'The bloody thing burned to the ground': Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan recalls that fire in the sky

Deep Purple are considered to be among the forefathers who forged hard rock and heavy metal, thanks to their unmistakable blend of heavy guitar riffs, anthemic keyboards, and sweeping melodies in songs like “Smoke on the Water,” “Woman From Tokyo,” and “Perfect Strangers.” The band is currently on tour in North America through the end of August to get behind their 19th studio album NOW What?! (earMusic/Eagle Rock).

DP vocalist Ian Gillan, 68, recently spent some time with FOX411 to discuss how the band translates their live vibe in the studio, how it felt to get high praise from Vincent Price, and what it was like in the aftermath of the infamous hotel fire that inspired “Smoke on the Water.”

FOX411: Thanks for coming across the Pond to play for us here in the States. Do you have a different mindset for playing here than you do in Europe?

Ian Gillan: If you’ll forgive me for saying so, we never really think of the audience in that way. If you start adapting to audiences, you’re really second-guessing the situation, and it becomes a bit more like cabaret. So, with the greatest respect, we just do our thing. It’s all done in terms of the musicality. At the moment, we’re really, really lucky, because NOW What?! has material that is so compatible with the ancient stuff; it fits right in with “Lazy,” “Space Truckin’,” “Smoke on the Water,” and “Hush.” When [producer] Bob Ezrin got us in the studio, he said, “Look, what you guys do onstage — I want you to get that on the album. Don’t worry about how long the songs are.” That’s just what we’ve done, and it’s worked out like a dream.

So to answer your question, there’s no selection of material for a particular territory. We just do the best show for our own personal enjoyment. (laughs) That may sound selfish and probably unprofessional, but that’s how we’ve always worked.

FOX411: The band does seem to be locked into a really good groove right now.

Gillan: The thing about a band is, it’s not so much how good the musicians are — it’s the blend of personalities and characters. It’s the human chemistry that makes up a good team. When it comes to Deep Purple, the influences are so broadly based — everything from orchestral composition to jazz, blues, folk music, rock & roll, and medieval music by way of [late founding keyboardist] Jon Lord, Ritchie [Blackmore, founding/former guitarist], and Roger [Glover, bassist], plus big band and swing with [drummer] Ian Paice. Those were the styles that we all brought together in our formative years, and it was the personalities who knitted it all together that gave us our identity.

Once you find your voice and find your niche, then you can then start being expressive, instead of just copying. It’s a wonderful moment when you make that first record where you go, “Wow, that’s us.”

FOX411: What was the first Deep Purple record where you said, “Ok, we’ve really got our thing going on here”?

Gillan: Well, that was Deep Purple in "Rock" [1970] for sure. When I sat and listened to it as objectively as I could even though I was involved in making it, I thought, “This is it. This is what I’ve been searching for all of my life.” That was the first stage, but that wasn’t the whole story. The second part of that was "Fireball" [1971], which the industry hated because it was nothing like the first record; it was that old second album syndrome. But really, we had to do that to get to the other side of the band, which was the soul and the funk, as well as the rock & roll, the classical, and the blues. So when you have Deep Purple in "Rock" and "Fireball" together, that enabled us to produce "Machine Head" [1972], which I think was probably the whole picture. But it had to come in stages.

FOX411: I love that line from the song “MTV” on the expanded edition of "Rapture of the Deep" [2005], where you talked about being mistakenly referred to as “Mr. Grover and Mr. Gillian.” When and where did that happen?

Gillan: I hate to say it, but that was actually a true story. It happened at a radio station up in Buffalo, over a decade ago. Roger went along with me. We were doing an outdoor show the following day, and we were trying to talk about the new record and promote the show, and the girl didn’t want to talk about anything but “Smoke on the Water.” The whole half an hour was a complete waste of time. She kept referring to us as “Roger Grover” and “Gillian.” That gave rise to a nice story. (laughs)

FOX411: You’ve told me before the best Deep Purple songs come from improvisation. Name one of your favorites that came to you in the moment.

Gillan: “Highway Star” is one. It used to be different every night. We wrote that on the bus going down to a gig in Portsmouth [in England]. A journalist asked one of those inane questions: “So how do you write a song, then?” And Ritchie was practicing, going through his scales, and he said, “Just like this,” and he played that repetitive riff — ding-ding-ding-ding-ding, ding-ding — on an open string, and I started singing some words. And then we found the chorus. It went naturally and sounded pretty good, so we did it onstage that very night. We used to work five nights a week, and it became something we enjoyed playing. But it probably ended up very different from how it started out. Loads of these things begin as just jams, really.

FOX411: Did Frank Zappa ever talk to you guys after the fire that inspired “Smoke on the Water”? [“Smoke” was written about the fire at the Montreaux Casino in Switzerland on December 4, 1971, when an audience member shot off a flare during a Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention concert that caused the whole hotel to burn down. Deep Purple were in attendance because they were scheduled to record an album there the following day.]

Gillan: No, I never saw him after the show. We didn’t see where he went. The fire was unbelievable! The police and the fire people just moved everybody out of town. The whole town was closed off while the bloody thing burned to the ground. It was massive. We were moved to a hotel called the Eden Palace Au Lac, another hotel along the lakeside, and we just watched it from there. The thing just burned down. I don’t know what happened to Zappa, I guess he left town. (chuckles) He had Flo & Eddie from The Turtles onstage with him. It was an awesome show, really great. Until the fire burst out.

FOX411: So, just to be clear — you never crossed paths with Zappa years later and compared notes? Like, “What the hell happened there”?

Gillan: No, our paths never crossed again.

FOX411: There’s a song called “Vincent Price” on NOW What?! The whole band knew him, right?

Gillan: We all knew Vincent Price, yes. I met him at The Butterfly Ball [and the Grasshopper’s Feast, a one-off concert of Roger Glover’s concept album of the same name, held on October 16, 1975 in London]. He was The Narrator, sitting in the Peacock Chair in the Organ Loft at the Royal Albert Hall. It was the night of my coming out of retirement. [Gillan had left Deep Purple in 1973.] Roger Glover called me in a panic and said, “Ronnie Dio can’t come. Please help me out.” I didn’t find out until later when Ronnie told me Ritchie said he’d fire him [from Rainbow] if he turned up to do that show! Thinking nothing of it, that I’d just sing this one part for the night, I turned up for the rehearsal, and learned the song [“Sitting in a Dream”]. When I went out onstage, I had no idea what was going on. I wasn’t in the program, and suddenly this ripple of applause turned into a standing ovation, so I had to stop. It went on for a long time. I was overwhelmed. It was a moment of love and appreciation from the audience I’d never experienced before.

Afterwards in the bar, Vincent Price said to me, “What an amazing moment. We had to stop the show.” And I said, “It was. I had no idea what I was missing.” In fact, I had no plans to sing again. I had kind of quit, really. But I got my guitar out the next day, wrote three songs, and I was back in the studio in a very short time. So it was a very catalytic moment for me.

Anyway, when we started writing lyrics for that song, I was sitting with Roger in Portugal and I said, “If you were producing a Vincent Price horror movie in the ’60s, what would be the ingredients you’d have to have in that scenario?” And we thought, “howling dogs, lightning, cranking chains.” (chuckles) He wrote out this list of elements in a horror movie, and then we burst out laughing: “Well, there are the lyrics!” It only took 5 minutes to write. (laughs)

FOX411: Will the album after NOW What?! be called What’s Next?!? Do you have enough new material ready for a new one?

Gillan: We had a rehearsal in Portugal and came out with about 20 ideas, but not one of them is a song — yet. But at least this time we’re on it. There won’t be a 7-year gap like last time because we were all turned on by making the last record, so I think everyone is looking forward to getting back into the studio with Bob Ezrin and developing more ideas. Roger’s got them all catalogued. There may be a piece of magic in there somewhere that will give rise to a song eventually. Next year, I imagine there will be another record, though I don’t know what it will be called. But What’s Next?! — that’s funny. (chuckles)

FOX411: You can use that for the title. I won’t charge you.

Gillan: (laughs) Well, thank you.

FOX411: Last thing. How long will Deep Purple go on?

Gillan: Well, we’re always on the road. The band is hot right now, though we never quite know what’s happening up there; it gets dangerous some nights. (laughs) I think “dying with your boots on” is the expression that used to be used in the Old West, and I guess that would apply to us.