Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan: ‘It’s Very Difficult To Get People Interested In New Material In America’
Now what? Talking with Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan on a sunny spring afternoon, the “now” involves a conversation about the “what,” which is the band’s highly anticipated new album (their 19th) which happens to be called ‘NOW What.’
A new Deep Purple album, their first since ‘Rapture of the Deep’ in 2005, had been rumored over the past few years. But the possibility of such a release actually coming to fruition was an interesting topic, depending on which band member happened to be speaking about the subject.
But as we found out during our conversation with Gillan, the band simply needed someone to light the fuse and bring them into focus. Veteran producer Bob Ezrin (Kiss, Alice Cooper) would ultimately be the catalyst for the sessions for the new album, which began with rehearsals in June of last year.
Nashville proved to be a potent birthing place for the new album, which the band says was recorded “with no musical rules.” While showcasing modern production elements, the album also references the ‘70s era of Purple. Gillan tells us that it was a conscious decision to focus on making an album that would employ the same “working principle” that brought the group some of its greatest success in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s.
Set for release on April 30, ‘NOW What’ will provide a fresh soundtrack as Deep Purple returns to the road. A large amount of tour dates are on deck, but as Gillan shares with us, there are no plans currently for any U.S. shows to support the album. Will that change at some point in the near future?
That’s just one of the many questions that we had for the veteran British vocalist.
Depending on which band member was talking, it seems like there was a lot of debate over the past couple of years as to whether there would be a new Deep Purple album. What was it that turned the tide and made this a reality?
Well it’s the focus. I think things got into focus. I don’t think there was any cohesive desire [to make an album] -- there were mutterings every now and again in a bar, you know, someone would say, “We should make another record” and then someone else would say, “Yeah, right -- let’s talk about it tomorrow.” So there was no driving force.
There were a few scattered ideas, but it was when Bob Ezrin came to see us [play a couple of shows] in Canada in February of 2012 that things started developing. I think the one key to it all was the idea that we should somehow get back to the way that we used to record. Not record the same songs, obviously, but just [use the same] working principle. ‘69 to ‘73, those albums, none of them had more than seven tracks on them. The reason for that was because there was no conformity to expectations. We just followed our noses and if the arrangement needed some extemporization, then we’d follow it through and take it where we wanted it. I think that was very much in our minds [when we started working on this album].
Of course with Bob there to make sure that things didn’t get out of hand -- because they can if you take that approach. It became very focused suddenly and when you get there, you develop a momentum. So I think we had a week off and then we turned up in Nashville and spent a month writing and that was it. It was full speed ahead.
I was going to ask if there were songs sitting around prior to that for an album or if that came later during the process and it sounds like that the band wrote more specifically for this album when it was time to do it.
We’ve never written a song outside of the sessions ever, in the history of the band. We always start from scratch, absolutely. We turn up at noon on the first day, kind of like going to the office everyday. It sounds very mundane, but actually it’s quite exciting. We take a break at 3:00 for tea and finish at six. After two or three days, various ideas start developing and we give the old horse's eyes and start recording some bits and pieces and then develop them to see if they work.
We see if the key is right, do some vocals on them, gibberish, and just see how it’s taking shape. After about a week or ten days, you suddenly find that you have got about five or six songs in various stages of development. That’s when I start getting confused, because I’ve got to sit up all night working on lyrics. So everything is fresh and new and I think that’s one of the great things about albums is that each album in the history of this band, certainly, is a reflection of how it was at that time in history. And I think that’s what an album should be.
As a songwriter, does that constrict you at all, the idea that you can't write for Deep Purple outside of Deep Purple? I know that you put out a solo album a few years ago, but it just seems like as a creative type, you would have stuff that would start brewing that you would think, “Man, this would be perfect for a Deep Purple album.”
I have. I’ve got about 30 songs in my library at the moment, in various stages of completion. But all with lyrics and titles and ideas, but none of them will be used by Deep Purple although some of them are perfect for Purple. That’s just not the way that we work. It’s gotta be born and have that nascent value within the band itself and that’s why Purple has worked. It’s been difficult to have this democracy and so it kind of works that way.
I certainly keep in practice outside of the band and there are many, many ways of writing. It’s always different. When I’m writing with Tony Iommi, for example, still it’s very easy. We go in and I know exactly what his style is. It’s very distinctive and you know exactly what he’s looking for and we know exactly where we’re going from the first chord.
Purple, I mean, the music and the influence and the subliminal touches range from orchestral conversation to jazz to blues and soul and God knows what. It’s a vast range of expressions. You’ve got to be ready for some comedy stuff one minute, country and western the next and some really deep moody thundering rock the next minute. So it’s quite a range of styles that comes out within the band, but I think that’s always been the case. But I keep in practice outside of the band, for sure.
It’s interesting to see how different things affect the songwriting, because certainly when you bring Tony Iommi into the mix, for example, that changes things completely.
Totally. I’ve got another friend that I write with in Liverpool, Steve Morris, who has been a songwriting partner of mine for 20 or 30 years now. When we have sessions, he comes out to my place in Portugal and we sit down for a week and we’ll finish about 10 or 12 songs in that time, just for the joy of doing it. I guess they’ll get used on the next solo album, whenever that might be.
Any further plans for collaboration with Tony Iommi at the present moment?
No, we’re just enjoying the results of the last one, which has raised enough money and the school in Armenia is going to be built and I’m going to the official opening in September and hopefully the music will start again in Armenia after that amazingly tragic earthquake all of those years ago. A generation without music, you know, there was nothing on the radio, nothing in the church, no school music -- even the birds stopped singing. It was uncanny.
But we will, I think, if we have time. The last thing that Tony and I said to each other was, “I’ll see you around -- we must do this again one day” and that’s how we always leave it.
One thing that is interesting to me about this new album is not just getting the idea together cohesively that you would do an album, but it also seems like you worked in a lot of different locations to make this record happen. I know that you and Roger [Glover] did some songwriting in Portugal and then the album was recorded in Nashville. With the different locations in play, how hard was it to ultimately get that focus that you talked about, to work towards the final completion of the album.
Well, it’s not hard. Once you’ve got a focus, that’s it -- that’s the project and the way you do it. We are in a different city every night and so the location doesn’t bother us much. I think more to the point, it is, “Can we actually get the job done there in my place in Portugal.” It’s up in the hills and it’s quiet -- there’s no distractions and I’ve got a little writing studio here and it gets extremely hot, but we can jump in the pool every 15 minutes and it’s a good working environment.
But that was really just a cleanup session between the recording sessions. I had so many songs and Roger’s my oldest songwriting partner since the ‘60s and he’s also the nearest thing I ever had to a brother, so we work well together. It was just to do some tidying up really and when you’re working on five or six songs...I remember on the last record, I went into the studio one day and actually started singing lyrics to one song to the backing track of another tune.
I was working on five songs at the same time and I couldn’t figure out why [things didn’t sound right] because they’d worked so well at home when I was finishing the lyrics in my kitchen. It didn’t fit at all and I was just boggled down with too much music. So it’s just cleaning up and tidying up and improving the phrasing and general behind the scenes flourishes and little finishing touches. That’s what we do.
But Nashville was a working environment. Music City -- you’re quite right to call it that. It’s vibrant. Absolutely vibrant. And Bob lives there, so it was great to go to see the Nashville Symphony Orchestra with him and get out and around. You could hear music everywhere. Even in our rehearsal facility, there was doors opening and closing and you could hear different bands rehearsing, writing, auditioning and doing whatever they were doing. But it’s [all] an extremely high quality and level of musicianship. The environment is very fertile.
I was going to ask about that, how working in Nashville colored the sound of the record, because it does seem like it always adds something when people are working on music in Nashville.
Well, actually you’re right. Everywhere, wherever you are, makes its mark on the music. If you work like we do and capture the moment. In Nashville, it was 110 degrees everyday and the studio was cool. We were all living together. We had these little apartment rooms and it was somehow fantastic. There was a cohesion in the spirit of the band. We had this kind of empathy anyway.
There was one wonderful moment when we came in early one morning. Bob said, “Sit down and listen to this” and he turned the big speakers on, which he never does during the daytime and I just listened to some fantastic stuff. He said “You know, I saw a few shows when I was in Canada and I wanted to capture some of that improvisation that you did, but I thought it would be difficult just sort of doing it cold.” And I said that I wanted a prelude for one of these songs called ‘Uncommon Man’ and the guys just came in and they sat down, didn’t say a word and they just started playing.
You can’t do this unless you’re inside each other’s heads like you have to be every night onstage. So it happened, that he managed to capture that and I think that’s very important. I think it’s important that Bob was there and he knew the studio, the heat, the temperature of the city and the environment, it all gives that ambience that you can flourish in.
How did you arrive at ‘Hell To Pay’ as the first single from this album?
Well believe me, it wasn’t my choice. We haven’t got a clue about what should be focused on or anything else. There were two tracks I think, that they wanted to select, probably the start of the record label debating. I guess that half of them wanted a slow one and half of them wanted a rock song, so ‘Hell To Pay’ was their choice.
I think we’re shooting a video in Berlin in a couple of weeks for another song entirely, a song called ‘Vincent Price,’ as far as I know. So I think this is just a taster, this single and they work for me, but I wouldn’t know where to start.
You’re touring Europe this fall. What other plans are on deck? Are there going to be some U.S. dates this summer?
I don’t think so. There’s nothing I’ve heard of so far. Touring the States now is a different kind of thing. It’s somehow kind of out of sync with the rest of the world at the moment. The live venues and the audience’s perception -- it’s all that classic rock thing, you know? It’s very difficult to get people interested in new material in America. Whereas the average age of our audience around the world is 18 years old. The energy that we get from them is unbelievable. I think that’s probably one of the reasons that the band is so hot right now. Whereas we come to the States and the average age of the audience is the same age as us! [Laughs]
That is definitely connected with the classic rock thing. It’s one of those labels that says you’re done, you’re finished and you’re over and it’s kind of like a tombstone around your neck. If we get invited, then sure we’d love to come. I love America and we love touring there. We’ve just got to get the right balance, maybe. If the record perks up a little interest, we can have a little bit of an approach to how we tour over here. But getting on and just playing ‘Smoke On The Water,’ ‘Highway Star’ and ‘Perfect Strangers’ every night is something we left behind about 20 years ago in terms of that being it. That’s kind of rock and roll cabaret in my book and I don’t think the band could survive on that kind of exhaust, really. But if we get the invitation, we’ll be there in a shot.