Color them vibrant

February 20, 2004


When NASA was searching through the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia, which broke up over Texas upon re-entry into the earth's orbit in early 2003, investigators found three Deep Purple CDs amid the debris.

Mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, a native of India, grew up loving the pioneering heavy-metal band. She traded e-mails with its members from outer space, and she woke up every morning aboard Columbia by listening to "Space Truckin' " from the group's classic 1972 album, "Machine Head."

Talk about having friends in high places.

One of the longest-running bands in rock, Deep Purple remains a consistently great live act, and vocalist Ian Gillan, guitarist Steve Morse (who replaced the legendary Ritchie Blackmore), bassist Roger Glover, drummer Ian Paice and new keyboardist Don Airey (who replaced founding organist Jon Lord) are acknowledging a major part of their history with a tour that finds them performing "Machine Head" in its entirety. The band has also released a new album, "Bananas," that includes a track called "Contact Lost" that pays tribute to Chawla.


*7:30 p.m. Tuesday
*Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
*Tickets, $27-$52
*(312) 559-1212

I spoke with Paice from his home in England before the start of the tour, which comes to the Chicago Theatre on Tuesday night.

Q. For the new album, "Bananas," you turned to an unlikely producer.

A. After many, many years of trying to keep everything in-house -- writing, production, arrangement, everything -- we were sort of not exactly getting lost for ideas, but starting to lose a little bit of variety. The decision was taken to bring in an outside producer to try to spark things up a little bit -- to get us thinking more creatively, to drive a work ethic back into the band, so we had a deadline that we had to stick to.

We looked around and found a wonderful chap by the name of Michael Bradford, who had been producing Uncle Kracker and Kid Rock, and doing some really good stuff. He's a wonderful, great big black guy, and not the sort of guy you'd think would be interested in white rock 'n' roll. He's been a big fan of ours for a long time, though, so that was a nice surprise. He is very, very bright -- a great musician, very intelligent, locks into what you are trying to do straightaway -- and it was just very confidence-building. Everybody in the band suddenly thought it would be really nice to get into the studio, instead of, "Oh, god, here we go in the studio." And that was the major change when it came to the creation of "Bananas" -- to try to expand the horizons a little.

Q. When you perform live, how much is spontaneous and how much is you stretching out?

A. It's like taking a trip: You start at A and you get to B, and you know that along the way there are certain signposts that you've got to look out for. But once you hit that sign post, and you know there isn't one for another 50 miles, you can take a detour. You have these moments in your head: You know they're gonna come, and you've got to be aware of them and play with them to hold the band together, but what goes on in between signposts is pure freedom.

Q. I can imagine that with the core of the group being together for so long, that became second nature. But when your new keyboardist came in, was it like learning a new language?

A. What you lose when you lose a confederate who has been with you for a long time is the ability to read their mind. It's a split-second thing, but there are little audio signals, little physical movements, when you sort of know what the possibilities are of the next moment. With a new guy, of course, you have to relearn those, and they're not the sort of thing you can say, "OK, let's sit down for an hour and work on them." It comes from doing it night after night after night. And sure, it takes a wee while, but we still work so much. We're still on the road six, seven, sometimes eight months of the year, and that's a lot of shows. It doesn't take that long when you are doing that many shows to start picking up on those little quirks that everybody has.

Q. When the group was recording "Machine Head" and all of those classic tracks -- "Smoke on the Water," "Space Truckin'," "Highway Star" -- was there a sense that this was going to be an iconic album?

A. No, they never feel that way. Apart from the absolute chaos of the beginning, where we had nowhere to record [because of a fire in the studio], when we got into recording, as far as I remember, it was very, very easy. And when you listen to the record you can tell, basically, that it's just capturing us playing live. There are no gimmicks, no tricks on it. There are a couple of overdubs, but basically, it was just a set of very nice songs played very well, and it just captured the moments.

Some of those old records, it is not about what you hear, it is about what you don't hear. What you don't physically hear is the atmosphere and the room -- the place where it is recorded. You can hear where you are. With the clarity and the clinical perfection of modern records, you don't get that. You feel something on some of those old records, and "Machine Head" is one of them. You feel the air around it, you feel what's going on.

Q. I've always been fascinated by the moment in Britain when blues-rock merged with psychedelia to become heavy metal. What do you remember about that time?

A. If we go back to that time when Purple was being formed, and Zeppelin was being formed, and Hendrix was big news, the lunatics were running the asylum then. The musicians were in control, and the industry was making a fortune because the musicians were in control. If you could try something, you tried it, and there was nobody there to tell you you couldn't. Everything was tried.

I don't think when we went into the studio or when we went onstage years ago we were thinking of anything at all, except, "God, does it feel great to be in a rock 'n' roll band!" and "Hello, we haven't tried this, should we try this now!" Because everybody was doing that, there is a lot of [crap] mixed in with it, but every now and again, this little gem would just surface, and they're the ones that would become "Stairway to Heaven." They are special, these little perfect pieces of music, but you have to allow them the room to be created, and there has to be tons of crap before they can emerge.

Q. There have been many ebbs and flows in the group through the years. Do you think we'll ever see the most famous version of Deep Purple performing again, with Lord and Blackmore returning to the fold?

A. Off the top of my head, I really couldn't see that happening. You know, time is a great healer of many, many things, and as we go through life, we tend to mellow a little bit. I just think there have been so many things done and so many things said between different factions, it would be sort of hypocritical if it ever did get back together on stage. I'm not saying 100 percent it couldn't happen. The only thing I could ever see is if there's a time that every one of us said, "OK, this is the last time we're ever going to appear on stage." And even that, I think, would be in the lap of the gods.