Gillan, Mumbai, India. 3rd May 2002
Sipping coffee in the business centre of Powai's Renaissance Hotel, Deep Purple's vocalist Ian Gillan is flipping through a rock encyclopaedia, admiring an old picture of himself. "I think this was at the Reading festival two decades ago. That kind of hair will never come back," he laughs. For thousands of hard rock buffs, Gillan is the ultimate singer. On songs like 'Smoke On The Water', 'Highway Star', 'Space Truckin', 'Black Night' and 'Child In Time', he's impressed fans with his distinct, banshee-like vocals. With numerous line-up changes - including Gillan himself going out and coming back on a few occasions - the group has had its ups and downs. The Deep Purple that will perform at the Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai, this evening comprises Gillan, Paice, Glover, guitarist Steve Morse and keyboardist Don Airey. While Morse has been with the band since 1994, Airey has recently come in place of Lord, who is now pursuing some solo projects. As Gillan himself admits, his hair doesn't look the same, it's a bit - just a bit - shorter. He looks quite formal too, in that grey coat he's wearing. But he speaks with charm, clarity and a bit of that typical British wit. Having signed his autograph on the encyclopaedia and on a few album jackets, we settle down for the interview.
The first question: Deep Purple has been touring a lot in the past seven or eight years. At the same time, you haven't been releasing albums consistently. Have constant tours affected the creation of new material?
I guess it's just a phase we're going through. Essentially, we've always been a touring band which always kept writing a lot of new material. Most of our songs have been written from a live point of view. At times, we reduced touring when there were problems within the family. These problems may have been caused by Ritchie, or because Jon suddenly decided that he didn't want to visit a particular country. But otherwise, we have always emphasised on regular tours. In the current line-up, we get along very well and are open to doing many tours. But the process of releasing albums just for the sake of releasing them will be avoided. We shall pay a little more attention to the kind of new songs we produce.
With Steve Morse joining the band seven or eight years ago, has it changed the songwriting style in any way. And what change does one see with Airey now coming in place of Lord?
We are happy together, and there is a mutual respect for each other. Maybe there will be a new thinking.
With so many hits over the years, how do you decide which songs to play at shows and which ones to avoid? How do you draw up your concert set-lists?
Bands like ours have a major problem. What on earth do we leave out? The sets are usually seasonal. People normally want to hear stuff they're familiar with. So we begin with areas which the audiences would have heard, and then, depending on their mood, we may try out new songs or improvise on existing ones. At times, we stop doing a particular song at shows because we feel we are getting repetitive with them. For instance, Ian Paice decided that he would stop doing 'Pictures Of Home' because he didn't put in the same kind of energy into the song. We all agreed with him and stopped doing the song. We have to be excited about a song in order to play it well. And talking of set-lists, they are so much easier to maintain now, because we put them down on a computer. In the past, we would write them on a piece of paper and forget which of us was carrying that piece of paper on stage.
At shows, many Deep Purple fans request specific songs like 'Smoke On The Water', 'Highway Star', 'Fireball' to name only a few. Have you felt that other classics like 'Demon's Eye' and 'Never Before' get neglected in the process?
I think this is a trend that's common to most bands. The general audience loves a few select songs and the more attached fans like some of the others. We've always had an unbelievable response to those songs you mentioned. We're happy with that.
Considering that the bigger hits are from the earlier part of your career, is it difficult to convince audiences about your newer songs?
Six years ago, things were difficult for us because a lot of younger people didn't know us. I remember all of us attended a rock concert where there were 17,000 people, and not one of them recognised us. But there has been an increasing interest in our new songs after that, specially after we released our album Purpendicular. It may be an underground interest, just like the one that existed in 1969, before we became big. But the interest is there today. We are being treated with more respect than six years ago. People want to hear new songs like 'Ted The Mechanic' and 'The Purpendicular Waltz'. For reasons better known to them, many record companies have now suddenly become interested in whether our old songs are on their label.
Much as we'd have loved to, we can't discuss all your songs in this interview. But if I were to pick one and ask you to narrate how it was created, I'd choose Child In Time...
Ah, 'Child In Time'. That was written such a long time ago. There are two sides to that song - the musical side and the lyrical side. On the musical side, there used to be this song 'Bombay Calling' by a band called It's A Beautiful Day. It was fresh and original, when Jon was one day playing it on his keyboard. It sounded good, and we thought we'd play around with it, change it a bit and do something new keeping that as a base. But then, I had never heard the original 'Bombay Calling'. So we created this song using the Cold War as the theme, and wrote the lines 'Sweet child in time, you'll see the line.' That's how the lyrical side came in. Then, Jon had the keyboard parts ready and Ritchie had the guitar parts ready. The song basically reflected the mood of the moment, and that's why it became so popular.
The band has gone through so many line-up changes over the years. A lot of people still feel the best phase was Mark II, which had Blackmore, Lord, Paice, Glover and you. Has it been tough to adapt to each new change?
I think the spirit of the band has grown enormously over the years. For many people, the guitar was, and still is the most important element in our sound. For me, the rhythm section is what makes the band so special. Whatever it is, the line-up has changed but the basic sound remains the same.
Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin are three bands that have influenced most of today_ s hard rock and metal groups. What do you think of the current crop of thrash metal and death metal outfits?
See, when I joined Deep Purple, the members had multiple influences. One guy loved classical, another was into rock 'n' roll, a third into instrumental music and a fourth into blues. Our role models ranged from Beethoven, to Buddy Rich, to Bob Dylan, to Ella Fitzgerald, to Sonny Boy Williamson, to Chuck Berry, to so many others. So there were a variety of influences in the songs we wrote. In contrast, today's bands are only influenced by Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and a few other groups. Because of that, they do pretty much the same thing. It's always nice to know that so many new groups are influenced by us. But I would rather be a smaller influence than a greater one.
What kind of new music do you listen to these days?
Over the past few years, I've been increasingly interested in folk music from various countries. I listen to the folk music of Indonesia, Norway, Brazil, Russia, so many places. There's a wealth of musical brilliance everywhere. This time, I plan to buy a whole lot of Indian music CDs. I don't relate to hip-hop. Maybe I'm too old for that, but my daughter is totally into it. They look at it as life, and they see so much depth in that genre. I'm not a part of it, but I respect it. We have to respect the fact that each generation has the right to choose what it likes best.
Rock vocalists always face the challenge of keeping their voice in shape. Constant tours, erratic schedules and age tend to affect the human voice. What efforts do you make to keep your voice in shape?
I try to sing as naturally as I can, and not overstress myself. When I was young, I was an athlete. I was into pole vault and javelin. I always loved sports, and have always done my best to keep myself fit. Today, at 56, I can't do the pole vault, but I can walk and run all day. I've also become enormously spiritual over the past decade or so, unlike my younger days. All this makes me feel fantastic. On stage, I can bounce around like a young puppy. When I joined Purple, I was disappointed with my mid-range. I could scream a lot - and still do so today - but it was always a struggle to get the mid-range right. Now, it's effortless. I think all this has got to do with spirit. My spirit sort of makes up for any other gap that's caused by age. My spirit keeps me going.
many thanks to Narendra Kusnur for the transcript.