Though best known as the talented tonsils behind British hard-rock legends Deep Purple, Ian Gillan has also found the chance to log in some serious studio and road time both fronting his own bands and as a solo artist.
Gillan's new CD, One Eye to Morocco
) finds the belter singing not at the pace of a Speed King, but with a much more laid-back groove on a dozen tracks that mix rock, blues, reggae, soul and the Middle Eastern flavor hinted at by the title track.
Rocks Off spoke with Gillan in England about the CD, the women of Texas and what goes through his mind every time he hears those damn opening chords to "Smoke on the Water"...
Rocks Off: I understand the title has a great backstory.
Ian Gillan: I keep a notebook with me all the time, as I learned in school if you don't write things down you'll forget them! I was on holiday with my friend Tommy. I was going to stay in the mountains with him for a week and roll around in the snow and drink some vodka by the Czech border. He met me in Cracow, Poland, and we did some sightseeing then went to a café.
As Tommy was getting in the great details of how Oskar Schindler had some activities at the same café during the second World War, this woman walked by. She was a vision... a beautiful apparition. And I followed her with my eye until she went out of sight. Tommy gave me a wag of his finger and said "Ah, Ian, you've got one eye to Morocco."
I found out later that the full saying is you have "one eye to the Caucasus and one eye to Morocco." What it means is, in literal terms, you're cross-eyed looking in two directions. Today, it would mean if you're sitting at your desk working your nuts off and start thinking about your weekend or a football game. It's being distracted by the lure of the exotic.
RO: Well, it's a good thing your wife wasn't with you.
IG: Actually, she was right there! So was my daughter and her boyfriend.
RO: What did you want to do with this record that maybe you couldn't if it was a Deep Purple or band effort?
IG: These songs were written under no pressure at all. My mates would come down, we'd drink some beer and write the songs. But I wanted them interpreted in a different way. I didn't want a rock rhythm section or any improvised guitar or keyboard solos. Purple's albums are usually intense. This has a much more laid-back and seductive [air].
RO: That's the impression I got. I imagine hearing it blasted off a catamaran sailing on some European coast.
IG: Well, I've seen a lot of bums moving to this! [Note: That's "asses" for you non-Anglophiles, not music enthusiasts who happen to be homeless].
RO: How does the writing with Steve Morris as your songwriting partner work differently from when you write Purple songs with Roger Glover?
IG: Steve's been on the road and done records with me for awhile. I actually met him when I got fired from Deep Purple in '89 or something. He put a band together, and we did some club dates. After that, I went home and was working on other things.
Then a brown envelope that looked like it had been written by a spider that walked through a bottle of ink and with more cellophane tape on it than I'd ever seen arrived. I couldn't open it! So I binned it with a lot of junk mail.
I went to the studio later and my assistant came along and put on a tape. It was great! I asked what it was and he said "it was that thing you chucked earlier." They were songs that Steve had written! That's how it started with him, and he's been a good friend that I have a lot of respect for.
RO: I know that you didn't write this particular song on the record, but since I'm calling from Houston I have to ask - what, in your view, is "A Texas State of Mind?"
IG (laughs): Actually, my guitarist, Michael Lee Jackson, wrote it. I heard him play it and I vowed then that I would steal it from him. This is a very sensual, very erotic song. Basically, he was driving down from Buffalo, New York, to Texas because he had a great urge to have physical contact with a girl he met down there. And in this road song, this cruising song, there's only on thing on this mind - and that makes it a Texas state of mind!
RO: Any particular memories of being in Houston or Texas over the years?
IG: Oh God, yes. I remember one of the first shows was cancelled and I had to stand out on the street and explain to the crowd why we weren't going to play. We did the Texxas Jam. I remember particularly driving up to Dallas and Houston and these great cities would appear out of nowhere, and each time there was more glass and the buildings got taller.
The funniest thing was when we did the tour for House of Blue Light
in the late '80s and somebody, without telling me or the rest of the band, decided to get a modern stage set. I mean, we don't mind having a screen behind, but this was like the deck of Star Trek
or something. Anyway, I was appalled and it was a shock to me.
It was the opening night of the tour in Austin, so I went down to this fine joke shop. I bought about 20 plastic urinals and managed to attach them to the stage set all around, so it made it appear as if the whole stage was one giant washroom. I even stuck one on the front of Jon [Lord's] Hammond organ. And of course, the Texas girls in the old days were, uh, second to none!
RO: During Deep Purple shows, each time Steve Morse hits the famous opening riff to "Smoke on the Water," the crowd of course erupts. At what point did you realize that this song had gone beyond just being popular to being something even bigger?
IG: You know, I've had the pleasure of singing with [the late] Luciano Pavarotti a couple of times, and once when we were deciding what to sing, he asked "Can we do 'Smoke on the Water' together? And I said no, I wanted to do [Pavarotti's signature aria] "Nessun Dorma."
Anyway, he was a bit peeved, and we ended up having dinner after the show. And he said "You know, I'm so jealous of you. When you sing 'Smoke on the Water,' it sounds different every time in the way you sing it. With 'Nessun Dorma,' if I sing it one millimeter off from the classical version, they will crucify me!"
So the idea of having something like "Smoke on the Water" parked outside your house to give you energy anytime you need it like a motorbike or a really frisky horse is an incredible feeling. I'm very proud of it. It's kind of public property now, so we just climb on board. And when we have guest guitarists with us, they always want to do the opening chords!
RO: On a personal note, before I had even heard of "Smoke on the Water," I knew your voice from my mother's abiding love for and constant playing of the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar [Gillan originated the role of Jesus on disc, but was not in the first staged version]. Today, rock stars regularly perform on Broadway, and rock bands' stories form the basis of a lot of shows. But back in 1970, it was a radical concept.
IG: Musically, it was no problem. A fantastic piece of writing so gloriously constructed and [lyricist] Tim Rice asked me to take it anywhere I wanted to in the "Garden of Gestheme" section. But doing the sayings on the Cross was a little difficult because I'm not a trained actor. Tim took me for coffee and said not to think of Jesus as a religious figure, but historical - to think of Christ as Napoleon, and I got it straightaway.
RO: Finally, what are your future plans? Are you touring on this record?
IG: Actually, thing are pretty booked up with Purple dates. But I would like to do the show not in an arena or concert hall, but a theater with a proscenium stage. And I want dancers and images involved to give it an exotic feel, whirling dervishes and flamenco and jazz and experimental things.
I'm actually meeting the guys in Purple on a mountaintop just north of Prague, um, tomorrow! [Gillan reads off an itinerary]. Then it's South America, Brazil, Chile, Venice, Dubai, Japan, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovokia, a long German tour, Switzerland, Lebanon, then UK and Europe through the 12th of December. Maybe we can get in the studio sometime after that!
One Eye to Morocco is out today.