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The Voice of Time and Space (Truckin'). Lisa Sharken's Interview with Vocalist Ian Gillan

By Lisa Sharken, New York Contributor
Wednesday, May 27, 2009 @ 4:58 PM

"Iíve got hundreds of hours of the most amazing tapes that the public will never hear..."

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Ian Gillan is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most identifiable vocalists in rock. Gillan is best known for his work with Deep Purple, but has also enjoyed a successful solo career that began in the í70s. In fact, many who only know of his work with Purple may not even be aware that it was Gillan who sang lead on the 1971 chart-topping soundtrack for Jesus Christ Superstar. Gillan also served as lead vocalist for Black Sabbath during a brief stint from 1983 to 1984, recording and touring with the group for Born Again.

Gillan has released a new solo disc, One Eye To Morocco, which shows a far greater variety in style and versatility than his catalog of work with Deep Purple and previous solo projects. Gillan spoke with KNAC.COM to fill us in on how the album was created, taking us from the initial stages of compiling ideas to the writing to the recording of the final songs. He explains why he intentionally chose to move in a much different direction for this album and to make it stand apart from his other work. Hereís the story.

KNAC.COM: Tell us about the new album. The music is quite different from your past work and what people are most familiar with.

GILLAN: Itís different to the rock stuff that Iíve done with Deep Purple and my solo bands. But I think you can bag it along with Accidentally On Purpose and Dreamcatcher, and stuff that Iíve done on my own and along with Roger [Glover]. It was a conscious decision to make it different. I wrote most of these songs with Steve Morris, whoís a great friend of mine from Liverpool, and we have sessions every now and again. Heís a rock freak. He just loves it. If youíd heard the demos of this record, youíd be shocked. Theyíre completely different from the albumís final tracks. I decided to leave him at home when we went to make the record because I didnít want to go on that journey or on that route. So I think this has turned out to be more seductive and inviting, whereas I would say that Purple, etc. is more immediate. I wanted Hank Marvin on guitar and Ringo Starr on drums ó a very simple approach. I think that the concept, if there is one, itís very loose. But I think the guiding light was the title track, and before it even had lyrics or a name, I was enthralled with the mood of it. So that was the criterion by which all the other songs were drawn in. We had about 38 songs to choose from at the time. Yes, it is different, but to mean outside of Deep Purple. I think it represents the kind of stuff, loosely speaking, that was a great influence on me in my formative years. Before I joined Purple, I used to listen to blues. I had a fascination with blues, right back to the field laments and slave songs, then Delta blues, and followed it all the way up the Mississippi through St. Louis until it ended up with the more modern version in Chicago. Listening to blues led me to soul, then rock and roll, of course. I think when youíre sitting down and actually writing songs that are not for a project ó unlike Deep Purple, which is a different thing altogether, where youíre writing the songs together with all the musicians in the band, youíre going to have something fairly explosive. In this case, some of the songs were quite laid back and contempt. There was even a bit of reggae in there. So thatís what you get when there are two guys, or even one, writing in a room without the end product in mind. So thatís a very long answer, but itís a complicated question!

KNAC.COM: Do you typically write songs while accompanied by an instrument or do you work without any musical accompaniment? And do you tend to write lyrics first, before the music or do the lyrics come after the music is written, or does it sometimes come out together?

GILLAN: I never write the lyrics first, but I do make a lot of notes every day. Iíve got hundreds of books. I use the composition books, like the ones the American schools use. Iíve got hundreds of them. If I see anything over the course of the day that either makes me start growling or makes me roll on the floor laughing or touches me emotionally, then it gets written down. Names, places, times, clothes, weather ó all those little bits of color that take you right back to the moment when you want to use it in a song or in an essay or something like that. So those ideas are kept and logged for later use. But normally speaking, if Iím writing with Steve Morris, for example, he comes up with some backing track demo-type things and then I write the tunes and put the words on top. I do what I do ó the singing bit and all the connected parts. But generally itís the tune that comes first. You can hear the beginning of the words when I do what I call ďmy gibberish,Ē which is when I sing and I first hear the ideas and the music with a guitar or a more developed piece. I just start singing the most natural thing, without having to worry about the words. But more important at that stage than the meaning of the words is the sound of the words. So Iím pretty careful with the vowel sounds and the percussive value of the consonants. When youíre hitting the high note, you donít want an ďoooĒ sound, you want a more open vowel sound because singers donít like that. So itís the working on the craft of it, really. Then once youíve got that in shape, you can think more about the words. But very often, a phrase or a sentence or a word will come spontaneously whilst Iím doing this gibberish, and very often that will lead to the development of the rest of the lyrics.

KNAC.COM: Your gibberish, as you call it, is essentially coming up with the melody. Do you make recordings of this or write it down in any sort of notation?

GILLAN: Well, Iíve got this theory. If you canít remember it, then itís no good. So if I run through it and get back the next morning and itís still there and Iím still happy with it, then I record the gibberish. Iíve got hundreds of hours of the most amazing tapes that the public will never hear which is based on song development. So I use that as a reference, of course, because I like to stick very closely to the phrasing when Iím actually writing the words. Then Iíll go into my poetry or verse mode. But writing lyrics is completely different. Youíve got to have a much greater discipline because those little phrases are like guitar breaks or keyboard breaks. So itís got to fit. Itís got to sound as if the song is wrapping around the tune. When Iím happy with them, I record them.

Iíve got boxes and boxes of cassettes in my studio here. Literally, some of them are filed away from the í60s and í70s. And then from í82 onwards, when we got writable CDs and we moved into the digital age and CDs are pretty standard. Iíd dabbled with mini-discs for a while, but nobody has them anymore, so youíve got to be able to interchange these. You have to have an interface and everyoneís now got a recording studio on their laptop computer. So we just put up a microphone, pick up a guitar and open Cubase or whatever format weíre using, and record an endless number of tracks. You can have 24 or 48 tracks if you want, not that we need them. Well, not at that stage of development. Once youíve got a tune, itís only when youíre recording that you need that many. But itís just the construction, really. I think we reach within about five percent of a completed arrangement before lyrics get written, generally speaking.

KNAC.COM: Do you and Steve Morris work together to flesh out the music and instrumentation?

GILLAN: No, not really. Heís mad. He just wants it to be a huge blistering rock and roll record, and some of the songs need a little more discipline, though we do get it to that stage. After I had all the ideas down, I sent the music electronically to Buffalo, New York, just sending the tracks online. Then my buddy over there made a few CDs and handed them out to musicians we were going to work with. Then my producer comes down from Canada, and he rehearses them for about a week. After that, I flew over and I sang with them for about three days. We practiced all the songs working together, then we went up to Mississauga, Ontario and we put all the bed tracks, all the backing tracks and the guide vocals down in about three days. Then we went up to Dundas, Ontario and finished it off. But the voicing on the instruments is a product of production meetings. I said in this place in this song, I visualize a guy stepping out of a mariachi band and into a lonely courtyard and playing something with a very plain sound. So it ended up being a flugelhorn, I think or whatever. But Nick [Blagona, producer] is the guy that gets the picture, and then Iíd say that Iíd like the guitar to do this, so Iíll sing the guitar part. Apart from the little grooves in ďChange My Ways,Ē everything was written before. So it was written, worked out, rehearsed, then we all go in the studio and we record it together.

KNAC.COM: So the musicians rehearsed with the producer, then you rehearsed as a band once all the songs had been written, and then put the tracks down together..

GILLAN: I try not to call it a band. Theyíre session players. Iím only mentioning that for one reason. When you talk about a band, somehow, in my mind anyway, it implies some sort of emotional involvement with the other guys, and there is none. Itís cold. Itís purely musical.

KNAC.COM: Are the musicians you worked with on this album essentially all hired guns?

GILLAN: Yes, and theyíre great guys, but they go on and do something else the next day. Iíve found that this works brilliantly as long as youíre working with top-class players. I did another record with Roger Glover quite similar to this about 20 years ago [Accidentally on Purpose]. We ended up in New York recording it. We wrote it in the Caribbean and then we sucked half the energy out of New York to put on the record and it was great mad. We had Dr. John, George Young, the Brecker Brothers, some phenomenal players in the studio. We rehearsed all this material before we went there. They got the picture and they did it. I mean, they just delivered on the day, then we had a beer, and off they went. I havenít seen them since. Well, not most of them. One of them is on this record, actually. But itís not an emotional thing. Theyíre musicians. We rehearse them, they get it right, and they understand because part of their ethos is to deliver what the producer requires. Theyíre much more malleable than band players. Band players are always fighting for their space, and itís a good thing because thatís what a band demands, and you demand to suck out a performance of every single person according to the rhythm section or the needs of the solo or whatever might be required for the track. Session players paint with different colors. Theyíre able to lay out when needed, and perform as required for the track. If you listen to any of these [older records,] thatís how music used to be made. Thatís how it was before rock bands came along.

Another thing youíll hear a lot of on this record, although probably not be aware of until itís pointed out, is that thereís a lot of rhythm guitar. Every band used to have two guitar players ó a lead guitar and a rhythm guitar. Every band I was in and every band I knew used to have two guitar players until the Hammond keyboards came along and you got players like Jon Lord, Rick Wakeman, Vanilla Fudge and all those sorts. They edged out the rhythm guitar and joined the rhythm section, so then the voicing of the music changed dramatically. Of course, you could play lead on a Hammond as well, and most of these guys were very accomplished as either concert pianists or jazz organists. When they joined rock bands, they were people of the highest caliber. It was definitely different for rock bands. That was not what I wanted on this record.

KNAC.COM: You mentioned that you had recorded the ideas for the songs digitally. When recording the albumís final tracks, did you combine the worlds of digital technology with analog technology, like using an analog board or recording the tracks to tape before transferring them to a digital format?

GILLAN: Everything was recorded analog ó analog tape machines, 24 track Studers and on the desk as well. It was all analog to capture that lovely human quality that it has. Then of course, everything is transferred to digital after that.

KNAC.COM: Do you plan on touring in support of this album at any time?

GILLAN: Not at the moment. Iíve got a mad idea to do some fusion stuff with dance, but itís not going to be a song and dance routine. Itís going to be something a little more avant-garde or surreal. I had mentioned this on a television show in Belgium, and I said that if thereís a promoter crazy enough or a choreographer stupid enough to get involved, Iíd love to talk to him, and Iíve had three offers. So we shall see.

KNAC.COM: How have your influences and your songwriting style changed over the years? Where do you see the most noticeable changes in your work?

GILLAN: I think that change happens with maturity. When youíre a kid, youíre heavily influenced. You listen to everything and you copy everything. Then you find your voice, you find your feet, you find your style, and after a while you need to reinvigorate. But of course, by then, youíre not really listening to anyone. Youíre really more absorbed by life itself. I think it comes with a middle-age crisis and all of those other things you have to adapt to as you mature. So I write about things that really piss me off or things that make me laugh ó the vibrant things in my life get turned into music.

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