was amazed that I was listening to an Ian Gillan album and it didn’t sound like a Purple record at all. The only song that I thought might be Purple at all was “No Lotion for That.”
IG: Well, that is pure Chuck Berry. Pure undiluted Chuck Berry, musically, lyrically that is Chuck. I was into Elvis Presley and Little Richard, but the greatest Rock and Roll songwriter is Chuck Berry. His cheeky lyrics and wry humor were always an inspiration. It is a bit simple for Purple, but I love that simplicity.
BE: I meant in that sort of chugging or thrusting way, it was more Purple.
IG: If Purple played that song it would sound a lot more like “Highway Star.” It’s just a question on this record that we purposely paid great attention to the instrument, the old blunt instrument called the rhythm guitar. You don’t see or hear rhythm guitars anymore. The rhythm guitar was replaced by the keyboards or the Hammond organ or what is euphemistically referred to as keyboards. (Laughs)
BE: I just wanted you to hear the compliment because I don’t think it is easy for someone who is so identified with their band to do a solo record and for it to be different. Too many artists put out “solo” records that sound as if they fit exactly into the context of what they would do with their bands, almost nullifying the idea of a solo record.
IG: I agree with you entirely. I have done a couple of these and one was with Roger Glover called Accidentally on Purpose (1988). That sounded nothing like Purple. I did another one with Steve Morris, which is virtually unfinished called Dreamcatcher (1997),we didn’t even get into the studio. We just did it on the computer with drum machines and Steve playing guitar and a few percussion instruments. I have written another five or ten songs since this record was done, I can’t remember. Now we are approaching 40, so I would like to give these songs the same treatment and see how they will look in the next several months.
BE: I looked at your schedule and you are doing a lot of touring with Deep Purple right now. Do you plan on being able to tour and putting a band together to perform the songs from Morocco?
IG: No, and I don’t want to, but I do have an exciting idea for One Eye to Morocco. I always remember this time in the ‘60s when Roger and I were mixing this track in the studio and he was shaking his head, “No, no, no. Scrap it,” and we did. We erased it all, the whole performance and everything because you couldn’t move to it. Roger said, “If you can’t move or groove to it, it isn’t worth releasing.” That has always been a little guideline for me, so to speak. I am very keen on doing something very theatrical with One Eye to Morocco and maybe some Purple stuff too, like “Rosa’s Cantina” [from the 1996 album Purpendicular] or anything that lends itself towards fusion. I want to find a lunatic choreographer and put it together in a theatre with a presidium arch, not a stadium, arena or town hall. I want to have a big band, like nine or ten or whatever it takes to get the nuances of the music. Then I want to use all the tricks of the theater, like trap doors and video screens with images on it. I want to see whirling dervishesand flamenco dancers and jazz and avant-garde and all of that sort of thing. Not as you would see in a musical but interpreting the value of the dance. In the way a guitar does a guitar solo, you would have a dancer appearing from nowhere and flying through the sky. This is an idea I have wanted to do for a long time, and this is probably the perfect vehicle to do it. I wouldn’t want to tour it. The idea would be to do a series of dates in one theatre. If it works, and there is no guarantee that it will (laughs), I would love to take it to various cities. It would be a perfect thing for me to go to between Purple dates. I could go to London or Berlin or Tokyo or wherever, and for however many days I have free. I would take the same troop and do the show. This is in the embryonic stage. If I could find a promoter idiotic enough to put his name to it, then we would do it.
BE: I just think it would be a shame if these songs didn’t get more exposure because I really did enjoy the record. I know you are a big Cricket fan, but I will use a baseball analogy; this record sprays to all fields. There is some blues, some Chuck Berry, there is a French horn, I think, on “It Would Be Nice.”
IG: That’s a Flugelhorn. Very close, well done.
BE: There are a lot of interesting textures on this album, yet it works as one piece.
IG: I think logistically, it was just going to be impossible to put together a tour this year because of a) Purple’s touring commitments, b) I think we are going to get Purple in the studio this year as well and c) because I don’t want to support this electronically with tapes and stuff like that. The number of musicians I would need to even come near what’s on the record would be a ten-piece band. Logistically, that would be too much to put together in a short space of time and take them on the road this year.
BE: Michael Lee Jackson, who worked with you on some other albums like Gillan’s Inn (2006), really does some great stuff guitar-wise on this album. He sprinkles little magical ideas and very complimentary work to everything else that is going on. Could you talk about his contribution to the record?
IG: That is a great observation actually. I am going to answer you by going back to Steve Morris, my co-writer on the majority of the songs on this record. When we finished recording the demos for this, it was all Steve Morris. We would use drum machines and other stuff on his computer. He is a phenomenal, phenomenal rock & roll guitar player. He is up there with the best of them – the Morses [Steve Morse, former Dixie Dreg and a brief stint in Kansas, has been the lead guitarist in Deep Purple since 1994] and the Satrianis (Joe Satriani temporarily filled in for Purple when Blackmore quit for good in 1993). He is on that level. I decided not to take him to Buffalo. It was absolutely great to find someone else to interpret those songs with a lighter touch and a different kind of style. I divorced the writer from the performance and got a great interpretation from Michael. Michael has a good ear for simplicity. He can shred it like anyone else, but he has a very tasteful sense of understatement. He is very direct. Strangely enough, and maybe this is one of the anomalies, maybe he is not as technically adept as some of the more histrionic guitar players we all know about…
BE: (Laughs hysterically)
IG: I have a lot of affection for what he does. A lot of guitar players, and other musicians, when they get beyond the stage where they’ve done the solos and become adept at their instrument; they can speak with a different voice. They get better and better and they practice for hours on end. The blues solos are now too simple for them, so they move on and the progressions and rhythms become more complex. The more they get into what they’re doing with their drummers and rhythm sections, the further away they get from the audience. The audience, unless you are a specialist, find it hard to appreciate the heights that these people reach. It’s absolutely incredible but the musician forgets the artist’s simplicity. The more successful pieces in history, you will hear the simplicity. Brook Benton had a single called “Kiddio” (1960) and Elvis had a hit called “Trouble” (1958). They both had an introductory riff that went like this, (slow tempo) ta diddle da doom, tshhh ta ta ttshhh ta ta tshhh ta ta tsshh – “If you’re looking for trouble”…. Several years later I hear that exact same riff with a slightly different angle, which goes da, dang ga dang, tshhh ta tshhh ta tsshhh – which is “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. So simplicity was still very appealing to everyone, and you could explore the rhythms with understanding. That is what I like about (Michael Lee) Jackson. I don’t know if I’ve really answered your question. There is a cultured simplicity there, which means he understands the song. He does things like highlighting and underlining, and puts things into italics and bold and all of those things.
BE: And that really embellishes the work as a whole. I was blown away by it. The fills and little accents that he does really sound great.
IG: It is great to hear someone who has actually listened to it (laughs).
BE: So you told Steve Morris that he is not going to be on the record. That couldn’t have been easy. Did he take that well?
IG: Steve never takes things like that well. Steve is a very, very special friend and we have a long-term relationship. I once had to break the news to him that I wasn’t taking him on a tour to support an album that he had played on. Even on that occasion, for a record called Toolbox (1991), I was going to go to the Soviet Union and I told him that I needed a stage performance not studio performance, and he made the pyramids look lively. It had to be done, so he was disappointed and upset, but he understood. It didn’t affect our relationship or songwriting. I still treasure him as a friend, and I highly respect his writing. (Pause) Listen, I have to go now. It’s a great pleasure talking to you. We could have done another half-hour. I have to get in a bus and go up the mountain.
BE: Thanks a million, best of luck and I hope to see you in Chicago sometime soon.IG: All right buddy, take it easy.