The Ian Gillan Interview
By Shawn Perry
He played Jesus Christ in the original Jesus Christ Superstar. He sang "Smoke On The Water." He also sang with Luciano Pavarotti. Ian Gillan is one of the last great singers from the hard rockin' early 70s still going, giving it his all. He's been fronting Deep Purple for nearly 20 years without disruption. The proceeding 20 years, of which he spent almost half with Purple, were filled with career highs and lows. Gillan, never one to sit around and mope, released nearly a dozen solo records and even spent a year occupying the lead vocalist slot for Black Sabbath.
These days, however, Deep Purple takes up a huge chunk of his time. That hasn't stopped Gillan from becoming remarkably prolific away from the band. In 2006, he issued Gillan's Inn, a CD/DVD collection jam-packed with old and new songs, and a surplus of mates like Joe Satriani, Ronnie James Dio, Jeff Healey, and Jon Lord. In 2009, he went one further and released an album of all-new originals called One Eye To Morocco. In between, he squeezed in a tour and issued a live DVD. The show Gillan filmed was from the House of Blues in Anaheim, California.
That night in Anaheim, Junkman and I sat in VIP balcony seats and watched Gillan and his band play a cool and even-handed set. Junkman, who had interviewed Gillan that day on his radio show, assured me. "We'll go say 'hi' after the show." And that's what happened. We sat in his dressing room where he offered us Heinekens and comical anecdotes. Six months later, Junkman and I were in Gillan's dressing room again, this time after a Deep Purple show in Costa Mesa. The singer was just as cordial and on the mark, and gave us autographed copies of his latest book. I told him before I left we had to do an interview some time, and he agreed. It would be another couple years before the interview you're about to read came together. For me, it was worth the wait.
Hi Ian. How are you doing?
Well, absolutely fantastic. I'm looking up at the starlit night and I just arrived in Portugal. We have a couple weeks off, so I'm just winding down.
Very cool. Let's get into your new solo album One Eye To Morocco, an exotic departure from your usual hard rock repertoire. Tell me how you went about putting it all together.
The songs weren't actually written for any particular project. Over the last three, four, five years, I've had occasional writing sessions with a friend of mine, Steve Morris, who's from Liverpool. He'll call up every now and then and say, "I've got a couple of ideas. Shall we have a session?" We ended up with about 38 songs in the library, in various stages of completion, with no real aim or purpose for them. Just for the joy of writing, really.
Unfortunately, Roger Glover's mum died last year, so we cancelled a couple of Deep Purple tours. So I found myself in Buffalo. The hardest thing was the selection process, so we had to get the 38 down to a workable number. The title track, which had no title at the time, I wanted that to be the fulcrum, the pivotal thing, the criteria by which all the other songs were judged. They were all in pretty good shape, but the lyrics. I had to save the lyrics to the last minute to keep some freshness. If you have a song in completion, hanging around for two or three years, there's still that kind of staleness to it when you go to record it and that comes across, I think. I try to leave a bit to do at the last minute.
Yeah, it was an opportunist thing, really. I didn't want to make a rock album. There was no point. I play in a rock band all the time. The idea of taking the improvised guitar solos and rhythm section out, and just working in a different way with session musicians and having the producer having a large input in all this was quite important. I'm very pleased. It's always a good sign — it gets played a lot at my house. My friends and family are playing it, so that's rewarding.
You co-wrote most of the record with Steve Morris, not to be confused with Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse. How would you describe your working relationship with him?
With Steve Morris?
I guess it can get kind of confusing with the two Steves and their similar sounding last names (laughs).
I love them both (laughs). Steve Morris is an incredibly talented guy. I've known him since I made an album called Toolbox (1991) and Naked Thunder (1997). We've done a lot of work together. He's a typical Liverpool character. Incredible dry sense of humor. He's a music teacher. His life is full of music. He's a real rock and roll guy, so he likes to put a lot of wild solos on things and basically show off because he's very, very good, which is why we left him at home when we went to make the record (laughs).
Does he share your vision of dabbling with different musical styles?
Absolutely. It's funny the musicians you work with — they're all different. My musical conversations with Steve Morse are completely different than those with Steve Morris because they're from different backgrounds. It's rather like you'll be sitting in a bar and you'll be talking football with another guy or another guy, you'd be talking about politics or whatever, you know. Each has their own take on it.
He (Steve Morris) is very good with structure. He listens to what I do. He knows my range. There's a lot of humor in the music too. So, we got everything from heavy rock to rockabilly to blues and whatever. We played unplugged, for the first time, on an English radio station, which was terrifying for me.
I saw some of that on YouTube. Have you ever considered doing an acoustic record?
Well, it's funny how one thing leads to another. It is different. It's like everything is stripped down and your emotions are very much on show. There's a tremendous amount of vulnerability, which I think is an appealing factor with this kind of acoustic stuff. So, yes, maybe I will. I'm so inspired by this recent session. The people I'm working with at the label are absolutely fantastic. The boss in Europe is an amazing guy.
I've got a lot of plans now for the future. They're all in some disorder, but I'm gonna be recording a lot of stuff. I love this idea of a guitar and a harmonica. I'm inspired to do more of that.
The title track from One Eye To Morocco is a hybrid of Middle Eastern flavorings and Beatlesque melodies. And from there, you spiral off in a million directions — a little soul, a little reggae, a little rock and roll. Was this what you were originally going for?
Well, like I said, I cut Steve out of the production. It's so peculiar…when you strip away the rock band — and he's kind of like a one-man rock band in the studio. But when you strip away the rock band, you're left with a melody and you're left with a song and you're left with other kinds of nuances and textures that normally get smothered by the sheer intensity of the concept of a rock band. It's quite incredible. Whereas, you get a rock band production and it is intense. It's very in-your-face. I describe this as being more seductive rather than up front.
I was doing an incredible photograph session in Milan, in the early days of this record. There was an old villa in the center of town. It was cold and the photographer was a bit wearing. Somebody put the record on — it was before it was mastered; it was pretty much a rough mix. There were a lot of people in there, and I was trying to concentrate on the camera. There was my assistant Sally and there was the hairdresser girl and all these people they bring along — the clothes girl, the record label girl, the translator, et cetera, et cetera. No one's really listening to the music. But something caught my eye and I suddenly realized what it was. All their bums were moving and they were grooving to this sort of subliminal sound that they could hear. And I thought, "Mission accomplished. This is a good thing."
Hearing "Always The Traveler," I'm reminded that you are a world traveler who's played in some very far and away places. How much of your songwriting is inspired by the people and places you come across in your travels.
I don't know if it's inspired or triggered or anything, but it's certainly set off by it. It's almost overwhelming, particularly in Europe. When you're a kid, you're like a tourist. You're going around seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal. Then the next time around, you go to zoos and museums. Then the next time around, you go, "Well I've done that and I've done that." But by now, you may know someone from the promoter's office or a media person that you've met or a fan or anyone, really. Suddenly, you know someone in town. You don't do the sightseeing thing anymore after a few years. You start doing the conversation — "let's go have a drink and a bite to eat and what's going on." So you then get under the skin of the culture. People let their guard down and become friendlier.
When I was in Japan for my first few trips, they just took me to the international restaurants, the international markets, and all those things. It was kind of glossy Japan. It was for the tourists. Then the guy from the record company who was escorting the Prime Minister got snowed in England one year, about 25 years ago. He was staying at the Hilton, and I went and picked him up so he could spend Christmas at my house. We took him to the pub. He'd only seen an English pub on TV. We had him playing darts, eating cottage pie and drinking bitter. He had a fantastic time. The next time I was in Japan, he said, "Oh, well you got a day off. Where should we go?" And I said, "Now, I'd like to go where you guys go for a drink after work or the bars you go to or the restaurants you eat in." And I saw a completely different side of Japan. It was unbelievable.
One of the most spectacular things was in this bar where the walls were like a library and all the bottles were lined up on the walls. And they had Japanese characters written on them. As we were about to leave — the first of many bars we visited that night (laughs) — I realized that he had only paid for the beer and the soda. "We had two or three whiskeys, that doesn't seem like very much." And he said, "Oh, I was drinking some of Yoruichi's whiskey." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, it's a common thing to say when you're leaving work — 'If you're passing by so-and-so, please drop in and have some of my whiskey, or some of my alcohol or wine or whatever.'" They buy a bottle and leave their name on it. And people come in and say, "Oh, I want some of that whiskey." (laughs) And they just give it to them. Can you imagine that working anywhere else?
So, that was just a side of Japan, just one little thing. And then understanding the tea ceremony and all those things. That's just one culture. Of all of them, when you add them together, it's only when you get to know the people after a few times around the world, that you get to understand it, you get the feel of it. It's all about behavior patterns and sensitivities. Those are the things we tend not to appreciate so much when we have this big defensive wall around us as tourists when we first set out on our world adventure and not really knowing what to expect. But when you let your guard down a bit, that's what people like. They like to see you vulnerable. Then they show a bit of themselves and you develop a lifelong friendship.
I attended the show you filmed in Anaheim a few years ago and noticed you appeared a little more laid back and relaxed than you are with Purple. Are these side ventures like a vacation that recharges your batteries before you go back into battle with Deep Purple?
(Laughs) I suppose so. I haven't thought of describing it like that. It's just a different flavor in life. Purple, quite honestly, is so rewarding. When you get into a long tour, after four, five or six shows, you look forward to it — actually get a need for the adrenaline to be expelled each night. You take pleasure in the fact that you're really in control of what's going on with your voice, feeling fit and everything else. So, when you step out into other stuff — whether I'm singing with Pavarotti or doing these kind of things — it's difficult, actually harder because you're having to develop something that isn't fully developed. I don't know what I'm talking about (laughs). I would think of it like a naughty week-end away.
It looks like you are pretty busy with Deep Purple touring Europe until the end of the year. So, what can we look forward to in 2010? Maybe a solo tour? Deep Purple coming back to America? Do you even know at this point?
At this point, I don't know. I won't get the schedule until the end of the year. It's actually quiet until the European festival season starts. We're doing a lot of that circuit this year. Of course, it's been too long since we've been to North America. There's no plans for another Purple album at this moment (editor's note: that has since changed). I think because, there's no frustration. Everyone's getting off so much on these tours. It's fulfilling. There will come a time when we move into another phase. I've got lots of plans myself…I'm thinking of making a lot of singles, a sequence of singles, rather than do another album. Just putting them out there in the sky, saying. "There you go…" With videos, little bits of fun, because that's how it should be now, I think.
"Reunion" is a popular buzz word these days in classic rock circles. People even apply the term to bands that are still together, especially Deep Purple. They talk about a reunion with Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord, or a reunion with David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes. What is your take on these reunion rumors?
I was sitting with the mayor of Moscow, who offered us the Red Square and untold millions to do it in his city and I said, "Well, with the greatest respect, I won't be there." It doesn't interest me because we have a living, breathing band. That would be like a circus act
I had dinner with Jon Lord in Tokyo the other day. We had a lovely evening off. That subject never even came up. Ritchie Blackmore, who I used to room with, is an amazing guitar player. But he left a long time ago, then the clouds disappeared, the rain stopped and the sun came out. I am not crawling through that cat flap into the darkness ever again.
Any plans of reuniting with Black Sabbath after they're done with Ronnie James Dio (laughs)?
(Laughs) No, I'm still recovering from the headache of the last time. No, I've been in touch with Tony (Iommi). I love the guys, but I'm with Deep Purple and that's it. The idea of reunions…I'm not looking backwards at the moment. There's still too much lying ahead.
Metallica's Lars Ulrich was recently asked who he thought should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and he said Deep Purple belong there with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath because you come as a threesome. Do you agree with him?
That's embarrassing (laughs).
What about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in general. Do you even care about getting in?
You got to take this with great respect. We don't have anything like that where we come from, over in Europe or anywhere else. It's an American thing. It's so completely different. In America, you're great and really do support and show appreciation for your artists, musicians, film stars, whatever it may be. And you give them visible signs in accolades and all that sort of thing. And you cheer and…you're very supportive.
It's the completely opposite in the U.K. They want to kill you (laughs). The moment you get up to any form of success, they just want to wipe you out and deride you. It's part of the culture. At the same time, we've just focused on the music. I honestly can't tell you whether or not we should be there or not. It could be because of the fragmented nature of the band that they wouldn't know how to deal with it.
To us, with the greatest respect, it doesn't mean a lot although it's rather like an award in the U.K., if I were to get one. I probably wouldn't accept it. But then again, after a week of thinking about it, I would accept it because it would be on behalf on the family and friends and everyone who supports the band and who's looked after us after all these years. It's kind of a recognition of everyone. But whether we deserve it, I don't know. I always get embarrassed talking about this stuff.
I was reading through your book Smoke This! I love the structure with the lyrics and anecdotes. When are you writing another one?
At the moment, I spend about ten perecent of my writing time on music, another ten percent on articles and essays and interaction online. Eighty percent of it I spend in pure self-absorption. It's my hobby. I've been studying science and theology and the intertwining symbiosis since I was eight-years-old. It's so thrilling to me to be researching and finding ways of bringing these two islands together. I lose it — I lose it completely and get buried away. The great thing about being online is that it saves me so many trips to the library. I can do research at the push of a button, so to speak.
My work is in infinity, which is a word I first heard described when I was eight-years-old as something that goes on forever and forever and in all directions. I couldn't grasp that. So to apply a little quantum thinking, I've been developing some theories to account for the missing dark energy but doesn't give us enough to explain the expansion of the universe and then where are we at the center. And then Stephen Hawkings just completely confuses everything by saying before the Big Bang there was nothing. And that was the absolute trigger to the phase of my investigation.
I'm having a lot of fun with that. I don't know if it will be published, but I've been speaking to a few learned friends. A professor of philosophy, who I communicate with every now and again, has advised me to put all these things into separate essays and pieces, and develop a collection, which will help me focus on the separate elements. Presentation in long form is something I'm tremendously inexperienced with, so when it comes to research, I've just been sort of leaving notes all over the place. I have to collate them now and get them a little more focused. But it's all exciting and thrilling stuff.