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Interview: Don Airey

Rock Stars...  

Keyboard player Don Airey is currently playing with British rock legends Deep Purple, having taken over the stool from Jon Lord. With busy touring schedule and UK and European dates looming, Don still finds time to work on solo material, writes Joe Geesin.

Classically trained, Don first found fame with Cozy Powell, Colosseum II and Rainbow (including the hits All Night Long, Since You Been Gone and I Surrender), working on solo material by Ozzy Osbourne, Gary Moore, Brian May, Michael Schenker and Uli Jon Roth. Then there's the sessions with Black Sabbath and Andrew Lloyd Webber (that's Don on the theme tune to the South Bank Show) and winning Eurovision with Katrina And The Waves in 1997. Don's discography is incredibly extensive, but most people worth playing with, Don's been there and done that.

The 40 minutes I spent with Don in London's Great Portland Street was not nearly enough to do the man's career justice.

I understand Deep Purple have a tour coming up?

Yes we start in Manchester, then there's two at the London Apollo, then the Glasgow Auditorium, then one in the NEC as was in Birmingham.  And I think we're doing some gigs in Ireland before that, and then we go all over Europe, Italy, I think we're doing some in Austria. It ends just before Christmas '09.

Deep Purple have always toured heavily, do you find it hard work?

It's always hard work. I think Count Basie said "I play for free, I get paid to travel", really the travelling becomes quite arduous, it's something you learn. You wouldn't do it if you didn't play every night, that's your quid pro quo, if you know what I'm saying.

Any news on a new album?

I've heard some distant rumblings, which is all you get from Purple, next year we will be doing something. Probably early in the year so release about this time next year (September 2010), is my guess.

So no title yet?

A title? (Laughs)

Does Ian still play air-keyboards along to your solos?

Laughs. Yes he does. Well in fact he's stopped doing it because the crowd seem to know about it and do it of the own accord so he doesn't have to bother, he just turns round and gives me a meaningful grin. It's quite an extraordinary thing, I found it quite embarrassing at first, but then I got into it.

It always made me laugh when I saw it.

Yeah yeah, he's a very funny guy, in his own sweet way.

Deep Purple

Any interesting stories from the road of late?

Oh yeah, we were doing a festival in Switzerland, and we came of stage, and around about midnight a call came through from a festival from Constance, could we stand in for Oasis, who had literally just split, but when the call came through the truck had just left.

So the decision was taken that yes we could do it. But nobody had the truck driver's number, except my son Mike, who's my keyboard tech, he's got everybody's number, and Albert was told "Turn around, we're not going home just yet". So we find ourselves next day playing in front of 25,000 Oasis fans expecting Liam and co, and getting us old farts instead.

How did you go down?

Well we were quite apprehensive, it was unusual, everybody was a bit, you know, how's this gonna go, there were a few discussions about changing the set, but everybody said the same thing, let's just do the usual set, hit them between the eyes.

So that's what we did, and it went a storm. You know in a few of the numbers you could see the audience, and they recognise the tune, "Oh that's you guys!" laughs. And it was rather wonderful, and we met a different class of band, than we normally have on with us. Kasabian were on with us.

And then we came off stage from Constance and the call came through can we do Milan, which was a big problem, we had no permits, it was a Sunday, I don't know if brown envelopes of cash were deposited here and there, but we secured a way to Milan. It was a nice thing to do.

Saw you a couple of years ago at the Hard Rock Cafe, which was pretty intimate.

Well that was a strange thing, the guy who was head of, you know buys all the gear for the Hard Rock Cafes, he used to be Rainbow's plugger, Don Bernstein, who died sadly quite recently, he just ran it past us.

I think the cafe had just burnt down inside and this was like a relaunch after the refit, and Bernstein said would we like to open it? So we said some kind of silly figure to him and forgot about it, then he came back and yeah you're on. It was packed. Michael Jackson was turned away that night, he couldn't get it. God it was busy. It was recorded. One of our best gigs, it was good that night.

Going back a few years, were you surprised to get the call to replace Jon Lord?

You know I often thought that, what would happen if Jon retires. I got the gig really because I stood in for him at 24 hours notice. I had a short rehearsal, before I went on stage with them, there was only time to do one number, "Woman From Tokyo", and at the end of that Roger came up to me and said "Welcome to the band".

It was great, I never thought Jon would leave, how could someone leave a band like that. It was beyond me. He was the one that formed it, it never occurred to me. There's been a lot of ups and downs, I think the band were shellshocked when Jon left, and I don't think they saw me as a permanent replacement, to be honest with you, it nearly fell apart, but it has gone back up. It's really delivering the goods, and I think I've played my part in that.

After classical training, what drew you to play in a rock band?

It was an accident really, I'd qualified as a music teacher, done my music diploma, I always put myself about as a Jazz player, I was engaged to be married, I'd got a job, and then the phone went; "There's a ship leaving Southampton tomorrow, we need a band, can you be on it? I've seen your band, I like the way you play, I think you can do the job". I just said yes, I think I knew, I knew it was a sign or something.

I remember saying to my fiancé "I'm going tomorrow, and I don't think I'm coming back". She said "What do you mean? We're going to live together" and I just said "I don't know, I don't think I'm coming back", and that was it.

And I went from, you know in this business you pay your dues, and I really did, I worked in hotels, I played American Bases, I remember playing a hotel in Hong Kong, one in Johannesburg, ships in Florida, and one day I thought, I've got a lot of money in the bank, I'm going back to London, and I'm going to join a band.

Is that when you hooked with Cozy Powell in Hammer?

Yes, I was working in a nightclub just round the corner from here, called the Rhinegold, Don't know if it's still there. And I'd worked with this guy Colin, and Clive Chaman who was a fellow West Indian, of this guy Colin, phoned him up and said does he know any keyboard players, we're looking for one with Cozy, and Colin sent him down to this club where I was working.

I saw this guy looking at me and I thought, he's looking at me like I've pinched his girlfriend or something, and he comes up, I say "What you want man?" and he says (deep West Indian accent) "I like the way you play man, can you do an audition?". I said yeah, who's it for, and I thought he said Cozy Cole, and I thought "What does Benny Goodman want with me?" and he said (thick accent again) "No No No, Cozy Powell", and I said "Cozy Powell? Oh Great!".

So I turned up with my Fender Rhodes and my mini Moog, and that was it, I never turned back. I heard Cozy play and thought yeah I'll have some of that. Wonderful, he was a wonderful musician.

He must have made some impression because you worked a lot together a lot over the years.

Yes, I mean, he was a very good friend of me and my wife. I think about him every day. Miss him terribly.

What do you remember about "Le Souk"? (The unreleased fourth RAK single)

Oh yeah. Micky Most called me into his office, I wondered what he wanted. He took me out for lunch, very nice man Micky, and he said "I've been watching you, I like what you do with those synthesisers.

You know all those guitars and things, they're all going to go, it's all going to be keyboards, and they'll get machines to play the drums", and this was like 5 years before all that happened.

Anyway he'd got this Hammond drum machine. Then me and Cozy went into the studio and Micky had this Dave Brubeck track called "Le Souk" and said why don't you play this? So he puts down this drum machine and says why don't you play a guide track, and I put a moog bass on it, and some keyboards on it, and Cozy went for the drum part and it sounded incredible, I mean I never heard Cozy play better, it was like he was released.

A great piece of playing. I've got a copy of it somewhere. I wish it would come out, it's a wonderful piece of music. I mean, Micky put backing singers on it....

Moving on from there, Colosseum II was more jazzy...

You could say that (laughs). That was an amazing band. I got that job right after Hammer folded and Cozy had joined Strange Brew, and his tour manager said "Can I borrow your keyboards? There's some guys rehearsing" so I just hired the keyboards and I went to pick them up, I walked in and Gary Moore, Jon Hiseman, and Jon says to me "Can you play those things sonny?" "A bit" I said (laughs)

And I was the 53rd keyboard player they'd tried so I got the gig, yeah that was great. I spoke to Jon recently about the band, about the 30th anniversary of the last gig we did. "Did you see my stuff on youtube that's just surfaced" "Yeah it's amazing". It's worth all the grief we went through as a band. Some terrible collisions during rehearsals, but what a band!

So how did working with Andrew Lloyd Webber come about? (the album Variations)

Oh we were on the same record company, and he'd heard War Dance, one of our albums, and really liked it, and got us on the record. It was great fun, and we all got to the premier of Evita, so I was there the first night.

How about Black Sabbath's Never Say Die?

Oh yeah I got that through Jon Hiseman. He was working with the old PA company Sabbath used to use, they were looking for keyboard players and I just went in, with some trepidation.

Gary Moore's Back On The Streets. Was that fun to do?

That was strange, it was like Colosseum II without Jon, Gary didn't know who to get so he got me and John Mole in, and I've got some amazing tapes of the three of us rehearsing for two weeks, with no drummer. Then we got Simon Phillips in.

Have you seen the footage of you, Gary, Cozy and Phil Lynott playing tracks from that album?

You mean the Old Grey Whistle Test? Oh yes it's all coming back to me now. Phil leant me this jacket, the wonderful blue sparkly jacket I was wearing, I've still got it. "Hey you can have that, it suits you" he said. Phil was always great, a wonderful character.

Were you surprised by the success of Rainbow?

Yes. I would say that because it was, you know I joined the band about six months before we did the record, and there was this phoney war, I didn't hear from anyone but saw that paycheques were going in the bank.

There wasn't a great build up to it but when it came out, the record company told us it (Down To Earth) sold 120,000 copies over the first weekend, and I phoned Jon Hiseman up and, you know with Colosseum II we had three albums and I think we sold 50,000 with all of them, in total, in three years.

It was an amazing thing really. We did this tour of America which was a bit arduous, unrewarding, and when we got to England we had missed the furore, and the first gig was in Newcastle City Hall and I pulled up in my new Ford Something (laughs), got out the car and this crowd just leapt on me. My leather jacket came off, they had to pull me out. They got me back my leather jacket but it was a shock.

What do you remember of the Donnington gig?

The mud (Laughs). I remember the soundcheck, where Cozy blew the PA up with his fireworks. I don't know how he didn't kill himself actually. It was very dangerous, what a gig that was. Ozzy was there, he came up to me afterwards, on the way to the dressing, I didn't know he was there, and said that was the greatest performance by a singer he'd ever seen.

Even though he forgot some of the lyrics?

Oh yeah. But what happened after that gig was the band broke up. Cozy left, Graham left, it was ridiculous.

Was any Difficult To Cure material recorded with Graham Bonnet?

I think he did a version of "I Surrender", yeah, and he definitely did "No Release", I think it was, he did this duff version with alternate lyrics, he was fed up with everyone. He was a genius, Graham, he just came up with this duff load of tripe which was very funny, but it was like "I'm Leaving" kind of thing.

Do you know what happened to those recordings?

I might have the tapes somewhere. I've got a big box of tapes and it's always "I'll go through them next Winter".

Was "Difficult To Cure" your classical influence coming in?

Well actually it was the first thing I played with Ritchie when I first met him, in a rehearsal. He said "Do you know Beethoven's Ninth" and I said yes, so we played it through and cut this little instrumental bit in the middle, and then we went onto something else.

I thought "This is going to be alright", and it was different to Gary Moore. Gary's an absolute genius of a musician, he can play anything, anything, Ritchie's not like that, Ritchie can't play anything. Ritchie can play this, something that's in his head, but it was great working with him, I actually got on quite well with him.

How did you find working with Joe Lynn Turner compared to Graham?

It was problematic with Graham, he wasn't really handling the role very well. He didn't really handle anything very well, you know to do with life. He could handle singing, but life was a problem for him, I have to say that, didn't hold himself up well. And when we were driving through New Jersey, me and Cozy, we heard a band called Fandango on the radio, local band, "Who's That!!", so we checked them out, and their singer was Joe Linquito, before he changed his name.

And it was in the back of our heads that Graham wasn't going to last, sooner or later. And he had a health issue, Graham, well he had a couple of health issues, one with his drinking, and he was epileptic, or had some kind of problem, I don't know if it was imagined or real, but you knew you'd have to look for someone at some stage and Joe was the obvious choice, a very good singer.

I mean there was no one as good as Graham for me, Graham's the king, I've just said some rather unkind things about him but at 30 years distance I think you can say that.

I've noticed that with artists, people can really handle the music business and the demands of music really well, and they assume life will be the same. It's hard for everybody, doesn't matter if you're Mozart or Joe The Plumber, you know it's going to be difficult. And a lot of them can't handle it.

Next you did Over The Top (Cozy Powell's first solo album). Was that as fun to do as it sounded?

Oh no that was great, we did the Rainbow album Down To Earth and I drove straight back to England from France, with Cozy, and we did Over The Top, and that was a big release.

Recording the Rainbow album had been quite fraught. We didn't have a singer at the time and we didn't have a bass player either, it was just me, Ritchie and Cozy made the album, it was quite difficult. I'd done a lot of guide bass on the Moog, just to help everything along, and I said "Roger why don't you come" and "Oh no I'm just the producer" and I think it was Graham who put his foot down, "Come on Rog what's up with you, you're the best" he said.

So it's when Roger put the bass on that it all came together. There was none of that with Cozy, we just a great time. And Jack Bruce, who had been having a patchy time with his career, as I recall, it was the same thing we just played and he loved it, it was marvellous.

And Cozy finally put the 1812 solo on vinyl which he'd been playing for years.

Yeah. It was back in Hammer, he said "What can I use as a drum solo?" so I bought the 1812 in and that's where he got the idea from, and he had this idea to do it with an orchestra.

He said "Right we're going to do it with an orchestra, how much is that going to cost?", and it's four grand just to get them to sit down, and then it's another three grand just for one session. "How much have you got?" and he says "600 quid" (laughs), So I said I'd do it for dinner and a couple of drinks, how about that? Come back in 24 hours, just did that bit on my own, which was great fun.

You did a lot of work in the 80s with Ozzy and Gary Moore. A lot of fun?

Oh yes, and Ozzy's band, that was one of the best bands I've ever been in, it was always very nice. Ridden with tragedy, credit to the band and everyone concerned that they carried on, kept the whole thing going. It was always great.

So how was the tour with Bernie (Torme)?

Yes, Bernie had a very rough deal, it was a very difficult situation to come in to. And he wasn't coping with the grief ridden state of everything, that was the trouble. And then a guy called Brad Gillis came along, who just knew everything, I didn't have to sit down with him and say "It doesn't go like that", he just knew it, it was a weight of everybody's shoulders. Particularly mine because I was dealing with the musical side of it at the time.

The two albums you did with Whitesnake were pretty successful...

Yeah. I'd known David Coverdale for years, he asked me to join, I was the first choice for the Whitesnake job. I think I was playing with someone else at the time, I can't remember, but before Jon and the before guy before Jon.

So I went over to Vancouver to play on it and found David in the most awful state. He was at his wits end, he couldn't sing very well. And, not that I remember but he told me I took him out for dinner and sat him down and said "Listen, you've really got something here, Don't give up hope".

I thought he was sensational and John Sykes was one of the best guitarists I've ever heard, at that time. I don't know before or since but he was just at that stage in his life where he was utterly brilliant.

And Neil (Murray) was there too?

Oh yes Neil was there, driving us on with his opinions on the progress of the musical material.

Judas Priest are not a band you associate with keyboards, but you've done four albums with them.

Yes, I'm kind of their honorary keyboard player, I don't know if I am any more, but, they just gave me a call, great people to work with, I've known them forever. Really great people, Glenn is really talented, and so is Kenny.. But they are just British rock, they embody the whole thing. Fabulous, and so is Rob.

You've played with two former Scorpions guitarists, how did that work out?

Oh yes. Uli and Michael. I knew Michael Schenker when I first came to London, I used to have a drink with him, and he looking like an angel in those days, he was 19, I've never seen a better looking or cooler looking person, like from another world. And he played guitar like he was from another world as well.

I can't think how I met Uli, but I always got on well with him. He's a bit overblown sometimes. You know, orchestras, he always wants 10 people in the band, why not have two singers when one will do. But what a player.

You also have the rare accolade of having won the Eurovision Song Contest (with Katrina And The Waves).

Ah yes. Now that's my main claim to fame. That's something I'm very proud of. Yes, it was a single we had. Katrina lives quite near me and had a studio.

At one point in my life when things weren't going very well, for me, because my son was very ill and I wasn't doing very much, except when they'd call me up and I'd do sessions with them, and I'd do the odd tour with them, it kinda kept me going.

They had this folk song "Love Shine A Light" and I said we should rock that up. I heard it like "Love The One You're With" by Stephen Stills, needs a bit of Hammond, acoustic guitar, so that's how we did it, a pretty great recording.

It was done for the Samaritans, it was going to be their theme tune, and they hated it, and they send it back, so Alex Cooper phoned me up and "Hope you don't mind, we're going to put it into Eurovision" and I'm a big fan. We never miss it at home (laughs). Armchairs round the TV, beers, pizzas (laughs). It's one of the most amazing things that's ever happened.

Is there anyone you've not worked with that you'd like to?

Well, yes, there's a lot of people. Eric Clapton. I played on an obscure track recently, somebody just sent it to me and said can I put some organ on this, who's their guitar player, oh it's Eric, no shit (laughs). Eric Clapton's the one, especially when he was with Cream.

Eddie Van Halen is another guy I'm a great admirer of. Leslie West, as he was, plays great, it's all guitar players. I once auditioned for Jeff Beck, but I was so overawed, from what I'd heard, I think a lot of people do that with Jeff.

What equipment are you currently using?

Oh my god, have we got a couple of hours? I've got more keyboards it's getting embarrassing. My son's my keyboard tech, I put him in charge, and the list of it ..... But with Purple, obviously I use a real Hammond. We've got three, I've got Jon's old C3, The Beast as it's known, the one that belonged to Christine McVie, I got in 1974.

I've got two A100s at home in my studio. I've also got two other A100 Hammonds that come from the States but they're chopped. They're called chops, they're rebuilt and put in a brand new case, everything strapped down, so I've got two of them.

And then I think I own 12 Leslie Cabinets, so that's the Hammond taken care of. The synths, I'm playing a Moog with Deep Purple, a Moog Voyager. I've got a K2661 synthesiser, and other bits of stuff in the rack, it's all very impressive, I don't know how it all works but it seems to.

Any plans for another solo album?

Yes, well I'm working on it at the moment, in fact. To a follow up to "A Light In The Sky" you mean? Yes I've got another one I'm working on at the moment, it's a radical departure, would be the way to describe it.

So what drove you to record K2?

Well, I don't know, it was funny, I was sitting on a plane with Cozy going to Japan, and they said, this was in the old days before you could fly over Russia so you had to go down to Dubai and then you went over the Himalayas and if you look out the window you see K2, and it's the second highest mountain in the world.

Cozy said "Look at that!", we saw it together and it stuck in my mind. Apparently it does, it gets you, you can't escape it. It gets in your head, they say you'll always be drawn to it. But I was writing this music that I thought was about mountain climbing and I suddenly realised it was my K2. An awful though this was my K2.

And I just happened to find out about the terrible disaster that had befallen the mountain climbing community in 1987. So I got to meet some of the guys who'd been on it, they weren't very interested to meet me, until they heard the music, and one of them said "That's exactly how it was". It's a funny old thing.

"Assent Camp 4" is a track that stands out.

Yeah, it's a weird track that, it's a nice mood I really like. Camp 4 is the one before the serious business starts. It's the one at 24,000 feet and that's when you know. A lot of people get to Camp 4 and turn back.

Would you ever go there? Take K2 to K2?

(laughs) - it's a two week walk! I would love to see K2, but it's a two week walk. They only time I've seen something similar is at the foot of Mount Blanc, and that's about the same view, 13,000 feet to the summit, at the base of Mount, but on K2 you're 14,000 feet up, and that's what it must look like. An awesome sight.

What have been your highs and lows in the music industry?

Oh God! Well, the highs, they keep coming thick and fast with Deep Purple. We've just had an amazing thing happen to us, taking over from Oasis and getting away with it, at our age, very gratifying. When I first played with Purple with played a concert in a natural amphitheatre in Athens, against a backdrop of rock, 5000 people there, and a full moon. I'll never forget it. And the keyboard solo I played "Never On Sunday", they all went mad, it was wonderful.

Low points, I guess the gig after Randy Rhodes died, back out on the road, that was awful. There's been a lot of low points actually. Some gigs I've done and I've thought "How's it come to this?" But if you're a musician that's what happens, you just have to keep on going. Playing's better than not playing, that's the thing.

How often do you get back to Sunderland?

Three or four times a year, somehow it always coincides with a match, I'm a big supporter, and see what little of the family that's still up there.

What were the first and last records you bought?

The first record I bought, the first single I actually bought was a song called "Midnight In Moscow" by Kenny Ball and His Jazz Men. The last record I bought was The Kings Of Leon. No, the last record I bought was, I bought it in Helsinki actually, a CD by an organ duo from the 60s, called Hansson & Karlsson.

I can't think of the drummer's first name, they were kind of a freeform rock outfit. And Bo Hansson was rather an amazing player, he had three Leslies and a big reverb unit. And he played the Hammond in a way nobody's ever played it before or since. No one's ever heard of him. Hendrix had heard of him, he was a fan, he used to play with him in Stockholm whenever he was there, and he covered one of their tunes called "Tax Free". So that was actually the last thing I bought.

What sessions have you done that would most surprise fans?

I did one with Petula Clark once, that I really enjoyed, she was wonderful. I think I've done a lot of sessions, you know adverts, that you wouldn't know it was me, McDonalds stuff, quite upmarket, working as an arranger, and that's me on The South Bank Show (Andrew Lloyd Webber's Variations).

Any other fact about you that would surprise fans?

I wanted to be a professional cricketer. But I was hopeless (laughs).

Anything unreleased still in the vaults?

For my sins, I've Done something I've said I'd never do, and built a home studio. I employ an engineer and I said "Every time you come round here, this is the deal, we've got to record something, whether we want to or not, I don't care what it is" and I've got 130 tracks in the vaults. A lot of which went on to "A Light In The Sky".

Any message for your fans?

Thanks for listening, really, I don't deserve it (laughs).


Interview © September 2009 Joe Geesin

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