I ROCK, THEREFORE I AM
Fresh from the recording of their latest album, Abandon, Deep Purple came to our great southern land to show off the new songs and to prove that they can still rock as hard as ever after all these years. Fans old and new were treated to a classic Purple rock-fest with the old crowd pleasers thrown in amongst the new songs, and plenty of trademark musical tom-foolery and virtuosic hi-jinks. I was sent to interview Jon Lord on the afternoon of their Sydney gig.
Meeting your childhood keyboard-playing hero can be an awesome enough experience, but getting the opportunity to sit and talk with the dude for an hour - well, that takes the cake. And take the cake we did, as we ate our way through the Ritz Carlton Club Lounge dessert rack, sipped on coffees and talked about all things musical. Giggling nervously at his every quip in the first few minutes, I soon realised that Mr Lord was one helluva friendly English chap, so I ought to cut the childish adoration and get serious with the interview.
Deep Purple has been hard at it for over thirty years now. Naturally, founding member Jon Lord is looking much more like a distinguished middle aged gent than a hard rockin' keyboard pounding maniac these days. Later that evening though, at the Entertainment Centre, he was transformed from the stocky grey-haired fellow I met at the hotel, into an archetypal demonic wild man of rock. Channelling raw rock power, he pumped the Hammond, convulsing and contorting under the spotlights, while the note-perfect riffs and blinding solos poured out to an audience that knew they were in the presence of rock royalty. This is "A-Band-On" alright. They kicked ass!
Back at the hotel that afternoon, we discuss the secrets behind the chemistry and the magic of being a rock icon that has outlived almost everyone. And surprisingly or not, some basic truths surfaced. Regardless of your style, to survive beyond a flavour-of-the-week act, you have to love MUSIC. Call him a rock god, a legend, a master, a star, a genius, (hey and if you don't like Deep Purple, call him anything you like) - Jon Lord is one thing above all of that - he is a musician.
Cyrius: The new Album, Abandon, - it's a very classic Deep Purple sound.
J.L.: Yeah, well, we've done two since Steve's been in the band. The first one was made over quite a long period of time. We wrote an enormous amount of material, coz we were trying to work out what we could do with Steve in the band. With something as fundamental as the change in guitar, and not just a change in guitar - but a change of Ritchie Blackmore, a founder member along with me, and a man who has arguably invented a style of guitar - it was a huge change. We did some gigs with Steve and it was great - and we loved it. And so when we went into the studio, we tried to do the same thing, which was to explore, whereas with "Abandon", we did it very quickly. For two reasons: 1) We wanted to see quite how a very straight ahead rock and roll album sounded - just jammed songs, very quickly done, quickly written, quickly recorded. And 2) because we didn't really have much time anyway coz the management had us out on the road again.
C: So you are still being whipped along by the record companies?
JL: Well, it's coz we allowed it to happen - because we like it. The best thing about rock and roll is playing the live gigs.
C: So you still doing the Hammond / Leslie thing?
JL: Yeah - Yeah I got a C3 which I've had for 24 years, two Leslies..
C: What about effects - distortion that kind of thing?
JL: Well I've gotten out of that. I did it in the 80's. I put pre-amps in, and modified the Leslies, modified the organ - the whole 9 yards, but I realised in the end what I was doing was trying to gild the lily. Coz what I actually do is turn the Leslies full up and play with my foot down quite hard, you know and that gives me what people call the "Jon Lord sound", but really all it is is just a Hammond turned up. OK, there's a way of playing a Hammond. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that you can play a Hammond with a piano technique. Well, you can, but it sounds like you are playing a Hammond with a piano technique. You really have to learn how to play an organ - it's a technique to achieve legato on a non legato instrument. There is no legato, there is no sustain.
C: On and off...
J.L.: Exactly, so you want to achieve a seamless effect. You have to learn how to finger that to get that effect. And a lot people who come from piano are surprised and horrified when they hear themselves on an organ.
C: I remember when "Burn" came out you were getting pretty heavily into the knob-twiddling, like on the instrumental track "A-200".
J.L.: I used to use a lot more gear in the 70's and 80's. In the early days of synths I was a convert.
C: Did you kind of lose that enthusiasm with the technology?
J.L: I still had that stuff when we reformed Deep Purple. I still had it so I was using it. You can hear it quite heavily not so much on "Perfect Strangers" but on "The House Of Blue Light". It was really when Steve rejoined the band, he said "what's that kind of stark screaming distorted Hammond you used to do?" I said "well its still in there I just haven't used it". And he kind of led me back towards discarding all that stuff. So I sent the organ back to this guy and I said "take everything out of it except what's Hammond - take all the modifications out. Take the Leslies back to ordinary Leslie Speakers and ordinary Leslie amplifiers. We just upgraded the horns so they don't blow up so often -and here we are.
C: Do you think that all the technological advances are inadvertently steering us back to realise that there is something vital about the chemistry of humans playing together that can't be replaced?
J.L.: Well thank God that's happening. No it can't - never could be, never will be. You can't synthesise emotion. The thing about synthesisers was that you needed a great player to make them live. An Emerson. One of the great moog players was Stevie Winwood. He had the feel for that style - to make em sing.
C: As far as the new generation of players that are utilising technology. Are you finding any that are inspiring to you?
J.L.: Oh yeah. I think that the last few years of the 90's have been incredibly productive for music - for popular music. It was a bit sterile out there for a while. But I see a lot of things that make an old man very happy.
C: Anyone in particular?
J.L: Its very difficult to say, you'd have to ask my daughter. (laughs)
C: So music is evolving nicely, you would say..
J.L: Well you know what happened? It's really easy to point out how it happened. At the same time as the big technological revolution, at the same time you got a decline in live music, and the spawning ground for music is live. That's where you learn how to deal with a good audience, how to deal with a bad audience, being booed, being greeted with complete silence. It's going to school. And the whole training ground of bands being able to find a place to go to school was taken away by the technological revolution, and other factors as well. But that's come back in quite a big way certainly in Europe and I presume so here too.
C: Well we have a lot of live festivals and stuff, but the smaller venues are predominantly cover gigs.
J.L.: Even that is a training ground. What were the early British rock an roll musicians doing but covering what the Americans had done? But it was a symbiotic relationship. One fed the other. We in England were listening to American music, playing it our way and sending it back to America. They were hearing it done our way, reinterpreting our version of it, and so on.
C: Yeah well its kind of happening here. Local artists are imitating the techno heads in Europe or the rappers and R&B artists in the states, but they are turning it into a uniquely Australian thing and sending it back overseas and succeeding with it, even though they still might have to wear the baseball caps and baggy pants..
J.L: The problem is what's happened since MTV, is that rock and roll has become a visual art as well as an audio art. That is fine except that in a way what you are getting now is attitude as much as music, and again that's cool, providing that somebody realises why he wants to be a musician, because in the end what you've got to communicate is music not attitude.
C: You guys have always had your fair share of attitude, though.
J.L: Yeah but it was attitude based on our knowledge of our ability to communicate our music. It was not the knowledge that we looked good in baggy pants or that I was an incredibly handsome man. I think it was about the music more, and the great thing about what's happening now is its becoming about the music again, and that's terribly important to me.
C: So as far as the visual side of it, you haven't really explored computer graphics and video and effects and all that sort of stuff.
J.L: No not really - we never did. There doesn't seem any real reason to start now. And if you look back at old photographs of us, we were never into fashion, ever. The only one who made any concession at all to something extra-musical was Ritchie, who used to wear those silly hats.
C: If you were the same age you were when you started right now, confronted with all this stuff at that age, what do you think you would be doing with your music now.
J.L.: Interesting question. If I were a young keyboard player now I would be I think confused by the amount of things available to me. I am really thankful that when I started the only two options were the piano and the organ. But music is... the music business by definition is kind of incestuous. It grows, it feeds on itself. It comes out of what's around you. And what takes it forward each time is a band that has the courage to take what they hear and then to reinvent themselves based on what they've heard.
C: Which is what you did back then, so I guess you would do the same sort of thing now.
J.L: I'd like to think I'd have the courage to do the same thing now.
C: You think it would be harder now?
J.L.: I think it would, because as a cynic said, "it's all been done". The trick now - if it is down to being a trick, which is sad - is to make it sound like it's not been done before, and that really is hard. I think we had the best of it, I don't mean we Deep Purple, I mean we my generation. We had a clean canvas on which to paint - pretty clean anyway, a few smudges here and there - and the ability to be able to say "can we do this?.. yes we can." that was wonderful. And don't forget we also came out of the 60's where we had record companies that would give you a five year contract, I mean that would be like gold now. What you get now is a one album contract with an option. And that's a big deal to get the option. But record companies had the courage then to allow you to grow.
C: Well, in the old days you'd buy a record, you'd sit down and listen to it. Now you buy a record and put it on while you are playing your computer game.
J.L.: Absolutely, it has become almost like audio wallpaper. It's become the soundtrack of modern living, whereas it used to be the alternative. It was what young people turned to, to revolt against what they saw as dull old-fashioned middle class values and middle class music.
C: Your new solo album, "Pictured Within", seems to be a little in that spirit of "alternative" direction in today's climate. A kind of "hey stop for a minute and ignore the bombardment of external stimuli". It seems more of an inward journey.
J.L: As a writer and composer I tend to be very autobiographical. I tend to write better about things that have affected me reasonably recently as well. I lost both my parents just before I started making this album and that coloured it very strongly. It's quite a melancholy album, although I like to think its also uplifting because I tried to write my way out of my sadness. There's a whole side of me that needs to be expressed which I cant express in Deep Purple thus this solo album - which is the first one I've done since 1981, its not like I've littered the world with them. I was lucky that my family didn't try and suppress any one style against the other so I grew up with a love of music with a capital M.
C: But your time is mostly taken up with the band…
J.L: Yeah, but over the last 15 years I've been writing an enormous amount of what people continue to call classical music. It's not, its orchestral music - I write an enormous amount - I've got reams of the stuff, and I'm trying to move myself into the position where I can consider that I can make my living as a composer when I finally stop spinning around with the band.
C: Well if you send me a few scores I'll get an orchestra together and we'll put on a gig in Sydney.
J.L.: It's a deal!
C: Are you using computers to compose?
J.L: No, although I used a computer to record "Pictured Within". I recorded it with Digidesign. I had the benefit of a stunning engineer who understood the computer world and when needed we were able to cut and paste. But I used it really for convenience. There are several long pieces of music on the album. What I did was a map, if you like, of a piano track. So I just recorded me alone at the piano - a really beautiful Steinway, on my own in a big studio with wooden walls wooden floor and a great woody piano sound, and I recorded that into the machine.
C: The entire album?
J.L.: Pretty much - track by track
C: From your own hand-written scores?
J.L.: Yes I've always used manuscript paper. I find it as much of a compositional aid as anything else I've ever used because it becomes and audio-visual thing with the paper and the pencil. I can see it on the stave and I can see a line I can see a shape to it - which pleases me or not. It's a very personal thing but it seems to make sense to me. Also, it doesn't pin me down. Sometimes when you write a piece of music when it comes out of your head, and it comes straight onto the paper, its got a form in your head, but the form is not necessarily "1,2,3,4", or "crotchet =140" or whatever. You might feel like it's somewhere in that so you put "moderato" on it and you put it to one side. A year later you come to it and you start to play it, and some memory of what you meant when you wrote it down comes back, but then other feelings come too, like the way it feels then at that moment you play it. So I like to write it down.
I am putting a home studio in and I will have the ability to do my scores on computer.
C: But you'll get someone in to do that…
J.L: I think I'll have to do that. I'm in my 50's I don't think got time to learn it all!
C: So Jon Lord at home is basically a piano, a pencil and paper.
J.L: That's me, I've got a beautiful piano at home in 1982 I treated myself to a 7ft6 Bechstein, and it's my pride and joy - I adore the thing. In fact my wife gets pissed off with it. If she wants me to do something she says "don't go past the piano".
C: And you are getting into the Internet?
J.L.: I get on there and put a few people right. There's a newsgroup alt.music.deep-purple. Sometimes I look at it and I go "these people have got it wrong, I've got to tell them how it was"
C: So you log on with a nick name?
J.L: Yeah I've got a handle that everybody knows and I've got another one that I can just go round and make my postings.
C: Are you using the net for research and creative personal reasons?
J.L.: I'm quite a tactile person. I actually like looking things up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and I find that a more rewarding search for knowledge than the net somehow, but that's a generational thing and I don't expect that I will ever plug into it the same way that my daughter does. I think that anything when its young and new and still cutting edge is going to produce almost a kind of a mania about. I think that as the Internet becomes so much more part of our lives it will stabilise. People will treat it less as a kind of a "wow" factor and more of a kind of a "ho-hum" factor. It's going to be there like the refrigerator's there.
C: Do you think the net could affect the chances of bands getting that mass media type of fame that you had, with whole music scene becoming a massive selection of niche markets?
J.L: I don't know, it could go either way. I was speaking a few months ago to the head of international of EMI in Germany. He said that they are completely and utterly geared up for dispersing music through the net so the only problem at the moment is safeguarding copyright of the musicians and the record companies. They are in a bit of a spin at the moment - excuse the pun. They don't know quite which way to turn, and some people are saying "too bad they've had it too good too long" but record companies, as we discussed earlier, played a huge part in the success of popular music.
There are countless bands who wouldn't have been able to have achieved anything were it not for record companies. So I think that to try and snip them out of the equation just because there's a revolution in dispensing of information would be a mistake.
C: They should be able to hang on though.
J.L: I think they will. I think everything will find its level. At the moment everyone is running around like chickens with their heads cut off coz they don't quite know what's going to happen. We got there before all that happened and I really rather glad we did.
C: Now it seems you don't get anywhere in music unless you got a business plan. You need a marketing plan to market your product
J.L: Its kinda weird isn't it. It really is the music business. Its like when I went to do that solo album, the last one, I almost had the same thing. I had the head of classical saying (german accent) - "So what kind of record will it be?"
I can show you the dots and I can play you the little bits on the piano, but that doesn't tell you anything.
C: So they wanted to know which demographic it was going to appeal to..
J.L: Exactly, and what are we going to file it under?
C: What is your favourite sound at the moment?
J.L: I love the sound of a string quartet. That kind of woody sort of stringy sound - and mixed with the piano. I found a lovely mix too, of the string quartet and a JV2080 - a stunning machine. There's an orchestral card you can buy for it and they had some marvellous sounds but particularly it had a very nice string sound. There's also a general GSM sound a warm pad and I mixed this warm pad with the string sound and the string quartet and I found a lovely sound - it lives in a lovely place it's the kind of sound that you go "oh yeah" - it feels good.
C: Speaking of sound - you've got a sound check to attend.
J.L: My tecchie guy handles that.
C: Well all the same you'd better start psyching yourself up for the big rock gig. See you there.
J.L: Thanks, I hope you enjoy it.
And so, as I walked away from the interview, some thoughts struck me. This guy has done it all, yet he has returned to what he loves - rocking hard, and indulging his creative urges. He uses technology, but only for what he needs, he doesn't let the technology use him. He gets other people to do the stuff he can't handle himself, which frees him up to be more expressive (something we all need to learn, as we struggle with dozens of software packages, gizmos, effects, wiring diagrams, tapes, discs, drives, not to mention all the scraps of paper). Even without the money, I think I'll at least try and get a friend to help me out now. Above all else, this man believes in the power of music and the ability of those with the talent and dedication to keep it alive and keep making people happy. And at the Entertainment Centre that night - there sure were a lot of very happy people!