Deep Purple is a band with very little left to prove. With more than 100 million records sold and a history that spans over fifty years, this is a band made up of musicians who are regarded as being at the top of their own musical trade. You could say they’ve done it all, and to that point, when last year’s studio album Whoosh!, which reached number four on the UK charts, was said to be their last in their “time trilogy,” (which also included the albums Now What?! and infinite), it didn’t come as much of a surprise. So, to hear that the band was able to assemble another studio record in less than a year, during a lockdown, no less, was welcome news to fans across the globe. The result is Turning To Crime, their first-ever collection of songs recorded by other artists.
Producer Bob Ezrin (KISS, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Peter Gabriel, Andrea Bocelli, Phish and others) returned once again to the Purple fold and quarterbacked an incredible recording protocol that required each member to lay down their parts remotely, in their own personal studios. Those pieces were sent electronically back to Bob, who assembled each song with such mastery that it’s impossible to determine where the parts were snapped together – this sounds like a record that was recorded live in just one room by five guys. It’s really quite something.
The process began with everyone offering up songs they felt helped explain the path their musical journey has taken, and the mix they settled on is eclectic. Here you’ll find songs by Cream, The Bob Seger System, Little Feat, Love, and a blistering version of the Fleetwood Mac original, “Oh Well,” which is also their latest single. Deep Purple includes long-time members Ian Gillian (vocals), Steve Morse (guitars), Roger Glover (bass) and original member Ian Paice (drums). They are joined by keyboardist extraordinaire Don Airey, who this year celebrates his 20th anniversary with the band. Don’s tenure with “Purple” follows a storied collection of sessions backing Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Jethro Tull, Whitesnake, Steve Vai, Michael Schenker, and Rainbow, to name just a few. He has even worked with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. Airey was the perfect person to step in to fill the shoes of then-retiring member Jon Lord, and help guide forward a band who, with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, remain part of “the unholy trinity of British hard rock and heavy metal.”
We had the opportunity to speak with Don about this remarkable project, and how he found a way to make this recording protocol work within a studio that he had already begun to turn into a game room. It’s part of a larger story that is almost as stunning as the music it helped create. We also learned that, believe it or not, there just might be another Deep Purple record in the tank. When you hear Turning To Crime, you’ll wonder why there aren’t even more. This is a band that really does challenge each other to be their best and grow together – even when they take a moment to just look back.
Ray Chelstowski: The band has never been known for doing covers, so was everyone on board with this project when the idea first surfaced?
Don Airey: It came about during the lockdown, but we had talked about it before. This just seemed like an ideal opportunity to tackle something that everyone had always wanted to do.
RC: This is an eclectic group of songs. Did you all come forward with two or three personal favorites?
DA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was like, “What’s your favorite song?’ And of course, everyone agreed on [Fleetwood Mac’s] “Oh Well” because its everyone’s favorite song. I came up with the medley (“Going Down”/”Green Onions”/”Hot ‘Lanta”/”Dazed and Confused”/”Gimme Some Lovin’”), which is of things that we would jam live in an encore. I just tried to knit them together. I also came up with the Ray Charles idea with “Let The Good Times Roll.” Steve Morse came up with “Lucifer,” a track that is not generally known by Bob Seger but one that Steve saw him perform live when he was like 13 years old and never forgot.
RC: The real outlier to me to me is Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken.” Who brought that song forward, and are you a fan of Billy Payne and his keyboard abilities?
DA: I think that might have been [suggested by] Steve Morse as well, he being a Southern gentleman himself. He thought it was a good one to try, but I thought it was going to be impossible, especially trying to cover Billy Payne’s piano part. I thought it turned out quite well though. I think for me it was the most difficult track, just technically [speaking], because my recording equipment was on one side of the room and my grand piano was at the other. I had five seconds to get across the room and put the headphones on and make sure everything was working properly. It took me quite a time that one. What Billy did was give me a good lesson; I’m such an admirer of his keyboard skills. It was nice to give him a tip of [the] hat.
RC: What song did you all want to include but, in the end, just didn’t come together the way you wanted?
DA: I did a demo of “Chest Fever” by The Band. It’s a monumental track for any keyboard player, because it changed the way keyboards were played. I know that it inspired Jon Lord in how he played with Purple in 1968 or 1969, whenever he heard it. But when it came to it, Ian Gillian said, “I just can’t sing those lyrics” (laughs). “They’re just not me.” I actually think that Robbie Robertson just made the lyrics up in the recording session as he went along.
RC: So, you were all required to record your parts separately?
DA: Yes, that’s what happened. We all did demos to a drum machine. Once Paice put the drums in it all seemed very real. We just kept sending tracks back and forth to each other. Bob Ezrin really worked his magic again on this one.
RC: You have had a long prolific career working with everyone from Ozzy Osborne to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now that you have been with Deep Purple for 20 years, what sets this relationship apart from all the others?
DA: I think that because it’s a democratic band really. No one really leads. If anyone, it’s Ian Paice, who leads from behind with his drumming. You know, it’s not an easy band to play with. It’s a tough gig for keyboard player. With all of the musical changes you have to be on your toes in four numbers time. We play almost every song [in the Deep Purple catalog]. It’s very intense, but that’s what I think has kept it together all this time. It’s gone from strength to strength. The last six or seven years is the most successful period the band has ever had.
RC: What was the hardest musical part of becoming a member of the band?
DA: It’s really all about the Hammond organ. You must have some arcane knowledge about how you get that [Deep Purple] sound out of it, the distortion and how to fit in with a guitar. Not everyone knows about how to do it. I remember when we were rehearsing for the tribute to Jon Lord in a big church in London with an orchestra. I forget what we were playing, but I saw [Yes keyboardist and solo artist] Rick Wakeman come in and I thought, “Oh heavens, Rick’s here.” Next thing I realized was that he was standing right behind me. When we finished playing, he turned to me and asked, “Man, how are you doing that?” He just wanted to know where that sound was coming from. I said, “I could tell you Rick, but I’d have to kill ya!” (laughs)
RC: I was recently turned on to the band’s song “Lazy.” It has a remarkable and lengthy Hammond organ intro. Does that still make regular appearances in your live set?
DA: It’s so hard to copy what Jon did with it because he was so jaunty about it. We perform it quite often and I do it slightly different than Jon. I go to “swing time with Basie,” and it gets a big cheer when the guitar comes in.
RC: Is there any keyboard player who has captured your attention lately?
DA: You know, who I really love is Finneas O’Connell, Billie Eilish’s brother and producer. He does some really cool things with keyboards. It’s sparse but it’s also really tight. He has a technician’s eye. Then there’s a keyboard player in Denmark, Palle Hjorth, who plays with Sweet Savage. He’s a hell of a Hammond player and really something else.
RC: You had stated publicly that Whoosh!, the band’s last studio record, would be your final. Now comes this record. Is another studio record still possible?
DA: Well, potentially there’s one more record in the offing but whether it happens no one really knows. We’ll have to wait and see what happens next year. Everything seems to be opening up. I don’t think we will make another album like [this] covers record, because we really would prefer to be in a room together, being able to see the lights of the drummer’s eyes and all of that. It kind of inspires you. That’s how Deep Purple has always made music.
RC: With a peak position of number four, last year’s album Whoosh! was the band’s highest-charting studio album in the United Kingdom in over 46 years. What do you attribute the success to?
DA: Well, it was the third album we had done with Bob Ezrin and by that time you get into the swing of everything. Bob really had some great ideas, which we had to turn into some kind of musical reality. It suited us really well that time, especially with the longer tracks. They are very impressive, particularly the one with the orchestra, “Man Alive.” It was all of bunch of pieces that he helped pull together.
RC: What are you hoping for from this record?
DA: You know, when you put an album out you don’t really hope for anything. You are just focused on getting it done, and then you stand in amazement when people like it. I mean Whoosh! is a very, very good album. It’s very well played and recorded. This is Bob Ezrin (producer) at his best. I was really impressed when I heard it. It was very nice that it went down so well, especially at such a time when the pandemic was really raging. I just hope people accept our cover album [Turning to Crime] for what it is; that there is some weird joy that they find in it, and something different.
Header image courtesy of earMUSIC.