"To the general public in America, the lifespan of Deep Purple probably finished with our 1984 album, Perfect Strangers," frontman Ian Gillan says. "America's been a world of its own since the beginning. I think people have gotten locked in the past."
Although the hard rockers have put out eight LPs since Perfect Strangers – the most recent of which, Now What?!, came out last year – the singer says that when the band does radio interviews, all anyone wants to ask about is "Smoke on the Water." "I think things have just developed at a different pace internationally," he says. "It's like starting over every time we go to the U.S." Nevertheless, Stateside interest appears to be growing: Now What?!, a prog-leaning collection of 11 songs that the group recorded with producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd's The Wall, Alice Cooper's School's Out), was the group's first album to crack the Top 200 since 1993's The Battle Rages On, and this week, the group is kicking off its most extensive U.S. tour since 2007.
Shortly before opening night, Rolling Stone talked to Gillan about the current state of the band and its complex relationship with the past.
You worked with Bob Ezrin on last year's Now What?! Did he present any new ideas to the band?
He came to one of our shows in Canada and said, "Look, I saw you last night. What I want you to do is what you do onstage, because that's what you did back in the Sixties and Seventies." Our music had become somewhat formulaic over the years. We'd been dragged into that thing where you've got to do a song that you can play on the radio, and we'd forgotten the fact that "Smoke on the Water" was originally seven minutes long and that the label made a three-minute version for radio later.
So what happened in the studio for this record?
Bob told the rest of the guys, "Look, just sit down and play something. Improvise like you do onstage." I came in the next morning, and he played me the first take. It was a beautiful piece of music that ended up being "Uncommon Man" on the album.
Between Now What?! and your last album, Deep Purple's founding keyboardist Jon Lord died. Did you pay tribute to him here?
"Above and Beyond" was definitely about Jon. I remember when we heard the news. We'd been expecting it because he'd not been well for quite some time, but it was still a terrible shock. [Drummer] Ian Paice and Jon were married to twin sisters, so it's pretty much in the family. Before his funeral, I wrote down some notes and one of the lines was "souls having touched are forever entwined." And that became a line in the song "Above and Beyond," so it was as if Jon was still a part of the band.
While we're on the subject of your past, Deep Purple have been eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1993. Are you upset you're not in yet?
Whatever you say to a question like that, you sound supercilious or dismissive or disgruntled or sour grapes. I spent all my younger life trying to avoid institutionalization as much as I could and then I realized that these sorts of things are for your family and fans. So I don't mind what happens. We're grateful for anything that comes along our way.
Have you ever heard anything about the induction process?
I've heard quotes of somebody on the [Rock Hall voting] committee saying, "Well, Deep Purple can't be in it, because they were a one-hit wonder." I don't know if they were referring to "Hush" or "Smoke in the Water" or "Child in Time" or "Highway Star" or "Perfect Strangers," any of those one hit wonders that we were.
I think it would be undignified for us to enter the fray and stamp our feet and say, "Yeah, we don't need it anyway." It's reallys an American thing. We don't really understand it, but if I treat it with respect, we'll see what happens. That's all I can say.
There was a lot of controversy this year with Kiss' current members not wanting to play with their original members at this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Would you be willing to play with the group's founding guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore, who had a bitter split with the band in 1993, at the ceremony if you were inducted?
Well, we are the living, breathing Deep Purple. This is the longest that any lineup has ever been together in this band. And it would be unconscionable to think about bringing Ritchie in. I don't have an issue with Ritchie, nor does anyone. I've been in touch with Ritchie recently and everything's cool, so there's no bitter, personal problem. We're too old for that and everything's in the past, but no. That would be out of the question. How insulting that would be to [current guitarist] Steve Morse, for example? So if that's the stumbling block, fair enough. Never the twain shall meet.
Why do you say that?
I'm saying what I'm about to say not to wind Ritchie up, if he's reading this. He knows that we've got to talk about these things. So I say this with no rancor, and let's get the record straight: I was just as much of an asshole as Ritchie was. But Ritchie carried it on for a little longer. Had Ritchie stayed with the band, it would have been all over. It would have just ended. Without any doubt in anyone's mind – it was all over. So the day he walked out was the day we had to rebuild. We had Joe Satriani for one year, and he got us over the crisis, and then we got Steve and started to rebuild. Within a couple of years, we started playing arenas again, and it's been fantastic ever since.
It's good to go through those crises. It doesn't do your heart any good, but that was the spirit of the band. So to go back to the question of "Would we do the show with Ritchie?" I think that would be hugely disrespectful to what I call the living, breathing, Deep Purple. There's always been a living, breathing, Deep Purple, good or bad at any stage of our evolution, and how it is now is particularly healthy and it wouldn't be right.
Do you think people have a hard time accepting bands evolving?
We were the first generation of rock & roll, but life goes on. Things evolve. People mature. The one thing nobody was taught was how to deal with success, and I think that happens to everyone who makes it at a young age. But it's OK to grow up. It's not a bad thing. I remember cutting off my hair and everyone went, [gasps] "What have you done?" I said, "Hell man. It's getting in my beer. It's just ridiculous."