DPRP’s Menno von Brucken Fock
talks with Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan
On October 18, 2010 one of my dreams came true: a chat with the lead singer of one of my all time favorite bands: Deep Purple. For me Deep Purple has been a source of inspiration for many bands & musicians as well as for a lot of artists in the progressive rock genre. Gillan’s vocal chords are one of a kind and all four instrumentalists, especially Paice, Blackmore and Lord, have won many polls in the past. In the current line up, the only remaining founder member is Ian Paice. Ritchie Blackmore left in the mid nineties and was successfully replaced by guitar virtuoso Steve Morse, while Jon Lord amicably decided to retire in 2002. His position was filled by Don Airey, becoming a “Purple” member more and more each year.
Ian Gillan was born in Hounslow (UK) on the August 19, 1945 so he is 65 years old now. He started his career at the age of 15 playing drums but switched to being vocalist in his first ‘real’ band: Garth Rockett (= Ian Gillan) & The Moonshiners when he was 17 years of age. He was asked to join the Hi-Tones and changed his name into “Jess Thunder”. The band name changed too: The Javelins. The repertoire consisted mainly of covers of celebrities like Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Sonny Boy Williamson but the band played also some originals. Gillan got more experienced these days and got himself a name. When The Javelins broke up in 1964, he met his friend for life, Roger Glover and joined the band in which Glover already played: Episode Six. They were a professional band, performing live all over the UK, sometimes in Germany and even in Beirut. Their first single was a track already recorded by the Hollies: Put Yourself In My Place, produced by Tony Reeves, of Colosseum fame. The track was released in January 1966 and had a flipside composed by Roger Glover: That’s All I Want. The contract with Pye Records restricted the band enormously because they were only allowed to sing! In those days the average wages of musicians were around £ 10 a week. Once Episode Six were support act for Dusty Springfield and Ian Gillan got some valuable tips from comedian Jeff Lenner, improving his performance as front man. Mick Underwood (played in the Outlaws, just like Ritchie Blackmore) replaced John Kerrison (ex-Javelins!) with Episode Six. Some day he was asked if he knew any good singers…. and he mentioned Ian Gillan’s name. On thing led to another and so, very secretly, without Deep Purple’s management, nor Rod Evans and Nick Simper knowing what was going on, Blackmore, Lord and Paice had a meeting with Gillan in the Ivy Lodge Club in Essex.
In spite of the success of the first three albums, especially in the USA with hits like Kentucky Woman and Hush, these three wanted to take Deep Purple’s music to another level, aiming towards a harder edge. This meeting heralded the end of Deep Purple Mark I, playing live in Cardiff on July 4,1969 for the last time in this original line up. After a lot of discussion, Gillan managed to get Roger Glover to resign from Episode Six and to join Deep Purple too. This line up, Deep Purple Mark II, the most famous of all, was to be one of the most successful hard rock bands in history and songs like Black Night, Child In Time and Smoke On The Water are know all over the world, inspiring thousands of musicians from many different genres. How the band got its name? An idea of Ritchie Blackmore because his grandmother used to love the tune Deep Purple very much, firstly recorded by Bing Crosby in 1939, but an internationally well known hit in 1963 in the version by April Stevens & Nino Tempo.
MENNO: Hello Ian, firstly belated congratulations on your 65th in August. Do you still want to go on tour or are you considering retirement since you are 65 now?
IAN: I still have fun touring; it’s very challenging and it’s always something different. I’m travelling in good company, I have good friends and we set high targets! I don’t think about retirement so everyone who’s planning to ask me: just shut up so we can get on with our jobs!
MENNO: I’ve read your autobiography and it seems your current situation is the most stable and perhaps pleasant one you’ve been in for decades, do you agree?
IAN: If you are referring to Deep Purple it’s true. We have a very stable situation there and whether that’s good or bad I don’t know but I think it’s good. It’s good for a more mature performance: when you’re young you are more volatile and you tend to get the best out of it….but…. it’s a journey! I really look forward to seeing the guys again, because I’ve had eight weeks off and that’s too long!
MENNO: For me personally Deep Purple in the early seventies were also progressive rock, not just hard rock. You were crossing many borders, you for instance vocally…, long tracks, instrumental stuff…. What’s your opinion?
IAN: Well the characteristics of the band were always hard to describe; everyone likes labels but we never really described ourselves. I suppose progressive is okay, but I’ve always thought the most accurate description is ‘underground’ because we’ve always shied away from the commercial side. We’re not very keen on that because of the restrictions it places. And then you have these expectations while we prefer to set our own standards. Ritchie was a session guitarist and played with among others Gene Vincent. He played in The Outlaws among others with Mick Underwood and also played a kind of country music. Jon Lord studied at the Royal College of Dramatic Art (RADA). His musical influences were the great classical composers and contemporary artists like Graham Bond, Jimmy Cliff and Bobby Timmins (all played the Hammond organ – MvBF). Then Ian Paice: after an attempt by his parents to get him to study the violin, he learned to drum on pots & pans and, practicing endlessly, triying to copy legends of jazz like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich and even tried to be better than they were! Rog(er Glover) grew up with Skiffle music but later he was influenced by artists like Tom Jones, The Beatles, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Beach Boys. The different background from which we all came, set the tone for Deep Purple in the early days with everything from jazz & blues to funk and orchestral, folk & soul, big band & swing and of course rock ‘n’ roll. All those elements in the influences that each individual brought into the band, so naturally enough it’s going to be quite explosive and I think experimental too. That’s why Deep Purple In Rock, the first album I recorded with them is totally different from the second one, Fireball: a total change of direction, which people in the music-business hated! So yes, I guess you could call that progressive and I think it still is. We still focus on the music and tend not to understand the expectations of the business-side of it… we do our best!
MENNO: Will there be another album by DP since Rapture is already 5 years ago? Any plans at the moment?
IAN: Uhhm, no, no plans, we never make plans (laughing) but we will be recording again at some point. I think what happened is, the last five years have been absolutely amazing: the amount of live work we have been doing, it has been such a joy. Non stop! We played in 48 countries last year (2009) and it’s pretty much the same this year (2010). It’s incredible and the time just flies away. There have been conversations towards the end of the last tour over the last months: “Wow, it’s been five years, let’s make a meeting next year”. So I wouldn’t be surprised as sometime during the spring of 2011 we get together and then we’ll see what happens.
MENNO: Do you ever think about the contribution by yourself and Deep Purple to the whole music scene?
IAN: (silence). Wow… not really! Haven’t thought about that. Obviously we look at these things far more subjectively that you would for example, so we never analyze these things; I’ve never heard it discussed in the band ever. If we managed to turn on so many people we can only apologize (laughing). You know you set of on this journey when you are a kid, you get locked and then you focus on one thing and then another and you dream of being able to work with some real equipment and all those fantastic ambitions when you’re a kid. Then gradually it creeps up and suddenly you’re in the middle of it and you’re too busy enjoying to consider what you’re contributing…. I can answer most questions but this is one I find hard to answer: we just don’t think of it!
MENNO: Is there any kind of music that turns you on?
IAN: Well sure! You know, I live in a small village in the south of Portugal. When I’m working off duty, I’ve got a studio here, and the sun is shining in the morning I usually listen to Flamenco guitar. I love that. Jazz, blues, I’ve got the radio on quite a bit and there’s some good reggae stations here. I’ve got a good collection of classical music, I’m listening to a lot of Chopin’s music at the moment, so yeah all kinds of stuff can get me turned on!
MENNO: What do you consider the biggest change in the music business in the last 40 years? Is it something you worry about?
IAN: We don’t worry about the business-side of it, I suppose it matters if you sell a whole lot of records but we were never good at that and it’s beyond our control. Leave that to the business people! Technically of course everything has changed in 1982 as CD’s came out and you can see the balance, the difference and input on the product that comes out, the medium on which the music is sold: it used to be vinyl, then the CD came and now it’s all digital dots, ones and zeroes in the ether …. Yes it’s changed but record companies, music industries, manufacturers of CD’s …… it has nothing to do with me!
MENNO: Ian, you started your musical career in 1961/1962 when you were sixteen years old. I was wondering if you ever finished secondary school because I would like to know where that incredible ability to write all those lyrics comes from?
IAN: Yes, I’ve finished school and I’ve always liked writing and I enjoyed English; it was my favorite subject and I enjoy reading and studying. I would have loved to have gone to university but music came in and took over my life. I learnt a lot in the early days about the mechanics, about the craft of writing when I was studying with Roger Glover and other people. I learned about construction and music and lyrics and I began to understand what it was all about and then of course once you master the craft, you begin to learn to express yourself with the art and that’s a different story. I you are a painter it’s not essential, but it surely helps if you know to mix your colors and to learn about the principles of perspective and things like that. I think with writing too, there’s a lot of subtlety involved and if you embrace life, if you really enjoy waking up in the morning, you can look around and you find an endless number of topics to write about, whether they’d be abstract, feeling or emotions, responses and that sort of thing to ‘road-songs’. Anyway you certainly get out of the phase of writing about fast cars and loose women after a few years (laughs). It’s a bit embarrassing because suddenly you’re middle aged and you really should be writing about something else!
MENNO: Many lyrics are somewhat biographical aren’t they?
IAN: If you want to write in simple terms and when we are young, we write about things that were our life. Because you’re young, you’re not very sophisticated, nor very experienced, you’re not tremendously articulate, you’re much more sensitive. Your feelings as an individual, if you’re blossoming into adulthood, are very important. The individual, as a youngster, is vital important: you think you’re immortal and you believe you know everything. As time goes on, you learn and know better. But I think the same thing applies: you’re writing from your perspective and if it’s biographical, of course it’s about you, it’s subjective isn’t it? Even if it’s not about you it’s got that subjective perspective; I mean, if you’re writing about a mountain and you see something growing on it, somebody on the other side of that mountain may only see factories and houses and building while you see green trees, pine trees, eagles, that sort of thing. You’re talking about the same lump of land but it depends where you’re standing. I think that if you say biographical it’s probably too simplistic a word.
MENNO: Looking back to almost 50 years in the business, was there a moment in time you can say: at this point it wasn’t a hobby anymore or a boy’s dream but you were fully aware that making music was to be your profession?
IAN: Well yes, that was very early on. I had no idea -of course you don’t as a child- how much my life was filled with music: my grandfather, my uncle…. I was a boy soprano in the Church Choir. Just one of those things… so music was very important and there was little in the way of media: you had to make your own entertainment. every house had a piano, every pub had a piano so everyone used to gather round and would sing folk songs and a bit later on also blues. I think I really started thinking about professionalism when I joined Episode Six in 1965. Up until then I realized the frustrations of not having the right equipment, not having the right transport, not having the right agent, not having all those things you dream of when you’re a semi-professional but you don’t understand what you’re missing because you’ve never had it. To answer your question, I think it was in the summer of ’65 when I felt like a professional for the first time.
MENNO: We’re talking about 45 years here, a lot of people don’t even get that old!
IAN: (laughing) Well, in the great scheme of things it’s next to nothing really…isn’t it?
MENNO: I guess you’re quite right! You have made so many records and written so many songs, you’d need three books! Can you remember all those lyrics?
IAN: (grinning) Oh no, I have to refresh myself. We’ve just been exchanging emails between the guys in the band about doing some different songs and include them in the act, because there are shows coming up. There’s about five or six ideas we’re going to try out this time. And yes, I have to dig them out and revive them and of course it only takes a few minutes to rehearse them but I couldn’t remember them straight off. I’ve written lyrics for about 420-430 songs and I know this because my assistant has been making a record of everything. The information was everywhere, all over the place so I said can you get all the titles and put them in a computer, open a document, open a folder and let’s try to get things organized. I had no idea!
MENNO: that’s an impressive amount of lyrics, and then also all the anecdotes on your website, they’re quite funny I might add, they cheer me up when I’m down!
IAN: (laughing) That’s a nice thing to say! Yeah, they’re meant to be …. it’s how I look at life, from the bright side!
MENNO: In 1982 you disbanded your band because of damage to your vocal chords; did you have any surgical treatments or just medication and rest, because pretty soon you after that you joined Black Sabbath?
IAN: (very serious tone of voice) I was just minutes away from surgery; the wrong surgery that would have ruined my career. I had something in the back of my mind: these doctors are wrong, they are wrong! There was damage: I had nodules on my vocal chords and they were going to operate on those but it turned out they were just looking at the symptoms, not the cause! There was another doctor, a German professor in Munich who said “oh my God, we’ll have to take out your tonsils” and I said “Will that help? Will that affect my voice?” and he replied “oh yes, absolutely, it can only make it better!” I asked him “why the tonsils, because everybody is talking about the nodules on my vocal chords” and he said “Yes, but your tonsils are infected” and I said “well, I’ve always had trouble with tonsillitis” and he explained that this was the reason I wasn’t singing properly and I had the nodules on my vocal chords: imagine you had some damage on your hand; imagine you were a carpenter and you were holding the hammer or the saw the wrong way, you’d have blisters on your hand. That’s what those nodules are: they are blisters so what we have to do is have you use the tool correctly. So he took the tonsils out and I’ve never had a problem since. That was really one of the scariest moments in my life!
MENNO: Did you ever have a vocal coach or any lessons during your career or did you do it all by yourself?
IAN: No I did it all by myself… well, I’ve had help from Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Dusty Springfield etcetera, etcetera. Because when you’re a kid, you copy your heroes, that’s how we learn. If you listen to a coach, you’re copying someone else’s heroes so you may have it technically correct but you may not have the passion on the direct influence that goes into your heart. This is very important. I remember talking to Pavarotti about this and he said “I’ve heard you sing Smoke On The Water for about 6 or 7 times and every time it’s different! I dream of doing that: if I was to change a famous aria by one tiny, tiny atomic amount from the classical interpretation they would crucify me and I would never be able to sing opera again because it has to be technically perfect in the old fashioned sense”. We work with our hearts and our passion as much as with our technique.
MENNO: Does this mean you don’t think technique is all that important?
IAN: Of course it’s very important but it’s something I developed and copied from my heroes when I was a kid. There was one guy, Cliff Bennett, who had the voice that I dreamed of (grinning) but I never had it until I was 45 years old! It took all those years to get this quality into my voice, which I didn’t have as a young guy. It was not powerful enough in that part of the range, the part that I call the high-mid part of the range. It was always a bit thin there and I didn’t like the sound of it, until all of a sudden -I matured I guess- the voice got that quality: I was very happy but I had been trying for years to do that. It’s funny isn’t it? Because when you get older you lose some things and you get others: you lose your hair and gain your voice!
MENNO: Many of your contemporary fellow musicians either quit or are deceased. You‘ve had your fair share of sex, drugs and foremost alcohol: any permanent damage?
IAN: No I don’t think so. We were primarily a drinking band, we didn’t do drugs at all. I didn’t smoke my first splif until I was 38 years old, that was my first taste of marihuana! I was in the Caribbean and I thought “oh yeah I gotta try this”! It was pretty good actually. Problem is that the long term effects on the body are difficult to foresee. You see, when you’re drunk you fall over and you wake up the next morning and you think “Oh no, I’m never going to drink again, ever” (laughing). Then you’ll leave it for a few days until you think you can handle it again. Of course when you’re a kid you can handle a lot more than when you’re older but that’s with everything! And you certainly pay for it, you pay for it big time. I like to smoke a cigarette but I’m not a slave to the habit. I never dream of having a cigarette unless I have a glass of whisky: they go together. You know I was an athlete when I was a kid: I was a javelin thrower, a pole-vaulter, I used to play football, cricket and tennis, swimming and all that. I enjoyed life, the physical aspects of life. Plenty of sex, rock ‘n’ roll and alcohol!
MENNO: You’re pretty open hearted about these last things in your autobiography! So now you settle for a game of golf?
IAN: Golf? Man, I can’t stand the game! I wouldn’t mind if it would last an hour and a half like a football match or so. I do play occasionally; being in Portugal it’s hard to escape because there’s a golf course on every street corner. So I went out with a very, very famous golfer and we were in a restaurant and he asked me to come out the next day to play him. I finally agreed and I said to him I’d cancel all appointments I had and he looked puzzled and I explained: golf takes the whole day because it’s not just the game, it’s the social thing too. So I said okay, we’ll meet at 10 o’clock down at the village. The next day we met at 10 o’clock and went to the golf-course. We played, we sat, we drank and ended up in this Indian restaurant and at 11 PM I said to him: this is what I was talking about: we settled for a game of golf and here we are: we started at 10 AM and now it’s 11 PM, so this game lasted for over 12 hours! And you know, all he had been talking about was golf: it’s not a game, it’s an obsession!
MENNO: Deep Purple were renowned to play very loud with all those huge speakers right behind you? Didn’t you get any ear-damage?
IAN: No, I think most of us agree that it’s very rare to get ear-damage from that source. The real damage comes from wearing headphones! People are used to crank up their headphones so loud and there’s no escape and the pressures are going straight into the ear drums. In the open air it’s different and most of us are fine. I think there were horrible phones in the old days, the speakers were harsh and there was very little of the equalization. Now, for the last thirty years at least we’ve been able to get rid of those damaging frequencies: the brittle tones that shrink into your head, they don’t happen anymore.
MENNO: You’re not using in-ears are you?
IAN: No, and I don’t use in-ears and I don’t listen to MP3’s when I’m walking through the city either, because I like to know what coming up behind me and I don’t like my life to be controlled by an engineer. Apart from that, I’ve never used monitors anyway. The only monitors on stage are for the other guys, I would prefer to have them off. I prefer to hear the band very loud and myself very, very quiet, because that’s the way to project your voice properly through the volume. We only use side fills because the members of the band want to hear some voice.
MENNO: Have you ever considered using and/or touring with a background vocalist?
IAN: (silence) What for?
MENNO: Well I guess for the fans to be able to hear songs like Child in Time again?
IAN: Why? Then there would be someone else singing it! No, you won’t hear that song again, get used to it. Listen, lots of people change when they get older and that song used to put me in the hospital when I was a kid and I used to do pole-vault when I was a kid and I can’t do those things anymore so it’s not going to happen. To hire another singer to do it for me is not an option!
MENNO: Out of Purple you have produced numerous albums, most of the songs were co-written with other musicians, in the last decades Steve Morris for instance. How does it work in reality? Do you play your guitar and record it or are you using only vocal melodies or computer software?
IAN: Every way is helpful, I mean he just left my place; he was here three days ago! That’s why I have a studio here: people come to visit and whenever I have some time off the road, I make a lot of phone-calls and ask people to drop everything and to come over for a week and work on some material. So we had Steve Morris, Michael Jackson (obviously another Michael Jackson than you know) and several other musicians I regularly write with and work with. When I’m finished on the road, I come here, unpack my things and start working in the studio and people start to turn up and I spend one week with one guy, and then a week with another guy. I’ve just been to England to work with Tony Iommi to work on some new material.
MENNO: That’s great news! I’m glad to hear the two of you are still working together. Is this for the project WhoCares? I understand you are busy with your second book as well?
IAN: Yes that’s correct. We – Nicko McBrain (Iron Maiden), Jon Lord, Tony and yours truly have recently recorded Out Of My Mind and residing in the USA, Jason Newstad (ex-Metallica) has sent over his bass-files. Indeed I hope to have my next book to be published soon and as always, when I’m not touring, I’m working on new material!
At this point Ian makes clear that I used up my time and since I was promised a quarter of an hour and granted over half an hour, I considered myself a lucky dog! Of course I thanked him for the opportunity to talk with him and let us all hope DP is going to be around for a few more years because their performance in Germany in November 2010 has been outstanding.
In his autobiography I found some interesting pages about the relationship between Ian and Ritchie Blackmore. Ian says he’d been through a lot of miserable times with Ritchie but there were a lot of highlights too and that he’d always admired Ritchie’s stage performance and craftsmanship. A quote: “I don’t even dislike him. He has been of vital importance to Deep Purple”.
Finally a pretty strange story also taken from Ian’s autobiography:
At the end of the seventies, Ritchie, wearing his “silly” hat and accompanied by a girlfriend came to visit Gillan on X-mas eve to ask him if he wanted to fill the position of lead singer in Rainbow. Gillan, utterly surprised, in return asked Ritchie if he would like to be the lead guitar player in his own band, Gillan, instead to replace Bernie Tormé. Blackmore indeed played a few concerts with the Gillan band but neither of the two decided to play in the other one’s band so it would take quite a few years before the two met each other again….
And yes, it would be nice to welcome a new album this year….
Interview & Live Photos by Menno von Brucken Fock
With The Javelins:
Sole Agency and Representation (1994)
With Episode Six:
(Compilation albums of songs recorded between 1965 and 1969)
Put Yourself In My Place (1987)
BBC Radio 1 Live 1998/1969 (1997)
The Complete Episode Six (1991)
Cornflakes and Crazyfoam (2002)
Love, Hate, Revenge (2005)
With Deep Purple
Deep Purple in Rock (1970)
Machine Head (1972)
Who Do We Think We Are (1973)
Perfect Strangers (1984)
The House of Blue Light (1987)
The Battle Rages On (1993)
Rapture of the Deep (2005)
Concerto for Group and Orchestra (1969)
Made in Japan (1972)
Deep Purple in Concert (1980) (Live 1970 & 1972)
Scandinavian Nights (1988) (Live 1970)
Nobody’s Perfect (1988)
In the Absence of Pink (1991) (Live 1985)
Gemini Suite Live (1993) (Live 1970)
Live in Japan (1993) (Live 1972)
Come Hell or High Water (1994)
Live at the Olympia ’96 (1997)
Total Abandon: Live in Australia (1999)
The Soundboard Series (2001)
Live at the Royal Albert Hall (2000)
Live at the Rotterdam Ahoy (2001)
Live in Europe 1993 (2006)
Live at Montreux 1996 (2006) (Live 1996 & 2000)
They All Came Down To Montreux (2007)
As Ian Gillan Band (1975-78) and Gillan (1978-82)
Child in Time (1976)
Clear Air Turbulence (1977)
Live at the Budokan (1977, EUR: 1983)
Gillan (aka The Japanese Album) (1978)
Mr. Universe (UK) (1979)
Glory Road (UK) (1980)
Future Shock (UK) (1980)
Double Trouble (live (UK) (1981)
Magic (UK) (1982)
With Black Sabbath
Born Again (1983)
What I Did On My Vacation (1986, compilation)
Accidentally on Purpose (1988, with Roger Glover)
Chris Tetley Presents: Garth Rockett & The Moonshiners (1989/2000)
Garth Rockett & The Moonshiners Live at the Ritz (1990, VHS)
Naked Thunder (1990, US: 1997)
Toolbox (1991, US: 1997)
Cherkazoo and Other Stories (’73/’75 solo sessions) (1992)
Dreamcatcher (1997, US: 1998)
Gillan’s Inn (2006, Deluxe Tour Ed.: 2007)
Live in Anaheim 2006 (2008, CD/DVD)
One Eye to Morocco (2009)