Access: Rock’s Niclas Müller-Hansen had a chat with the mighty Don Airey of Deep Purple about his solo album “Keyed up”, Gary Moore, Ozzy, Rainbow and a lot more.
Access: I just realized that you´ve spent a great deal of time in Deep Purple by now. How would you describe these years?
Don Airey: Yes, I´m amazed myself. Well, very fruitful and I couldn´t have wished for anything nicer to happen to me actually. It´s a great band, great music and it´s well run. We have a great crew. It´s not an easy gig, I have to tell you, following Jon Lord, but it´s been a great experience.
Access: You have a new album out, “Keyed up” and I have to say that the opening song, “3 in the morning” is stunning.
Don Airey: Great! It was one of those songs that came about pretty quickly. It got knocked into shape in a day or two and it was just a couple of takes. It´s one take with a bit of a jam at the end. It´s called a “bread and butter track” really. It´s really stock.
Access: How did you pick the people you you´re playing with? Are they old friends that you´ve finally got a chance to record something with?
Don Airey: Yes, it´s more or less that. I´ve know Laurence Cottle (bass) for 20 years and he used to do session with Cozy Powell and myself. I think I introduced him to Gary Moore actually and he then went on to work with Gary and Black Sabbath. He´s one of the top jazz bass players in the world, but he likes playing a little bit of rock now and again. Darrin Mooney (drums) I´ve know since he was about 20 whe I spotted hin in a club. He´s an incredible drummer. I remember whe I first saw him and I went “Oh, the new Ian Paice!”. We´ve been friends for a long time, but as you say, you don´t get much chance when people are in different bands. Rob Harris (guitar) lives near me and I´ve known him since he was about 15 and of course he works with Jamiroquai all the time.
Access: I read that the recording of the album was organic and analog, which is going against a lot of things these days with everything being digital?
Don Airey: What we did is that we recorded everything live, organ, bass and drums in the same room. Of course you get a lot of problems with spill from the organ because I´m using two Leslie guitar amps and there´s spill on the drums and I can hear the drums get on to the organ tracks, but that´s what gives you that indefinable feeling when everything is mixed down together a bit. What you hear is actually what happened. It´s how we played it. There was a jam at the end of “3 in the morning” and everybody were watching each other to see when we´re going to end it. A track like “Beat the retreat”, the fast bit at the end was actually a spontaneous jam that came out of nowhere and we kept it in. That´s where the old rock and roll feeling comes from. It´s musicians playing and they´re not really sure how it goes, because they´ve only done it a couple of times but you gotta be a good musician. That´s part of being a good musician, that everybody´s watching and you´re very receptive to what happens. A player like Laurence Cottle for example, he will get things very quickly and then he starts giving you value for your money and he starts putting all sorts of things in and Darrin Mooney is the same. You´d think it was those two guys trying to keep up with me, but it was actually the other way around. My eyes and ears are out and I´m wondering what they´re gonna come up with?
Access: You have the late, great Gary Moore on the album. Was the plan to have him do more on the album or was it just those songs, “Adagio” and “Mini suite”?
Don Airey: I´d been to see him at a gig in 2009 and he said “Why didn´t you ever ask me to play on your albums?” and I said “I never thought you´d say yes.”. We set this up in 2010 and it was due to go on the last album, “All out”. The session wasn´t a disaster, it was just that we didn´t get the track finished. He was very ill at ease that day for some reason and I´d never quite seen him like that. We did what we did and I told the record company “Well, I´ve got Gary, but it´s a work in progress.” And of course we never got to finish it. What happened with “Adagio” was that Rob Harris had done a guide track for Gary. We sent it to Gary kinda like “This is how it goes!” and we just married the two up into a duet. It didn´t take long. It took like a quarter of an hour and it was amazing.
Access: You worked a lot with Gary over the years. How would you describe him? Was he an easy guy to work with?
Don Airey: God no! (laughs) Gary, what can I say? I think he was the best guitarist I´d ever worked with back then. He was an astonishing talent. I´ve never known anybody that had so many musical resources at his disposal. He could hear things, he was creative, he was technically so gifted, he was a great song writer, he was a great singer, a great lyricist and one funny guy too. (laughs) When you worked with him you could feel the devil snapping at your heels. He was so quick. He had this Irish sense of humor that was devastating. He just summed people up and he was like that right to the end. The last day I saw him, the session when we recorded “Adagio”, he was being very funny about people. I can´t tell you about the things he said. I remember something he said about Greg Lake (King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer) once. He adored Greg Lake and Greg is a massive talent, but something he said about Greg was “Oh Greg, he´d go all around the world to borrow a cup of sugar from the person next door.” And that really kinda summed Greg up, really.
Access: The songs on “Keyed up”, are they all new or are some of them stuff that´s been around for a while?
Don Airey: Five or six of them were written for the album. The suite is dedicated to Gary´s memory and obviously in “Lament”, the lyrics are about Gary and it´s something we used to play with Coliseum II. That whole thing is about Gary really. My little tribute to a very great musician.
Access: Are you gonna be doing any kind of touring for this album?
Don Airey: I start a tour in March. We do 10 gigs Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany, Italy and Belgium and that´s the first leg, then depending on how it does, we´re gonna try to do some more dates. I´m using the band that is on the record so I´m looking forward to that. We´ll be in a tourbus with a trailer with the gear in the back and a couple of roadies. The good old days.
Access: When you started playing, did your parents encourage you to pick up an instrument?
Don Airey: We had a piano in the front room. I lived up in the north of England. My parents both played and I started playing think my dad taught me until I was about seven and he then said “I can´t teach you anymore.” and he got me a teacher. I went through all the grades to study music at college. I wasn´t good enough to be a concert pianist, but I think I was better than I thought I was. I found some old tapes of me playing classical stuff and it was like “Bloody hell, who is this? Oh, it´s me!”. (laughs) And as fate would have it, I went into rock and roll and I had a great life.
Access: Do you remember the first recording session you got paid for?
Don Airey: My first recording session was actually when I was 13 0r 14. I played at a concert in my local town and I played Dave Brubeck´s “Blue rondo a la Turk” and it caused a sensation. I played it with a show band and ended it with that. Somebody from the BBC was there and they said “We´ll get you on BBC Newcastle!”, so my first session was recording “Blue rondo a la Turk” live for the BBC.
Access: And now it´s on the new album.
Don Airey: Yeah, now it´s on the album and of course I´ve always been a great admirer of Keith Emerson (who used it as the base for the song “Rondo” when he was in the band The Nice), so it´s a bit of a tribute to him, but it´s a tribute to Dave Brubeck as well. It was great to play and we had fun playing that in the studio.
Access: Playing on so many albums and working with so many great musicians, is there a certain time period, not counting Deep Purple, where you feel you had the most fun?
Don Airey: 1980 with Rainbow. We had some huge hit singles and it doesn´t get any better than that. Big crowds everywhere we went and it was a fantastic band. Roger Glover and Cozy Powell was an amazing rhythm section and Ritchie (Blackmore) was playing the best he´d played since “Machine head” and we had Graham Bonnet, who was just such a brilliant front man. He was unique. We played Donnington and Ozzy was there and he said to me after that it was the greatest performance by a singer he ever saw. He said that to me subsequently 20 years later.
Access: Was the 80´s a constant party?
Don Airey: No, it wasn´t. It was hard work. There was a bit of that going on, but the only band I was in where drugs really became a bit of a problem, was the Ozzy Osbourne band. Ozzy had a dreadful experience where he collapsed and his heart started beating really quickly and it soon cured him. I would say it was a two month period where things rather got the better of dear Ozzy. After that he was never a problem. He was never a problem anyway because gig days he was always completely straight and there were more gig days than off days. When you´re doing five gigs a week and 3000 miles a week, you don´t have time for it. If you´re successful, all you think about is keeping yourself together for the next gig. But we did use to have a bit of fun. (laughs)
Access: Speaking of Ozzy. Do you remember putting the intro to “Mr Crowley” together?
Don Airey: Yeah and it just came straight out of the air. I was doing the session and they were all kinda sitting there, the band in the control room where all the keyboards were and they were getting on my nerves. I said “Get out of here and come back in half an hour!”. When they came back, that´s what I´d done and Ozzy just said “I thought you plugged into my fucking head!” and I was like “Oh, thans Ozzy! That´s a real compliment.”
Access: It has to be a special feeling as a musician, when you put something down in half an hour and then a month later, people are singing along to it in a big crowd?
Don Airey: James Taylor (American singer-songwriter) said something. Roger (Glover) and I went to see James Taylor last year and he said “The next song is something I heard Carole King singing in her dressing room and I said – Can I record that? And she said – Of course you can! And I never thought at the time that I´d be singing it every night for the rest of my life.” And that´s the song “You´ve got a friend” (1971). You don´t think of it at the time, it´s only afterwards.
Access: You´ve also played with some really interesting guitar players, Michael Schenker, Ritchie Blackmore and Gary Moore. All three known of as being difficult to work with. Could you rank them?
Don Airey: It´s really hard for me to say who´s the best, because my experience with them all is that you´ve gotta be so on your toes when you´re around people like that. Their difficulty is part of the creative process. Ritchie used to play a game, but what he did was get everybody “keyed up” so to speak. That´s where it comes from. Get them on edge and that´s how you get the best out of people.That´s how he works. People say to me “Wouldn´t it be better to have six months to make an album and take your time? And the answer is no. The quicker you do it, the better. Time is money and studios are expensive. Get it right the first time.
Access: It feels like music was put together in a more “honest” way back in the day?
Don Airey: It was and I can´t argue with that. One thing I´ve noticed personally was that when I was younger, when you went to record, it was a terrifying process. The people who worked as professional engineers and producers were frightening people and some of them were so good. You really felt the pressure and when that red light went on, you had to do it good. But the thing was that you played and go through it and then they said “Alright, come and have a listen!” and when you heard it back, it used to sound amazing. Like they´d done something incredible to it and you hardly recognized what you´d done. That was the magic of tape and Neve desks, whereas now when you play something, you go back and listen to it and it sounds exactly like you remember it. It doesn´t acquire the magical halo that it used to. Whether that´s just getting older I don´t know. I heard McCartney say something about that when The Beatles recorded. They´d put down all the tracks and then they´d go to the pub while they mixed it and then they came back and just sit in amazement of what they heard. The immediacy of recording has been lost. People are trying to recreate the old sound digitally and they go to all kinds of lengths to do it and it just doesn´t work, because something doesn´t ring true about it.
Access: Now that you recorded the latest Deep Purple album with Bob Ezrin, did you work like that?
Don Airey: That´s exactly how we did it. That´s how we worked. Bob came to the rehearsals and made a lot of observations and then we went into the studio and just recorded it alive, all in the same room. All the amps were separated of course, but we were in a big studio in Nashville. Bob Ezrin is an amazing producer! He´s old school and we were all done and dusted in five or six days, 15 backing tracks. My keyboard work was done in a few hours. The organ is all live. Great sound and I was amazed. Same thing when I heard the mixes, I was amazed and I said “Bob, you´re a genius!” and he said “I know.”. (laughs)
Access: What are the plans for 2014 when it comes to Deep Purple?
Don Airey: My touring is kinda slotted in between Deep Purple tours, I think. We´re up in Sweden soon and then we go to the Far East in April and I´ve got a few more solo gigs in May and some in August.
Access: Could you see Deep Purple working with Bob Ezrin again?
Don Airey: All I can say is that I hope so. I live for the day and I can´t speak highly enough about Bob. I just listened to “Only women bleed” (Alice Cooper) yesterday and what a piece of work that is!
Access: Through the years you´ve played on a variety of albums. You played with Helix back in ´87. How did you end up playing on their album “Wild in the streets”?
Don Airey: Through the producer Mike Stone. I had worked with him on various sessions, so he just called me. It was very interesting. The first day, they were very wary about any keyboards going on and everything I did, they´d have a meeting in the corner about it. (laughs) Then the next day they wanted wall to wall keyboards on everything. When they heard what I was doing they kinda went the opposite way. They were great! I remember there was one track called “Bend over and kiss your ass goodbye” (Ended up being “Kiss it goodbye”). A track to play to your mother. (laughs)
Access: You also played with Zeno.
Don Airey: You can put this down, they were the hardest people to work with. They were difficult. I think I had a bit of an uproar in the studio after a couple of days with them. They tended to be behind and I went “This is not how rock and roll is made! You haven´t sold a record yet and you´re acting like you´ve sold five million!”. They went white at me blowing up, but then the session went very well after that and we got done very quickly. They made the best demo I´ve ever heard actually, but then they just squeezed all the life out of the album and it didn´t quite match up to the demo. Brilliant band though.