Guitarist Steve Morse joined us as Deep Purple released both deluxe and vinyl editions of their new album Now What?!, a comeback which has already topped the charts in four countries — and gone Top 20 in 13 more.
The well-received studio project, Purple’s first since 2005, is the fifth to feature Morse — who took over for Ritchie Blackmore in time for 1996’s Purpendicular. Morse has since become the band’s longest-tenured guitarist, after co-founding the Dregs and serving a late-1980s stint in Kansas. It was there that Morse first worked with Bob Ezrin, a figure who had previously produced legends like Kiss, Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd — and who would, in turn, have a sweeping impact on Now What?!
Morse, in an exclusive SER Sitdown, talked about the sessions that ultimately produced one of Deep Purple’s most consistent efforts in years, a few of his favorite tracks from Now What?! and how he’s worked to honor the group’s legacy while staying true to his own sound …
NICK DERISO: Did the experience on Now What with Bob Ezrin differ from your previous work with him on Kansas’ (underrated 1988 concept album) In the Spirit of Things?
STEVE MORSE: I thought he did really well working with the other guys, while he was more familiar with me. We’re already had advanced to the point of exchanging insults daily. (Laughs.) I think he really was sharp with the pre-production, and so quick. He had such amazing memory of every version we had done. It was astounding. He just works fast. We had, basically, too much material by the time Bob got involved — and he helped whittle it down. As far as recording guitar stuff, he knows exactly what he wants, and I know exactly what I wanted — so there were some times when we had a little friction about finding common ground. But it worked out better this time than it did with Kansas. (Stream it!: Kansas’ “House on Fire.”) When I was with Kansas, I was using, I think, a Marshall 2555, and he didn’t like that it didn’t set much high-end presence, but I find that very irritating to my ears. Since I’ve switched to to this ENGL amp, it has a sweet high end that engineers and producers love. So I basically didn’t have to do anything, and he was OK with the sound. In fact, he liked it — and for Bob to like a guitar sound that I did is pretty amazing. (Laughs.)
NICK DERISO: Certainly, you ended up with a lot of intriguing things, from the jazzy work on “Body Line,” to a Pink Floyd-ish feel on “Blood from a Stone.” It’s a real tour-de-force guitar record.
STEVE MORSE: One of the challenges, as usual, was trying to make Bob happy with the guitar. For me, it isn’t easy. I think he’s used to (legendary Floyd guitarist David) Gilmour’s style of ultra-melodic playing, and I stick in more technical riffs in between any melodic things that I do. He’s very conscious of me sounding too much like my technical self. He really wanted me to sound more melodic, and he really pushed it — and I think it worked. That’s why I was heavily in favor of Bob being involved, because we’ve had plenty of experience doing albums, but what we didn’t have was somebody from the outside who could say no. Somebody that we acquiesced the authority to, and elected to be the judge. Someone who had a vision from beginning to end. I think it does work better, if you can all deal with it. One of the things that I had to keep remembering, when I disagreed with Bob was: ‘This was the guy that I wanted to produce the album. If there’s something that I don’t agree with, I’m going to go with it.’ In fact one time, over the talkback, he said: ‘Morse, do you trust me?’ I said: ‘Yeah,’ and he said: ‘OK, then, just do it.’ (Laughs.) With somebody like Bob, there’s a lot of trust.
NICK DERISO: You brought a varied sensibility into Deep Purple, having been a part of the Dregs’ rootsy efforts since the mid-1970s. How was the inevitable move away from a blues-focused guitar sound received?
STEVE MORSE: I think the band, they actually welcomed it — which was one of the reasons I liked the band, even before I met them. When my manager Frank Solomon said, ‘yeah, they know who you are,’ I was like: ‘Really!? And they still want me to play?’ (Laughs.) I was intrigued by that fact, that instead of a clone of Ritchie, they wanted someone who had their own vision guitar-wise — and somebody who enjoyed writing, which is perfect for me. I think they’ve been very open and accepting of that and really, other than the total bluegrass stuff, I can pretty much do any style that I want — as long as I sneak it in (Laughs.)
NICK DERISO: Over the years, you became very close with (late co-founding keyboardist) Jon Lord. It must have meant a lot to you to have been a part of his final album, the very long-awaited studio version of Concerto for Group and Orchestra. (Stream it!: Jon Lord’s “Movement Three: Vivace/Presto.”) What was that experience like?
STEVE MORSE: The original concept was not to have us involved with it, so that it wouldn’t be diluted — and wouldn’t give people any expectations that it would sound like Deep Purple. So, it was a big deal. I’m one of Jon’s biggest fans. I connected with him very intensely, especially on our first album (together, 1996’s) Purpendicular. He just had this certain something; he could hear things that no one else could. When everyone else was saying ‘nah, that’s not working,’ Jon could say: ‘Wait a second. Let’s just twist it this way, and look again.’ So, it was a big deal that Jon asked me. Originally, when he did the concerto with Deep Purple live, that was sort of hurriedly done — though Jon had spent a lot of time writing it. The second time we did it, when I was in the band, it was still with Deep Purple. This was his first chance to do his own recording without being associated with Deep Purple, and from what I understand he didn’t really intend to ask me to do it. He just got used to the way that I played some of the sections. He was describing to the guitarist maybe in too much detail, trying to get them to recreate the way that I did it. I guess it just got easier to ask me.
NICK DERISO: Now What also goes a long way toward capturing Deep Purple’s in-concert feel. How much of it was recorded live, together in a room?
STEVE MORSE: Well, everything was recorded with us all together in a room — in fact, we even did the scratch vocals together. There was great separation in the (Nashville-based) studio, which is gigantic. We had everything in a different room, but we are all standing in the middle where the drums were. So, we had the perfect opportunity. In fact, the whole intro to “Uncommon Man,” that was an improv. It had to be just like that. There was no click; it was just looking at each other, and everyone just guessing what the other would play — like we do live. I thought it was pretty cool that he used it.
NICK DERISO: Leaving that little jam in there is such a transportive moment — a throwback to the long-ago days of free-form album rock.
STEVE MORSE: Bob has been there and done that, been a part of musical history. But he’s also saying: ‘You know what, I know the way the business is today. I don’t think we should be catering to anything. Just do this; it’s going to be great.’ You’ve got to love him.
NICK DERISO: You’ve had to balance the need to replicate signature Ritchie Blackmore riffs on something like “Smoke on the Water” with a desire to bring your own personality into the songs. Has it gotten easier?
STEVE MORSE: To a certain extent. I’ve gotten a little more rigid about trying to learn the original, exactly, and then straying from it. My philosophy is that I want to approach the song as a fan, but at the same time have enough surprises, or spontaneity or personality, something that suits me to where you can tell that it’s not Ritchie playing. It’s difficult to use the words to describe it.
NICK DERISO: Well, when you’ve been in a band 20 years, you get to take some ownership of it, right?
STEVE MORSE: (Laughs.) You know, I’ve played more gigs than any guitar player that’s ever been with Deep Purple. But I will always be the new guy, because of that one classic period. It was so huge, a big part of the encyclopedia of rock. I want to show some level of respect for what’s come before me, but sort of having a sense of ownership, too. I’m trying to pay tribute to the music that’s been written, but at the same time make it relate to me now.
NICK DERISO: When you talk about those iconic things from the past, is there a moment on the new album where you can say: ‘Here’s something I’ve contributed to that legacy’?
STEVE MORSE: The song “Above and Beyond.” That was pretty much my total vision, musically. That whole thing I had written for Deep Purple, to be produced by Bob Ezrin. (Stream it!: Deep Purple’s “Above and Beyond.”) I meant it to be with an orchestra — and I knew that’s what Bob would do. In my mind, I said ‘this will be horns here, and this will be the strings.’ It has a “Kashmir” sort of arrangement. Normally, it doesn’t work to bring in a whole song with Deep Purple, because it gets changed completely. (Laughs.) It’s usually best when people just bring in ideas. But that particular one, I said: ‘This is going to work.’