By Jeb Wright
It’s been 20 years since Steve Morse successfully replaced iconic guitarist Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple. Despite having more time under his belt as a band member than his predecessor, Steve is still seen as the “new” guy in the band.
Perhaps part of that perception is due to the fact that Blackmore was the guitarist when Deep Purple wrote much of its classic material.
With the release of “Now What?!,” Morse may be able to shake the new-guy moniker and create a new vision of himself in the band.
Morse talks openly about many topics including joining the band, writing the new album, working with producer Bob Ezrin and being the only Yankee in a band of Brits!
Morse also reveals a secret during this interview. He never, ever, owned a Deep Purple album growing up.
GOLDMINE: Fans are liking “Now What?!,” as it really has the classic Deep Purple sound. “Rapture of the Deep” and “Bananas” were different than this one. They did not keep my attention the way this one does.
STEVE MORSE: I feel like this is one of our very best studio albums since I have been in the band. We definitely had more time, this time. Bob was the outside producer, watching over us. He made decisions that helped us with which way to go. He helped us to push it one step further, as he is not the easiest guy to please.
GM: You worked with Ezrin on “In the Spirit of Things” when you were in Kansas.
SM: I knew exactly what I was getting into. I am not sure they did. It is like having a tough coach; you get a better team.
GM: Roger is also a producer, and you had Ezrin, and then you have the original member, Ian Paice. There must have been a lot going on.
SM: Roger is the most adaptable person. Whatever he needs to do, he does. In this case, he needed to be the bass player first and also the most vocal commenter as we were writing. Don and I were throwing out stuff just as fast as we could, and stuff was flying everywhere.
Whatever Ian Paice says, you can pretty much bet he is right. He doesn’t talk much, but when he does, he really knows what he is saying. Roger kept an ongoing chat on what we could do and what we needed to do.
Roger will speak up on issues, such as how many mid-tempo things we have. For instance, we could be working on a mid-tempo song and Roger will go, “We have too many mid-tempo songs. We need to change this, or try something different.”
We had over 20 songs. The first thing that Bob did was to pick the ones that he wanted to do. We ended up with 15 that everyone liked and then we whittled it down. We have songs that were pretty good that are not on the album.
Roger was supportive to everyone. When Ian Gillan was open to suggestions for his lyrics, then Roger would go and work with him. Bob was the one to facilitate that. He would say, “Work on this. Rewrite this; come on.”
After I left the session to go on the road, Bob would e-mail me and say, “I am not digging this section right here. Give me four options. Give me four different solos.” Sometimes he would go through them and say, “No, I don’t like that.”
I wouldn’t send someone something that I didn’t think was good enough, so there were times it was hard to understand. The beauty of having a producer, especially in the case of Bob, is that you have someone who always knows what they want. Within the band, there can be confusion because some people can think that we have it, while others don’t think so. With Bob we had one voice making the decisions, and we could concentrate on the creative stuff and not so much on the debate.
GM: How did the band react when Bob accepted the job?
SM: I think there was a lot of — for the English guys — a lot of acceptance, based on the fact he produced Peter Gabriel. I am not saying English people are racist against Americans (laughs). You have to put this into context. I am known as The Colonial. They remind me that we were originally ruled by the English. I tell them that we had to escape from their tyranny, so that we could tax ourselves to death (laughs).
GM: I think some fans wonder if Ian [Gillan] and Bob got along, as they are both known as headstrong individuals.
SM: I tried to let both of them know — not that anyone listens to me — what they were getting into. I saw nothing but positive. Bob had worked with rock stars, vocalists and English guys. Ian has worked with all kinds of people in his career. He has done lots of outside stuff, like being the vocalist in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” where he had to answer to outside people. He was ready for this. Everybody wanted the very best album we could get.
GM: Don Airey and Steve Morse really shine on “Now What?!”
SM: Between Jon Lord and Don Airey, I have really been blessed to work with two of the very best rock keyboardists in history.
On one of the tunes, we do this little improv section, and we nailed it on the first or second take, and we can nail things like that all day long. Don has these great ears, and he can hear exactly what I’m doing and push it in a different direction. I know him well enough that I can do the same thing. We have a great chemistry.
All of these guys are amazing musicians. I feel my strength is more as a writer than as a studio musician. I have to concentrate to keep up with everybody in terms of getting it all in one take. I think they are more apt at it than me.
GM: The album begins with “A Simple Song.”
SM: The original idea was on the bass, and it was brought in by Roger. It was a simple song, and we turned it and twisted it and added a second part and had fun with it. When someone brings in an idea like that, then we kind of let them steer it. He liked one of the melodic melodies that I did.
There were almost too many chefs in the kitchen that day, but it was Roger’s original idea, and he would say, “When we were rehearsing it, we did it more like this,” and Ezrin would go, “No, no, do it more like this.” I said, “But I think it is better like this.” That little simple song should have been a one-take thing, but after all of the banter, it ended up taking about eight takes (laughs).
GM: “Weirdistan” has such a cool vibe.
SM: I like any of that weird Eastern influence in the music, mixed with rock. I was surprised when I heard the mix, and there was this giant phaser throughout the whole mix. I just loved that.
GM: The songs all fit together on the album, but they are very different and stand on their own. The Deep Purple sound is there.
SM: When we started writing, three or four sessions ago, we knew we were going to have something more like the root music of the band. They were like, “Morse, we know you can’t help but throw in weird stuff, but we want this to be more like the ship that brought us here.” We all agreed on that. All of our ideas were close to the center of whatever you may pigeonhole Deep Purple as. Then, of course, they grew.
GM: “Out of Hand” is over six minutes long, and there is even a little hint of the “Perfect Strangers” riff sneaking in there. There is also a great back-and-forth jam between Don and you.
SM: That song was inspired by the English rockers like Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore. It is a cool song. When we started, they wanted more of the simple hard rock, and I was a little weary of that, because I was afraid they would edit all the stuff I do out. They didn’t mean that, exactly. They just wanted things to go back to the core.
GM: “Hell to Pay” is a great rock track. It may be the most old-school Purple tune.
SM: The choices that the core members made in terms of what sounds too weird, or what works, were very well done. I really like the way I play with Don on this one.
GM: “Blood from a Stone” is another standout track. The background has this “Riders on the Storm” vibe to it.
SM: Definitely; I remember saying that out loud. Don was talking about using the Wurlitzer with sustained notes, and I said, “Like ‘Riders on the Storm.’” The feel of it is different, but the vibe with the Wurlitzer with the sustain pedal down makes it sound that way, even though it is more of a funky riff than “Riders on the Storm.”
GM: “Uncommon Man” has a tip of the hat to Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
SM: There is, as myself, Don and Keith Emerson are all fans of Aaron Copland’s writing. If you look at some of The (Dixie) Dregs’ music, then you will hear a lot of influence to his music. We had a song in The Dregs called “Moe Down,” which was a play on words on his “Hoedown.” “Uncommon Man” is more of a play on “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
GM: I know we are promoting a new album, so you are going to talk nice about it, but I think there is a lot of excitement about this album.
SM: I adopted a policy a long time ago not to say anything that isn’t true. If I can find something that is positive to say that is true, then I will do it. I won’t say anything that is not true, as that is unfair. Anytime you have a speck of exposure in the media, then you have a responsibility, and you’ve got to tell the truth. That doesn’t mean you have to rip everyone to shreds, even if it is true.
I feel this is one of the very best albums we have ever done. We spent a lot more time in the preproduction and on our writing. We also had Bob. The way things are going in the business, albums are almost charity work. Who knows when we will do another one? A lot of energy went into this album, and, as a result, it really paid off.
GM: How are you going to fit new songs in that set list of yours?
SM: When I brought in the music for “Above and Beyond,” I didn’t have any words. I thought it would be perfect to be done with an orchestra. Peter Gabriel had a lot of orchestra on the album he did with Bob Ezrin. However, when we played it as a five-piece band, it worked really well. I would say that song would easily go well in the set.
There are a half a dozen tunes we could put in the set. We will be deciding that when we get together for rehearsals/arguments over the set list.
GM: How hard is that? You can’t leave out the classics.
SM: We have been leaving out certain things that you would not expect. In Australia, we didn’t play “Highway Star” once. We have not been playing “Woman from Tokyo.” Those are two of my favorites, but it is hard to keep everyone motivated to doing everything. On the other hand, we replaced “Highway Star” with “Hard Lovin’ Man” which is a great live tune. It is weird, because everyone has different ideas of what works best.
I can play two hours straight without a problem, but Ian Gillan is singing things that he wrote in his 20s. He has a different set of challenges, and we have to balance all of that.
I was talking to Lars [Ulrich] in Metallica, and I like his approach. They have a huge list and they do a lot of songs in rotation. We’ve been rotating songs a little bit, but I would like to expand that on this tour. I would also like to play more in America.
GM: Did Ezrin change on this album, as he did not have to worry about making it radio friendly for the record company?
SM: He’s the same guy. Are you kidding me? His meeting with us was not saying that the album would get us on the radio. He said, “Look, we know about the music business. Nobody is going to play it. What we are going to make will not fit the format of radio today, so let’s make a record that will blow the fans away.”
How can you say anything about an attitude like that? I loved it. It was that stark realization that nobody is going to consider Deep Purple for the radio; it is just not going to happen. It is underground, and he said we need to do the best that we can do and do it. That has always been the motto of The Dregs, so it was right up my alley.
GM: I wonder why classic rock radio refuses to play new stuff by bands like Deep Purple?
SM: They will play “Smoke on the Water,” but they won’t play the new album. It makes no sense. It is interesting to note that the global fan base has grown because of the Internet. The Internet has taken away a lot for people that own artistic intellectual property. On the other hand, it has opened up opportunities for those that are willing to travel.
GM: You have a unique perspective over the last two decades you have been in the band. You have been to every corner of the earth seeing people react to Deep Purple’s music. What does that teach you about the power of music?
SM: You notice the different cultures as you travel place to place, but underneath it all, there is more in common with every audience than there is a difference. In other words, if you look out at the crowd, unless it is a very homogenous DNA structure, then you really don’t know where you are.
People all react to the same parts of the set. Culturally, there are differences. For instance, you can hear a pin drop in Japan during the soft sections, as they are really quiet, while the people in Latin America are very vocal. In general, the vibe this music gets out of people is universal.
I really honestly believe music is the universal language. I think it is very important for people to realize the responsibility they have when they convey things in that universal language. They need to be honest and understand what they are saying and doing, and they need to realize they do have influence on people.
GM: It sounds wonderful, but getting to those places must be a pain in the …
SM: That is the only bad thing about my job — the amount of time, consecutively, day after day, traveling. There is an old musician quote that says, “I will play for free, but you will have to pay me to travel.”
GM: Back before you joined Deep Purple you were known as a hotshot guitar player. Were you nervous to take over the role of Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple?
SM: Once I spent an hour playing with them, I was fine. I was a little apprehensive, because as Americans, we don’t really know them. The band was broken up, briefly, during the rise of MTV. Their names and faces were not so well known to us.
More importantly, I didn’t know if they were a band who was living off their name, or if they could still play. Once we did play for an hour, actually just a few minutes, then I knew it was going to be great.
I didn’t know what it was going to be like, concerning the fans. I knew taking the slot that Kerry (Livgren) had in Kansas was going to be, at best, having a high percentage of fans that would be able to deal with this, as, at least Kansas was back together. There was a small percentage that was going to hate me no matter what.
I didn’t know what to expect in Deep Purple, but the same reaction is pretty much what I got. I was able to pay proper respect to the music that came before me and still put enough of myself into it that I didn’t sound like somebody copying Ritchie. It was all that I could do, and it seems to have worked with the fans.
There will always be that small, and sometimes very vocal, percentage of fans that are just always going to hate me. It is certainly not the majority. People can see when we play live that we enjoy each other’s company on stage, and we enjoy the music. In fact, Ritchie helped us, as he didn’t say anything bad.
Obviously, how can you replace somebody that is a founding member? It is never going to be the same. I think he handled it perfectly. He was in a perfect position to be snide and say, “You can see what happened after I left. It sucks.” He didn’t do that.
GM: Did you ever buy a Deep Purple album?
SM: At the point that I was listening to Deep Purple, we, as a small community of people who lived in Georgia, traded and exchanged albums and tapes.
There was a half hour radio show where they played heavy music each day. I took my reel-to-reel tape recorder and taped songs. I know I taped “Wring That Neck” and those kinds of tunes, where Ritchie and Jon were playing off each other. That was very influential to me.
I never bought a Deep Purple album. I only bought one Beatles album. I only bought, like, three records in my life. My brother was a huge music fan, and he had about every album ever made. We had an underground community of music aficionados and critics. Every album that came out was reviewed by everybody; that was how I got my exposure to music.
GM: Looking back at your history of Kansas, how do you look at “Power” and “Spirit of Things?”
SM: The entire “Power” album is just a perfect representation of us playing together, all excited and all fans of Kansas.
I had done a tiny bit of work with Steve Walsh on his solo album, “Schemer- Dreamer,” and he also sang a song with The Dregs. He sang on “Crank It Up,” but he didn’t want to be credited for it. It was a big deal for me, as I was cheering them on when they were talking about getting back together with Steve Walsh. I knew it was going to be fantastic. I told them if there was anything that I could do to let me know. Phil (Ehart) told me, “I don’t think Kerry is going to do it. Do you want to get together and try to write something?” I said, “Sure.”
We had success after success writing the songs, and “Power” was just perfect. We didn’t even have a producer involved until we had the album written. From that standpoint, it was the most natural and organic thing we’d ever done.
“In the Spirit of Things” was a little bit less naïve in the sense of what to expect, as we had been together, and we knew what to expect. There was pressure from the record company to have a ballad hit. There were a lot of outside influences. Bob had to juggle between what the record company wanted and what he thought and what we thought. I wanted to do the old symphonic, orchestral Kansas prog-type things. There was a big push to go pop. We were not going to sell out, but writing wise, I was not the guy exactly for the job. We came up with some things that I really love. One of my favorite things is “Bells of St. James,” as it is just a perfect track. There are a lot more on that album, too. I got to see Bob work in that difficult dance of trying to satisfy the record company and working with the influences he had. He did a great job. He got the most out of us. For some reason, Steve and I were just more distant at that point.
I think Bob really brought the most out of Steve Walsh, lyrically. Songs like “Ghosts” are so descriptive. Bob didn’t write it for him, but he pushed him. GM