You don't apply for a guitar gig with Deep Purple - they find you. Steve got the call after forging his mettle with Kansas (1986-1989) and The Dixie Dregs, a commercially overlooked but highly acclaimed band of the unclassifiable jazz/rock/fusion variety that he formed in the early '70s.
In Deep Purple, Steve is the baby of the bunch (age 60), and the only American. This latest incarnation of the band, which has been in place since 2002, also includes Ian Gillan (vocals), Roger Glover (bass), Ian Paice (drums) and Don Airey (keyboards). Steve told us about writing song with this all-star cast, and how he goes about performing these seminal rock songs.
Steve Morse: Good question. First of all, I think you need to be a fan of whatever you play. That is, really feel it inside as a driving force and an energy that you want to relate to the people that are making it possible for you to have a career - the audience. That's a big part of it.
And then the other thing is, on a tune that I didn't write like "Smoke On The Water," I try to tread a line between homage and respect and originality. So, say, on the solo, I take it out a little bit and do it my way for a little bit, and then bring it back to more like the original, and wrap it up with a lick that everybody would recognize.
That's about as much as I can suggest somebody do because there's ingrained memories of the song in peoples' minds.
Songfacts: Was there a challenge for you figuring out a way to do that with all these classic songs?
Steve: Not really, because that's the way I was raised. People of my era did a lot of playing in bars and doing cover songs, playing parties and things like that. That was the way that you became an apprentice musician: you played a lot of stuff. And really from the beginning it's "How can you recreate the energy that somebody else recorded in a live situation?" So I'm used to doing that. And also, I spent almost five years in Kansas recreating some of Kerry Livgren's stuff when he wasn't there.
I think the first thing to do is have a love and respect for the material. Then it's easy to convey to the audience that you're a fan, but you're also a different player than the person who wrote it. If you deliver it with energy and respect, the audience totally gets you.
Songfacts: What is it like writing a song with Deep Purple?
Steve: It's actually pretty easy. Ian Gillan is a great lyric writer. He's got a wit and sarcasm, a dry sense of humor that I really appreciate. So the most I'll really get involved with that is maybe suggest a title or we'll joke about a theme for the lyrics. But he does all the lyrics himself, and if he gets stuck on something, he'll talk to Roger Glover.
But musically, I interact mostly with Don and Roger. Don has perfect pitch and amazing ears, so if I have an idea, he immediately gets it, and then he'll throw out some variations or some different voicings.
And he's a really amazing player. If you can think on your feet and keep up like that, it's really a joy to be writing.
Songfacts: Do you know the title or the lyrics before you start working on your parts?
Steve: Sometimes. Usually not. In fact, that becomes a source of confusion for me. When people refer to a song after the album just came out, I'm going, "What? Oh, that's 'The Eighth Note, 140.'" Because to me, that's the title: the first phrase had straight eights and the beats per minute was 140.
With Purple, they do funny titles. Roger came up with this sort of blues riff that started a song, and so Don called it "Woger's Wugged Wiff," like if somebody couldn't pronounce the "R" of "Roger." So Ian Gillan laughed and sat down and suddenly that becomes the title. And so rather than write out "Roger's Rugged Riff," then they just call it "WWW." So we don't know what the title of a song is going to be until Ian does the lyrics.
Songfacts: I would think with a song like "Vincent Price," for example, you would want to know what the song is about before you compose the music for it.
At some point, production choices are made. On "Vincent Price," Bob Ezrin put a little filtered steel guitar, theremin sounding riff, that goes, (singing) wooo ooo ooo. Like that. He put that in after the song was decided that it was going to be referring to the classic horror movie.
Songfacts: Are you guys ever in the same room when you're writing together?
Steve: Oh, yeah. Always. I prefer it that way. I encourage it, and I think the other guys do, too.
Occasionally, someone will bring in a whole song, but usually the best thing is to bring in an idea and get everybody on board. Just bring in lots of ideas. One of them will hit a home run, everybody loves it. Then you go from there. Then everybody's on board with everything that's thrown around.
Like if I say:
"I have it going to E."
"Naw, I liked it better when we went to D."
"All right, let's go to D in this riff."
And that 10-second diversion of going to E was ruled out by everybody being there at the same time. Whereas if we had worked all on our own, I might have spent two days writing something going to E when everybody would have heard it and said, "Naw, I don't like this."
Songfacts: I get how you can come up with a riff and that can lead to something. What is Ian Gillan doing the whole time if you guys are all in there with your instruments?
Steve: He sits there and looks like he's bored silly and like he's not paying attention. But when we stop to talk about it, he'll say, "No, I liked it better the other time," or "I'm really liking the progression that's going on with that," or "That was brilliant." He's listening. He hears everything, but you wouldn't know it from looking at him. He's glancing down at the paper or writing out lyric ideas or notes.
Songfacts: Do you ever question him when he starts coming up with lyrics about "Zeno's toytus" [from "All The Time In The World"] and stuff like that?
Steve: Well, we all try to remain true to the band philosophy of not getting negative or hurt. We don't want to sit there as a band and say something too negative or too political - that's something we've tried to remind ourselves.
Songfacts: Absolutely. But I guess I'm wondering if you like to find out what his lyrics are about at some point, or if that even matters.
Steve: Oh, yeah. I do. I ask him about stuff sometimes, and he volunteers a lot of information. We were doing a song called "Mary Long," and he was explaining how that was two different people from the British Press who were self-appointed ambassadors of good taste, and he put the names together to make a song about them. He'll sow double entendres all over the place.
English do a lot of that. They've borne out some of the ones that The Beatles did that I would have never known.
Songfacts: Did he ever tell you about "Ted The Mechanic"?
Steve: Oh, yeah.
Songfacts: What's that about?
Steve: Oh, just a guy coming up and basically giving him his life story. He's just sitting there trying to talk to somebody and the guy kind of interrupts in a bar and starts telling him his life history.
Songfacts: Are there any songs on Now What?! where you came up with a riff that really drove that thing forward?
Normally that's a risky strategy, but I liked the direction it was going. I was going to use it for one of my projects if the band didn't like it, so I had developed it pretty much down to where it is.
Songfacts: What do you remember about putting the song "All The Time In The World" together?
Steve: It was something that Ian Paice really liked. For me, it was almost like an old Motown rhythm style of playing.
Ian Paice does these little swingy, great-feeling drum parts so naturally because he's got a lot of history with big band type swing and cool jazz. It was just a great feel. It was sultry and seductive and just felt right.
Songfacts: What did you think when you heard Ian's lyric that went with it?
Steve: I didn't know what to expect. I didn't really think of anything in advance. I think it was kind of fitting with it, which was a romantic thing about him or a person saying to the other person, "Don't worry, relax, everything's cool. We have all the time in the world, don't rush it."
Songfacts: Steve, out of the classic Purple songs, the ones that were done before you got there, what is the most intriguing one for you to perform onstage?
Steve: Hmm. Well, they all have their appeals. The one that I pushed the hardest for that the band wasn't doing was "Hush," and I still love that. We have a big improv section in there and it's just a great feel from beginning to end for me.
And the lyrics are not even lyrics. It's just "Na nana na na na nananana." It's the most basic tune in the world, but to me Deep Purple got on the map as a hard rock band from doing that version of "Hush." So I love that. And we stretch that out pretty far live.
Songfacts: Well, I think a lot of fans are very happy that you came in and convinced them to put that song back in the set.
Steve: Yeah. It definitely needed to be there. And I think it's the only time that Ian Gillan sings a song from a version of Deep Purple when he wasn't the singer.
Songfacts: That makes sense.
Steve: And that was the reason why he didn't do it before.
Steve: Sure. It was mostly a Steve Walsh song that he had been trying to get to fit with Kansas for a couple of albums. I came in after that was mostly written, and thought, "You know what? If we change this and this and put in this instrumental and then have this at the end of your phrase, we have that payoff with this guitar line, or do it as a string line, that that would be really cool."
You know how when somebody walks in and you've been working on something, and they say, "Hey, you moved this and this around. It'll work, definitely." That's all I did.
Songfacts: When you guys write Deep Purple songs, do you know immediately if they are suitable for a live performance?
Steve: No. But they usually are. That's something this band can do. In fact, on this last album, we went through every song on the album in rehearsal after it was recorded and said, "Which ones do we want to play on this upcoming gig?" And we actually had six of them in rotation.
Songfacts: So that's all done after the fact, it's not done in the studio where you say, Okay, we need something for a live setting, we're going to write like this?
Steve: Yeah, it's easy to come up with the live suggestions. And to count on musicians like Don Airey is really phenomenal.
Songfacts: Are you ever worried about running out of riffs?
Steve: No. If you're stuck in a specific genre or a specific tempo or a specific key, I could see how you could get very repetitive, but I'm one of those people that doesn't craft anything towards being a hit or towards anybody's definitions. I just write stuff that I like, and if a band that I'm working with happens to like it, then it gets used. Otherwise, I'll use it for something else.
And because of that I feel like there's enough mixture of ideas and originality that I don't have to worry about it. But if I had to come up with a song every day for a TV show and it all had to be a certain style and beats per minute, yeah, I would worry about getting repetitive.
Songfacts: I see. Because a lot of people like to have certain restrictions, but you don't. You have the whole spectrum open to you, which keeps you from running out of riffs.
Steve: I don't feel like my life's going to end if my idea isn't liked by whatever band I'm working with. I just write stuff that I think is good and interesting. And if it gets used, then, great.
August 21, 2014.
Get tour dates and more info at deeppurple.com.
Photo credits: Steve solo - earMusic; band - Jim Rakete.
More Songwriter Interviews