Don Airey - 17/02/2008

Don Airey has been the keyboardist in the rock band Deep Purple since 2002, succeeding Jon Lord. He has had a long and productive career, playing with such acts as Gary Moore, Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Whitesnake, Colosseum II, Sinner, Michael Schenker, Uli Jon Roth, Rainbow, Divlje jagode and Living Loud. He has also worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber.


Inspired by his father, Norman Airey, Don Airey took a love for music at a young age and was trained in classical piano from the age of seven. In 1974 he moved to London and joined Cozy Powell's band Hammer. Don worked on several albums with solo artists and was a session musician on the 1978 Black Sabbath album ‘Never Say Die’! Soon after, he joined guitarist Ritchie Blackmore's band, Rainbow, and featured on Gary Moore's solo debut. With Rainbow he contributed to two hit albums, ‘Down to Earth’ and ‘Difficult to Cure’.


In 1980 Airey played on Ozzy Osbourne's first solo album, ‘The Blizzard of Ozz’ where he had a famous and slightly gothic intro to the song "Mr. Crowley". After leaving Rainbow in 1981, Airey joined with Ozzy Osbourne for a three year stint where he helped with the albums ‘Bark at the Moon’ and ‘Speak of the Devil’. Airey joined Jethro Tull in 1987 for their tour in support of Crest of a Knave. The same year also saw the release of Whitesnake's multi-platinum ‘Whitesnake’, on which Airey played keyboards. (The album is known as ‘1987’ in Europe). Soon after, he quit the band to record his first solo album ‘K2: Tales Of Triumph And Tragedy’’. The first half of the 1990s saw Airey's son suffer from a serious illness, so his musical activity was largely on hiatus during this time. In 1997 he arranged and played on "Love Shine a Light" by Katrina And The Waves, conducting the accompanying orchestra at The Eurovision Song Contest. The song won the contest.


Airey went in semi-retirement until 2001, when he joined Deep Purple to fill in for an injured Jon Lord, who has since retired. Airey joined the band as a full time keyboardist in March 2002. He has recorded two studio albums with the band, ‘Bananas’ and ‘Rapture of the Deep’.


On February 25, Airey steps into the spotlight’s full glare as his second solo album, ‘A Light In The Sky’, is released via Mascot Records. Twenty years have slipped by since ‘K2: Tales Of Triumph And Tragedy’.  For ‘A Light In The Sky’, Airey has gathered together two separate rhythm sections – the aforementioned Laurence Cottle teaming up on the more complex tracks with groovemeister Darrin Mooney, drummer of both Primal Scream and Gary Moore’s band  – while Chris Childs (bass) and Gary ‘Harry’ James (drums) from British rockers Thunder proceed to stampede over all the rest. Thunder’s Danny Bowes also drops by to impressively belt out the lyrics of ‘Love You Too Much’. The other vocal tracks (‘Shooting Star’, ‘Endless Night’ and ‘A Light in the Sky’) are handled by Carl Sentance, who began his career with the band Persian Risk alongside Phil Campbell of Motörhead, before joining the solo band of Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler. To most people, Sentance was last seen fronting Krokus.



With a new album out soon we had a little chat with Don Airey, so here we go!


First of all, how are you?

Very well thank you.


It took you almost 20 years to come up with a new solo album, why did we have to wait so long for a new solo record?

No-one offered me a deal till recently, and to be honest I have been so busy with Deep Purple that I had neither the time nor the ideas for a solo project.


How did you launch into writing the material for ‘A Light in the Sky’, did ideas come easily so that you just had to write them down or was it more of a careful composing thing?

Some of the songs are quite old, but most are brand new and were very carefully put together.


Did you have a certain idea of what you wanted to do on ‘A Light in the Sky’, what were the goals you had in mind, any elements you definitely wanted to have on the album?

It was always going to be about a journey into space, but with the musical spaceship powered by the sound of Rainbow meets the Mahavishnu Orchestra meets Jean Michel Jarre. I also wanted to really capture the sound of my Hammond A100 and its two Leslie cabinets.


Was it a conscious decision to do it this way?



You have some guests playing on your album, each of them have a different musical background, how did you manage to come to one musical agreement with them or did you arrange it all and tell them what to do or play?

The album was highly arranged, and I wrote most of the music out, but left a lot of scope for all the musicians to bring in something of their own. There’s no point in telling good players what to play – you miss out on the good stuff if you do. The album was recorded very quickly and there is a lot of live playing on there.


Before an album release there’s the process in the studio. How did the recording proceed, how much time did you spend in the studio?

I started by demo-ing all the tracks in my own studio. Sent copies of relevant tracks out to all the musicians involved in advance, wrote out the music where necessary, so that when recording started in Chapel Studios, It proceeded relatively quickly as everyone knew what they had to do – the whole album was recorded and mixed in 19 days.


What about the song writing – how can we imagine you work on new songs? What comes first, lyrics or melodies? Is it like you write a new song because you need more material now or do you wait until you get an idea?

It’s always chords and melody first, and (often years) later the lyrics. I usually wait till an idea hits me rather than grinding one out. The most important ingredients in songwriting are simplicity and brevity.


What might this solo album “add” that you cannot express in your music with Deep Purple?

A chance to play music that is a little closer to my heart than heavy rock.


Even though the diversity of your music fits perfectly in Deep Purple, have you ever thought of changing your music style, like so many other musicians tend to do after some years?

No; it’s business as usual! Rock till you drop, with Purple it all comes down to that Hammond and those Leslies.


Could you please describe the implications of the title ‘A Light in the Sky’, what does it stand for and is there a special meaning behind it?

Just a general reference to the part the study of the heavens has played in human evolution. It’s how we discovered mathematics from which all other branches of learning come. Also a reference to how inspirational looking up to the sky can be. It’s what humanity did in the evenings before it started watching television!  Also perhaps a message of hope in these dark times.


Did you write the lyrics yourself and can you tell us something about them?

I wrote half of them, singer Carl Sentance wrote the rest. “Love You Too Much”

was written from the point of view of a space traveler who has the whole universe to explore but  can only think  about his doomed love for someone back home. It was inspired by astronaut Jim Lovell’s remark that he went to the moon, but discovered the earth. “A Light in the Sky” is autobiographical about a close encounter I had a long time ago with something very alien and very evil, and it’s also about the imminent onset of Doomsday – a cheery little ditty!



Is the music written independently from the lyrics or do you try to reflect lyrical ideas through the music?

You are always  kind of given the first line of a song, but the bulk of the lyrics always come after the music is written.


What was your incentive when you recorded ‘A Light in the Sky’ in a time where a fan would rather download than buy an album?

The vain hope, that you can’t beat holding a copy of the real thing in your hands.


Have you received any feedback on the new album yet? How do you feel about this album – are you satisfied with the outcome or would you have liked to have changed anything in retrospective?

Some very good reactions so far – no regrets except about one track I left out.


What’s the thing you are most proud of concerning this cd?

The live feel, the natural sound, (particularly of the Hammond) and the great and sometimes staggering performances from all the musicians involved.


What songs and bands do you listen to these days?

Amy Winehouse, Kate Nash, Feist, Gallows, Perry Farrell, of the newer artists, and Cream and Mountain of the older bands.


Deep Purple is one of the longest standing rock bands, how do you see the future with this band?



What is your opinion on the rock scene these days, is there anything missing?

What’s missing are good tunes, light and shade, and song structure all definitely left on the back burner. Also what has happened to guitar-playing? What happened to the solo?!


With such a fusion of styles in your music, are there any particular bands who’ve been a big influence in your song writing? Which album has been your biggest musical influence, one that made you think “this is what I want to do!”?

Seeing Deep Purple live when I was a classical music student in Manchester in the early 70s had a big effect on me. I little thought I would end up as their keyboardist. Albums, well Hendrix “Axis Bold as Love”, and “Inner Mounting Flame” the Mahavishnu Orchestra, oh, and the first Beatles album, and Todd Rundgren’s” Hermit of Mink Hollow”.


With all the touring with Deep Purple and so many albums under your belt, how far has this surpassed your original dreams and what would you say is the most rewarding part of being a musician?

I look back in absolute amazement at some of the things I have done and taken part in. Best part of the business is touring, absolutely.  Nothing beats coming to town with a rock band that’s sold out the local venue.

What is the ambition you still haven't fulfilled yet?

To walk through the Karakoram mountains to the foot of K2.


If you look at your career over the whole period of time, you're primarily known as a session guy. You’ve worked with a lot of people, you’re a permanent member of Deep Purple now, what can we expect in the future from Don Airey?

For myself  the main part of my career has been spent in bands, with sessions a sideline. I hope to make another album with Purple soon, and to perhaps do some live solo gigs.


Has anything been left unmentioned?

Goodbye, thanks and good luck to all your readers!


Thanks for the interview!  

Eugene Straver


Selected Discography :

1976 - Colosseum II - Strange New Flesh

1977 - Colosseum II - Electric Savage

1977 - Colosseum II - War Dance

1978 - Black Sabbath - Never Say Die!

1979 - Gary Moore - Back on the Streets

1979 - Rainbow - Down to Earth

1979 - Cozy Powell - Over the Top

1980 - Michael Schenker - The Michael Schenker Group

1981 - Ozzy Osbourne - Blizzard of Ozz

1981 - Cozy Powell - Tilt

1981 - Rainbow - Difficult to Cure

1982 - Gary Moore - Corridors of Power

1982 - Gary Moore - Rockin' Every Night

1983 - Ozzy Osbourne - Bark at the Moon

1984 - Gary Moore - Dirty Fingers

1985 - Gary Moore - Run For Cover

1986 - Zeno - Zeno

1987 - Whitesnake - Whitesnake

1988 - Fastway - Bad Bad Girls

1988 - Jethro Tull - 20 Years of Jethro Tull

1989 - Don Airey - K2

1989 - Gary Moore - After the War

1989 - Whitesnake - Slip of the Tongue

1990 - Jagged Edge - You Don't Love Me

1990 - Judas Priest - Painkiller

1990 - Tigertailz - Love Bomb Baby

1992 - Cozy Powell - Let the Wild Run Free

1992 - UFO - High Stakes and Dangerous Men

1993 - Brian May - Back to the Light

1994 - Graham Bonnet - Here Comes the Night

1994 - Gary Moore - Still Got the Blues

1994 - Katrina and the Waves - Turnaround

1997 - Glen Tipton - Baptizm of Fire

1998 - Crossbones - Crossbones

1999 - Millennium - Millennium

2000 - Micky Moody - I Eat Them for Breakfast

2000 - Silver - Silver

2000 - Uli Jon Roth - Transcendental Sky Guitar

2000 - Company of Snakes - Burst The Bubble

2001 - Judas Priest - Demolition

2001 - Company of Snakes - Here They Go Again

2002 - Metalium - Hero Nation Chapter Three

2002 - Bruce Dickinson - Tattooed Millionaire

2003 - Deep Purple - Bananas

2003 - Silver - Intruder

2005 - Deep Purple - Rapture of the Deep

2006 - Gary Moore - Old New Ballads Blues

2007 - Gillian Glover - Red Handed

2007 - Don Airey - A Light in the Sky

2007 - Metalium - Demons of Insanity - Chapter Five