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Child In Time: An Interview With Ian Gillan

By Charlie Steffens, aka Gnarly Charlie, Writer/Photographer
Thursday, December 21, 2006 @ 9:04 AM


“When I left the band I didn’t

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Back when 8-track cartridges were the medium and the cost of a righteous five-finger lid was 20 bucks, the sounds of Deep Purple’s Machine Head wafted out of every dorm room window. The unforgettable opening guitar riff of “Smoke on the Water” is the epitome of hard rock, and it wrecked scores of transistor radios as it pumped through the AM/FM airwaves. It continues to haunt those who rock, young and old.

Ian Gillan has been singing with Deep Purple during the band’s most musically- significant eras. Among his numerous musical credits, Gillan was Jesus in the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. In his celebrated career spanning some 40-odd years, Gillan doesn’t seem anywhere close to taking up residency in the Old Rockers Home.

In a 45 minute conversation, the gracious and humble singer told a very intriguing story. So, without further ado…Ian Gillan.

KNAC.COM: You had been out touring, supporting your new release Gillan’s Inn. The album was recorded with a superstar lineup of guest musicians. What does your touring outfit look like?

GILLAN: I had to go all over the world to record with these guys. When we made the record we did it in Toronto, Buffalo, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Ireland…all over the place. In the touring band I’ve got Randy Cook on drums—unbelievable, amazing drummer, and Rodney Appelbee on bass—he was on the record. Joe Mennonna (keyboards, saxophone), who recorded with me and Roger Glover and Dr. John on a record I made in ’89. Dean Howard on guitar—he’s been around the world with me about three times in the Ian Gillan Band, and Michael Lee Jackson on guitar as well. The band is crankin.’

KNAC.COM: You can really hear the shades of Deep Purple on the new record, especially on “No Laughing in Heaven” where you have Roger Glover and Ian Paice.

GILLAN: It was a big hit record for me in the late 70’s…in the U.K.

KNAC.COM: You were the original Jesus Christ Superstar. How did you land that?

GILLAN: It was the original studio version. I went to the studio and I was talking to the film director. Tim Rice wanted me to be in the movie and also in the stage stuff. But they wanted me for 12 weeks in Israel, where they were going to shoot the movie, and I was with Deep Purple then. It was no contest, really. So I declined the movie and I declined the stage show, because Purple was the best thing that ever happened to me. That was it. But the original recording was great. It was a three-hour session and a little overwhelming in those days—not so much now—because it’s a different world that we live in. To be doing something like that in 1971 was quite…well, dramatic, really. So Tim had me play Jesus Christ. That’s pretty awesome, you know? He said “What I want you to do is forget about Jesus as the entity and think about him as an historical figure. So think of Jesus along the lines of Julius Caesar or Napoleon or Winston Churchill…whatever you like. That’ll make it easy for you.” The original record that I was on, which was the first one, sold 38 million copies around the world. Ted Neeley was on the film soundtrack.

KNAC.COM: When did you join Deep Purple?

GILLAN: I joined in 1969. Already they had “Hush”, “Kentucky Woman”, and they were a different kind of band in the 60’s. I joined them with Roger Glover in ’69. The first record we made was Deep Purple in Rock. That was a dramatic change for the band: Deep Purple in Rock, Fireball, Machine Head, Made in Japan, Who Do We Think We Are? Then later on Perfect Strangers…I mean…we made a lot of albums.

KNAC.COM: Your relationship with most of your mates from Deep Purple is good, obviously. Do you ever talk to Ritchie Blackmore?

GILLAN: No, I don’t talk to him at all. That asshole—I will never speak to him again, as far as I’m concerned. I loved Ritchie, though. I used to be his roommate and everything was fine. We all respect Ritchie for what he did--the foundation. But he turned into a weird guy and the day he walked out of the tour was the day the clouds disappeared and the day the sunshine came out and we haven’t looked back since. And there are certain personal issues that I have with Ritchie, which means that I will never speak to him again. Nothing I’m going to discuss publicly, but deeply personal stuff. As far as I’m concerned, the divorce came a long time ago. I never want to see or hear of him again.

KNAC.COM: Joe Satriani came on board in ’94, but you never actually had a release with his recordings, right?

GILLAN: Joe came in at the last minute. Ritchie walked out and the tour was taking off to Japan…it was all very dramatic. He said ‘Alright, that’s the end of the band’, and assumed because he left that we were going to fold up. The fact is, we were approaching terminal velocity in that moment. The band had never played so badly, the audiences had never been so small and the atmosphere was absolutely terrible. It was horrible. We could see the end in sight. We thought, “This is going to be our last tour. This is the end of the world.” What an ignominious end to what was once a glittering band, you know? Anyway, he walked out and things picked up and recovered unbelievably, remarkably well and the band’s in great shape now. Satriani never did anything other than help us out. He had an album to make and he had his own tour booked, so he only had a limited time with us. But I do remember spending many happy hours on the bus and on planes and in dressing rooms and in hotels with him. We’re still friends now. He’s a great guy. All the other guys, even Jon Lord—he retired from touring about five years ago. The band’s a really close-knit family. We’ve got fantastically good friendships and relationships that have developed after all these years…40-odd years. In a day or two I’m going into the studio to sing a track on Jon Lord’s new record so there’s a great deal of friendship. But Ritchie…we wish him well. The wounds have healed. We’re doing fine and we respect him for what he did. But personally speaking…forget him. His end of the road was a long time ago.

KNAC.COM: I frequently hear youngsters playing “Smoke on the Water” on the E string. That’s probably the first thing any kid ever learns on the guitar. I’m sure this is an overly-covered topic for you, but can you tell the story of that song?

GILLAN: I’ll tell you the story in reverse, because the day before we finished making Machine Head the engineer came in and said “Listen guys, I’ve just been timing everything and we’re one song short of an album. We need another song.” And so we went back and thought about how we were going to write a song in a day—we had done it before. Many times, but it had been quite a difficult session. So the guys that we had a look at this thing that we had recorded at the beginning of the session, just really to get the sound into the recording track. And it was called the “Dan-Dan” song. It had no words, it was just a jam. We thought ‘Okay, well let’s write a story over that,’ because going back to the beginning of the session, we were due to record at the casino in Montreux. It was the end of the season. I was there watching a Frank Zappa show—the last show of the season. We were going to move in the next day. The Rolling Stones mobile truck was parked outside, engineers were there, we were ready to go and over my right shoulder these two flares from a flaregun…some guy had come in and fired them into the ceiling. It was a wooden building and it caught fire very, very quickly—panic, pandemonium. So that was it. We ended up thinking what to write over this “Dan-Dan” song. It became a biographical account of the recording of the Machine Head album. So, we all came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline, to make records with a mobile—we didn’t have much time, and so on and so on…and it tells that we got kicked out of another place. I mean, Montreux was going in to dreamy time, because it’s a summer resort. We got complaints from the residents with police bashing on the door, so the album was made under great stress. We made it in about ten days, I think. It was fortuitous…musicians have no idea. We never were commercial with stuff and it was about a year later when somebody from Warner Brothers said “Look, if we edit this down to three minutes or so, we might get it played on the radio.” That’s when it started becoming a commercial success. We had kept it in the show—the long version—it’s been in the show ever since (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Are you friends with David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes?

GILLAN: No. I know them, obviously, and I get on fine with them. I’ve only met David a couple times in parting. I’ve met Glenn a couple of times and I have great respect for him. He’s a great musician, a great singer. Glenn’s an extraordinarily talented man. But I wouldn’t classify them as friends because I didn’t develop any relationship with them because I was doing different things when they were in Deep Purple. And to be honest, that was a weird period anyway, because I take these things extremely personally and I get quite emotional about things. When I left the band I didn’t pay much attention to what Purple was doing—it’s like watching your ex-Missus making love to some other guy. That doesn’t turn me on.

KNAC.COM: They should all be wearing black veils over their faces and no other man should be having them, right?

GILLAN: (laughs) Be happy. Do what you have to do, but just don’t tell me about it (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Vocally, your range and power sound as good as ever.

GILLAN: My voice is working brilliantly. I’m very pleased with it. I’ve got this theory—it’s along the lines of use it or lose it. I know a lot of people who slowed down a bit in their 40s or late 30s as singers and then some years later tried to come back, and their sound had disappeared forever, because the aging process can definitely affect your voice, more than anything else. Other instrumentalists are not so dramatically affected by this. So I figure you gotta keep going. I take very short holidays.

KNAC.COM: Obviously there is a blues influence in Deep Purple’s sound. What were you listening to around the time Deep Purple started?

GILLAN: Deep Purple was not influenced by any one thing. Deep Purple was five different people that each brought their own set of influences in to the band from their formative years. So you had everything from classical music to Blue Note jazz to blues to delta blues to Chicago blues, you had folk music, you had southern American rock, you had American pop music, you had English pop music. You had blues, certainly. In my music files I’ve got the entire Chess catalog, which is probably my favorite collection of records along with my young Elvis collection. Motown, soul, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding. A lot of the things I grew up with. Dusty Springfield, Nat King Cole, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Wes Montgomery, Roland Kirk. All of these people were major players in my evolutionary years. Music’s been a good friend to me. My grandfather was an opera singer, my uncle was a jazz pianist, and I was a boy soprano in the church choir before I turned to rock and roll. It’s been my life, really. I was telling my daughter, ‘You know, you got to breathe and you got to eat to stay alive.’ I put music, pretty much…almost in that category.

KNAC.COM: Do you listen to heavy music or metal now?

GILLAN: I listen to flamenco guitar and I‘ve got Norwegian folk music from way back, some Filipino stuff and some Brazilian music. That’s what I listen to, mostly. I never listen to the radio because in England it’s just…you just can’t listen to it. I don’t know why it exists. It’s meaningless dribble. There’s nothing to listen to. I think everything is so divided into categories and genres. I’ve never heard any musician I’ve ever worked with describe themselves as heavy metal. It’s purely a media thing. I can’t even understand how Purple got associated with metal. Deep Purple is a rock band. Rock is rock and every band is different. People are now dressing towards a fashion and styling their videos towards an image—a cultivated image. Purple never did that. We never even thought about the clothes we were wearing. We were just a rock band and it evolved over the years to what it is now. I’ve been called a lot of things over the years. We started off being called underground rock because we weren’t played on the radio and after that we became progressive rock and then we became hard rock. Then we became the new wave of heavy metal and then we became…gradually…dinosaurs and wrinkly rockers and all these other kind of rockers. And you know what we are again now? We’re underground. We’re not played on the radio and we’re playing to massive audiences—the biggest audiences we’ve ever had…outside the United States, I might add. Because in America we are tangled with this classic rock and that’s the most dangerous of all, because that means you’re dead and you’re buried, professionally. Once you get tagged as classic rock in America it’s the end of your career. So you go underground. Our average age of our audience outside of America is 18 years old and we’re having bigger audiences than we ever did in the 70s. It’s amazing, and it’s all underground. We headlined the Monsters of Rock in England. I forget who was on it…Alice Cooper, Journey…I can’t remember. We headlined that anyway and then a week later we headlined the 40th anniversary of the Montreux Jazz Festival. We got tremendous exposure for that, but in England it was the most exciting concert that I’ve ever done in the U.K., and I’ve played the Royal Albert Hall, I’ve done the concertos with John, I’ve done solo tours. I’ve had many absolutely fantastic moments in the U.K.—my home country. That was—everyone agrees—the most exciting day that we’ve ever had…the most exciting performance, the most exciting crowd reaction. They were all 18-year-old kids there. And there wasn’t one mention of it in any musical newspaper, apart from Classic Rock magazine, which was presenting the show. Not one journalist came to the show. No one reviewed it. No one gave previews of it. So we’re actually underground. It’s amazing, isn’t it?

KNAC.COM: It really is. It seems like “Space Trucking” alone is powerful enough to create a resurgence of Deep Purple with the kids and heavy metal upstarts.

GILLAN: Every song we ever did was once a new song, so we’ve always given respect to our new material. The first part of the show has always been what is on the new album. Currently Rapture of the Deep, a two-year tour we’re doing now. The second part of the show has always been dedicated to things like “Space Trucking”, “Highway Star” and “Smoke on the Water” and “Perfect Strangers”, “Lazy”, “Black Night” and those sort of things. The third and most important element of the show—there are other elements and obscure stuff we do for the fans—but the most important…the binding glue for all of this is the improvisation. The show’s different every night. It gets really dangerous up there with the quality of musicianship. These guys are still practicing six hours every day before a two-hour show at night, every single day. It’s quite incredible. That’s the joy of it, for me. None of us knew where we were going to be 40 years after when we started, but we knew one thing; that we would still be musicians. What level of success or where we would be or with whom was never contemplated, it was just generally accepted that music would be our life. And so it’s been. Every one of us is a musician.

KNAC.COM: And you’re a novelist?

GILLAN: I’m gonna write one novel. It’s like the old joke “I shag one sheep and I become Luigi, the sheep shagger (laughs).” I’ve been sitting for six years researching this book. I’m full of ideas for it. I’ve written the first three chapters now and had my secretary on the road for a couple weeks. She’s been kicking my backside to get this started. I’m having a great time. I plan to write no more novels, so I don’t currently call myself a novelist, but I’m going to write this book. It’s a political thriller and it’s called Wessex. It’s going to take me the best part of a year to complete. It will probably be published in another two, two-and-a-half years, something like that. But yes, I’m a novelist alright.

KNAC.COM: I just wanted to let you know that “Highway Star” is one of my favorite songs. I still get chills when you go into that scream in the beginning.

GILLAN: Well, it’s very nice of you to say so. I still enjoy singing it and I still do that scream in the beginning.

Click on the thumbnail shots for larger pictures.










Photos by www.gnarlyfotos.com

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