The Don Airey Interview
Deep Purple's Don Airey Lights Up The Sky
By Ralph Greco, Jr.
Here's a question: Who hasn't Don Airey played keyboards with? A former band mate in many groups with the late, legendary drummer Cozy Powell; tours with Ozzy Osbourne (and playing on the seminal Blizzard Of Ozz album); backing guitarist Gary Moore; working with Rainbow, Whitesnake, Jethro Tull, Judas Priest and even Andrew Lloyd Webber; and presently a member of Deep Purple — Airey's resume is extensively exhausting, to say the least.
He is a man equally adept at tinkling piano keys as he is comfortable riding a Hammond organ, though as he says: "No one is comfortable playing a Hammond. They are not interested in you, they are only interested in themselves."
Don Airey makes everybody feel interested in what he does and how he does it. He's the quintessential keyboardist's keyboardist, one of only handful of guys who could lay claim to such a rich past, an unmatched proficiency and disarming good-humored humility.
I asked him about all those keyboards he plays. "Someone came in and saw them all and asked if I was a collector. I said, 'I'm not a collector, I play them all,'" he jokes. But the man certainly has and still does play all those keyboards with unrivaled proficiency, as he does on his new solo album, A Light In The Sky.
This 17-song wonder is a rich tapestry of styles and musicianship and it all came together when Airey first hit the road with Deep Purple. "I was introduced to the record company by Steve Morse," he explains. "They are an instrumental guitar label but they wanted to do something with me. It took four years to find the time."
When I asked about a U.S. tour to support the new record (a few UK dates have been scheduled for 2009), Airey managed to drop a little tidbit in my lap. "It's an idea (U.S. dates) but I am afraid that's all it is at the moment. As they say making the record is the easy bit, selling it is hard. Darrin Mooney (one of two drummers on the album) was supposed go out with us, but at the last minute had to drop out to tour Japan with Primal Scream. So I called up my old buddy Clive Bunker and he said sure he'd do it."
Imagine having that much juice, having been in the business this long and being this well respected that your friends with Clive Bunker, Jethro Tull's original drummer? What I wouldn't do to see this lineup, playing behind such a great CD.
It really comes as no surprise that Don Airey has been playing keyboards in Deep Purple for the past seven years, having taken over for founding member Jon Lord. This kind of a gig would be monumental for a lesser player, but with his usual aplomb, Airey simply says: "I got the call when Jon got sick, and basically had two days of rehearsals and was then playing a festival with them for my first gig. I said to myself, 'The only way I'm going to survive this is to be myself.'"
Like playing in Rainbow or Whitesnake, volume is a big thing in Purple. Airey claims his Leslie cabinet "scrambles your brains" and that Ian Gillan loves to hear Airey wail for that nice keyboard kick up the backside when Purple plays live.
Because of his background, one won't be surprised by the many musical styles Airey is comfortable with. On A Light In The Sky alone, the tunes range from prog rock-outs like "Space Troll Patrol" and "Sombrero M104," my favorite. As the keyboardist assured me, "All the songs were recorded in one or two takes, live with very little mending. The whole thing was done in 19 days."
More accessible tunes like "Love You Too Much" and the title track are reminiscent of Airey's time spent in heavy guitar-based outfits like Whitesnake and Rainbow. "I walk into a rehearsal room and I want to see a big Marshall stack. I like to shadowbox my way around those guitar players," he says with regards to the likes of Ritchie Blackmore and Gary Moore.
Airey really has made quite a reputation as a keyboardist in some heavy situations. Like Lord, Keith Emerson, and maybe even a little Rod Argent, Don Airey is one of those rare players who can be aggressive musically. When you hear the opening keyboard rush on "Ripples In The Fabric Of Time," the second tune on A Light In The Sky, you can see why the man fits in so well in Deep Purple. Listen to his keys on Rainbow's "All Night Long." If you get the chance to catch a clip of Rainbow performing this tune as their opener at the 1980 Monsters of Rock festival, you will see what Don Airey meant about playing with Ritchie Blackmore.
The man can also write and play effective shorter and lighter tunes as well. Again, I refer you to A Light In The Sky and funky blues tunes like "Rocket To The Moon" and "Metallicity," from which Airey lifted inspiration from a decidedly non- heavy source. "We were jamming around Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds Of Fire," Airey recalls. "Darren Mooney said, 'You should extend that and make that into something.'"
Few players can claim the pedigree of Don Airey. When you think about the musicians he's been associated with, along with his mastery of all those keyboards (which he lists in the booklet that comes with A Light In The Sky), there really aren't many other guys who have attained such an illustrious past.
Delving into Don Airey's discography (which you can easily do at the aptly named www.donairey.com ), talking to the man, listening to all the songs he has played on, and marveling over his new CD, you to come to realize that this is a journeyman keyboardist, a musician making his bread playing, writing and producing, a 'working player' in the best sense of that term. He's also a hell of a nice guy.