Don Airey: Itís Deep Purple & Thereís a Hammond

By Jeb Wright
Photos by Jim Rakete

Don Airey had the seemingly impossible task of replacing the amazing Jon Lord when he joined Deep Purple eleven years ago.  To say he’s done okay is a huge understatement.  While he had been with the band for over a decade, he is still considered the ‘new guy’ in the group.  

Iconic producer Bob Ezrin, who was brought into to lead the charge for Deep Purple’s latest album Now What?! had this to say about working with Airey, “I was most impressed with Don Airey, who I had never worked with before and I didn’t know.  He is one of the best keyboard players I have ever seen in my life.  He is beyond amazing; he’s a genius.” 

His bandmate and other DP newbie, twenty year member Steve Morse, also had praise for Airey, “Between Jon Lord and Don Airey I have really been blessed to work with two of the very best rock keyboardists in history.”  Stalwart Roger Glover, who has been with Purple since 1969, added this “It is very difficult with Don Airey and Steve Morse, who are such great musicians, to play anything simple.  They come up with ideas that I would have never thought of.”

Such praise is commonplace for the humble Airey, who before joining Deep Purple had been a member of Gary Moore’s band, Ozzy Osbourne’s band and Rainbow.  He has also recorded, or performed, with Cozy Powell, the Michael Schenker Group, Bernie Marsden, Brian May, Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, Whitesnake, Jethro Tull, Bruce Dickinson, UFO, Uli Jon Roth and Judas Priest among others. 

In the interview that follows, Airey discusses why Deep Purple made the new album, what advice Jon Lord gave him when he took his place in the band and what it was like working such great guitarist as with Ritchie Blackmore, Randy Rhoads and Gary Moore.     

Jeb: I have been listening to the new Deep Purple, Now What?! and loving it.

Don: Oh, so you like it?  We worked really hard on this album.  We went to a very good studio with a very good producer.  Bob Ezrin played a really big part on how the album came out.  We had some long writing sessions and we rehearsed really hard. When we got into the studio, we were primed. 

Jeb:   A lot of bands don’t do albums anymore because you basically are doing them for free. Why did you decide to do one? 

Don:  We toured on the back of Rapture of the Deep for much longer than we thought was possible.  That album did well for the band, as it kept us on the road.  If you’re in a rock band, then you need product.  A new album was definitely the only thing that would fit the bill at this time.

Jeb:  Why did you bring in Ezrin?

Don:  Bob came to see us play.  We contacted a few people, but Bob seemed really keen.  When he came to see us, we played a really triumphant show in Massey Hall in Toronto.  Bob came backstage afterwards and we had a meeting with him. The next day and he laid out exactly what he could do for us and what we needed.   

Jeb:  Bob is a world class producer and you are all world class musicians.  That could go one of two ways, either you work with synergy, or you butt heads the entire time.

Don: Bob knows what he is doing.  There were a few ups and downs, as there always is when you make an album.  When I heard the mixes, I knew we were onto something. 

Jeb: It has to be hard to impress the guys in Deep Purple.

Don:  I noticed that when I was taking a mix back to the apartment, when I was in Nashville, the bass end and the drums were right there.  There was a lot of power from very early on and we knew we were being recorded right. 

When you record with ProTools it is quite a problem trying to get a heavy rock sound.  It is much easier said than done.  In the old days, we used tape and, for whatever reason, it seemed it was easier. I was impressed with it from the first time I heard it. 

Jeb:  You really made your presence known on this album.    

Don:  I did an interview with a German journalist, who was a bit of a keyboard fan.  He took me by surprise because he said that my organ playing was as good as Larry Young.  I said, “You’ve heard of Larry Young?  I’m impressed.  But I’ve got to tell you something, I am not as good as him.”  

Jeb: You may say that, but you sure invoke the spirit of Jon Lord on this album.

Don:  Well, it’s Deep Purple and there is a Hammond there.  There is only one way to go, really.  Over the years, I have really worked on my sound, it didn’t just happen overnight.  The first two, or three, years I was with the band, I was using Jon’s C3 and it was pretty knackered.  I had it refurbished.  It’s been put in mothballs now. 

I much prefer Hammond A-100’s, that’s my choice. We found a guy in Connecticut, who found a couple of these things and put them into a new box to make them much more portable.   He also refurbishes Leslie 147’s, so we got quite a few of them and they are souped up a bit.  The final component is that I use a Hughes and Kettner Pure Tone amp, 4x12.  The amp, actually, was designed by the company to the same specs that the Marshall amp that Jon used on Machine Head

Jeb:  You knew Jon and you were friends.  When you took over did Jon give you any advice?

Don: When I first took over, I was out and I bumped into Jon somewhere and I said, “Do you have any advice?”  He said, “Yeah, stay out of the way of [Ian] Paice’s drum fills.”  That was his advice and it has served me well, I will tell you. 

Jeb:  I want you to talk about some of the new songs.  On “Blood from a Stone” you make a nod to the Doors.  Where did the idea come to use that Wurlitzer sound. 

Don:  Oh absolutely.  It is not a Wurlitzer sound we are using, it actually is a Wurlitzer.  There was one in the studio, a pretty rare red one, as you don’t see many red ones.  We just turned it on and put a lead in it.  I think we put it through an amp, as well. It had a beautiful sound.  It was all done very quickly.  I think I did one take and Bob said, “Well, we may as well have a solo.” I did a solo.

Jeb:  “Uncommon Man” has the classic Deep Purple sound, but you also put your own touch on it.

Don: Steve and I have a great deal to do with starting songs off, then the two Ian’s [Gillan and Paice] and Roger [Glover] put the Deep Purple imprint on it.  It is very much Deep Purple, but it has the two new guys on it, if you like.  Steve’s been there twenty years and I’ve been here eleven [laughter]. 

Jeb: What is it like playing on stage with Steve?  Being the keyboard player in Deep Purple is a lot like being a lead guitarist. 

Don: There is a lot to do.  Usually, as a keyboard player, you look down the set list and you think, “Oh, in four numbers time I have to do something.”  The rest of the time it is pretty easy.  In Deep Purple, I look down the sheet and go, “Oh, how am I going to get through this.” 

Steve very much leads the charge.  He is full of ideas and it really astonishing how much he has in the way of ideas.  We clash a lot in a friendly way.  We butt horns, so to speak, quite a bit, but that is good for the song, the material and for the band. 

Jeb:  On “Simple Song” you take Roger’s simple idea and make it very complex. 

Don:  We never seem to lose the thread.  I think there were no overdubs going on there; it was just spontaneous.  After all this time, you kind of learn what may happen.  We’ve been playing a long time together, as a band. Right now, being together in Germany, there is a bit of a brouhaha going on.  We are a better band than we thought we were.  I don’t think we’ve quite given ourselves the credit for the long miles we’ve put into the band over the years. 

Jeb:  You can say Rapture of the Deep and Bananas were Deep Purple albums, but there were not that many classic Purple moments.  On Now What?! there are a lot of classic sounding moments.  How many songs will you play live?

Don: It is heavier.  The thing about heaviness is that it is not easy to do.  Even when Roger and Ian play quietly it is still heavy. 

We are not sure how many songs we will be able to play live.  We are spoiled for choice.  We played “Hell to Play” live the other night on German TV.  It was one of their big talk show hosts, who had us on as a special guest.  Unbeknownst to us, the house band, which was fantastic, had learned all of the backing vocals and they taught the audience the parts –they had a run through with the audience.  We were rather surprised that the audience was so into it.  It was a great moment.  When you get feedback like that it is very gratifying. 

Jeb: Put “Vincent Price” in the set. 

Don: I would think so.  It has been two months since we’ve done a gig and we will be getting ready for the next gigs in May very soon.  I will tell you that we’re filming a video for it tonight. 

Jeb:  The review I did of the album I said that “Vincent Price” needs a video.

Don: Yeah, I saw that. 

Jeb:  You and Roger both played with Blackmore in Rainbow.  Compare Steve with Ritchie. 

Don: Ritchie kind of comes at you from behind; he is always pushing you from behind. With Steve, you just go with him in the slipstream.  They are different.  If they were the same it wouldn’t work.  If someone is the same as someone else, then he is copying and that will not work in a band.  In a band you have to be yourself. 

Jeb:  You have always been surrounded with great guitar players.

Don:  At one point in my career I had worked with Gary Moore for three years, and then I worked with Ritchie for three years and then I was just starting to work with Randy Rhoads.  At the time, it was just natural. I seemed to go from one to another and it was, in truth, just extraordinary circumstances.  

I love working with guitar players.  I don’t live for it, but it is what makes things happen.  You have a certain job, as a keyboard player, and that is to make a guitar player feel happy with what he is doing.  You give all of the support that you can.  I think when I stopped working with Gary; I think he really missed having me around.  I don’t think it took him long to realize that what he was missing was that kind of interaction that we had.  It is quite a subtle thing.  You have to place it just right.

Jeb:  You went back and forth with Gary through many bands, including your K2. 

Don:  We seemed to be telepathic, actually.  I just seemed to know what he was going to do.  I remember when he wrote “I’ve Still Got the Blues for You” that it took about three minutes.  He came up with this little idea and it came together very quickly.  I wrote it down and it was a marvelous track.  I think when we started that album it was a side project.  Over the course of making the album, he really found himself.  He really opened his heart up and he let it fly through his Les Paul.  It was an astonishing thing to be around.  He was an amazing musician.  I do miss him.  He had a rapier wit and you didn’t want to get in the way of it [laughter].

Jeb: Randy Rhoads was another great player.  He has a small catalog, but he is still revered today.

Don:  Randy was a fabulous player.  I first met Randy in the studio on the Blizzard of Ozz album and we got along right away.  He was very friendly and he wanted to know about Gary.  I was telling him things about Gary and then we started playing a few things.  He was very easy to work with.  He was one of the nicest people that you could ever meet.  He was very funny, as well. 

Jeb:  You have the most classic heavy metal keyboard intro ever on "Mr. Crowley" from Ozzy's album Blizzard of Ozz.  Do you remember how much work you put into that?

Don: A lot…maybe a half an hour. 

Jeb:  You did that in a half an hour?

Don:  They said they wanted an intro for that song, so I threw them all out of the studio for twenty minutes.  Ozzy came back twenty minutes later and said, “Give us another ten, would you?”  We finished it with the producer, Max Norman. 

Jeb: Do you still miss Randy?

Don: I do.  Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. It is not that he died, it is that he lived.  It is the fact that somebody like that actually walked among us. 

Jeb:  In Deep Purple you travel across the globe.  You play anywhere.

Don:  We have opened up a lot of territories over the last ten years where no bands would go. 

Jeb: You are playing in Iceland.  Who plays in Iceland Don?

Don:  Not many bands [laughter].  When we play these places that most bands never travel to it is a great thing to see their reaction.  You can have a real arduous process to get somewhere, and you can have technical problems, because this, or that, is just not right.  But when you go out on stage, everything seems to resolve.  You just see row after row of smiling faces.  That is the secret. 

The year we played Monaco we got presented to Prince Albert.  He came to the show and we had to line up and we were presented to royalty.  When we told him how many gigs we did that year…I think it was around 140…he refused to believe us.  Our manager, Bruce Payne, got the gig list and showed him and he was just amazed.  He kind of hung around and I said, “Would you like a drink?”  I got him a Heineken and he said, “Don’t bother with a glass.”  He invited us all on his yacht the next time.  

Jeb:  Outside of Purple you’ve put out a couple of solo albums.  Will you be doing another one?

Don: There is a label in Holland called Mascot/Provogue and they have gotten very big over the last ten years actually with Black Country Communion.  I am signed to them and I have done two alums, so far, and they want me to do another one.  I am just starting to work on a new concept album.  I can’t tell you about it though, as I want to surprise people. 

Jeb:  Last one: You played with Black Sabbath on Never Say Die.  It was not the bands best time because they were breaking up, but I wondered how you got involved with that?

Don: I just got a call and they sent me the tapes to four songs.  I kind of dreaded it because they had a fearsome reputation for mayhem and all of that.  They ended up being the nicest bunch of people that I’d ever met; fantastic people.  The sessions went very well.  I was in for two days and we always kept in touch.  I think they offered me the gig to go to America, but it was just about the time that I had joined Rainbow, so I turned them down.