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Hello, My Name Is: Ian Gillan of Deep Purple

| August 31, 2020 | 0 Comments
DEEP PURPLE 2020 – IAN GILLAN (TOP RIGHT)

Ian Gillan admits that it’s a strange, surreal time to be releasing a new album. But the Deep Purple vocalist was justifiably proud of his band’s latest Whoosh! comeback, overseen by legendary, sound-effects-favoring producer Bob Ezrin, of Alice Cooper and Kiss Destroyer renown. “And Bob is the same age as us,” notes Gillan, who will turn 75 on August 19. “And he’s based in Toronto and Nashville — he has a house in both places.” His name was suggested by the band’s Hamburg-based A&R rep, who introduced them and then watched the sparks fly. “Bob said, ‘I’d love to do this project, but I don’t just want to record songs by you — my focus is to capture what you do on stage, as you did in the 1970s and as you still do now because when you start improvising and jamming, that’s when it becomes electric in the concert hall. And if you want to do that? I’m your man.’ So we accepted him, and he was like a conductor — since he’s also a classically trained pianist — and we responded very well to that.”

Eerily enough, much of the material they conjured up together falls in dark thematic line with the current pandemic that’s shaken the Earth to its core, from the funky mortality-minded opener “Throw My Bones” through larger philosophical musings “Man Alive,” “Nothing at All,” “We’re All the Same in the Dark,” and “The Power of the Moon”— something more people are noticing these days as they have the time and inclination to look up to the night sky in newfound awe. “And the power of the moon is the greatest force that we can harness on this Earth, far greater than the Sun,” Gillan believes. “I mean, it lifts the oceans twice a day, once by power and once by backwash. And its power is free.” He checked in from his scenic Dorset digs on the West Coast of England, where he was preparing to restock his wine cellar. 

IE: How’s everything going over there?

IAN GILLAN: Well, it’s all gone quiet. There’s an element that’s still out and about, but most people seem to get it, though — they’ve got to stay home and quarantine. But generally speaking, I think people draw together in the face of adversity. So I turn on my TV in the morning, and again in the evening just to catch up. But there’s this feeling of calm, I would say. But look, I’m an optimist. I always try and look on the bright side, and I remember when I was a kid, my mom said, “Well, the holidays might never happen, because if we can’t afford it, we can’t go.” But I would say, “Yeah, but I’m going to have so much fun looking forward to it, and that’s half the battle right there!” So I’m thinking that probably all the pubs will open for 24 hours straight for several days, once this is all over.

IE: When did you first notice this sense of optimism you had as a kid?

IG: Ah, well — it’s the only way to go. I was born in ’45 at the end of the war when we still had rationing for food. And I’m not saying it was tough, but we had a loving community, and it was very exciting. We always looked on the bright side, and no one complained, nobody was entitled to anything. And in my area, all the kids inherited it from our parents and grandparents — everyone had a highly developed sense of humor. And I don’t mean in telling jokes, but just looking at life from a slightly sideways perspective. So that’s always been there. And of course, I’ve been a musician all my professional life, and there’s a lot of dark humor in music, especially on the road. So you tend to dismiss a lot of things. We’ve been through storms and hurricanes, riots and terrorism, and all that sort of thing with Deep Purple — the most unbelievable events. I’ve seen more dead bodies than I could possibly imagine, shootings and people lying dismembered in the streets in Lima, Peru, and a few other South American countries. I’ve seen the results of earthquakes in Armenia, a lot of strange things in Chechnya, and the aftermath of the Russian evacuation from Afghanistan — some horrific and amazing things. And we’re not immune to it — we’re just not shocked. 

IE: So you’re like, “Virus-Schmyrus!”

IG: That’s the way to beat it. You just nailed it on the head. You use sarcasm to defeat it, like, “You call yourself a VIRUS? Hah! You’re nothing!” That being said, I hope that most people get through this okay, even though it might not look that way sometimes.

IE: Looking back at old photos of Deep Purple, I forgot how cool you dressed in the ‘60s. You were quite the dandies.

IG: Ha! I don’t know about that. But it’s amazing, the influences on you when you’re a kid, and the rejection, and then suddenly it’s like, “Well, I’m gonna grow my hair long — I don’t care what people say.” And then the next thing you knew, everyone’s go their hair long, and so I cut all mine off. I didn’t want to be one of the crowd — it was just stupid kid’s behavior. But when Roger (Glover) and I came into the band, we came from a band called Episode Six, and we were a real hippie, flower-power vocal-harmony kind of band. And this is extremely funny, but because we had no clothes at all — except our onstage outfits — my mom made my stage outfit and Roger had various remnants and rags. And we had no money at all, so in terms of spare clothes, we only had one outfit between us. Roger had the shirt, and I had the trousers, and that was it. And Roger used a bit of string to tie up the trousers when he wore them, because his waist was a bit smaller than mine. So we couldn’t go out together, socially, to the pub or to parties. But we did bring that sense of style, that flower power into the band.   

IE: I remember in grades school, all the cool kids had Machine Head, and some even brought it in for show and tell.

IG: I remember a story about that from Lenny Hayes, one of my best friends, who was in a band called Repo Depot — he was from San Francisco, and he was a great drummer and known as The Mayor of Hell. And he told me a story when he came over to England, like, “Man, that Machine Head! I remember sitting in class one hot summer afternoon, and the windows were all open, and suddenly everyone in class turned around as my buddy drove across the lawn — which was seriously forbidden, it was sacred ground —and skidded to a halt outside the windows and yelled, ‘Hey, Lenny! You gotta HEAR this!’ And he cranked up “Highway Star,” and Lenny jumped out the window, jumped in the car and drove off, and never went back to school. And that was a huge change in his life. So I’ve heard many similar stories about that record.

IE: And I remember none of us knew where — or what — Montreux was, in “Smoke on the Water.” It seemed like such a mystical place.

IG: It IS a mystical place, on Lake Geneva. And it was an amazing story. We were due to record in the casino in Montreux, and we had The Rolling Stones’ mobile recording truck parked outside. And we went out to see the Frank Zappa show, and it was the last show of the season, then we were gonna take over as everyone moved on and they closed down for the winter. And a guy came in and fired a flare gun into the ceiling, and the place caught fire. It was a wooden building, and that’s where the drama of that song took place. We evacuated to Eden Au Lac, a hotel just down the lake, and we watched the casino burn to the ground. And with the wind from the mountains coming down and blowing the smoke, it was like a film set — it was simultaneously awesome and terrifying. And Roger wrote down ‘Smoke on the water’ on a napkin, and we then got shifted to the Grand Hotel, and we spent a very short time there recording the album. And on the last day, the engineer Martin Birch said, “Hey, guys — we’re seven minutes short of an album.” So somebody came up with the idea of “Well, what about the soundcheck we did on the first day?” Which was the famous riff that became that song? And it was seven minutes long. So we wrote a song, Roger and I, a biographical account of the making of the record — “We all came out to Montreux, blah, blah, blah.” So that filled the seven minutes on Side B., and we thought no more about it, and we went on the road, and it was a year later when somebody from Warner Brothers came to see a show and saw the reaction of the crowd to “Smoke on the Water,” and he realized what was going on. So he went back, did an edit and cut the thing down to half-size, 3:15, and then suddenly, it got played on the radio. And after that, it got played a lot. 

IE: Given the lunar references on Whoosh!, do you do most of your writing at night?

IG: I write at night a lot. My most treasured possession is my Panasonic electric pencil sharpener — I’ve got one in England and one at my place in Portugal. And I go to bed with sharpened pencils and my current notebook, or composition book, at my bedside. But I carry it with me everywhere, so I write day and night. But I write a lot in the night, particularly when I’m inspired — there are times when you go out and sit under the stars, and watch the moon rise and think, “My God — this is uplifting me just like it does the oceans.” It’s amazing.

IE: What’s your affinity with Armenia?

IG: Well, I went there as a tourist first. They brought me into the Soviet Union at the end of the USSR and the cold war, just as it dissolved. And I was playing Georgia and Chechnya — I was the first Western artist to do such a tour, and I stopped and did three nights in Armenia. And I didn’t even know about this, but I met a man who said, “Would you like to visit the site of the earthquake?” So I went, and I was horrified — I saw some things there that I wrote a song about, called “Pictures of Hell.” But not long after that, a few people got together to raise money, so we did RockAid Armenia with the guys from Pink Floyd, Bryan Adams, everyone you could think of in the studio, playing “Smoke on the Water.” So we raised a lot of money. And years later, we were honored by the president, so Tony Iommi and I flew back to Armenia to receive a presidential award, and on the plane ride back, Tony and I started talking — we’d been to a little village and seen its music school.

There were holes in the walls, and kids and teachers were all wearing gloves, trying to play violins and drums, and there were snow and frost inside the building and on the instruments. But the kids were still turning up, trying to play music. So on the plane, we decided that we needed to build a new school. So we went home, got together some interested parties, and we built this school (the Octet Music School in Gyumri). We sent over a truckload of instruments — violins, cellos, pianos, drums. And it was fantastic — people were crying with happiness. And what was so profound about it for me was a year after that earthquake, which largely went unreported in Western news, where 25,000 people died. Another quarter of a million became homeless, a local mayor in Armenia had told me, “You know, for a year, there has been no music. No music in the church, no music on the radio, and even the birds have stopped singing. It’s completely silent.” And that’s when I first thought, “Let’s not get involved now, but when you’re ready to start, let’s do something symbolic to help these people start again.” And that’s what the music school is all about. So Armenia is kind of like a spiritual home for me.

There were holes in the walls, and kids and teachers were all wearing gloves, trying to play violins and drums, and there were snow and frost inside the building and on the instruments. But the kids were still turning up, trying to play music. So on the plane, we decided that we needed to build a new school. So we went home, got together some interested parties, and we built this school (the Octet Music School in Gyumri). We sent over a truckload of instruments — violins, cellos, pianos, drums. And it was fantastic — people were crying with happiness. And what was so profound about it for me was a year after that earthquake, which largely went unreported in Western news, where 25,000 people died. Another quarter of a million became homeless, a local mayor in Armenia had told me, “You know, for a year, there has been no music. No music in the church, no music on the radio, and even the birds have stopped singing. It’s completely silent.” And that’s when I first thought, “Let’s not get involved now, but when you’re ready to start, let’s do something symbolic to help these people start again.” And that’s what the music school is all about. So Armenia is kind of like a spiritual home for me.

-Tom Lanham

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Category: Columns, Featured, Features, Monthly

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