A Few Words With...Ian Gillan

Interview & photos by John A. Wilcox

I was searching for the right word to describe Ian Gillan. Charming is the one I came up with. For a man who has fronted both Deep Purple and Black Sabbath as well as having a solo career any artist would give their right arm for, I didn't know quite what to expect of him in person. He was down to earth, funny, full of great stories, warm, absolutely devoid of pretense, and, well, charming. When it came time to get down to the business of an interview, Gillan was relaxed, open, and a total gentleman. Pour yourself a Guinness, sit back, and enjoy...

PS: How did your latest album, Gillan's Inn, come together?

IG: It started off with a phone call from my English manager, who reminded me that it's been a long time since I'd been working. I signed my first recording contract in '65, I'd started singing actually in '62. He suggested it's about time I did an anniversary album, as it was 40 years on the road at the time we were speaking. I'd assumed he was talking about a compilation so I started burning some stuff, playing it in the car. It didn't really work. It sounds alright individually but the compatibility for an album - it just sounded uncomfortable - different production values and different eras. Plus there was nothing from my formative years with Episode 6 and the Javelins when I wasn't songwriting, but just burning out a thing really in a rock band. So we just then thought about the idea of maybe remaking these. I made a few phone calls, sent some email and got a fantastic response from my mates really. Joe Elliott was the first. He sent an email saying "Count me in mate, I'll be there." And pretty much the same from everyone. So we developed this concept of having an imaginary pub, where everyone would turn up. It's kind of party night, jam night, free drinks, with all the gear set up that anyone might need. A set list taped to the deck and to the floor, and everyone jump up and play 2, 3, 4 songs. That's the ethos of the album, that's pretty much the idea behind it. Of course that's not what happened really but that's the kind of picture we tried to present, so it's a convivial evening with mates, jamming really.

PS: How difficult was it to choose which songs you would have represent your career on Gillan's Inn?

IG: Well, actually that's a great question. It was extremely difficult to start with, but we had the walls and the floor covered with bits of paper with song titles on them, and musicians names on them and we tried to match them all up. Suddenly it became clear that, for example, with Tony Iommi I couldn't miss the opportunity to do Trashed from the Born Again album and put him together with Ian Paice and Roger Glover. Jon Lord and Jeff Healey of course on When A Blind Man Cries. Joe Satriani - I had to put him on Unchain Your Brain. Janick Gers I had to put him on Bluesy Blue Sea, 'cause we wrote it together. Joe Elliott, I said 'Do you remember the night we got locked into that Irish pub mate, after the football match?' We sang literally for the landlord and his family. We'd had a few pints of Guinness and so we went through the entire Everly Brothers catalogue. So I said 'Can you do an Everlys type of harmony on this Bob Dylan song?' Once we had all the musicians in, it became quite easy. If we hadn't, it would've been impossible, I think, to agree on what the set list should be.

PS: I would imagine that given the size of your body of work, it's almost too many choices.

IG: You've just gotta be bold and decisive. I think and if you were doing a live show, you'd want to think a little more about the texture and dynamics. With a record, you want to keep the same mood going all the way through. There were certain criteria. For example: I didn't want to do anything that had a complicated arrangement. I wanted it to be a real rock album. You wouldn't invite guests to play a complicated arrangement on a song they've never heard before or haven't studied before. That would take some practice, and I didn't want anyone to practice - I just wanted them to come in and play. That's pretty much another sort of way of looking at how the set is. Some songs I just couldn't do, but when you put it all together they're amazing. They come from different eras and once you have the same back tracks, the same group of musicians, it's hard to explain... We recorded all of these live in Buffalo and I did all the vocals live there and then.

PS: With the backing tracks and vocals tracks down, where were the soloists recorded?.

IG: In Buffalo, Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Texas, and three different locations in the UK. What I did was then gradually insert each member as they came along for their 3 hour sessions. We delegated 3 hours to do the song that we'd chosen for them, and any other 2 they wanted to play themselves. For example: when Ian Paice came in the studio in England. Drummers never know who's in the studio with them anyway, they're always surrounded by drums, by sound screens and so they can't see beyond that. So we put the cans on, and all we did was take out the original drummer and let him hear himself in the cans amongst all the other live stuff. So that live feel was continued throughout the entire process, and I think we've achieved that. If nothing else, we've achieved having a lot of fun and making it still sound spontaneous.

PS: It sounds like a great way to do an album.

IG: Of course, you could never assemble all of these musicians together at one time, in one place. Most of them were all tied up. It was amazing that they all managed to make time for me, 'cause they're all busy guys. There was one only one that couldn't turn up and that was Brian May. He was at the time absolutely saturated with work on the new Queen album with Paul Rodgers. He'd sent me a very nice letter, but couldn't make it.

PS: It's a testament to you that all these musicians took time out to record.

IG: It's wonderful, I've got to tell you, it's a thrill! We discovered some gems there too. We went out of the studio in England one night - we'd finished work and we'd always go out for a bite to eat and a couple of pints and we'd go back and have a listening session to what we've done that day. We went out to a pub and there was a folk duo playing in there, a man and a woman, and she was playing acoustic guitar and he was playing electric violin. They did a set of folksy stuff and then all of a sudden we heard Jimi Hendrix. We looked at each other, and my manager said "Boy that guy could play the guitar." I looked around the pillar and we couldn't actually see them, but I looked around the pillar and said "That guitar is a violin" and he said "No way!" We got up and stood enthralled by this amazing guy and I said "Let's get him down the studio tonight to play on Smoke." We had a chat with him - turns out he's the leader of an orchestra and he absolutely loves rock music, so we invited him back and he plays on the record. What you think might be a guitar on Smoke On The Water, not the middle solo but what comes in before that, is actually a violin.

PS: Am I correct in saying that this was fit in around the same time as the Deep Purple sessions for Rapture Of The Deep?

IG: Yes, indeed. It was an absolute nightmare. Because Rapture of the Deep was booked in at the same time as we actually ended up doing the session. We were supposed to be in a little bit later, then Rapture was put back by a month. I had to bring mine forward by a month or I wouldn't have managed to do it otherwise because Purple was really busy. Fortunately we were just able to reschedule everything. It was an absolute mad panic almost at a moment's notice. We thought we had another month to go, but we were still planning - so there's another bit of spontaneity for you. It was a very crowded period of writing.

PS: Since Steve Morse joined the band, Rapture Of The Deep just might be the strongest album Purple has done.

IG: Oh, yeah. You know, I think a lot of things happened to us. It's taken a long time to rebuild the band and rebuild the family and all the trust and everything. It was in pretty bad shape when Ritchie left and it was virtually the end of Deep Purple. Satriani being with us for a year - he helped us through, and it has been a rebuilding process. I think it's important, that we discovered a few things along the way. You could almost listen to the elements changing over the last 13 years. First of all, Jon Lord retired and we got Don Airey in. Now, you can't compare musicians, they're both brilliant musicians and Jon of course is a monument in the history of Deep Purple. But he was, I think, a bit tired. He was ready to leave. To semi-retire and kind of work on his orchestral projects and a little jazz and stuff like that. Don came in with so much energy, that it completely transformed the stage show at that point and consequently in the writing session for Bananas, there was a huge difference. The other element of course is actually getting an outside producer. We'd been producing in house with Roger Glover for many years and that's not right. We think it's important to have an objective pair of ears and thoughts going into the production, and I think it's relieved Roger of a lot of responsibility. At the same time, his bass playing has improved beyond measure, I think that's another significant thing. The other thing is that we've focused a little more on some sort of lyrical theme, conceptual theme, a thread that runs through. Bananas was very political and Rapture Of The Deep is very spiritual, so there's a focus on it that gives it that kind of cohesion that I think an album warrants. An album is a representation of songs written in a short period of time, like an album of holiday photographs or photographs from a party. They're all taken in a short period of time so you can identify them from that period. That's what an album should be.

PS: Deep Purple sounds like a happier band nowadays. As a listener it felt that while there were strong Purple albums in, say, the second half of the 80's until the early 90's that they weren't necessarily the happiest albums.

IG: That's true. I look back over the years and you can tell a happy album. I mean, you know, we're all professionals and I don't think anyone goes in the studio with the intention of making a bad record. Well maybe Elvis Costello - sorry. I confess that some of the others don't have that spirit to them. You can always pick them out. Who Do We Think We Are!, well there's good songs on there but it doesn't have that feeling about it. Battle Rages On is another one. House Of Blue Light I think is another one - there's some good stuff on there - they all have…

PS: They all have good songs. Is that the reason the entire second side of Who Do We Think We Are! to my knowledge has never been played live?

IG: Well, I guess the first reason is because Ritchie didn't like them. In later years of course with so many hundreds of songs - I've written over 400 songs. What we do is try to get a balance between the new stuff and the other periods of Purple. The 70's and the 80's. I think more and more we're cutting down on the old stuff. Particularly outside of the US where our average age of our audience internationally is 18 years old and they're so into the new stuff it's incredible. It works very well. So anyway we try and keep a balance of everything. To be honest I don't think there's room. We did rehearse Rat Bat Blue once. There was another song from that era that we never played from the early days. I think it was from In Rock actually - Flight Of The Rat. We tried that 2 or 3 times and it just doesn't sound right. It just doesn't hang right ,and it's one of those things that's fine on record but doesn't make it live you know. I think the other thing is, compared to the other stuff it actually sounds really dated. We tried Fools - that worked. We had that in the show for quite a long time.

PS: As you mentioned, you've written over 400 songs. With that many songs, do you still have in your mind the clarity of 'Oh that's why I wrote that song'?

IG: With some of the better ones. If there's a story attached to it. There are some songs, clearly you know what the motivation is behind them. Bluesy Blue Sea for example on Gillan's Inn and Trashed and When A Blind Man Cries. All the songs have got stories to them.

PS: Digging back into the Gillan catalog, and a rare song that you didn't write. What drew you to want to record No More Cane on The Brazos?

IG: Ah, good question. Well, I got very involved in the blues. After my early days of being a passionate young Elvis fan, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc. I got interested in Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald. Then I got turned on to the blues. I realized how important it was to our music in England at the time. Everyone was into the blues. Then you start looking at the different kinds of blues, and you follow the journey backwards from Chicago to earlier times back down to the Delta to the Memphis Blues. Then you take it back even further to field laments, unaccompanied songs that people would sing during the days of slavery, and it's quite remarkable how they changed. I mean if there is to be one constant element, someone's woman always done them wrong. I think probably they were a lot more of an actual release of real pain and suffering in the original days. That song appeared on a Lonnie Donnigan album. So I fell in love with that song, because it tells the story of the migration up the Mississippi. It's very loosely about a family of a guy and the troubles he had on his way up to Chicago on the way North, having left behind the cotton fields; and the way people were abused and used on the river. I think it's an incredible story and it's unusual. It's just got a pulse to it. We changed the arrangement slightly.

PS: It was a very emotional performance.

IG: I felt that I was there, it's very touching.

PS: Can give me a little back story on the song Girls Like That?

IG: [Laughs] That's probably one of the cheapest songs on the record.

PS: It's a good song!

IG: It's great. It was written in 5 minutes. The guys were jamming and Steve had this little phrase and I just started singing Girls like that. Then there was a little hook on the end where the chord changed, and the same tune had a different value over the chord change. Girls Like That was a fun thing. and of course the alliteration with the play on words girls like that and girls like that, so it just depends on where you put the emphasis.

PS: Looking back, what's the first song you wrote that you felt was a good song?

IG: I'm no judge of songs as far as quality is concerned. It must've been with Purple. The first song I wrote was Speed King. That was a complete jam and I'd never really jammed like that before. It was a whole new experience. The first things that came into my head were Chuck Berry and Little Richard words, so I just stole them. Child In Time was probably the first one, and again that just came. Jon Lord at practice just said "Oh, Have you heard that new album by It's A Beautiful Day?" He just started to play the lick much slower. That song was written in 10 minutes.

PS: I guess some songs just come together easily!

IG: We spent a long time learning the craft of songwriting, Roger Glover and I, for a few years before we joined Deep Purple. You learn about the percussive value of words, and you learn about rhyme and meter. You learn that you can't transform a poem into a song lyric, mostly because the spoken shape of words is different than the sung shape of words. You wouldn't use the vowel 'U' or the vowel sound 'ooo' for a high note for example, its very difficult. We'd paid our dues in that respect, so the songs, the craft of songwriting came quite naturally. I think it's the inspiration and above anything else it is incumbent on an artist, if you're gonna call yourself an artist, to be expressive. That's all anyone asks of you really. So if you can find the material and channel it the right way, then songwriting's a wonderful medium for expression.

PS: A good chunk of your solo catalogue is currently out of print. Any plans to bring them back, perhaps remastered?

IG: We're actually in discussions with the BBC or an off shoot of the BBC in England to remaster those albums starting with the Gillan band during the Virgin days. Hopefully eventually consolidating everything so we can remaster them all, and in the end in 2, 3, or 4 years time we should be aiming at a boxed set. We'll put them out individually first, then remastered. I think I'll probably ask Nick Blagona, our producer, to do the remastering. I don't have to be there for that - he's got good ears. It's been very difficult because we've been working with so many different companies over the years and different contractual obligations. Trying to bring them all together has been a nightmare. Hopefully we've got somebody to do it now and they sounded very keen. I met them in London last week, so the answer to your question is yes ,hopefully. Probably this year the first one will come out. I don't know which one they're planning on but it'll be one of the albums from the Virgin days so it may be Glory Road, Future Shock, Magic, or Double Trouble, I don't know.

PS: What are 6 albums you just never get tired of listening to?

IG: Oh, the first one is Duende: Magic with Paco DeLucia - it's a flamenco guitar album. It cheers me up everyday, I put it on frequently. I play it in my dressing room quite often too, it's stirring, wonderful, passionate stuff. It's great. Let's see…Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers. He was my hero. His voice is still enchanting. Any of the first three Elvis albums. Ray Charles: Volcanic Action of My Soul. That's a great album. Dusty Springfield I forgot the name of the title, but an early Dusty Springfield album. She had a fantastic voice.

PS: One more….

IG: Led Zeppelin II. Or I. Or III!


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