Sunderland-born musician Don Airey on Covid-19, SAFC and Deep Purple's latest album release Whoosh

Mick Burgess chats to Don Airey, Sunderland-born keyboard player with Deep Purple, about the band’s new album Whoosh and more.

Don Airey. Photo by Ben Wolf.
Don Airey. Photo by Ben Wolf.

::Q: We’re living in strange times at the moment. How’s Covid 19 affecting you both professionally and personally?

::A: It’s had a profound effect actually. I think it’s the longest time I`ve spent at home for 40 or 50 years having spent so much time on the road. It’s been a difficult adjustment, not for me but for my dear wife, who is not used to having me under feet for so long. I have enjoyed one side of it though being stationary and in the same bed every night. It gives you time to think and to do all of those things you’ve been meaning to do for years.

::Q: It must be very frustrating for you having just released a new album and being unable to tour and play those songs live?

Deep Purple. Photo by Ben Wolf.

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    ::A: It is very frustrating. I was very much looking forward to that. The album was great to make. We had such a great time in Nashville. You can always tell how an album is going to turn out by how it goes during the sessions. It was a fun time for all of us.

    ::Q: Your new album, Whoosh, came out a couple of weeks ago. You must be pleased with the reaction so far?

    ::A: Yes, the reaction has been great so far and everyone has been so positive. It’s always nice to read good reviews. Even Rod Liddle in The Spectator liked it. I was quite surprised at that.

    ::Q: Your previous album, Infinite, was going to be your last and your Long Goodbye Tour was going to be your final tour. What changed?

    ::A: It’s quite difficult to say really. Sometimes as a member of a band you just have to do what you are told by the powers that be. I think we said that we’d finish in 2018 and then just do a few gigs here and there. Of course, a few gigs become an avalanche. You learn that it’s very difficult to say no and here we are, we’re still going.

    ::Q: You’ve now been in Deep Purple for nearly 20 years, replacing Jon Lord in the band. Were you invited or did you apply for an audition?

    ::A: They phoned me up and said that Jon and was ill and said that they had a festival in two days and asked if I could do them and I said yes. Roger Glover sent me a set list and I had very little time to prepare. We had a very brief rehearsal where we only went through two songs and Ian Gillan said we should do one of Steve Morse’s songs, The Well Dressed Guitar, because Jon would never learn it.

    Next afternoon Steve came to my room and taught me to play it and that night I was on stage at the Skanderborg festival. I was going to do three festivals and ended up staying for the whole tour. I thought nothing of it and thought how much fun it had been. I got a call later to say that Jon had left and that there were four names on their short list and all were mine and asked if I’d join. I don`t know if that was true though but that`s what they said to me.

    ::Q: Replacing an original, legendary member is always a difficult task but did the endorsement of Jon Lord and the way you shared the stage for the last few songs of Jon’s last tour and your first tour help ease you in gently?

    ::A: I think it did. How we did that was, at the end of the keyboard solo there’d be a lot of smoke and the lights would go off then I’d duck down and Jon would come on and we’d change positions. From out the front it looked as though I morphed into Jon and I’d never heard such a cheer since Sunderland won the Cup. I thought it was a really nice way for me to take over from Jon and the fans seemed to really love it.

    ::Q: You were born and raised in Sunderland. What was the music scene like in Sunderland back then?

    ::A: It was great. There were a lot of bands like The Fireflies with Mick Grabham, who ended up in Procul Harum, and Nigel Olsson from Elton John’s band was in them too. They were the biggest band in the area at the time. I was in a little band called The Atoms and we played in church halls all over the place.

    ::Q: When did you leave Sunderland?

    ::A: I left to go to Nottingham University and I started running bands while I was there in nightclubs and cruise liners. Then I moved to London and that’s when I met Cozy and I played with him for a while.

    ::Q: Do you still have family up here?

    ::A: I do. I’m actually staying in Sunderland right now.

    ::Q: You`re a Sunderland fan too. How often do you get to games these days?

    ::A: I get to as many games as I can when I`m back in the area. Nobody really knows what’s going on at the moment. I’ve got a few contacts at the club but they’re keeping schtum. Something is happening apparently, but I don’t know what. It hasn’t been the best of times for Sunderland but you can live in hope.

    ::Deep Purple’s new album Whoosh is out now. Deep Purple tour the UK in October 2021. See www.deeppurple.com for details.

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