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pic: Fin Costello

Ian Gillan interview

by James Ellis, Metro, August 18th, 2003

As frontman with the seminal Deep Purple, Ian Gillan is the father of hard rock vocals. He left the band because of differences with guitarist Richie Blackmore (after which he said: 'I'd rather slit my throat than work with them again') and rejoined in 1992 when Blackmore left. Bananas, the band's first studio album in five years, is out now. It's nice to speak to a legend.
I'm not really a legend. King Arthur is a legend, give it a couple of hundred years and we'll see.

You once said you felt 300 years old.
I might have said that once, but that was when I was a kid.

How come it took five years to come up with a new album?
Yes, it's been five years. It was fantastic getting back into the studio because all the elements were right: the chemistry was right, and the circumstances were right. We were reluctant to press on with it at the time because [keyboardist] Jon Lord's been leaving for five years - I mean, bless him, he's a monument in the band but that was kind of unsettling. We didn't know whether to include him in the writing as he had his mind on other things. When Jon finally made the decision, it was a bit of a relief - we could all focus.

Why Bananas?
We were in Australia four years ago and we saw a picture of this Vietnamese guy wheeling a bicycle and he had an absolute mountain of bananas. The picture was very evocative. It said to me: 'Exploitation, exploitation, exploitation.' I don't know why - he probably wasn't being exploited. My train of thought then shifted to: 'Hmm... probably none of those bananas will find its way into the EU. What do we get? Chiquita? Mmm. Yummy.' Then I started researching the EU regulations that are prescribed by the idiocracy, saying what size of banana we are allowed to eat and how much bend they must have. I thought: 'Who are the only people who can fulfil these requirements?' and the answer is those who deal in genetically controlled food and so really the only bananas we get are grey, rubbery, seedless and infertile. And my mind started twisting onto other things and I'm thinking of my freedoms being eroded. And I am so completely totally anti-EU and anti-Euro and as you can see the train of thought goes on and on and on. I'm not anti-Europe of course, I've got friends in every country, and I adore the culture and I respect 'vive la difference' but these rules aren't what the Treaty of Rome was about. I haven't chosen to use it as an ideogram, as a cheap trick: 'Bananas means we're all crazy, ha ha ha.' It starts off with that but it develops into many things.

Thank God I didn't ask about lyrics if it takes that time to do the title. Is it still all sex, drugs and rock'n'roll?
It was really sex, booze and rock'n'roll in our case. I didn't smoke my first spliff until I was 40.

How do you remain so energetic?
It's a state of mind. We are all in very good physical shape. You have to be to do that kind of show - it's not only music, it's a very physical show two hours every night, different cities and the travelling. When I'm at home, I do a lot of physical work - I walk for miles and do loads of swimming. None of us ever really had any ambition to be a celebrity, so we lead fairly normal lives. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that in order to be happy as a human being, you need two things: a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.

What do you do to take care of your voice?
The only thing I do is sing naturally. I don't strain my voice. I don't go for notes that I can't reach. It's quite natural. I never warm up before a show. Mind you, there are certain physical things you have to do. I never drink before a show, I never have a cigarette until 11pm. I only smoke when I'm drinking. So that's my training.

Crikey! Well, we got through a lot of beer and whisky.
The sex thing sounds very crude when you put it into a cliché like that. In actual fact, it was just the sort of thing that everyone does, given the opportunity. It's an exciting life. You are on the move all the time and there's a big buzz going on. Then you hit town and, well, you know. We finish work at 11pm and friends ask why I don't go to bed until 4am. I say: 'What do you do? Come home from the office and go straight to bed?' I can't go to bed at half past eleven. I've gotta come down. So we hit the bar and party.

Are you and Richie speaking?
No. I haven't spoken to him since he left. By then, a year had gone by when we were on the road and in the studio when I'd say: 'Hello Richie. How you doing? Nice one, mate, great solo tonight,' and he'd never utter a word to me. He'd turn his back. He basically could not cope with the fact that he was not in complete control. So it caused him to become a little unsettled. When I think of Richie now, I think of a brilliant guitar player. A wonderfully inventive riff-meister and a great performer. I used to room with him in the early days

You couldn't imagine that now, could you?
No. Richie lost control for a bit - he once smashed a plate of spaghetti in my face. He's an odd guy but I have respect for him. I have respect for all the good things he's done. I wouldn't work with him again because it couldn't happen right after what's gone down. I really wish him well - I think he must be happy 'cos he's doing what he's doing. Dressing up in medieval stuff and playing that music very well. And why would I want Richie when we've got Steve Morse?

A slightly barbed comment?
No, not really. I just think that Steve is a 100 per cent band player and he's now the same as everyone else in the band. We put in more than we take out and that way there is always something in the pot. I'm talking emotionally and creatively.

Do you feel paternalistic towards nu-metal?
No, not really. I don't like the word 'metal' to start with and I think probably the concept of our kind of rock'n'roll - Zeppelin, Sabbath, Jethro Tull and all those other bands - as we saw it, has been taken and reinterpreted through the years, and instead of people having heroes and taking a bit from this and a bit from that, you tend to get people who become obsessed by one artist or one style or one format of music. So they are closed and their attitude on stage and their general ethos tends to be a bit artificial.

Do you look at the charts and despair when you see what's in them at the moment?
I haven't looked at the charts ever since I realised they weren't reflective at all of people's purchasing. Not in the slightest. I realised that when the NME excluded an American ballad singer, even though he would have been number one, because it wasn't the kind of music they wanted in their newspaper. If you are going to have a chart that reflects sales, you should have a chart that reflects sales and I don't care whether you've got Pavarotti at No.1 or Eminem at No.1. I really don't care. I would like to know the truth.

Ever regretted anything?
Everyone has said something in their life that they regret. I did actually once say that I'd rather slit my throat then ever work with the band again. But that was basically to do with how the band was at the time. Since then, the house has been redecorated, we've mowed the lawn and it's all fine.

Do you still cut your hair every three years?
I cut it all off a couple of years ago. And it's going to stay that way. I looked in the mirror and thought: 'You're going to be one of those sad buggers: 60 years old with a pony tail.' It just looks silly. Anyway, it was getting in my beer and I was getting fed up with it.

Thanks to Keith Hollinshed

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