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Ian Gillan

Talking to a musical legend is a very disconcerting thing. Memories rush through your head during the conversation, of the first time you heard such and such a song. The heart pounds. The mouth gets dry. I had the pleasure of speaking to Ian Gillan of Deep Purple this week and it was a good thing it was by phone. This way he could not see me trying to keep my composure while listening to a voice that I have heard on my stereo for over 34 years. Despite my nerves, Ian was a joy to interview. He gives thoughtful answers to every question and it's nice to hear a rock star speak who is as articulate as he is entertaining.

Purple is currently enjoying a great response to their best record in years, Rapture of the Deep. This is a monster of a disc that ranks up there with their finest works --- not an easy feat when you're competing against records such as Machine Head, Perfect Strangers and In Rock. Tracks like "Wrong Man" bristle with a swagger that has been missing from recent past releases. The title cut is an awesome track of epic dimensions and "Cleary Quite Absurd" has one of the most beautiful vocals Gillan has ever recorded.

In addition to the Purple record, Ian is just about to release a retrospective record of sorts, Gillan's Inn. This is a collection of selected highlights of Ian's catalogue and re-recorded with a bunch of his famous friends. Believe me it is excellent with lots of great performances. Watch for a review to follow shortly.

I spoke with Ian (well actually he spoke and I deliriously stumbled through some half-questions) from his home in Britain as the band enjoyed a mini-break from the first leg of a tour to support the new record. 

antiMUSIC: To my ears Rapture of the Deep is your most complete record since Perfect Strangers. I enjoyed Perpendicular and the other two had moments but this is the first one I've enjoyed thoroughly all the way through. Was there anything that made this record different for you?

Ian Gillan: Yes I think so. There were two or three elements there involving in the evolution getting back into some kind of decent shape. You know, we had been through some rocky times and I think that's reflected in the music. We've made some albums that were below standard. Not that we set out to do that. You obviously set out to make the best record you can. I don't know anybody who sets out to make bad records. That's sometimes difficult. After Ritchie left, it took us a while to find our feet again and our identity. There's something intangible about being in a band. It's not just about image or anything. It's really about a collective responsibility, like a family. And I think when you're relaxed, you tend to perform a lot better than when you're all uptight. So it's taken a while to get to the situation. Other elements have come into it. For example, one we got the lineup settled again, we had a new producer Michael Bradford. I think that made a big difference on the Bananas record and opened a lot of doors for us. There was a sense of immediacy in the writing and a giant leap backwards into the way that we used to record. In other words, we used to write songs, rehearse them, practice them, and then go into the studio and hear the immortal phrase, "Take one" and then record the song all at the same time, in the same room. And that's made a big difference in terms of changing, from us going through a recording process, to a recording performance. I get tickles in my tummy every time I go in the studio, these days and that's something that wore off over the years. I think that excitement and that sense of delivering a performance is back now. And I think it took us a while to pick up on that so when we get through to Rapture of the Deep, a lot has changed songwriting wise. The band is relaxed. The band was very hot. We had just finished the Bananas tour. So there was a great feeling between us. There was a great feeling of empathy. And these guys still practice six hours every day even on show days. We arrived. Put on the kettle. Had some coffee. Told a few jokes. Went into the studio and off we went. Also, lyrically, it's good when you're back in the mode of working. In Bananas, for instance, it was extremely political, and this particular record, it has a loose conceptual thread in the category of spirituality. And so it was an interesting avenue for me to explore. And I felt very comfortable.

antiMUSIC: Lyrically speaking, were you stocked with ideas going into the studio or did you have to write as the music appeared?

Ian Gillan: We go in with nothing. That's something we've always done. Just go in with absolutely nothing. We have no titles for the record. There's no point in discussing the style because the only way we can make music is what actually happens spontaneously in the jam sessions in the afternoon. But one of the fans sent me a picture of a pond in England in a village somewhere. It had as warning sign on a post on it, and it said "Danger Deep Water", and somebody had got into the water and crossed out the word "Water" and wrote in "Deep Purple". So it said, "Danger, Deep Purple". And they sent me this photograph which was pretty cute and it stirred the beginnings of my imagination. I'm a keen diver and so "Rapture of the Deep" emerged. Not literally of course. I'm not talking about nitrogen narcosis. But it gave kind of a philosophical edge to the kind of idea that was emerging. I have to be quite careful with what I write on the surface because I don't want to say things that misrepresent the beliefs of the other guys. We're all different guys. I don't want to lock them into tirades about this, that and the other. But there has to be a certain amount of subtlety. And I grew up with the Northern Ireland troubles going on. And the state of the world today focused my mind, very, very clearly upon what is the spirituality behind all of this. The simple questions. You have the Catholics and the Protestants murdering the beejessus out of each other since I was a kid. But of course, when you look into it, it's more than just that. It's deeply rooted in history and it's not just religion, it's cultural. They were sent into battle with their leader saying "God is on your side." And you think well fair enough. And then they come back and say, "There's only one God." And you think, right. And the guys from the army go to their churches and synagogues and their mosques. And they're going, "there's only one God and he's on your side. And see the other side there's a problem because they believe that too. Is it just some manifestation of some deep routed spiritual need…anyway with that kind of thinking that's what's behind most of the songs with some light relief there with songs like "MTV" and a few other stories of injustice. To answer your question, No. We come in with nothing. I do this all time. Sorry. (laughs)

antiMUSIC: "Rapture of The Deep" the track, is one of the most exciting tracks I've heard from the band in a bit. To me, energy-wise it goes back to "In Rock". What is it about lyrically? 

Ian Gillan: Interestingly it has a kind of slightly Eastern sound. We came in from a coffee break and Don is playing something really interesting…don doodle dodoodle doo and we're going "That's cool, Don". And Paicey joins in, Thrash. Hey that sounds really neat so, maybe be can work on and develop that which is how all the songs come about. And Don says, "I hear we're going to Istanbul, I've never been before so I just started doodling around with this sort of Turkish delight type of flavor" and it just sort of developed from there. The idea that I think probably is that we've become more aware of an extended mind and an extended …I understand now the value of congregational euphoria. When I was a kid I used to go to church, I don't go now, but I understand that. In these days of the Internet, you can feel as if you're actually in touch with somebody. It's like writing letters but it's so immediate you're in touch with somebody on the other side of the world and having a perfectly normal conversation and yet it's covered by this distance. You can actually feel the emotion of the conversation. So I had the idea of I'll meet you in the sky tonight, because we own the universe and all of those things. 

I have all these theories about the universe, so I'm sort of gently touching on that too. It's an explanation really---the idea of flying away. I believe that we don't have much time left. I know it's a dramatic thing to say, but if you look at the forecast of population figures for 50 years from now, it's terrifying, absolutely terrifying.

I don't think there's a reversal position that we can take. It's too late. We're going too fast. I believe that this rate of expansion is unsustainable. I started thinking about--- I'm doing a little writing at the moment about the first quarter of the 19th century, the metaphysical parts, and Darwin and his reasons for suffocating his theories for 20 years because of religious pressures, etc. But you know the whole idea of evolution is really adapt or die. So I think we really should become more metaphysical. I think we should, in small groups of metaphysical people over the next 2 or 3 generations develop our innate abilities to leave these corporate bodies behind and fly away through the universe. 

antiMUSIC: "Clearly Quite Absurd" is a beautiful song. This seems to be one of the most straight-forward lyrics I think you've written. What prompted this song?

Ian Gillan: Well it's the same mood really. The funny thing is when I was writing in the studio or back at my apartment. I have my notebooks and scraps of paper all over the place and quite often, in fact it actually happened on Bananas. I was working early in the morning on fine-tuning a lyric and deciding for a song, but I can't remember which one, I was actually working on six songs at the same time lyrically. And I went into the studio, and it was perfect in the kitchen. It was absolutely perfect….the phrasing. I had nailed it. But I got into the studio and it sounded like a load of rubbish. I kept persevering. Then I started changing the words around and I though "Am I going crazy or what." Suddenly I realized I was working on the wrong song, I had the lyrics for a completely different backing track. "Clearly Quite Absurd". If you say something to somebody that we should all mutate and fly away, and they look at you like you're a crank or a cult member or a heretic, or something like that, when really it's what everyone thinks. So you put them at their ease by saying: but of course that's ridiculous, it's really quite absurd. Thereby what you're doing, by device, is reinforcing what you're trying to say and taking the person off guard a little bit. Which is the plan behind it. I'm trying to find the know we haven't done that one on stage yet. "Clearly Quite Absurd", couldn't remember it. Yeah, again, it's about the extension of empathy into the telepathic thing…you know we spend so much time trying to solve problems and yet there's certain things called instincts that we know, we just feel something's right inside to do, and yet we never really study those things because we take it for granted. I think that's basically what this song's about, we make a big deal about it.

Remember that fuss about the cartoons, the Danish cartoons, recently. All hell broke loose and people becoming offended where no real offense was intended, it was really only a lampoon. And so somebody said in our English papers oh well Voltaire probably got it right when he said I object to everything you say, but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it." Voltaire didn't say that. It was in his biography. His biographer said he might have said something like that. In fact it wasn't nearly ironic enough. I think the idea of painting pictures that people can climb into is what it's all about. Sorry to be vague. There's nothing too tangible about that, it's just sharing ideas really, but it's a nice feeling. If you could read my mind imagine all the stuff we could leave behind.

antiMUSIC: It seems to me that Don really locked into the Jon Lord sound this time out, although he's mixed down a bit more than Lord ever was. Do you think that this was just a matter of confidence or did you really have to fit that traditional sound?

Ian Gillan: Well, the Hammond organ is part of our traditional sound, and obviously the band is evolving so you have to have a bit of each. I think you also have to have what the musician himself is comfortable with and Don has advanced tremendously with regards to his synthesizer work and he's got a magnificent collection of old Moogs, and uses them very well. I think if you listen to his Moog solo in "Back To Back", it's actually sensational. I suppose in a way, in the back of our minds, there's an idea of the Hammond has to be there and I think it's right but it's very much Don's instrument. i.e.: He's not walking in Jon's shoes or anything like that. I mean we made the transition very happily between Ritchie and Steve Morse, and Joe Satriani in between obviously as a foil. It's worked out unbelievably. I don't know about the U.S. but right now we just finished the first six weeks of a two-year tour for "Rapture". The average age of our audience is 18 years old, and we're selling out to big arenas all over Europe. We headlined a show in France last year that had 180 thousand people. The biggest crowd I'd ever played to and so the reception is slightly different in terms of outside the U.S. where I think quite possibly, with the greatest respect, the set-up is different because of the classic rock stations over there and the fact that if you come out of the '70s you're considered to be a thing of the past. There's a song on the record "MTV" which is basically about classic rock radio and it's all about a station in Buffalo, NY. Roger Glover was doing an interview with this girl and you can find these things on my website by the way… There's a wordography section where literally I'm plowing through 400 songs. There are little explanations about all these at the beginning. But we were doing this show in Buffalo the next day and he went on to promote Bananas and she wouldn't talk about it. He kept saying "We've got this new record" and she'd say "Ah yes, but what about Highway Star. And 20 minutes, half an hour went by and I couldn't believe what I was hearing. And she says, there you go Roger Grover! Lead guitar. Smoke on the Water, YEAH!

antiMUSIC: How deflating. 

Ian Gillan: Well, you don't mind that because you've got to carry your history with you. You can't discard it. You've got to constantly be reinventing yourself if you care about the most important thing and that is your music. We all know that success comes and goes in the commercial sense, but if you've got that dear friend music and you put in the hours then it'll be a good companion to you for the rest of your life. And that way you keep your integrity too so there's a certain sense….I don't want to make a big deal about this but there's a feel-good factor here as well, if you follow your own scenic route. Contemporaneously, while writing this record, every time I went out of the studio, our producer Michael Bradford would sneak back into the kitchen where I was writing this and turn the sound up on MTV, cause he's a multi-tasking type of guy (laughs) and every time I'd come back in I couldn't concentrate on writing with the TV on, so I would turn the sound down, and eventually it caught my eye and I started watching MTV with the sound off, and you know it's the most wonderful thing in the world. It's really incredible.

antiMUSIC: Just on the amusement level alone.

Ian Gillan: Yeah, anyway that's just a bit of lighthearted diversion.

antiMUSIC: You said you're pulling in the is the record doing globally?

Ian Gillan: Biggest selling record we've had since Perfect Strangers.

antiMUSIC: That's great to hear.

Ian Gillan: In a climate of the sales being what they are, retail…it's unbelievable. It's absolutely incredible. Our record company is thrilled with us, and it's made a big impact. It's absolutely fantastic.

antiMUSIC: So when you go back and examine this at any point in time, do you think there's something special or is it just a matter of timing, climate? Or can you put it down to one thing?

Ian Gillan: I think there's a lot of interconnecting things. I have to go back now to '91 when Ritchie left. '92. Can't remember. Anyway early nineties. That tour we were playing small halls in Europe which is traditionally strong territory for us. Small halls, they were half sold out. And Ritchie was doing 40 minutes or an hour and then walking off, whatever he felt like and we were playing awfully. There was such a bad atmosphere in the band.

Everyone was looking down. Everyone was tense. Paicey was all over the place. I was singing horribly. Tense. Tight. No expression. And Roger and Jon were just keeping their head down and it was awful. We were very depressed and talking amongst ourselves -not Ritchie of course, but the rest of us were saying: I don't think I can't take much more of this, this is so depressing. After all the glorious years we had and it's just not… it's just not fun. So the band was about to end. We were approaching terminal velocity. And fortunately Ritchie left. He just sort of exploded because we wouldn't do what he said. And I think that was one of the main problems, Ritchie isn't a team player. He wants everyone to do what he tells them to do. And I think if he didn't have that attitude, then I think things would be a lot easier (laughs) for him. Anyway he left. And the day he left the sun came out. It was unbelievable and so we survived with the help of Joe Satriani. And what happened then we had to rebuild entirely. It took a few difficult years. We did Perpendicular, which was a welcome album for Steve and it was a welcome change of direction, if you like, in life. I think it was then we made some hard decisions. Jon left, he was tired of touring and I think his spirit had been drifting away for a while. Fortunately, his departure was very amicable…and I still enjoy a glass of champagne and a wonderful evening over dinner with Jon. And he still phones us up in the dressing room to find out what we're doing on stage that night. So that's very good. But Don brought a tremendous amount of energy. Then of course we got the producer in because I think it was not possible to continue with an in-house, in band producer. The whole perspective is so subjective you can't see what we needed to do. We needed some discipline, some framework in order to release us from those other containments. So I think that changed a lot. Steve Morse brought in a whole new generation of fans. They suddenly saw on stage a band that was smiling, that actually enjoyed each other's company. That actually were making an effort to get a great sound, that were interacting and were bringing back that weird but very important element and that's improvisation. You can go and see a band on different nights and the set list might be very similar but the show will be completely different. That is what I think changed things. 

So now we've built up to…I still don't know the answer but I'll put it this way: we did
Wembley, a venue in London. An arena in London, about three or four years ago. And my daughter came along, after the show back to the dressing room and I said, "Grace who let all the kids in tonight?" And she "Dad, you just don't get it do you. Deep Purple is REALLY cool." (Laughs) Well, I can't analyze this more than the fact that I know the ingredients have changed, and I know certain things have happened. But that doesn't always work, it just happens to be working. I think what happens is we've stayed underground. We were …I think the best definition I've ever heard for Deep Purple is, apart from being a rock band, is that we're an underground band because that's what we were in '60s and early '70s. I'm not talking about the "Hush" period, cause that was something entirely different. But afterwards when I joined we went deeper underground for quite a while. All of our success was built on live fans following us around. I think we've gone back to that route. That's probably what happened.

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