Nobody quite knew what to expect when Steve Morse joined Deep Purple in 1994. The Dixie Dregs/Kansas kingpin was stepping into a situation that didn’t bode well for longevity.
First there was founding guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who came and went over the years; his initial replacement, Tommy Bolin, lasted only two years before the group’s first breakup in 1976. Joe Satriani stepped in for a tour in 1993 but was unable to join full-time because of his solo commitments.
Would Morse, hailed as one of the most gifted and versatile guitarists of his day, manage to stick around? As it turns out, he was a natural fit for Deep Purple; in fact, his 26-year tenure with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers makes him the band’s longest-standing axman.
“Yeah, I passed that mark a long time ago,” Morse says with a laugh. Detailing the group’s protocol, he likens the fold to a dog pack. “There’s a natural inclination for people to hold positions based on seniority. For a while, I was at the bottom, but when [keyboardist] Jon Lord retired, Don Airey joined, so I moved from the number five to the four spot.”
However, Morse notes that being the sole American in a group of Brits has its disadvantages. “Once Don started talking soccer – English football – with the other guys, that was it,” he says. “I went back to being number five, and I’ve been there ever since.”
But his lack of UK football knowledge notwithstanding, Morse has made his mark on Deep Purple (which also includes three members from the classic Mark II lineup – vocalist Ian Gillan, bassist Roger Glover and drummer Ian Paice).
In concert, he’s put his own stamp on the group’s rich cavalcade of hits, and in the studio he’s proved to be a dominant and invigorating force, dishing out robust guitar riffs and lyrical solos while becoming a central figure in their songwriting process.
The guitarist weaves blistering six-string runs throughout the band’s latest album, Whoosh!, an almost absurdly enjoyable – and surprisingly youthful-sounding – set full of spunky prog rock (Throw My Bones), quasi-rockabilly/boogie (What the What), lush power balladry (Nothing at All) and fist-pumping stompers (The Long Way Round, No Need to Shout).
It’s the outfit’s third consecutive release they’ve made with veteran producer Bob Ezrin, best known for his work with Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd. According to Morse, Ezrin serves a key role when he’s sometimes called upon to mediate songwriting disputes.
“We’re a good group of different personalities, and everybody knows their strengths,” he says. “Something we have that I think is important is how somebody usually notices what nobody else does. In the songwriting process that can be very helpful, but it can also create friction. So we kind of use Bob Ezrin to be the police or judge. He comes in and acts as the final vote. At the end of the day, it works.”
Were it not for the pandemic, the plan was for Deep Purple to be on tour in 2020, correct?
”That was what we were thinking, yeah, but as of now we won’t be out again till 2021. We only got to play one show in 2020 – that was it.”
Clear something up, though: wasn’t the band’s The Long Goodbye Tour supposed to be a farewell to the road?
”That’s what I thought, but it turns out there’s evidence of UFO sightings and everything. The guys say they’re from the UK, but they’re actually from outer space – they’re from Krypton or somewhere. [Laughs] They have a lifetime span of 250 years, apparently, and they don’t realize I’m just a normal human. Everybody has been in the hospital for various surgeries and what have you, but they keep coming back with this upbeat attitude. I think music just keeps you young.“
Was this album cut with everybody together in the studio, or did you finish any of it remotely?
“No, we did it old school, before COVID. We were in this gigantic room at RCA Studios in Nashville. It had the traditional kind of room echo like we used to see in every other studio.
“It’s awesome to have that physical cubic feet for the drums to decay in and not reflect around. We had everybody facing each other in a circle. The speaker cabinets were remotely situated. We each have those little mixers – or actually pretty big mixers – that we can fine tune our headphones or earbuds.“
Aside from recording the best batch of tunes possible, does the band have a particular agenda going into the studio?
“To me, it’s funny and very true when Bob says, 'Let’s just make the kind of record we want to make. No one is going to buy it. Nobody’s going to play it on the radio.' [Laughs] Bob has got this sour kind of Don Rickles personality that he can switch on and off.
“If you didn’t know him, you’d think he’s being negative, but what he’s saying is, 'Make it for yourselves and the fans. Don’t worry about whether anything’s going to fit into any kind of niche or be suitable for radio airplay.' I love that starting point.“
Is there a particular process to the band’s songwriting? Do you initiate songs with riffs?
”There’s four ways it happens: One, I’ll bring in a lot of ideas and demos, but I won’t try to influence anybody; I just present the ideas and see which ones catch fire. The second way is, Roger will bring in ideas, but he’ll sometimes say, 'I really want to do it just like this.'
”That’s hard, because if you bring an idea to a band, you’ve got to be prepared for it to be taken apart and put back together differently than you imagined. The third way is we’ll just jam and see what happens, and the fourth way is Paicey will simply play a drum beat. He’ll set up a feel for something he wants in a song.”
What happens if you think a song is bad? Can you make it come alive? Can a bad song become a good one, or is it just destined to be bad?
“I guess it depends on what you call bad. For instance, if you have a song that just isn’t inspiring, maybe there’s a few things you can do to improve it. As for myself, I don’t even bring an idea in unless there’s something that grabs me. I have to be able to say, 'I don’t know if you’ll like this, but I do.'
“I’m that guy who can come up with 10 variations on a song: 'Why don’t we try this?' 'Let’s try this!' I’m always trying to see what we’re missing in songs. A lot of times, it’s the other way around: the guys think it’s a good song, and I don’t yet. So I’m pushing for these little incremental changes. When you add it all up, we finally achieve a good balance.“
Your guitar solo on Throw My Bones is one of the best on the album. It sounds very expressive, but there’s an improvised quality to it.
“It’s good that you think that. I do have the ability to take a good solo and screw it up. [Laughs] I can get a take in eight or nine passes. Sometimes I’ll need 20 takes, by which time Bob runs out of the room screaming. I think he’s heard too many guitar solos during his life. There have been times I’ve played something and I thought it was really smooth, but Bob will say, 'Nope. It’s too smooth. I want to hear you do something that you’re not comfortable doing.'“
What did he say about your solo on We’re All the Same in the Dark? You throw some country twang into a funky rock song.
“Well, I think there’s a limited amount of natural me that can be played before Bob gets into his producer role: 'Yeah, Morse, that’s great. Save it for your solo album. Now give me something that fits the song.' Yeah, I don’t know how that got past him. Sometimes he comps solos from the simplest parts of each take, making me sound like I’m on Quaaludes or something. I think he’s just sick of high-energy solos.“
I assume you used your signature Ernie Ball Music Man guitars on the album?
“That’s right, the SM-1 Music Man and the Y2D. They work for pretty much everything. But on Dancing in My Sleep I played a baritone guitar that was strung with guide wires from a radio antenna.“
Are you serious?
“No, I’m joking! [Laughs] But it felt like it.“
What about amps and effects?
“The amps were ENGLs that were made for me. That was basically it. For effects, I used the Keeley C2 Compressor, along with the TC Hall of Fame Reverb and the Flashback Delay. The effects on the delay are the TonePrint that I did for TC Electronic. So I use a wet and dry delay, and I blend them. I’m very happy with those little pedals; they’ve helped reduce the size of my rig.“
While waiting till you can tour again, what have you been doing with your time?
”I’ve actually been busy. I’m not getting paid for a lot, but I’m staying active. I still keep the same schedule I always have, which is during the day I work on the farm and do whatever needs to be done. At night, generally when everyone is asleep, I work on music without any interruption.
”I have my own studio, which is great. A lot of my friends are doing recordings, and I’ve helped them out, added guitar parts remotely. I’m also working on a project with Greg Bissonette, Billy Sheehan and Mark Rivera. We’re doing kind of a virtual online camp thing. I did a masterclass for Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. So there’s still a lot going on even though things aren’t, you know, 'normal.'”
- Deep Purple's new album, Whoosh!, is out now via earMUSIC.