Jurassic Rock: An interview with Jon Lord

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[This article originally appeared in the January 1994 issue of Keyboard magazine. We are reposting it today in celebration of his 75th birthday.]

After 25 years pounding out progressive metal, he still wrestles a mean Hammond while trading licks with Ritchie Blackmore. Duke Ellington may have written "Moon Indigo," but these guys invented Purple.

You were somewhat pessimistic about the state of rock keyboard playing in our previous interview. Have you changed your opinion?

Not really. I see the green shoots of spring as it were, in the music business. Something good is happening. There's certainly a parallel with the early '70s, with the Seattle bands and so on. In England, there seems to be an outpouring of young musicians who are actually willing to go out and play in front of audiences instead of saying "Get me to a studio. Make me a star." I don't know how big an outpouring this is or whether it's actually going to turn the corner and lead us to those halcyon days again. But it certainly feels a lot better than it did a couple of years ago. To be honest, though, I don't see that many keyboard players.

Don't you feel that techno is, in a sense, a kind of electronic punk?

That's right. But you can't go home again. Once you have a revolution of the kind that we had in the '70s with punk, it's forever changed. You can only hope that humanity will be able to use the technology, rather than vice-versa. You'll want to see man playing the machine rather than machines playing the man. I was almost sucked into that myself, because you see all these amazing things being done and you gravitate toward them.

The new Deep Purple album suggests that you're still devoted to real-time playing.

Oh yeah. We went to a place with no distractions, to Bearsville in Woodstock, New York. Albert Grossman built that place; it's where (the Band's) Music from Big Pink was recorded. Garth Hudson's Lowrey is still in one corner, and his Bösendorfer in another corner. It's this huge room, redolent with rock history, maybe 150 feet long, 30 feet tall, and 60 feet wide. We set up in the middle of this huge room in a circle, all facing each other, close together. Ritchie sat right next to me. And we played live, as much as we could. In that sort of configuration, there was very little room for using the new technology. Ritchie used some synthesized guitar; he plays through a straight Marshall, with a Roland synthesizer through another stack, then they mix them together to get that big sound. On the backing tracks for a couple of songs, I used the Clavinet sound from a Korg Wavestation MIDI-ied in with the old Clavinet sound from the (Yamaha) DX7, and mixed that in with the organ.

Aren't there better Clav sounds around than the one in the DX7?

Yes, but strangely enough, it works well in this combination. I've still got a DX7, and there are a couple of sounds in there that I still haven't heard anywhere else. So I keep the thing for just those two sounds. There's one sound that I've got available at nearly all times: No. 16. It's like a "wow" Clavinet, with a nice growl. It mixes with just about everything I've got, including the low organ; it adds a slight definition to the low manual of the Hammond. I was using the DX7 as my MIDI controller for a while too.

What controller did you use on the album?

The Hammond Suzuki XB-2, so I could get a combination of organ and clav sound. I quite like the XB-2, although it's not a real Hammond by any stretch of the imagination. It's rather good little instrument, but I'm still aware of the lack of a mechanical feel. A proper Hammond is a combination of electronics and mechanics.

So is the organ on this album all XB-2?

No, it's not, just on a couple of tracks but I don't use my (Hammond) C-3 either. I used a (Hammond) B-3 that we found in the studio—it's probably Garth's—and one small Leslie, which we cranked up to get that nice growly sound.

The XB-2 came in only when you wanted to MIDI with something else?

Yes. The idea with the backing tracks was to do as little overdubbing as possible, just for the fidelity of the exercise. The feeling was, if we could just get the four of us sounding (snaps fingers) like that without overdubs, then the better the end product is surely going to be. Mistaken or not, that was our opinion. Also, I found that the extremely distorted sound of the XB-2, which I got by pushing the distortion wheel way up, mixed with the Real Hammond coming through the Leslie, was quite interesting. I did that on a couple of tracks. So I'm taking the XB-2 on the road. I'm keeping it on top of the organ as my controller keyboard. That way, if my C-3 does go down at any point, I can still sound like an organist for the rest of the set.

Then why not just leave the C-3 at home?

Because I'm used to standing behind a piece of furniture. It's a psychological thing. I am a Hammond player, and I'm used to standing behind a big Hammond. I'd feel a little strange, at least in the Purple context, standing behind an XB-2, no matter how you configure it. There's a very strong physical relationship between me and the Hammond. I like to get that Hammond under my knee, and I can't imagine myself really rocking anything like an XB-2. (Laughs.)

Your roadies would probably appreciate it if you had a fake C-3 frame made for the XB-2.

One of them has already suggested that! (Laughs.) I said, "In your dreams, pal."

What else are you taking on the road?

My organ has the XB-2 on top, and all the MIDI stuff is offstage: the (Korg) M1R, the (E-mu) Emulator, and the (Korg) Wavestation.

Your previous album, Slaves and Masters, was released in 1990. What led the group to come back together again after that?

Toward the end of the '80s, we released House of Blue Light, which we actually thought was a good Deep Purple album, but it didn't get too much critical success. At the same time, we had a bit of a run- in with our record company - we've got a different label now. We didn't feel the album was very well serviced, so we were a little bit down about everything. Then somebody stepped on the self- destruct button, and we decided to change singers. That was, if I can coin a phrase, a fucking stupid and idiotic thing to do. I don't know why we did it, but we did. So Joe Lynn Turner ended in the band, and we made an album that had very little to do with the Deep Purple that most of us wanted. This is not an anti-Joe schtick. He tried very hard, but he couldn't be the singer we wanted him to be, and we couldn't be the band he wanted us to be. He wanted Deep Purple to be radio-friendly, Jon Bon Jovi-sh. Nothing against Jon Bon Jovi either, but that's not what we are.

So we did a world tour, and Joe did very well. But we came out that in the fall of 1991 with a rather large feeling of dissatisfaction. When we started writing again, in November and December of '91 down in Florida, it was apparent that what Ritchie was coming up with and we were molding was like one thing, and what Joe was trying to sing on top of it was massively inappropriate; words like "tell it to my heart," which is a fair enough emotion but it didn't fit the likes of (imitates chugging Deep Purple rhythm: "ganga, ganga, ganga"). There was a dichotomy there. So when we got into the studio early in the summer of '92, we decided that we had to ask Ian (Gillan) if he would be gracious enough to come back. God bless him, he did. And here we are.

The organ has a lot to do with the immediate identification of Deep Purple's sound. What is the key to the Jon Lord sound on the organ?

I've been told this over the years, and it's constantly surprising and flattering, because I don't really know what I do that differently. To try to examine it in one way, I was a pianist until sometime in the '60s that...well, I didn't really have an epiphany or anything. I didn't have a vision on the road to Damascus. But I was dissatisfied with what was coming out when I played. I didn't want to sound like Georgie Fame or Zoot Money, an I didn't want to sound like a rock version of Jimmy Smith, although he was an immense influence on me. I was thinking of ways around this, and I started to bring in a bit of classical music. And I discovered that if you leaned on the keyboard and played with the drawbars, interesting things happened. I always put the drawbars roughly the same way.

You've got the bottom four drawbars out...

...but with the second one, for some reason, only out to 2. Then it kind of steps down, and the top two are halfway out. Also, a massively important part of organ technique involves how you use the swell pedal. It's no good to just put the pedal to the metal. I use it to highlight.

That's quite apparent on the new album. There are places where you fade up into the mix.

Yeah, and I've got a bad back to prove it. For 25 years I've been standing on one leg onstage. The pedal is very underused. People don't seem to be aware of how important it is. It's not a volume pedal; it's an expression pedal. Really, it's the only way you have of controlling expression on an organ.

Another thing is, from '68 onwards, I spent two or three years really working with Ritchie to find the best way to make our sounds work together. He and I started the band, and what we very much wanted was this synthesis of organ and guitar—a gorgon. (Laughs.) I arrived there roughly about the time of "Deep Purple in Rock"; that's when I began to feel that I was learning how to integrate into what Ritchie does. I like to think that you often can't tell which of us is playing what.

When either of you solos, the other one falls into a traditional accompaniment role. But when you're playing together in the ensemble, your parts do mesh.

Interestingly enough, it's become almost second nature now when we're rehearsing or writing. I've got a sort of hand-to-hand style, kind of rocking from one hand to the other, which I can almost describe as Stevie Wonder's Clavinet technique. It's just seemed to have arisen from attempting to make the effect as amorphous as possible, to make this gorgon. That's what Ritchie and I were searching for in those early years.

Are you talking about having one hand on the lower manual and one on the upper?

Yes, that's one effect. Also, when it's riffing time, I'll go to the bottom manual and use just the first four drawbars all the way out.


Riffing inside Ritchie. I'll get this woody sort of sound, but with the amps and Leslies way up. That's how I get the edge, rather than from using the top drawbars to cut through.

It also seems that you have a favorite vibrato setting.

Yes. It's C1, the only one I ever use.

For a long period, you didn't play through Leslies at all.

That's right. "In Rock" has no Leslies.

Clearly, there's Leslie on the new album. But it's definitely underplayed. And on several cuts, it sound totally dead.

Very perceptive! Yeah, I do that a couple of times.

What in that sounds appeals to you?

It's less forgiving. Therefore it holds your attention just a little bit more. Then there's that wonderful release when you put it onto "slow". You get that lovely initial swirl. Booker T. used it to great effect.

By calling the dead sound "less forgiving" you're acknowledging that there's a temptation to just rely on the sound itself.

It's a very easy thing to do. In fact, that's why I went to straight speakers in the late '60s and early '70s. I needed a lesson. For all that time that I had just the straight speakers, it was very unforgiving, because every mistake shows up. Of course, that only helped me improve my technique. But after a while I really started missing the Leslies, so I began using a combination of the two - straight speakers and Leslies, as I do now.

By playing most of the time in the organ's lower or middle range, are you deliberately obscuring the voicings?

Exactly. I hate bright primary colors in Purple's music. There aren't many of the from me; it's a darker side.

Yet often your solos begin on a very high, bright note.

That's my burst of sunlight. I know I do that a lot; sometimes I have to stop myself. It's a device, but it's a good one. If nothing else, it grabs people's attention.

But it also contrasts with that low register Purple chordal style.

Absolutely. But this way of playing also came early on, when I tried to play exactly what Ritchie was playing. That really caused me some problems, but they were great ones to solve. For example, there's an old track "Hard Road," where Ritchie came up with the main riff. It's much harder on the piano, because the guitarist can do hammer-ons. There's a lot of that kind of stuff on things of his, which I have to copy, especially on the faster stuff.

Throughout the new album, you stick to the idea of playing suspensions. But every now and then you do throw in a third, and the effect can be dramatic. In "The Battle Rages On," you seem to be playing triads on the verse.

Yeah, with the third on top.

But then you went to fifths right before the guitar solo as a kind of textural contrast.

Ritchie was playing up the neck, and I was doing the same rhythm on the organ. Once again, that was a very guitary thing to do, and I was trying to get the organ to complement it.

This form does restrict you to a certain harmonic range. Do you ever do thicker voicings?

I do use them, but it's very rare in Purple. I just did a tune called "For A Friend" in memory of a lovely lady; a singer, who died. I'm very pleased with it; it's got some nice chord changes in it. You know, some of my music does have an emotional side.

That's one of the problems when the public perceives you mainly as a member of some established band: You get musically pigeonholed.

Absolutely. And the problem is going to arise again. I've had a solo album inside me for about the past 11 years. It's written, it's done. I've got so much I want to say. But I know what could happen, so I'm having talks with my manager at the moment on how we can keep it from becoming "the solo album from Deep Purple's keyboard player." Because it's not going to be anything like any Deep Purple fans would expect. I have to seriously address this problem of how to get across to people that there is something to me beyond just being Deep Purple's keyboard player. I'm not ungrateful for that, but I do have another musical life inside me.

If Purple fans buy your album because of you identification with the band...

...they might be disappointed. I know that we'll be taking a rest in '94 and trying to decide what to do with the rest of our lives—whether it's Purple or what. That's when I want to do it. I feel like a woman who's gone past the nine months: "I have to get rid of this thing."

Does your solo music feature a wider harmonic vocabulary than the work you do with Purple?

Well, one of my great influences as a writer outside of Deep Purple is the great nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century English composers—Elgar, Vaughn Williams, Holst, and so on. But those same sorts of modal chords are in "The Battle Rages On" as well.

During the crescendo passage in "The Battle Rages On," you resisted the temptation to kick the Leslie into high gear.

I wanted to retain the intensity. When we were recording that, we were pretty sure of what the words were going to be. Roger had written most of them before Ian had come back. It's a very desolate song: it doesn't actually hold out much hope. The singer isn't saying that he wants to kill everyone; that's what the leaders of these countries are saying. So we've got these chords leading up to this clash. I didn't want to spoil the build-up with a bunch of Leslie vibrato.

Were you on the next cut, "Lick It Up," at all?

The Clavinet sound is all in there.

The chords on the chorus sound like a typical George Harrison part.

Well, he's a mate, and I only steal from my friends. (Laughs.) But when I first heard the mix on that song, I couldn't really hear what I'm doing. So they sent me a version with the Clavinet out, and it was night and day. So I really achieved my goal of mixing in with Ritchie - maybe too well. You can't hear the keyboards, but if you take 'em out, you really notice that they're gone.

Do you work out notated parts with Ritchie?

Sometimes. He doesn't write notation—no reason why he should—so he'll say, "What's this? Can you write this down so I don't forget it?" I'll notate it, and sometimes I'll find myself having to teach it back to him. (Laughs.) I can score pretty quickly; it doesn't take me more than a couple of minutes. I often write down little bits and pieces that Ritchie plays without him even knowing, because I know he'll forget them.

The beginning of "Anya" was very evocative. What sound were you using there?

It's a sample of a cimbalom. There's a sound on the Wavestation called "Clavichord," which MIDI-ied very nicely to a sound on the (E-mu) Proteus to give that slightly out-of-tune effect of a string being hit with a hammer. I wanted to pre-state the riff as if it had been played quietly on a cimbalom, to get the effect of a Middle European caf, although Ritchie goes to Spain on his Martin six-string. (Laughs.) But that's all right.

From there, the song kicks into a typical Deep Purple groove, which sort of overwhelms the mood you and Ritchie had just established. So what was the purpose of the intro?

The intention was to lure you in and to set up a mood more for the lyrics than for the music. The lyrics are about freedom. Anya is not a woman; she's a symbol of freedom as it happened in central Europe a couple of years ago. On the Slaves and Masters tour in '91, we were one of the first bands in there after the Wall had come down. It was most affecting.

How does Deep Purple feel different these days than it did five or ten or twenty years ago?

Good question. The most obvious difference is that Ian (Paice, drummer) is more careful than he used to be. He doesn't take quite as many chances as he used to. Ian took more chances than any drummer I ever knew on those early '70s albums. Then, sometime in the '80s, he got very concerned wit keeping a steady tempo. He began playing with clicks and so on. I think that took a little bit of the verve out of his playing. I mean, if you do a two-bar fill, who cares if you come out just a bit ahead? That's what this kind of music is all about: pushing forward. Most rock songs get faster at the end than they were at the beginning; it's a natural momentum. In this kind of music, there's no major plus to keeping exactly in time. As for Roger (Glover), he has always said: "I'm not a great bass player but I'm a thinking musician." He works really hard on what he plays and thinks very hard about the parts. The major change I've noticed in the last few years is that Roger will often go in and do hiss bass line again. He'll play the backing track with as much fire as he can to help ignite it. Then you'll find him back in the studio late at night, smoothing things out.

What about Ritchie? His career spans periods of dramatic evolution in the art of rock guitar performance. Has he absorbed or responded to many of these changes?

Not really. Blackmore is very self-contained. Since about '85, he's been very taken with what he can do on guitar synthesizer. He practices as much as any musician I've ever met. But he's sometimes quite dismissive of other ideas. He has some sort of tunnel vision when it comes to playing. You have to understand, though, that a lot of the big guitarists of, say, the past 20 years came from a blues tradition. Ritchie never went the blues route at all. The only musician who ever heavily influenced him and had anything to do with blues at all was Jimi Hendrix, and that's a very different way of looking at the blues. Ritchie came from British rock of the early '60s, without that R&B influence that crept in later on.

He certainly can play the blues.

Oh, yeah, when he wants to. But he'd never admit is as a major influence. We've got reels and reels of us jamming, with some glorious guitar playing. I'd love the public to hear that, but he won't let that happen.

In listening to the new album, I imagined the band as if it had come along ten or fifteen years later than it did, with you brought up in the synthesizer era rather than as an organist. On all of these songs, synthesizer parts would certainly work. Is there ever a time that you think about making that kind of a shift in direction, even if on just a couple of cuts?

I've made a couple of attempts to do very synthesizerish things, but it always felt uneasy. I have a setup now that seems to complement the band just so, and I'm loathe to rock that particular boat. I have my Emulator II, the hard-drive one, with various sounds that I incorporate. I find the sounds in my two Korgs—the M1R and the Wavestation—very useful for moments. So I'm pretty set. Outside of the band, I'm probably a much more wide-ranging player. The Deep Purple side of my life is very defined in terms of style and equipment. Although we are quite a wide-ranging band within our parameters, it has rather defined me in a certain way. Not that I'm not proud of it, but I do feel a certain constraint.

And these constraints would be eliminated on your solo album.

I would be able to wander more, hopefully without losing touch with the center or the base of some kind. As I get older, I'm playing more piano. I play a lot of piano at home.

What kind of piano do you have?

A very beautiful 7'6" Grotrian-Steinweg. It's not a rock and roll piano, but it's great for playing classical music. I find that I'm going back to my old sheet music and buying sonatas. I used to be able to play the "Pathetique" fairly well, A to Z. I'm afraid I've disappointed myself, because I can't play it as well as I could 30 years ago.

Of course, you're probably playing "Hard Road" better than you were 30 years ago.

Yeah. There are compensations. (Laughs.)

The point is that Deep Purple sounds like a completely contemporary band except in the keyboard department, given your preference for Hammond over synths.

I know exactly what you're saying. It's actually fascinating to hear this from somebody else, because I've been very aware of this. However, the only reason that doesn't worry me is that it does give us an unique sound—a sound that we're pretty much stuck by over the years. It's what we believe in. Just to take one point of issue, there is one track on the album that has heavy synthesizer effect, and that's "Anya"—the trumpet riff that I do with Ritchie. And if you listen carefully to the end of "The Battle Rages On," as it builds up twice, the battlefield trumpets added a nice touch. To me, synthesizers have never been means to an end. They are embroidery—very useful tools to use for halos around various sounds.

Is that because of what they are or because of how they've been used? Chick Corea, for example, would use his monophonic synth as a prominent lead voice on his old Return to Forever albums.

Oh, sure. And Zawinul, as well. So it's really me, not just the synthesizers themselves. I'm kind of a technophobe. I find it very difficult to teach myself technological things. I don't fling my head back and say, "I don't need to know anything because I'm an artist." It's just that I'm bloody useless. Hands-on, I'm okay. If somebody shows me how something works, I can pick up on it. But I'll very rarely take it any further. I'll experiment quietly with a machine, and once I've found a few things that I like, I'll tend to stick there. It's kind of a technical laziness. Really, it goes back to the fact that I was originally a pianist who became an organist, and I'm happy with those kinds of keyboards.

What are the differences in how you'll play, say, a blues solo on organ and piano?

I would play a solo on the piano totally differently from the way I would on an organ. My technique on the organ is radically different because the lighter keyboard makes it easier to do smears. I'm quite traditional in choice of notes, although thirds on an organ don't really work, unless you want a particularly sweet effect. On organ, one of my favorite devices is to build runs based on stacked fourths. That happens quite a bit in my solos onstage.

That's a nice way to kick off a solo.

We all have these little kick-starts, don't we? And we can use them in middle of our solos when we run out of steam. Of course, on an organ, you can just hold down one high note and give it some Leslie. Another ting that's very helpful about the organ is that most of the things we do in rock and roll are in E, G, A, B, or D. Now, the top note of the organ is C, so if we're in, for example, E minor, just smearing to the top gets you a rather nice effect. Instead of starting the solo on an A, you start on the C, which is the minor sixth; that puts you into a state of mind where you can go just about anywhere.

Sometimes you might deliberately start a solo half a step down from the key of the tune as well.

That's right. On "Hard Loving Man" from In Rock, where the guitar is doing this galloping kind of rhythm, and I play a solo that goes just about anywhere but in the chord that Ritchie's playing. You want to do what ever you can to slightly pervert that rather jolly German beer-barrel rock you might end up doing.

What's your best solo on record?

I'm very proud of "Hard Loving Man". The solo on "Lazy," from Made in Japan, was also really inspired. I was off somewhere quite special.

Have you ever punched in notes on solos?

Maybe once I had a great solo on a first take, but there was an awful clanger in the middle, and I took it out. But I think that's legitimate. I was so happy with the solo, and I knew I couldn't do it again. If I can, I much prefer to take first or second take because it has more heart in it, although there may be fewer mistakes in later takes. Sometimes, if I take the first two or three takes, and the first one has a great beginning and the second one has a great ending, I'll try to marry them. It doesn't often work, but sometimes you can make it work. Solos on albums nowadays tend to be shorter than they used to be. Funnily enough, the longer ones are easier, because you have time enough to build. Now you've got eight bars, or 16 if you're lucky.

But you can stretch in concerts.

Oh, yeah. Also, there's the old rule: If you play a wrong note, play it again immediately. (Laughs.)

Are you surprised that you're still doing this for a living after all these years?

Constantly. I wake up some mornings thinking about that: "What the fuck are you doing? When are you going to get a real job? Or buy a small farm?" The weird thing about it, though, is that it seems so short. As much as any other reason, I think that's why I haven't changed. I mean, I love it. I really do. I'm reasonably good at it. And I can't really do anything else! I don't actually have that many other talents that I can parlay into a career. So, in a way, I've painted myself into a corner. But it's a corner I'm happy to be in.

Rick Wakeman pays tribute to Jon Lord in this BBC documentary.