An Interview with Don Airey of Deep Purple

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Interview: Don Airey (Deep Purple) – solo album “Keyed up” (in English) –  Access: Rock

I’ve been a fan of Deep Purple for as long as I can remember. Their unique blend of Hard Rock, Blues and early Heavy Metal is distinctive to only them. Soaring vocals, hard driving riffs, heavy yet Jazzy downbeats, punctuated by pulsing, driving bass rhythms. On the surface, or to the untrained ear, Deep Purple could get lost in the shuffle of other 70s Rock music, but there is one key component to their sound that truly sets them apart- the Hammond organ. Originally, the keys were handled by one Jon Lord, but after his departure in 2002, the amazing Don Airey has been manning them ever since, and he hasn’t missed a single beat.

In a band like Deep Purple, chemistry is everything. There is a truly symbiotic relationship between all its players, and the final sound is as distinct as it is astonishing. Don Airey is a massive component to the Deep Purple sound we all know, love and cherish, and so today, it is an honor to have Don here to give us some of his astute musical insights. I should also mention that Deep Purple has a new album out this year. It’s called Whoosh! and you can get it here on vinyl through the band’s website. It’s a fantastic album and it sees the band in their full fledged glory. And so, let’s get to it. It was an honor to speak with Don. Enjoy!

Andrew:
Don, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. It’s been a very odd year, hasn’t it? What have you been doing to pass the time?

Don:
Been taking a break after countless years on the road; trying to upgrade my rudimentary cooking skills, gardening too, spending as much time as is allowed under the various lockdown rules with my four beautiful grandchildren, binge watching the tele and generally enjoying the comforts of married life at home. Musically there has been quite a lot of traffic of the file share variety coming in and out of my home studio, and I have been relearning many of the classical piano pieces I played in my youth.

Andrew:
Tell us a bit about your musical origins. How did you get into music?

Don:
My parents both played piano to a certain extent, and my father had a wonderful collection of Jazz and Classical 78s which I played as much as I could after learning at the age of 6 how to work the radiogram. Had piano lessons from the age of 8, got into various local “beat” and Jazz groups as a teenager, in my hometown of Sunderland amidst the Beatles explosion. Went on to study music at Nottingham University, where I was active on the Jazz front, also writing music for comedy revues, plays etc, then spent a year at the Royal Manchester College of Music studying piano and thence into the big wide world of commercial music.

Deep Purple Announce New Album Whoosh! | Consequence of Sound

Andrew:
Deep Purple‘s last three albums have been produced by Bob Ezrin. He is a true studio genius. He really has a way of coaxing the absolute best out of a band. What went into the decision to work with him and how has the experience been?

Don:
He came to see us play at the Massey Hall in Toronto in 2012 (Bob’s Canadian). He came backstage afterwards and was obviously impressed, so we had a meeting next day at the 4 Seasons (hotel, not garden centre). He seemed to sense our direction which was “doing that thing that you do,” rather than trying to be commercial and the bond was immediate. He’s a tough taskmaster though and really got us “taking care of business” as far as songwriting and being prepared for the studio goes. It’s been a great experience working with him I must say.

Andrew:
Deep Purple has had many lineup changes over the years, but it’s really been steady for a long time now. Regardless of lineup changes, the group always seems to carry its signature sound. What is it about Deep Purple as a group that breeds such a special chemistry?

Don:
Roger and Ian Paice often talk about the spirit of the band, almost like there’s a 6th member, whose presence you feel as soon as Paicey hits a downbeat. There’s a quiet controlled power to the music that is unlike any other band I have ever worked with. Nothing really prepares you for it; it’s like being whacked on the back of the head by a large plank of wood.

Andrew:
Deep Purple has been at it a long time, but the band is still keeping it very fresh. Your latest album, Whoosh! is as energized musically and sonically sound as anything you’ve ever done. Tell us more about your new album and the inspiration behind it.

Don:
Mostly hard work – two ten-day writing sessions which Roger kind of runs, collating all the ideas into some kind of order. Then 2 weeks rehearsal in Nashville with Bob Ezrin attending the final week and giving us the benefit of his advice and wisdom on what’s working and what isn’t. By the time the band gets to the studio, it’s primed, and this last album, we recorded 14 backing tracks in a week. It helps that we were working in the best studio in Nashville (the Tracking Room) and that Bob has a wonderful team, in particular, his recording and mix engineer, Justin Cortelyu (aka Corky).

Andrew:
Following up on my last question, often bands that have been around for some time will run short on ideas, or coast on old achievements. Deep Purple on the other hand, seems to be very focused on moving forward. How important is it to you as a band to stay relevant, rather than becoming a legacy act?

Don:
I think it is very important to come up with new material otherwise you end up being your own cover band. Not everything new works of course, and somehow you know you’ll never scale the heights achieved when you were young and hungry, but as Frank Sinatra said, the secret of longevity in showbiz is to successfully negotiate the plateau, not the heights.

Whoosh!

Andrew:
Do you collect vinyl? Tapes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music?

Don:
Guilty as charged. I own about 3000 vinyl albums, and apart from live, it is my favourite way to listen to music, though of course I have a vast collection of CDs and a digital recording system in my studio. Played The Band’s 2nd album the other night – ‘Rag Mama Rag,’ ‘The Night they Drove Old Dixie down’ etc, and it’s almost as if Garth, Robbie, Levon & Co are in the room with you, andyou don’t need a magnifying glass to read the credits on the album’s sleeve.

Andrew:
This may be a difficult question, but what are a few albums that mean the most to you and why?

Don:
No,that’s easy. The first 2 albums I acquired as a teenager still have me under their spell – Sergei Rachmaninoff playing Chopin’s Sonata in B flat minor, originally recorded in 1927, and the other, Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker Live at Carnegie Hall in 1947, which contains the most astonishing torrent of improvisation. Other favourites are, Walk on the Wild Side by Hammond organist, Jimmy Smith, (the greatest!). Abbey Road, (and everything else) by The Beatles, Electric Ladyland, Hendrix (I have it on the original Polygram pressing of which there were only 5000 made), Birds of Fire, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, wonderfully heavy Fusion music and revolutionary keyboard playing from Jan Hammer, Bridge of Sighs, Robin Trower, a moody masterpiece, Dirt, Alice in Chains, (so HEAVY). Also listen to my Jazz collection often favorites being, Nefertiti (1969) by Miles Davis, an album of cool impenetrable mystery, pianist Bill Evans, Live in Tokyo (1974), again mystery and mastery in equal proportions, and Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961) by Oliver Nelson, small group modern Jazz at its best.

Andrew:
Once COVID-19 calms down, what’s next for Deep Purple? Will we see a supporting tour for Whoosh!? I know there was rumors of the last tour being the final one.

Don:
I know nothing! I am just the keyboardist! Hopefully, fingers crossed that the various vaccines work, we’ll be out doing a victory lap second half of the year.

Andrew:
Last question. Deep Purple has had a long and storied career. Looking back, what are some of your fondest memories with the group?

Don:
The first gig the Skanderburg Festival, 30,000 present, Aug 9th, 2001 where I stood in for Jon Lord at 2 days’ notice and about 15 minutes rehearsal was quite an epic. There have been so many. A gig at an amphitheatre in Athens on the same tour under a full moon to a full house. The Budokan in Tokyo, in 2017, full house, raining cats and dogs outside. The induction at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2016, which was unexpectedly very emotional. Having dinner with Dimitri Medvedev, Prime Minister of Russia, at the Gorky Palace in 2013 not something one easily forgets, and the last gig I played with DP in Cluj Napoca, Rumania, December 10, 2019, to an amazingly young, receptive and friendly sell-out audience.

Deep Purple's new album is "all recorded" — Don Airey - Russia Now

Interested in sampling the work of Deep Purple? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full catalog of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Andrew has always felt himself to be a "jack of all trades, master of none" type of person. With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found Vinyl Writer in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Stories from the Stacks. Over time, the column grew into a website which now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process.
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