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Gillan set to paint the town Purple

Birmingham | Entertainment | Published:

The Express & Star's Debbie Bennett gets a UK exclusive interview with Deep Purple front man Ian Gillan ahead of their LG Arena gig next week.

Ian Gillan on stage with Deep Purple - photo by Ian Harvey The Express & Star's Debbie Bennett gets a UK exclusive interview with Deep Purple front man Ian Gillan

There's an air of slight foreboding as I speak to Rock God on the other end of the line. A kind of an "end of an era" feeling.

In short, Ian Gillan – frontman of Deep Purple for 40 years – is no longer willing to fight the corner of the UK music industry. And why should he? The distinct lack of rock radio play has made the genre's performers and fans bitter.

For good-time rockers Thunder, who split up this summer after 20 years, this was touched on in their song On The Radio – their final two-finger gesture to such blatant apathy from the British music business.

"I wrote a song called MTV," 64-year-old Ian says. "It wasn't really about MTV, it was about classic rock radio. You realised nothing was being played except songs that were written 30 years ago or more."

He tells me about a typical situation when Deep Purple's bass player Roger Glover was being interviewed at a radio station in New York.

"I heard Roger was going into a rock station near Buffalo. I was listening to it while staying at my mate's house in the city." He laughs, "They (the DJs) were saying 'Welcome, Mr Grover, lead guitar, Deep Purple! Highway Star! Yeah!'

"Roger was trying to talk about a concert we were doing and all you could hear was 'Yeah! blah, blah, blah, Smoke on the Water! Yeah! Thank you, Roger Grover!'.

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Roger Glover, Ian Gillan and Steve Morse of Deep Purple - photo by Ian Harvey"Basically, he didn't get a word in edgeways."

"So I haven't got many thoughts in the way of radio at all. It's so out of date. Deep Purple played in 54 countries last year and it was sold out all the way. We played to 125,000 people in Paris a couple of months ago. We've got massive audiences. UK radio is so out of touch with reality, it's contrived rubbish."

I agree entirely. I haven't listened to Radio One since I was of school age. In fact, a few months ago I fought back against the trash churned out on mainstream stations and invested in a DAB radio, purely so that I could tune into the independent station Planet Rock. Pure rock heaven, 24 hours a day.

And one of its many great features is having rock star DJs – Alice Cooper, Joe Bonamassa, Rick Wakeman, to name a few. Ian Gillan would be a great addition.

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"I love Planet Rock," he says, "but I haven't got time. I've got about three albums on the go."

Ian GillanAfter a short break in the tour, Deep Purple returns to the UK for five dates only, the third of which is at the newly revamped LG Arena at Birmingham's NEC. The venue boasts 2,000 more seats and an improved backstage area.

"Seats?" Ian asks dryly. "If you go to a young people's concert you stand up. Go to an old people's concert you sit down."

So we need people on their feet.

"Bloody right!" he exclaims.

On the subject of young people, I tell him about an article I'd read on Deep Purple fan site www.thehighwaystar.com recently, claiming the band stepped in for Oasis this year when the Manchester rockers cancelled two European concerts at the last minute. A massive piece of news across the rock world – and, predictably, no mention of it in any UK newspapers.

Out of touch indeed.

"We'd just finished doing a big festival in Switzerland," Ian tells me, "and we got the phone call at 3am, a promoter panicking about some headline act. So we said 'yeah, sure'. It was most enjoyable. The average age of our audience is 18 years old – younger than Oasis's audience. And the other bands there, well, I've never seen so many people at the side of the stage watching the show. The fans loved it, we got a fantastic reaction."

But you'd be wrong if you thought Deep Purple were only in it for the money. While we chat a little about the recession and record sales ("What are those?" he laughs) I make the mistake of assuming falling sales and the download age are the reason Deep Purple tour so heavily.

Ian Gillan watches Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice - photo by Ian Harvey"I take that a bit badly," Ian says. "I mean, we've always been doing this. Live music is what we do – make new songs that we include in the act every now and again."

I also assume quite wrongly that the current long tour is to mark Deep Purple's 40th anniversary.

"I'm not being funny," Ian says, "but we've never named it the 40th year tour! We just got sick of calling it Rapture of the Deep. It's actually a five-year tour that we're doing. We just love it."

Rapture of the Deep was the band's last studio album, released in November 2005, and fans have been hoping for something new in 2010.

"No-one's done any writing yet," says Ian. "I've got about 50 songs in my library at the moment, but they're not for Deep Purple."

During a brief break in the band's tour this year, Ian recorded a solo album One Eye To Morocco, released earlier this year.

"We always start from scratch, with nothing," he continues. "We'll need to take a decent break, a month off. Then hopefully we'll all be in high spirits and I reckon we'll be in full writing mode around February."

Despite the recession, lack of radio play and general indifference to rock, the Download festival this year was a significant return to the classic metal sound from the old days of Monsters of Rock, also held at Donnington Park in Derbyshire, with the likes of Thunder, Motley Crüe, Def Leppard and Whitesnake appearing this year. But Ian is in no hurry to rush in as next year's headline act – and it's with his next statement that I realise I need to get those tickets for the LG Arena – fast.

Ian Gillan"We'd play almost anywhere," he confesses. "But the climate in the UK is not friendly. Nothing wrong with the fans, they're brilliant, and I'm looking forward to these shows in November. The band is hot right now.

"But we'll literally be flying through and I don't know when we'll be back next."

"I look back with great fondness on the long tours we used to do for the British fans, 28-36 UK dates – it was just brilliant. And, of course, we still see a lot of those fans now. But from 'the industry' there's nothing."

At this point our conversation is interrupted at his end by a the grating chime of an ice-cream van, and I burst out laughing. He explains that it's an old British one which has been converted into a fish van and calls in at the mountain villages in southern Portugal where Ian now lives. Not even the desolate beauty of his former home on Dorset's Jurassic coast can draw him back now.

At this point, I hear visitors arriving and it's getting chaotic at the Gillans' Iberian retreat so I bid him farewell and tell him I'm looking forward to the Birmingham gig next month.

"Great," he says. "Just don't sit down whatever you do."

* Deep Purple play the LG Arena, Birmingham, on November 13 with support from Brighton rockers The Crave. Tickets cost £38.

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