My interview with Jon Lord, December, 1997

The great rock keyboardist Jon Lord, of Deep Purple fame, passed away this week. Here is an interview that I conducted with him in 1997, for an article that was published in Keyboard Magazine in the USA.

You can read more from my years of work as a music journalist at this link.

Interview with Jon Lord of Deep Purple

Friday, 5 December 1997

The Tabernacle, occasional site of the House of Blues, Atlanta, Georgia, before Purple’s appearance there that night.

Interview by Wheat Williams

This interview is Copyright © 1997 by Wheat Williams, III. All rights reserved.

Wheat: I have to tell you something. I got on the website night before last, and I found out so much information about you, your role in the band, and your solo projects. It was like a journalist’s dream. These guys handed me all the background research that I needed.

Jon: That’s the website for you. Bless their little hearts.

Wheat: So you have a solo album coming out.

Jon: I have, yeah. I guess it’s the end of January. We only just delivered it recently, so I don’t know.

Wheat: What’s it going to be called?

Jon: It’s called Pictured Within.

Wheat: And who plays on it?

Jon: Me! There is a string quartet, there are French horn players, oboe players, clarinet players, and a stunning young German cello player who’s brilliant.

Wheat: What’s his name?

Jon: Hagen Kuhr.

It’s like nothing I’ve done before. There is no discernible Deep Purple influence at all. It’s not like the last one I did, which was 115 years ago — it feels like that to me. I think you can take away the “100.” That last one has some pretty quiet moments on it, but there are still some organ, synths, and drums.

Wheat: So are you playing piano, or are you the orchestral conductor?

Jon: A bit of both. I’m playing a lot of piano on it. We had a small orchestra on a couple tracks and I conducted them.

Wheat: Was this all recorded in Germany?

Jon: Yes. It was all done in Cologne. It’s very much a written album. It presents me more as a composer than as a performer, for which I’m really grateful to the record company for seeing which way I wanted to go.

Wheat: And it’s on EMI Germany?

Jon: Yes, it’s EMI World. But, I think it’s going to be Virgin Classics. It’s the classical division that signed me. Which was rather nice.

Wheat: Is it going to be available in America?

Jon: Oh, yeah. World-wide release.

Wheat: Marvelous. Love to hear that.

Jon: I’d like to hear it, too.

Wheat: Now, you live in England?

Jon: Yes, I do.

Wheat: Do you spend a lot of time in Orlando, or is that just when the band is rehearsing?

Jon: Well, it’s the third or fourth album we’ve made. It’s a small town outside of Orlando called Altamonte Springs. It’s warm, It’s friendly, well it was warm, until today!

It’s friendly, there’s great restaurants, people are nice, and the [recording studio] room is fantastic. It’s one of those great rooms where you don’t know why the room is good. It just is. It wasn’t designed as a recording studio. It was designed as a video studio. But it’s a big big room. It’s designed for photo shoots, for video shoots.

Wheat: Well, I’ll have to make a pilgrimage and visit it. I’m an audio engineer myself.

Jon: You know sometimes a room just is good. We get a great drum sound in there, and we can play live in there, and still get reasonable separation.

Wheat: Let me ask you. How do you maintain the classical, orchestral, acoustic music connection while all these years  you’ve been trucking all over the world playing very loud, nasty rock and roll? How do you keep both of those things alive?

Jon: Well, I’m a Gemini. I guess was born with a distinctly split way of looking at things. I adore both styles of music and in fact I used to go so far as to sort of pontificate on the subject by saying “There is only one music,” or “There are only two kinds of music, ‘good’ or ‘bad’.” And I don’t want to get quite that passionate about it, but I honestly believe that the less labels, the better. The less demarcation between one kind of thing and another, the better. That’s what I’ve tried to do in the past. I may well be perceived as a rock and roll musician, a rock keyboard player, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do this or that.

Wheat: Your family were classical musicians, weren’t they?

Jon: Well, right back to some great-great grandparents, there’s been music in the family.  Not performance, but my father was semi-professional saxophone player. He played in a regular dance band, strict-tempo ballroom dancing kind of dance band. But they used to hanker after and do the occasional Glenn Miller arrangement, or Stan Kenton, or stuff like that.

Wheat: So do you still play a lot of classical piano at home?

Jon: Yes, I do. For the simple reason that it’s pretty hard to practice at home playing “Smoke On the Water” or “Highway Star.” It doesn’t help. It’s difficult to do that at home.

Wheat: Your hands kind of get stuck playing parallel fifths?

Jon: Well, I’m an Englishman. Parallel fifths are absolutely essential. All English music has parallel fifths!

Wheat: Lots of Ralph Vaughan Williams. I’m a big choral singer. That’s my thing.

Jon: So you’ve sung a lot of old music?

Wheat: Yeah.

[Interruption where Steve Morse offers to bring us coffee.]

Jon: No, it’s a great tradition in England. It’s always had a great choral tradition.

Wheat: I’ve never been there. I must go some day. I’m doing the tenor solos in a local church production of Handel’s Messiah.

Jon: It’s time for the Messiah again, isn’t it.

Wheat: Yes, time to trot the old thing out.

Wheat: What’s it like playing with this kind gentleman here? [Gestures to Steve Morse]

Steve: See me for some sidebar quotes.

Wheat: Sidebar quotes? Okay, cool.

[Digression where I tell Steve Morse what a big fan I am of his solo work]

Steve: He’s so good at improvisation. You’d do well to find a jazz keyboard player with ears as big as this guy.

Wheat: [to Jon] What’s it like playing with this man and having a new lead guitar focus in the band?

Jon: Well, it’s now three years since Steve’s been on board. So I’m getting used to it. It’s great.

Wheat: He obviously brings a lot of energy.

Jon: An enormous amount of energy, and a lot of good will as well, which is essential. We hit it off, I think, within about twelve minutes. He would have to tell you this, but I do know that when he was asked to join, he said, “Only if that keyboard player [Jon points to himself] is a part of the band.” And I felt that was a great compliment. We play well together. You know it’s good. And we’ve changed sides. Ritchie used to be on stage left. Steve now plays stage right, and I’ve moved my keyboards back, facing the audience and next to the drum riser. So we get a much better point of contact.

It’s a different thing. It’s not better than Ritchie, it’s just different. There’s no point in trying to go–it’s chalk or cheese. Except for the fact that chalk and cheese, only one of them is food, and Steve and Ritchie, they’re both guitarists, but it’s a different world.

Wheat: He is obviously renowned as just about the most technically proficient guitarist in rock.

Jon: I would say so, yeah. He’s pretty remarkable. He never takes his bloody guitar off, that’s why! He’s always practicing. But sorry, you had a question.

Wheat: Are all the songs on Purpendicular group compositions? Did everybody have pretty much equal input?

Jon: Yeah, over the whole spectrum of the album. Some came from different directions, more from one guy than another.

Wheat: So Steve’s ideas get equal weight with everybody else’s?

Jon: Oh, sure. In fact he did warn us when he first joined the band. He said, “You’ll get pissed off at me in the end because you have to turn me off.” Ideas just pour out of the guy. It’s wonderful to work with that. It’s sometimes an embarrassment to each other, when you have to really look at what sounds like a good riff, and see if it actually means anything. Is it going to go into a song, or is it just… So it’s probably better that way than just sitting around twiddling your fingers wondering what you’re going to do next.

Wheat: Do you play much from Purpendicular in your set tonight?

Jon: Six or seven, I guess. Five or six? We’re probably going to do a couple of work in progress, you know, just to see how they feel. It seems like the perfect opportunity, doing these House of Blues gigs, to try out a couple of new songs.

Wheat: You don’t play much in America, do you? You get a lot of call for Japan and Europe.

Jon: Well, we kind of blew America. I don’t wish to get into laying any blame anywhere, but Ritchie didn’t particularly want to play here for the longest time.

We were on stage, we were doing a tour in ‘86, I think it was, and he broke his finger on stage. He was throwing his guitar up into the air and catching it, you know, one of his little tricks that he used to do, and he caught it wrong. That was in the middle of a sold-out twelve-to-nineteen-thousand-seater-hall kind of tour. By the time we came back again, Gillan and Ritchie had fallen out again. This is now 1990. Joe Lynn Turner had joined the band much to the chagrin [uses French pronunciation] of the rest of the band. It wasn’t a great move, we didn’t all think. And we lost our audience, quite simply. We lost our audience. By 1991 or ‘92, a lot of people over here thought that we had disbanded and just gone our separate ways.

WheatThe Battle Rages On was a great album.

Jon: It was okay, considering that the backing tracks were conceived with Joe Lynn Turner as the vocalist, but it was recorded with Ian Gillan.

Wheat: That must have been difficult adjustment, with regards to changing keys.

Jon: Some of the tracks were already recorded. Some of them we didn’t have time to change. So Ian had to write a different sort of song [vocal part] than he would normally have written. It was a strange time. But you know then, Ian was back in the band, Ritchie was fine for a while. We started the 1993 tour with high hopes and big ticket sales, but not over here. Nothing over here. He just would not come over here.

Wheat: Do you think there is an opportunity to regain the American audience?

Jon: We shall see. You know the old thing about not counting chickens, and everything. I guess we could only try.

It would be easy as hell to go the nostalgia route, you know, just to say that all we are going to do is play the old stuff, and we’ll play at classic rock concerts, and we’ll do classic rock tours with other classic rock bands…

Wheat: Which is not in itself a dishonorable thing…

Jon: I’m not saying it’s dishonorable. No, no. No, no. Absolutely not. It’s just not the way we want to go. We want to write new material. We want to be perceived as a band that still has a current viability as a recording unit. We want very much, you know, in spite of the fact that we’ve all been together since God was a child, we still believe a band of this style and this ability has a place in rock music.

Wheat: So are there plans for the next Purple album? Are you hoping to get a better label situation?

Jon: We have as yet, I can’t tell you who, but two major American labels are interested, so that is wonderful news for us.

Wheat: When will you be working on your new recording?

Jon: We are in process, right now. We’ve got all backing tracks done, we’ve got twelve new backing tracks. We are in the process of doing overdubs. We’ve done most of them. We are getting back in the middle of January to restart overdubs and vocals. So it’s close. It should be out May. And as I say, we do have the potential of a really good, big American label–not dissimilar from one that we were with once before.

Wheat: Okay, I don’t intend to second guess that.

I might get a chance to talk with Mickey [Soul], your keyboard technician [Soul, an American, was also the keyboardist in the band Rainbow at one point.]. Keyboard is a gear mag, and they want to know about all the instruments you play, but I wanted to mention something that just blew my mind. They have a review in the new issue [January, 1998] of the Roland VK-7, which is a keyboard that emulates the Hammond B-3, and they mention that it has a ring modulator on it. And a little light bulb went off in my head. I remembered that Jon Lord used to have a Moog ring modulator hooked to the output of his Hammond. So I think this is sort of a Jon Lord tribute. Maybe you should get an endorsement from them!

Jon: Well, that would be nice.

Wheat: But you’ll always play a real Hammond, won’t you.

Jon: Of course, but Hammonds occasionally go wrong.

[Discussion of the ring modulation effect]

I just used to use it as a some way to take the organ other than just being a Hammond. I’ve always tried to see how far you can take a Hammond, or where else you can take it, rather than how far.

[After the interview, while walking to the sound check, Jon mentioned that the ring modulator he used on his Hammond was in fact a Gibson, not a Moog. He said that he bought several, because each one had a working life of only about three months before it broke down.]

Wheat: Does that include an awful lot of customization of the circuitry, hot-rodding and overdriving it?

Jon: The simplest, easiest thing to get that really wonderful overdriven sound is to just turn the Leslies up. Turn the Hammond up, turn the Leslies up, and play it properly. You can’t pussyfoot around with a Hammond organ. If you do, it ends up sounding like a rather nasty church organ. You have to be in charge of it. In the early to mid 70s, I wanted to try and do something with that, which is where the ring modulator came in.

I mean, I’ve tried to play synthesizers. I’m not a great synthesizer player, but there’s some reason that I don’t actually like them very much. What I use them for, I’ve got a couple out there, I just use them for pads, for bits and pieces. Less and less now. Yeah. I’m actually in the process of scaling right back down. What I want to take out next year is a B or a C, nice, simple, with two darn good Leslies, and a nice piano keyboard. I’ve got a little Kurzweil MicroPiano which gives me a wonderful piano.

Wheat: You have it connected to a Roland controller?

Jon: Yes, a Roland controller. And there’s a [Korg] M1 on top of the organ for some reason. It must have got stuck there about eight years ago.

Wheat: And a [Yamaha] DX7.

Jon: Yeah. Again, that got there on top of the piano. I just use them both as controller keyboards.

Wheat: What do you have in the rack?

Jon: A [Korg] Wavestation. What I would love to take around with me is a [Roland JV-] 2080.

Wheat: The studio players love those.

Jon: Oh, I use it quite a bit on my solo record. What I tried to do on that, the interest for me is to combine real piano, a big concert Steinway, with some nice pads and acoustic instruments like string quartets and French horns and so on. Or a small choir, and see where I could take that.

Wheat: So did you use the 2080 for backing tracks, and replace it with real musicians?

Jon: Yeah, on a couple of things I did exactly that. To see how the string quartet sounded, I built one up.

Wheat: That orchestral board for the 2080 is wonderful.

Jon: Oh, fantastic. That, hopefully, would be my setup next year.

So what you see out there now is really the end of the 80s. I built that system up during the 80s because nobody wanted to hear real Hammond sounds. They wanted to hear volume. Perfect Strangers, for example, that album was made with a normal Hammond, but when we got into the live part of things, then Blackmore said, “No, you should get this louder.” And then Paicey said, “Yeah, I can’t hear it, get it louder, man.”

Wheat: I noticed that you have those extra bass cabinets underneath the Leslies.

Jon: That’s just for the piano and the pads and all.

But basically it’s an outdated, outmoded system that’s just about ready for the bonfire!

Wheat: I was talking with my editor at Keyboard magazine. Greg Rule, the editor that I work for, does techno/dance music, and the magazine has this raging thing in the letters to the editor saying, “I don’t want to read about Keith Wakeman, give me Prodigy.” Uh–I mean, Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman.

Jon: They’re interchangeable. Rick Emerson.

Wheat: [does an earnest reversal] No, I would never say that. That was a big slip there. I’ve met Rick, and he is an exceptionally nice gentleman.

Jon: He’s a delightful man.

Wheat: But at any rate, I’m always concerned about this tug, this duality between the sampling, techno, programmed music versus guys that play [non-sequenced] musical instruments. And I’m far more interested in the latter. Now, these [techno] people are doing very creative stuff…

Jon: Of course they are.

Wheat: …but does any of that have any influence on you?

Jon: Not really, no. I think I’ve missed that part of musical history. I don’t believe that my talent, whatever it might be, would be in that area, really. I’m an instinctive musician. I tend to play off the moment. I like to improvise, I like to just, well, sometimes just screw around.

Wheat: And to interact with other players.

Jon: Yeah, and as a result, that’s what I believe, without patting myself on the back, that’s one of the elements that made early Deep Purple so interesting. What Blackmore and I used to do together. When he was pliable in that respect, when he decided that he had this particular row to hoe.

Wheat: Was he more the blues man and you more of the classical person? Is that what you brought to the table?

Jon: No, actually! I was in an English rhythm and blues band for four years before I started Purple.

Wheat: Before Roundabout.

Jon: Yeah, exactly. And Blackmore used to play in a very English rock and roll band–pop rock, you know, until he went out to Germany. I think he had a band called The Three Musketeers, where he started to experiment a little, and then he first heard Hendrix and listened to early Clapton and stuff.  But I was more of a blues player I think, and I only started using the classical things in the blues band that I was in the R&B band that I was in. What we call R&B in England is not what you call it here.

I started using classical stuff because it was somewhere else to go. Sometimes you come up against a wall on a straight 12-bar blues sequence, and I just thought, well where can I go? So one night that bit of Bach kind of got in there. The guitarist in the band at the time said, “That was great. Why can’t you do that more often?” So that was all he had to say. He just pushed that button, and I was there.

Wheat: You are certainly one of the pioneers, like your work with Eberhart Schoener, trying to meld the classical with the rock.

Jon: It was hard work in those days. Nowadays, people are doing it all the time. You feel like saying, “We were doing that twenty-five years ago.”

Wheat: Yeah, but now it’s like Yanni and John Tesh.

Jon: Oh, yeah. They say, “What was it that you did?”

I say, “I did a thing called Concerto for Group and Orchestra, Gemini Suite, Sarabande…” They go, “Wow, where is this stuff?”

Wheat: Most of that’s available on CD, isn’t it?

Jon: It’s available on CD in Germany. It’s all being remastered, hopefully next year.

Wheat: Marvellous!

Wheat: On Pictured Within, did you do your own orchestration and arranging for that?

Jon: Yes.

Wheat: So it’s just pencil and paper. As much of an improviser as you are, you still have the discipline to sit down…

Jon: Well, I was taught that. You don’t lose that. But I also improvise a lot at home, an enormous amount.

Wheat: Do you use a computer and a sequencer ever?

Jon; No, I’ve got a Disklavier.

Wheat: Ah, the Yamaha. So you sequence right from the acoustic piano.

Jon: Sometimes, yeah. I actually use it as a giant, expensive memo pad. I just sit there and I play into it.

Wheat: Is it an upright, or a grand?

Jon: I’ve got an upright. I’m changing for a grand, because I’ve got a grand piano at home, but I use that more, and neglect the Disklavier sitting in the corner. Because I don’t get so much feedback from an upright. I get a tubby, sort of round sound.

But I find that most of my ideas come out of improvising. There’s a tune on the new album that came about thirty-eight thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean, on the way back from Japan. I’ll take it wherever it comes.

Wheat: I remember reading John Paul Jones saying that he would do his Led Zeppelin arranging while walking around in the garden with a pad and a pencil. Do you do that to?

Jon: I go walking, but I don’t take a pad and a pencil. I’ve got a dog to deal with!

Wheat: You’ve just got an amazing memory.

Jon: I write it down when I come back.

[We depart to go to the sound check and take some pictures. End of interview]


This interview is Copyright © 1997 by Wheat Williams, III. All rights reserved.