Sunday, December 25, 2011

Ian Gillan Interview - June 2010

In the summer of 2010, devilgotmywoman interviewed Ian Gillan, lead singer of Deep Purple, on behalf of the Deep Purple Hub. This interview, conducted over the phone, focused on writing and creativity Ian's answers are in bold and italics.

Ian, I’m interviewing you on behalf of the Deep Purple Hub.

All right, okay.

Yeah. How are you doing today?

I’m okay. Not so bad, thank you.

That’s great. Great to hear it. Brent wanted me to extend his thanks and my thanks as well for the time that it takes to do this interview. We’re really honored that you can find time in your busy schedule to converse with us.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

Let’s not waste too much time because I have a really heavy schedule this afternoon.

Okay, all right. Well what I’d like to cover today is actually a pretty narrow topic. I’d like to talk to you about writing and songwriting specifically. The first question that I would like to throw your way is... it seems to me that your songwriting has gained an added depth over the last 20 years. How has your songwriting changed through the years and do you think has the creative impulse deepened for you?

Has the creative impulse what?

Deepened for you.

Well… like anything I think the more you do it the more you enjoy it – it comes easier. Lyrics have never been a problem for me – I think it’s just the reflection of growing up, really. You know, as you go through different phases of your life, different things touch you, different things affect you, I think you become more philosophical, more spiritual. Perhaps a little less angry as you mature. And that’s reflected in the writing. A little more contemplative – and that also takes you on different paths. So as your world becomes richer through experience, I think it’s a byproduct really of all the other things that make input into the music. The other musicians you work with and other circumstances, but it’s just the richness of life really. So yes, I get more enthusiastic about it. I think I’ve always enjoyed life on the road and going into the studio was always a bit of a challenge, I mean not always because of the music but because maybe of the circumstances, but I think yeah, the last 20 years, certainly since Steve joined the band, it seems to given Purple the new zest of life because we were certainly heading for terminal velocity there.

That kind of leads to the next question. Can you discuss the importance of the lyric for you? I’ve noticed in the last 15 or 20 years the lyrics are seem to have gotten more complex than what they were in the earlier days and I think that reflects more of an attention to detail on your part … rather than merely trying to find phonetic hooks to hang, you know, a song on. That you really are trying to explore ideas and really trying to explore what you can do with words within a musical framework and I just wanted to hear your thoughts for a minute on how important the lyric is for, I guess, the modern rock song.

Well, I’ve always felt and I still believe that a rock song limits you somewhat. I don’t just write rock songs, but I mean… I’ve always believed, for example, that in a rock song the sound of the words is much more important than the meaning of them. This, I think, comes through the idea of the voice being another instrument in a band and making up part of the whole racket. It always seemed to me that the melodies and the percussive values and the phrasing, and that sort of thing, were absolutely vital in a rock song. And, quite honestly, (laughs)… you can have some… I’ll give you an example… Roger and I still look at each other occasionally, we’re having a laugh on stage when we’re doing Black Night and we mouth the words "What is this song about?" (laughs) It was written in 10 minutes, and it was written to fit the instrumental idea. That's when we really found out about – the riffs, the rhythm, and everything else. We had the melody and what I call "vocal gibberish" when I try to sing… writing a song, I sing along with the guys in the band – if I’m working with a band. I’m trying shape the vocals into what it should be and find a line, a dominant line, that comes afterwards and appears to be pulling the song along. And that’s the most important thing. But once you’re comfortable with that and you’re comfortable with your phrasing, you can look at the gibberish... then I find a few lines to get the rhythmical pattern of the lyrics, but the most important part then is you have to find the meaning for the song – to develop the lyrics to an extent. If it’s as it was in the old days, all about fast cars and loose women and bad hangovers, then you can, you know, you’re not really challenged that much. You just come up with the old clichés. But you get sick of them after a while and, as I said in the reply to your first question, you know, life’s become… enriched. I often get asked, I used to when I was a kid: "What’s your favorite color?", "What’s the name of your pet?", "What’s your favorite car?". Well, you don’t have those sort of things when you get to the middle age or beyond. You have a selection of favorites. You say: "Oh, I remember I had this, and I had that… that was pretty good."

Okay. You are obviously the co-writer of some of the most memorable songs in modern music, but you’ve also performed the material from different writers, and much more so than a lot of your contemporaries have. Is the approach and the connection for that material the same to songs you write yourself or does it has to differ?

Well, it comes about in different ways. You know, music is such a part of my life that it will happen the same as meeting the stranger in the street or an old friend in the street or somebody calling up on the phone or, you know, meeting someone in a bar somewhere. It’s the way songs come about. Circumstances. And so I get the phone call from Steve Morris, or end up writing with Tony Iommi or Dean Howard or Michael Jackson or whole bunch of people. Or you’re writing for a project or whatever. It’s just, you said it right, you absorb other people’s musical influences too, so the chemistry changes when you’re writing with one person, Mr. A as opposed to Mr. B or whoever. It completely changes. As the conversation works. You know, for example, if somebody’s got an interest in car repair, somebody’s got an interest in theology or someone’s got an interest in astronomy or someone’s got an interest in football. So your conversation leads that way and if you follow that line of thought, then the songs will be written in that way. Sometimes, outside of Purple, sometimes they are lyrically driven but not very often. It’s very often a phrase that will come together, you know, with a simple strumming on your guitar or an idea from somebody else that just presents through the phrasing – the suggestion of the title, or an idea or a story, or thought. It all starts from small things that. It’s like life, you know, it’s not… just half of it is professional discipline and experience and the other half is just the joy of life, really.

Well, great! That leads into my next question actually. I was going to ask… you often hear writers in every medium, whether it’s music, poetry, fiction, whatever, talk about how sometimes they feel like they are the conduit for powers greater than themselves. What are your…

Sometimes they feel what?

The conduit for powers is greater than themselves. And I was wondering what’s your thoughts on inspiration versus craft.

Well the conduit is the influences you have absorbed during your formative years and, consequently, the influences your parents, your grandparents, your ancestors what influenced them during their formative years because it’s all handed down. And it is encapsulated, absorbed, interpreted, and then passed on. And then reinterpreted and then it’s intellectually vandalized and then, there deep in the soul, deep in the spirit somewhere. So only, my immediate ancestry involves a very musical and creative background. My grandfather, my uncle, my mother, my grandmother – opera, jazz... and I was a boy soprano in a church choir so I got to learn a lot of choralling and things like that. So I think when you start writing to a formula, whether it’s a rough formula, but when you’re starting to write in a genre, let’s say, then you have to develop certain disciplines and you got to know the percussive value of this sound and then you got to know the high notes. No singer likes to hear a high note with an "u" sound, the vowel sound or something like that. They would much rather have an "i" or "a" because it’s the shape of the throat. So you develop those things and you develop the construction things. You’ve got to have a grasp with, you know the basic grasp, with the tools of your trade, and, if not, you've got to develop them. An understanding for innuendo, understanding of parody, and understanding of figurative speech, things like that. And the idea of underlying meanings in terms of the song and you got to really feel your subject. You don’t want to be preaching from the pulpit about it. You may want to otherwise… subtly inquire (laughs) about the morals or the values of certain issues, but you can do that through humor, you can do that through understatement. You can do it through irony and satire, and all of those things. So I think it’s intertwined. The idea of spiritual and inspirational side or the professional side... and each one, most of our existence is symbiotic and I think this is just another example of that.

Is it possible for you to pinpoint the moment that the proverbial light went off above your head and you realized that songwriting interested you?

Well, it’s pretty early on, and I mean Roger Glover was the main influence on me. He came into a band called Episode Six. I recognized at that time the general… a band can be full of camaraderie at one end and then it can be full of jealousy and self-interest the next. And you… I saw this in early stages when… Roger came in with an idea for the song and I could see the resentment in the other guys in the band. "Whoa, why should we do one of your songs?" and all that sort of thing. And it’s very childish really. Boost up their insecurities and heavy jealousies and that sort of thing. It’s a natural sort of immature approach to life, but that’s why young bands have so much trouble staying together because of this driving force. I mean, Darwin didn’t finish his book, he left all that impression the survival was the key thing. In actual fact, the driving force behind humanity, I believe, is supremacy. And that’s why every single idea is fought for and that’s why students and developments in that age group are so important. Made a big impact on me because I had no involvement in writing before, I was a bit of Jack the lad, street guy, having fun. Never really took it that seriously because it all came so easily. Then Roger wrote this song and he was the underdog politically and I was the new boy, so I kind of sided with him and it ended up being the B-side, a song called "That’s All I Want". And I became fascinated with this process of writing and Rog was… always had a big uphill battle when he presented anything to the band, there was lots of undermining the action. So I said one day something along the lines, I can’t remember exactly, you know, "I wish I could write a song". And then Rog said, "I’m not going to speak to you until you have." I came up with something I think, I’m not sure what it was. Yes, it was a one-eyed, one… no, it was "green-eyed, coolly-headed, cute, little, pig me, hang it around my neck". That’s what it was. It was a parody on "Purple People Eater" or "itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini" – something like that. But, anyway, that was the folly of youth. It’s just the light went on then because Roger and I just sat down and started working on the craft and we wrote endless crap songs that during the process we learned what to eliminate as well what to keep. And since then one of the most important factors is spontaneity because the worst songs you ever write, particularly, in your early years are the ones that take too long. So now if the idea isn’t really working early on, isn’t becoming, hasn’t developed an identity after 20 minutes… I tear it up and tuck it away or start again. It’s a long journey since that light went on.

Okay, yeah. Let’s talk about some of your most famous songwriting partnerships. You’ve worked with Roger Glover and Steve Morse. What added dimension have they brought to your songwriting process individually? If you can sum that up?


I said if you could sum that up.

Well, as I said earlier, everyone has something to give and it’s all different. And it’s not just down to the skills or their abilities, it’s down to their personality and their interest. And their conversation, and their moods and company they keep, and the background and history. So all of those things are very complex, but I think what Steve brought into the band, first of all, was some respect. Prior to that we had, forgive me, I call them ‘banjo players’ when they act like prima donnas, but we had a fantastic guitar player up until that point who really wasn’t being a team player, there was no cohesion, and the band was falling to pieces. It was the end of the road. And so Steve brought this great renaissance. Of course, he also brought a different background and so his angle on music was completely different to Ritchie’s. Totally different. He didn’t have that kind of blues and English rock and roll influence we had behind the scenes. And the different angles that we’d approached our music. But for sure, for sure, he has amazing skills, is full of musical ideas, and understood a rock band inside out. He added an American touch, you know, that has broadened our scope a little bit. So yes, suddenly we’re looking at different chord structures, fresh approaches, and new ideas. and I think when we made "Purpendicular" it was really a stepping stone in Purple’s career you know, in our lives. Roger, over the years we did all of the… you know, I’d come up with tunes pretty much and then we’d work on the lyrics to the songs over the years and we were pretty much co-lyricists, I would say. Some of them came easy and some of them took a little while and these are advantages and disadvantages of working with a lyricist partner. Cause once you get the two-angled approach to the song, you may also lose direct focus. The train of thought may be interrupted by someone else’s idea and so you go off on a tangent and maybe lose the magic of the moment. But, all in all, these are incredible influences. Absolutely fantastic.

You mentioned "Purpendicular". I just want to take the time to say that’s for me it’s one of the greatest modern albums of the last 25 years. I never tire of listening to it.

Yes, thank you.

Do you record demos of new songs when you are on the road or at home if not can you kind of describe how your songwriting process typically works?

Well, it’s different. With Purple, we don’t do anything, we just turn up with nothing, put the kettle on, "How’s the dog? You still got that car? How’s the football team doing?" that sort of thing. Then we drift into the studio and stay there for six hours a day until the album’s done in about five weeks. After about three days, we record all the jams and little things develop. Roger is generally the one that goes through them in the evening and picks out little jams he’s marked during the day. And, after a day or two, we’ve got enough to bring us back thinking that may be the basis for a song or two and then we start developing those rhythms, riffs, sequences, etcetera. They’re all are made from jams. Every single song ever has… in Purple, that’s what happens. But when I’m working with, for example, Steve Morris, he’ll just send me a tape with some grooves, some ideas, and then mostly stuff I just want to sit down and start working on, "Yeah, I can sing to that!" Great! So, it’s the same thing, but it comes in different package and, as far as other songs are concerned, I’ve written some just strumming on my guitar. They tend to be very basic; they’re not complex chord sequences or anything because I’m not that adept on the guitar – I’m only just a strummer, really. Three chord strummer. Well, a bit more than three, but you know what I mean. So these ideas come just when I’m sitting around on my own occasionally and the song comes. That’s out of the blue normally, I just go ‘Oh!’, reach for the guitar, and start. You know, it may be for moment of joy, or a moment of sadness and I like strumming on the guitar anyway. It comes in many different ways.

How important do you think it is for a songwriter or a writer in general to constantly be exposing themselves to new work and new artists?

Well, I don’t think it’s that important. I think it’s important when you’re young. I think it’s very important when you’re young because, and I’ve always said this, I think contemporary art can only be judged subjectively. It can’t be judged objectively by… You know, you get caught up in it, you get swept it away as part of a social movement more or less whether it’s literature, or art, painting, or anything since the Renaissance and we can remember. So yes, it’s very important to be part of the movement because you’re still developing and that gives you your identity, that gives your raison d'être, that gives you your suit of armor, your uniform in which you can march up on life and discover yourself. As time goes on, you discover more inside yourself than you do outside and that’s one of the whole processes of maturing – you start becoming contemplative and thinking about the things that you’ve learned and the things that have affected you, touched you in your life. And that’s a whole new resource, that’s a bottomless well. So you can search anything for it. I’m not sure if anyone else agrees with me, but also at the same time, you lose touch with the previous generation – that’s natural. They want their own team. There’s an intellectual vandalism that comes along and smashes the walls down and says, "I didn’t write it, so it doesn’t exist. I’m going to destroy it." It doesn’t go away. You have to look at things differently. So I would say it’s not very important once you found your journey in life to look at your own choices seemingly and not be bound by convention. So identity is quite important. Of course, the downside of that is you can get stuck in a rut and you can become non-productive, but I think that if you keep momentum, and I’m lucky to be in the band that’s, you know, is always working so I’ve always got the momentum, I come back and music's in my blood even when I’m on a break as I am now (laughs). I’m thinking about things all day long. They may not be musical things, they may be things that I’m noting down in my book. But since I was at school, I was told: ‘If you want to remember something, write it down.’ So little things that annoy me on TV, or things that inspire me that I see in nature, they get noted down and they will sooner or later in one way or another become part of a song. It’s transferred into music. The experience of life.

Having some experience with writing fiction can you compare what it takes to writing a compelling story as opposed to writing a first class song?

Yeah. It’s completely different. It’s a different discipline altogether. It’s the same as the difference between the lyrics and the poetry. I mean, they go down on paper, but one is accompanied by music and one is not. And so, they’re completely different. And when you’re talking about fiction or a novel or song lyrics, the two obvious differences when you look at them is that the one is short form and the other is long form, and when you’re writing a short form, you’ve got to say awful lot of things in a very small space of time and so it becomes concise and that’s relatively easy to connect with. When you’re writing a long book, you’ve got to develop characters, you've got to develop scenarios, you’ve got to develop dialogue, and you've got to develop structure, pace and all of those things and, of course, have a good story line. Beginnings, middles, and endings – I suppose that’s the only similar thing to a song really. And, in a song, you have no time to develop characters or any of those other things, so you really expect the listener to do much of the work, which is one of the problems we have today because for the last generation of music, at least, it’s evident that everyone listens to music with their eyes and so that becomes a bit of a problem.

I’d like to… this is probably a strange sort of word, but I’d like to ask about the process of cannibalizing old material in new songs. An example of this is that the title song of your third Ian Gillan Band album Scarabus is very similar to "Disturbing the Priest" on your album with Black Sabbath, Born Again. At least, it sounds similar in structure.


What is the reason behind any of that….

It is not cannibalizing. It’s just the backing track. I didn’t even remember, but the song was developed in the studio with Sabbath, I was using my gibberish thing and I was singing what just came naturally, and it so happened it was similar to ‘Scarabus’. You know, everyone’s done it. Little Richard’s done it, Elvis Presley’s done it, Chuck Berry’s done it a thousand times. It’s in your nature. It’s not intentional scavenging, it’s not intentional plagiarism. In fact, I’ve written about four hundred and fifty songs. That may have happened once or twice.

I thought it was a new attempt to take an interesting musical idea and try to do something different with it.

That’s one interpretation. I mean, it’s obviously what happened. You can say it anyway you like (laughs).

(laughs) Okay. In the past, you have mentioned a novel ‘Essex’ that remains unpublished. Aside of songwriting and fiction do you write anything else such as poetry?

Say that again, please.

I’m sorry.

It’s not the best line. I’m out by my pool and…


I’ve got to go back, I’ve got to wind this up in a few minutes…

Ok. In the past, you have mentioned a novel ‘Wessex’ that remains unpublished.

It remains unwritten.

Oh. I read an interview once that you’d completed a draft and, basically, got rid of it and was rewriting it again. I seem to remember that.

At the moment ‘Wessex’ is in a fantastic stage. It’s got about three different versions, each of which is about three or four chapters. But I’ve got the story, beginning,  and end. I’ve done all the political thinking and everything else. It’s the professional bit – the structuring and the story telling. I've sat down and told that story to so many of my friends from beginning to end that they know it inside out. But when you write it down, it’s got to be different. Somehow, it’s different. You’ve got to have character development and so, at the moment, I’m going through three or four different approaches. I’m looking forward to the three months off (laughs).

(laughs) Okay. I guess we can wrap this up with a final question. I think Dreamcatcher is a beautiful and unjustly neglected album. There’s a lot of the same sort of spirit on your latest solo album ‘One Eye To Morocco’. Is there any chance that your fans are going to hear similar efforts in the future?

Well, I think there might be, don’t ask I don’t know, but we used to call them EPs. What I’m talking about with my office now is a series of singles, five singles, three-tracked singles or something like that which will come again in an album in November next year.

That sounds fantastic!

So I’ve got a bunch of songs, I’ve got about probably about thirty songs in my library at the moment that, you know, I don’t know what to do with, so I should be reviewing those, making a short list, getting together with some pals and… I’ve got a few ideas already, but it's too soon to mention them.

Cool! Well, Ian. Thank you very much for your time. I can say with no exaggeration that this has been a thrill of a lifetime for me to be able to converse with you over the phone.

That’s very nice of you. Thank you very much.

Okay then. You have a fantastic day.

And you too. Thanks for calling.