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Ian Gillan – Interview – January 2017

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It’s weird meeting your heroes. How do I conduct a professional interview without becoming a drooling, idiotic sycophant? The fact that I’d previously interviewed Ian and knew him to be completely charming and willing to even put up with rookie interviewers asking him about the origins of “Smoke on the water” (not me by the way, but plenty of examples are available via the medium of YouTube).

The reason for the interview was to promote the re-release on vinyl of all of the albums released by his own group, Gillan. Gillan, the box set, 1979 1982. Read the PlanetMosh review HERE

Ian Gillan

DOMINIC: The years 1979 to 1982 were quite a prolific time for you.

IAN GILLAN: It was a very significant time. The last knockings of that kind of rock and roll.

It was a resurgence of uninhibited balls to the wall new wave of British heavy metal. I was looking though the titles and chuckling to myself thinking these titles are great. We did a lot of albums in a very short amount of time.

DOMINIC: It’s ironic really, all of these younger bands were coming through and you had the classic era of British rock music showing them how it was done. You were getting hit singles.

IAN GILLAN: It was a different time. Everything was different. There was a plan that everyone followed. There were elements in place in the music business as it was called them, not the music business. You made your records, you went to the pressing plant, you did you promotion and marketing, then you did your radio interviews and that sort of thing. We didn’t like TV really much at all but we did quite a lot of it. Some of it was hilarious. It was an interesting time. Interesting indeed.

DOMINIC: Let’s talk about the album Double Trouble; I always considered that to be boundaries of rock and roll.

IAN GILLAN: I guess you could say that.

DOMINIC: Well, New Orleans and Trouble………….

IAN GILLAN: Of course, there are elements. There are also things like I’ll rip your spine out and Men at war and No laughing in heaven which is anything but old fashioned. That’s the live version from the Reading Festival which I absolutely love. No easy way, but you’re right, it’s got Trouble on it and New Orleans so that old rock and roll for sure, but you can’t totally ignore your roots. It was a time we were loosely and umbillacally connected to our formative years.

DOMINIC: When I said old fashioned rock and roll, I didn’t mean it as an insult.

IAN GILLAN: I realise that, but things were moving on quite a bit. I didn’t realise until I looked at the titles those songs were on there. You’re right.

DOMINIC: No laughing in heaven was quite a controversial track.

IAN GILLAN: Actually, it was strange; I was just chuckling about that because my old buddy Lenny Hayes died on Sunday. He was with my band Repo Depo for a couple of years, toured around the world. We used to play that song and we laughed about it a lot. He used to say, “What’s that about?” Well, I don’t want to go to heaven because I know who’s in there. Why the hell would you want to go there? And, of course, the whole concept is ridiculous on the basis that man created God. All of this thing is total rubbish. The place down below is where we want to go because that’s where the party is.

DOMINIC: You won’t be playing a benefit concert for the Westboro Baptist Church anytime soon then?

IAN GILLAN: No, nor any kind of church. A quick one, I do believe in God but I believe man created God and therefore I’ve got no trouble with the local cultural interpretations. It’s quite understandable but it’s all upside-down. That’s what the song was about. It was controversial, I don’t understand why, but perhaps we’re still living in the middle ages. Certainly part of the world is.

DOMINIC: All of the box set is due to be released on vinyl which is how it was recorded and how it’s meant to be heard.

IAN GILLAN: Now, I think people look at vinyl as a bit of a curiosity. There was something about the concept of vinyl albums which is as much to do with other things as the music. You bought the damn thing and carried it home lovingly and read cover to cover the lyrics, the story of the artist, the pictures of the band, the background of the music while you played the thing for the first time. Everyone remembers the first time you played an album.

DOMINIC: And you wouldn’t dare lift the needle for fear of damaging the record so you played it all the way through the way the artist meant it to be heard.

IAN GILLAN: There were other disciplines too which technology controlled. Before digital in 1982, the limitations on a vinyl album in terms of time were 38 minutes. 19 minutes per side were the optimum length otherwise you ran into trouble with the needle jumping up or you lose the bass end anyway. The famous story of Smoke on the water on the Machine Head album. The producer said, “We’re seven minutes short of an album”, the day before we were due to finish, so we got the old jamming track, the soundtrack track and wrote some lyrics over it.

A lot of albums only has seven or eight tracks on so those limitations were part of the discipline.

DOMINIC: But the limitations brought us classics like Machine Head, like Deep Purple In Rock and I would even say, Perfect Strangers.

IAN GILLAN: We’re going back to that now, we’re just finishing an album which should be coming out in February I think. As soon as CD’s came out, you can comfortably get an hour’s worth of music on that, so everybody wanted an hour so it became about quantity, not quality, so you’re stretching the fabric to breaking point and people don’t think in terms of albums now, anyway. It’s all alien. If you want to discuss it you’ve got to go right back to the beginning and explain the evolution of the thing to grasp what we’re dealing with and that was the technology of the day. People forget that. They think about everything in music being done in isolation. Without Leo Fender and Jim Marshall and transistor radios, there wouldn’t have been what we had.

DOMINIC: Gillan was a fantastic band, fantastically successful. Had it run its course when you ended it?

IAN GILLAN: Oh yeah, everything runs its course. Any group is dependent upon the human chemistry. As soon as it gets out of kilter, as soon as one person starts thinking differently or becomes distracted by other things, then you’re in trouble. It’s like the honeymoon’s over. Everything after that becomes a contrivance and you can hear it in the music and you can see it in the performance and it’s time to quit, it’s time to move on.

DOMINIC: Are you talking about Gillan or Purple or…………..?

IAN GILLAN: Every band. If you’ve only got one or two people, it’s easy. It’s like a marriage, you can give and take and you can work it out. Once you get three, four, five, six, more people in a close knit circle, you run into that old Darwinian problem. I’ve found Darwin’s missing last chapter. If you know anything about survival, it was all about domination. Once survival is assured, you’re going to find that strong characters come forward and want to dominate. It’s human nature. It’s probably one of the reasons why rock and roll lasted so long, it’s pretty natural. People don’t like it but that’s the way it is.

DOMINC: So knowing that, why would you go back into a situation where you don’t particularly like one member of a band?

IAN GILLAN: Which one are you talking about?

DOMINIC: You and Ritchie never really got on, did you?

IAN GILLAN: We were roommates. We were best buddies.

DOMINIC: You’ve got history now, it’s such a shame, isn’t it?

IAN GILLAN: We drifted apart. Things had not been right for a long time, but some of us grow up. It’s not an issue, I find it all very much in the past now. You look at the good things. I think things come to a head and you think to hell with it, what am I gonna do? You make your decision on the day and you move on. There’s a time when in a situation like that you have to put altruism to one side and look after yourself otherwise you’re accelerating to a sudden halt, reaching terminal velocity and you’re gonna hit the wall. It’s human relationships in anything really, it’s just the way it goes.

Perfect Strangers, the reunion in 1984. That was just a get together. There was no real falling out when I left the band in 1973. It was the quietest split up I’d ever heard of. I handed my resignation note in nine months earlier and that was it. Didn’t get a reply, didn’t get a phone call. Made another album. I told them I was going to leave after the Japanese tour, went to the bar, had some drinks, got on a plane the next morning and then went home and that was the end of that until the end of the Gillan thing. Rodney Marsh, the footballer from QPR, Man City and England, he was a good friend of mine. We were in an Indian restaurant; we’d just played the Hammersmith Odeon. He said, “That was great, but it’s not as good as Purple, is it?” And he got me thinking, and it was the end of the Gillan band so the excitement had kind of worn off a little bit, so I phoned Jon Lord and we set things in motion for what happened. We decided to see if we still got on. So we all turned up in Skovamont, had a bit of a jam, everyone was nodding and smirking. It was a bit of a relief really. So then we continued, but it was never quite the same again.

DOMINIC: You were on fire when you came back. I saw you at Knebworth. I was in the front row thoroughly miserable and very wet.

IAN GILLAN: I remember it well.

We’ve just finished a two year tour and we’re planning another two year tour. We’ve just finished the next album which is being mastered at the moment. I’ve got a solo tour and apart from that, I’m writing.

DOMINIC: How long do you think Purple will last for?

IAN GILLAN: Another year or so.

DOMINIC: So this album may be the last?

IAN GILLAN: I’m only speculating, nobody wants that but I reckon that might be the case. It’s quite physical, we’re all in our 70’s, I hear a clang on the pavement, so I turn round and something else has dropped off. I think we’ll stop while the going’s good, in a couple of years will be enough.

DOMINIC: You could always go acoustic.

IAN GILLAN: Don’t start. I’ve got a million things I’d like to do while I’ve still got my boots on. I’d like Purple to carry on forever, but in reality, another couple of years I think.

Gillan, the box set, 1979 1982 is out now.

Interview by Dominic Forbes

Dominic Forbes
Steve D
Dublin based editor, photographer and reviewer for PlanetMosh