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Producer Bob Ezrin helps Deep Purple channel its past with 'Now What?'

When it came time for Deep Purple to record its first studio album since 2005, the band decided to approach a man with a legacy as impressive as its own: Bob Ezrin.

By Jeb Wright

When it came time for Deep Purple to record its first studio album since 2005’s ”Rapture of the Deep,” band members decided to approach a man with a legacy as impressive as their own: Bob Ezrin, producer extraordinaire.

To say Bob Ezrin has a few masterpieces under his belt is an understatement. Artists including Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel and KISS all have made career- defining albums under Ezrin’s leadership.

Ezrin is one of the best in the business. He has earned the respect of both the artists he works with and the movers and shakers in the music industry. He runs a tight ship, and once Ezrin decides on a musical vision with a band he is working with, he will push and prod the music forward — so much so that Steve Morse, who worked with Ezrin on the Kansas album “In the Spirit of Things,” warned his Deep Purple bandmates about what they were getting into by signing on with Ezrin.

When the news was announced that Ezrin was manning the controls for Purple’s “What Now?!,” music fans took notice. In the interview that follows, Ezrin discusses how he was brought on board, what it took for him to commit to the project and why he thinks “Now What?!” is just what Deep Purple’s fans have been waiting for.

Bob Ezrin Canadian Music Hall of Fame publicity photo

Capturing the sound of Deep Purple — not worrying about generating a hit — was the main objective for legendary producer Bob Ezrin when working on the band’s first studio album in eight years, ‘Now What?!’ Photo courtesy Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

GOLDMINE: When did Deep Purple approach you to do this album?
BOB EZRIN: Neil Warnock, who is the founder and head of the Agency Group, who is their booking agent, approached me. Neil is a dear friend of mine, as he has been booking Pink Floyd since the beginning, and we have been friends for decades.

He came to Nashville, and we were having breakfast one morning and he said, “I want you to produce the next Deep Purple album.” At first, I thought, “I can’t do this.” I am doing another album with Alice Cooper, and my fear was that by doing too many legacy artists, I am going to be known as the oldies guy, and that is not how I see myself.

He was very persistent, and he finally got me to see the band live in Toronto, and that changed everything. When I saw them play live at Massey Hall — they do this “jam,” which needs to be put in quotations because it is not just a jam, a lot of it is planned out. They do this “jam” which lasts about 10 or 15 minutes where Morse steps up and is a total guitar god, and then Don backs him up with symphonic keyboards. The rhythm section comes in like rock gods, and suddenly, the whole hall is filled with this rock grandeur and this kind of energy that you never hear anymore.

You certainly never hear this stuff from contemporary bands, because they are doing everything to track. There is no room for improvisation, and they are afraid to stretch out during their sets and show how good they are. They just play the songs exactly as they are on record.

Deep Purple were stepping out in an unabashedly prog way, and the audience went crazy. Watching that, when I met with the band after the show I said, ”Look, if you want to make a contemporary rock album, then I’m not the guy for that. I don’t think it’s worth doing. I don’t think there is an active rock radio station that would play a Deep Purple cut, no matter how relevant it might sound. But, if you want to do what I saw on that stage tonight — if you wanted to make a musician’s record and really stretch and be unashamedly yourselves…” Roger Glover told me that he wanted to put the “Deep” back into Deep Purple. I said, “If that is what you want to do, then I’m in.”

The boys were sent away with a different kind of mandate than they had before, which was an order not to write hit songs. I don’t care about hit songs for Deep Purple. I said that they should find musical pieces. I said they needed to create musical pieces where we take sonic and musical journeys and tell stories and create soundscapes and take the listener of each one of these songs on a profound musical journey. It was probably like telling a 6-year-old, “I don’t want you to have any more milk or bread. You have to have nothing but sweets for the rest of the week.” They came back with musical pieces more than just songs.

GM: When Steve and Don are playing like that this music just goes through the roof.
BE: I know. They are amazing players. All of them are amazing, actually. I have to say that there was no artistic, or craft-oriented disappointment. That is really unusual, as there is usually one weak person in the crew when you’re doing a record with a group of people. There is usually one person who is not up there with the others, but that is not true in this band. They are all amazing.

I think Ian Gillan came through so well on this record. His lyrics on this record are smart and interesting, and, at the same time, really musical and powerful. There is not a single thing that he says on this record that makes me cringe. I am the lyric police, so for me not to cringe throughout an album is a unique experience. That happens to me when I work with people like Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, but not everyone can write on that level. Gillan just blew my mind on this record with his depth of humanity and his sense of humor. Then you go to the rhythm section of [Ian] Paice and Glover, and you have this locomotive, and it is like they are unstoppable. Once they get going, there is so much energy, momentum and power that it is almost like a free ride for the rest of us.

All of them are in their class, the best of breed. 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.

GM: He is an amazing musician.
BE: He is beyond amazing; he’s a genius. Steve Morse is among the three or four greatest living guitar players. He has such a command of his instrument, and he is so innately musical. Sometimes he has too much going on in his head and needs a guy like me to pull him back a little bit. All around, there is not a guy that disappointed me on any level, and every single one of them surprised me and amazed me at times throughout the process. It was a great experience.

Deep Purple 2013 publicity photo Now What?

Deep Purple’s members (from left: Roger Glover, Ian Gillan, Ian Paice, Don Airey and Steve Morse) find themselves on the road a lot over the course of a year, connecting with an impressive fan base. Given the state of today’s radio programming, touring is the main way Deep Purple and other classic rock acts that are still putting out new studio albums can share that music with fans. Publicity photo.

GM: What was the challenge to get Deep Purple to put the “Deep” back in there?
BE: Part of the challenge was just to get them to feel confident again. I think they had been beaten down over the years. It may be difficult to understand how Deep Purple can feel self-conscious, but I think there has been a lot of pressure on them for the last decade, or so, to be contemporary and more in tune with today’s market.

I don’t know what is so great about today’s market for these guys, who are at the top of their field, to compromise and contort themselves to try and fit into somebody else’s far narrower, far less interesting and far less intelligent model.

The biggest job, for me, was to liberate them and to let them feel good about it and feel confident and also just to push them. It is hard when you’re on your fourth or fifth decade in the business to get that energy and to get up and give your very best and be at the top of your game. You need a good coach, and that was important.

I think it was also important to capture the live sound of Deep Purple. To me, that was essential. It was not only essential to capture that sound, but it was essential that they heard it when they came into the control room for the playback. I didn’t want them coming into the control room and having an intellectual exercise reviewing the note. I wanted them to come into the control room after having just played their asses off and have me put something on the speakers that just kicked their butts because it’s so great.

GM: Was this an easy album to make?
BE: Easy in what sense? I put everything into everything that I do. I wasn’t able to just sit in my chair and order lunch. It took a lot of energy. The point was that they were here in Nashville, away from home, and it was costing them money. Steve had to leave and go on the road. Because of everyone’s schedule, we had a narrow window, and we had an awful lot to get done in a relatively short time. The challenge was to keep the energy up and to get everyone to focus on what was important, at the time, and to keep the thing moving. We couldn’t get bogged down or lost in the inertia.

GM: Was it enjoyable?
BE: Oh, very much so. It was exciting, inspiring and energizing. There were a few tough moments; there always is in the making of something important. I think every project needs a certain amount of dynamic tension in order for it to be really great. We had a little, but mostly we had a lot of energy and a lot of joy.

When you are dealing with great musicians, then they will play something every time that is great, but is it as great as it can be? Is it great in context to do the job exactly the way it needs to be done? Sometimes no, and that is why they need someone that they trust, who can hold the bar up high and insist that everyone reach it.

GM: You do not have any issues being that guy.
BE: No, that’s my job. It is what I do.

GM: One interesting thing about this album is that there were two producers in the studio during the making of this album. Either Roger Glover or Bob Ezrin could have produced this album. Did you handle the situation with care?
BE: You’re absolutely right about that, as Roger Glover is a great producer. I was a fan of his stuff ages ago. It was a joy to be able to work on something with him.

When you get in the studio, it is not like there is an org chart. When you get into the making of one of these things, then we are a team, and they elected me team leader; that’s my job. Everybody is a member, and some members of the team will have different roles than other members of the team. Roger having that overview, and that producer’s point of view, was somebody that I would always look to for his thoughts and approach to certain things.

I think it was really liberating for him to have someone he trusted in that role, so he could spend a lot of time being a great bass player, which he did. He spent a lot of time making the bass that he was playing impeccable — and it is. I defy you to find one duffed note on the whole record. Find one note where you go, “Geez, maybe he should have played something else.” He did a magnificent job. He was great.

Roger was my sounding board and my partner in crime in the mixing process. I bounced everything off of him, and I listened to everything he had to say about the record, because I had that kind of respect for him.

GM: If this album would have come out after “Perfect Strangers,” then this would be a platinum-selling album. How can they be excited when the results won’t be as good, saleswise, as they were in their heyday?
BE: The results haven’t been as good as they were in the heyday for a while. They are excited because they believe that they have something, now, that may get them better results than the other more recent stuff. They really believe in this, and it excites them, and they are looking forward to being able to play it live.
The reality is, for this type of project, they have to get out and play it and let lots of people hear this music on stage to pique their interest. They need people like you to write about it, and they need bloggers to blog about it, and they need people to send around MP3s to others and show their excitement for it. I think there are a lot of Deep Purple fans around the world — they still have these fabulous tours and go out for many, many dates every year. We know there are people who love them, and we hope that the people who love them will get this and go, “Wow, that’s my band.” GM