“Undefeated” is the title of one of the studio songs that you can hear on Def Leppard’s newest double live album, Mirrorball. An evocative title, which suggests that the band has remained second to none on their own turf these past 30 years. Who can claim to create such melodies, such complex vocal harmonies nowadays? And who can boast such an incredible collection of hits? Very few bands, that’s the answer.
Undefeated also because the band has been through difficult times, always bending but never breaking, contrary to a lot of hard FM/glam bands. In the middle of the 90s, the Sheffield band released several albums that can be seen as so many attempts at reappraisal: first with Slang, where they completely – and not without talent – transformed the music to fit the standards of the 90s, then with Euphoria, where they went back to the basics of their success, and then with X, lost in the popular soppiness of the early years of the 21st century.
But Def Leppard are still there, and they’re stronger than ever. The most compelling proof of that being the excellent Songs From The Spark Lounge they released three years ago and the ever-growing offers for shows all over the world.
Twenty years ago, when grunge was the big thing, Def Leppard made many people laugh with their light subjects and easy melodies. Now their longevity, inimitable know-how and first-rate live performances no longer make anybody laugh; rather, they inspire respect. Not only did Def Leppard prove, thanks to their first real live album, that they’re still a leading band; they also intend to keep on fighting – and winning. The future of the band looks particularly heartening, since they seem to want to strengthen the rawer approach their 2008 record hinted at.
That’s what Vivian Campbell, Def Leppard’s guitarist for the past 20 years and successor of the late lamented Steve Clark, explained to us.
“It would be refreshing to go out and play some more obscure song from the Def Leppard catalogue, but people are paying a lot of money to come and see Def Leppard and they wanna hear “Photograph”, “Rock Of Ages”, “Animal”, “Foolin”, “Hysteria”, “Love Bites”… I mean, there are so many great songs that we have to play…”
Radio Metal : You’ve been touring with Thin Lizzy lately. How have the shows been going so far?
Vivian Campbell (guitar) : Oh, the Thin Lizzy shows are so much fun. We’re having a great time. It’s been very exciting for me to play with Thin Lizzy because I’m such a Thin Lizzy fan, they were such an influence on me growing up and their music means so much to me… The guitar players from Thin Lizzy influenced me so much; Scott Gorham, Brian Robertson and especially Gary Moore. It’s been a real thrill to get on stage and play with Scott and with Brian Downey, to play those songs and to get to play with these guitar players. But all that’s finished now, I did my last Thin Lizzy show this past week-end, at the Slane Castle Festival in Ireland. That was my last Lizzy show and now I’m in rehearsal with Def Leppard.
I think Thin Lizzy’s going to play in France at the Hellfest. Does that mean that you’re not going to play with them?(ndlr : interview conducted the 31th of May)
Correct, yeah. Like I said I’m in rehearsal with Def Leppard and we’ll start our summer tour here in Ireland next week, so Richard Fortus, the guitar player from Guns N’ Roses has replaced me and will do the summer tour with them.
Ok, but are you staying with Thin Lizzy after Def Leppard is finished with the tour?
Yes, that is the plan. I’m not sure when it’ll be because I really don’t know how long the Def Leppard tour is going to go for… Certainly for the rest of this year I will be on tour with Def Leppard, so perhaps some time next year in 2012, when Def Leppard isn’t busy. Thin Lizzy have told me I can come back and play with them, and I’m very honored that I can do that.
With Def Leppard you got a new live album called Mirrorball coming out. I’m sure everybody must ask you this, but considering that Def Leppard is such a great live band, how comes it took the band so long to release a live album?
Well I think the band’s focus has always been on making new material and writing and recording new songs, so it was never really considered an available option before. I think we did this more by accident than design. We just happened to be recording for the last couple of years, 2008 and 2009. When we were on tour in America, we just recorded every single show. You know, in the past years recording a live album was really difficult, it was expensive, you had to get a mobile recording truck, and you could usually only afford to record one or two shows. Then there was always a lot of anxiety about the performance because you knew you were recording the show for a live album so everyone was very tense about that… The way we decided to do it was just to record every single show, so that’s talking about probably over two years, close to a hundred shows or more, and we forgot that we were recording. Consequently I think we got some really good performances because there was no pressure on the band on those. Then rather than have this be an album from one particular city, we picked the best performance of certain songs, from whatever night it happened to be and we’ve done the live album that way. So I think it was more by accident than by design. We knew that we had all this great live material and we thought it was probably the best time to put out a live record.
“The parts that I’m playing were Steve Clark parts, and Steve’s guitar solos were very simple, but that’s what made them so good, because they were so integral to the song. Steve wasn’t so much of a solo, thematic player. His solos were very melodic and very much a part of the song and therefore it would be wrong for me to change them..”
What were the selection criteria for the songs and performances that have made it to the album?
The two people that sat down and went through all the material were Joe Elliott and our co-producer and engineer Ronan McHugh. The band is very consistent live, in our performance and in our compos, so I would say that the biggest determining fact would have been how Joe Elliott have felt about his performances. If Joe felt he had a really good performance on one night of a particular song, that was probably the most important criteria.
Actually the whole live album is concentrated on the 80’s/early 90’s era of the band, apart from only two songs from the latest album. That means that very few of the songs from the years you spent with the band are played live. Isn’t it frustrating in some ways for you?
Well, it is in many ways. Like in any other successful act you came to be a victim of your own success. Remember that these recordings were taken from an American tour, and particularly in America more so than in Asia and Europe we’re sort of obligated to play our hit songs. That’s what the American audience want to hear for the most part. We’re very fortunate that we have so many greatest songs that constitute the greater bits of our sets. That’s always been the way with this band when we tour in America. 85 or 90% of our live shows are those big hits from the eighties and there are so many of them, we’re kind of obligated to play them all. With Def Leppard playing in America it’s more a question of which song we don’t play. That’s the more difficult question. We always try and make it a little bit different every time we go on tour in America we try and play something current. For instance, this year we’re gonna be in America starting from the middle of June. We have a new song called “Undefeated” which is one of the three studio tracks of the album. We’ll be performing that this summer, and we also will try and go a little deeper and play something that’s more obscure, from one of the earlier albums, like a deeper album cut, but then there is only so much time we have to play in an American show and we’re obligated to play the big hits so… it is what is! But I know it would be nice for the real hardcore fans as well as for us in the band. It would be refreshing to go out and play some more obscure song from the Def Leppard catalogue, but people are paying a lot of money to come and see Def Leppard and they wanna hear “Photograph”, “Rock Of Ages”, “Animal”, “Foolin”, “Hysteria”, “Love Bites”… I mean, there are so many great songs that we have to play…
Last year in an interview you said that you weren’t challenged guitar wise in Def Leppard because Phil takes care of all the mains guitar duties. Phil actually justified this by saying that it’s because the band plays all the hits live that were written by him and Steve Clark before you joined the band. Is this answer a good justification in your eyes? I mean it’s been almost 20 years now that you’re in the band and no one can deny that you’ve contributed a lot to the music of Def Leppard!
Like I said in my previous answer, it’s because we play the majority of the set from the eighties era, and that’s previous of my involvement in the band so that just happens to be a fact of life on Def Leppard that we’re playing old songs in our sets. Therefore the parts that I’m playing were Steve Clark parts, and Steve’s guitar solos were very simple, but that’s what made them so good, because they were so integral to the song. Steve wasn’t so much of a solo, thematic player. His solos were very melodic and very much a part of the song and therefore it would be wrong for me to change them. I have to be faithful to his guitar parts when I play them live and I’m fine with that. I accept that and I understand that. The challenge in being in Def Leppard is different. It’s not so much guitar-centered, it’s very much about the vocals. We’re a very strong vocal band, we’re all singing in every song multiple times, and the guitar parts in Leppard are more about orchestrating the song as opposed to playing more technically challenging solos. That’s why it’s been refreshing for me to play in Thin Lizzy this year because I’ve got to exercise that muscle. That’s something that maybe not a lot of Def Leppard fans know about me. I started with Dio as a shredding kinda lead guitar player and that’s not really a skill that’s required of me in Def Leppard.
“I think it would be wrong to try and make an album that sounds exactly like High N’ Dry. [...] But I do think that that’s a good influence or target for us collectively to look at when we think about our next studio record.”
For a long time you were considered as the new guy by the fans and that kind of label tend to stick for a long time in people’s mind. Do you think that’s still the case today, that you’re still the new guy in people’s eyes?
Yeah, but that’ll always be this way. Ronnie Wood is always the new guy in The Rolling Stones… He’s been in the Stones for how many years? 35 years, something like that… So you know, there’s always gonna be someone who’s the new guy. That’s okay. As long as I’m the new guy that’s fine because that means nothing changed. Everyone is still there and that’s a good thing with me.
There are three new songs at the end of Mirrorball. Are they a good representation of what the band is about right now?
They’re three very different songs. They’re not necessarily band songs, they were written by individuals: Rick Savage wrote the song “Kings of the World”, Phil Collen wrote the song “It’s All About Believin”, and Joe Elliott wrote the song “Undefeated”. They represent three different styles, but that’s part of the beauty of Leppard: everyone in the band contribute on the creative level, although usually on a Def Leppard record we tend to be more involved as a band as it comes for the writing, at least for the make-up of the song. But on this record, it was a live album and essentially at the end of it our management advices that we should add some new songs, so we essentially just went individually on the songs. I think the one that represents the band the most is Joe’s song “Undefeated”. I really do think that Joe probably wrote the best Def Leppard songs because he brings a very simplistic approach to the songwriting and that’s what makes it so universal. “Undefeated” is a great rock song and I think it really represents what the band is about right now. It’s our intention in 2012 to make another studio album and hopefully we’ll lean a little bit toward the rock side of the spectrum.
Have the band started working or at least gathering ideas for the next Def Leppard album?
We’re gathering ideas, we haven’t started recording anything yet. The rest of the year is going to be a touring year for us. We will most likely try and record demos over the tour for the rest of this year. We’ll bring some Pro Tools on the road with us and start contributing to the next record and sharing ideas with each other.
You’ve been quoted saying that you’d want the next Def Leppard album to be back to the High N’ Dry sound. This is interesting because you weren’t in the band at the time of that album and the band didn’t have the success it had with later albums. What do you like about that album?
Well, first of all I think that everyone in the band would like it too but I’m not sure that it’s gonna be quite like that later on. I mean it’s our intention to try and get back some of the flavor, but I think it would be wrong to try and make an album that sounds exactly like High N’ Dry. What was really good about High N’ Dry was that it really showcased the influences of rock. But that’s only part of the influences of Def Leppard. The band is also very melodic in terms of our influences and many people would say that the real Def Leppard sound was from Pyromania and onward. There was a fusion of this rock elements and the pop sensibilities. That’s always been what we tried to achieve when we write songs and go to the studio, to balance these two elements. There’s a percentage of our fans that really want us to just get back to the rock thing and we’re very aware of that, but I don’t think that’s the majority of the Def Leppard fans. I always said, when people ask me about our friend producers, that if [Rick] Rubin for example would work with Def Leppard and produce a record he would absolutely strip the band back to the roots and try and make the band record an album like High N’ Dry. But it’s not always possible because that record was recorded many many years ago, and the one thing that consistent in life is change. People change, your attitude change, everything around you changes constantly so it’s not always possible to go back to a certain point in time. But I do think that that’s a good influence or target for us collectively to look at when we think about our next studio record, and I think that there’s a couple of guys in the band who shares that opinion.
(About Ronnie James Dio) “It was a very strange relationship between he and I. It was a lot of miscommunication, of misunderstanding and I think a lot of it was generational. [...] I didn’t have any reason to contact him again after he fired me. It had been 25 or so years since Ronnie had fired me from the band. I’ve never seen him again, I’ve never spoken to him again, he never contacted me. It is what it is.”
Actually Def Leppard tends to go on a more classical rock vibe… I mean Songs From The Sparckle Lounge was very classic rock oriented, and quite different from the more modern sounding Slang and X albums. Does this mean you’re not too fond of these?
Well… The nineties were a strange time for Def Leppard. We experimented. We took advantage of the fact that we knew that things were changing rapidly so we were gonna have to try and do something different, and we did. For the Slang record, we readjusted our whole style of recording, and not only that. We readjusted our whole style of songwriting. It was a very experimental record for the band. You know, if you ask a different guy in Def Leppard we’ll all have a different opinion about it… I have very mixed feelings about that record. I really like the way the record sounds, I think that sonically, it’s very fresh and very exciting. Still to these days, it sounds very good. From a songwriting point of view, I don’t think that is by any means the best Def Leppard album and I think we could have focused more on that. And then by the time we did the Euphoria record in the late nineties… It was a contrast to that. We really wanted to make a classic sounding Def Leppard record, which was like I said in total contrast with the Slang record. They were two very different things and consequently we recorded them differently. The Euphoria record was recorded very much in a classic Def Leppard style in that it was pieced together in the studio. The tracks of the Slang record were almost recorded live in the studio, Rick Allen used the acoustic drums again, and we were all in the room at the same time. There was a certain energy that you get from doing that that I would like to find again. I certainly would like to see the band do that in the future because that’s not something that we do very often. As you said when we started the conversation, we are a very powerful live band, so it would be nice to try and capture some of that energy in the studio. The way you gotta do that is to have people hang together in the same room at the same time.
My last question will be on a totaly different subject: as you said you played with Dio’s solo band in the early 80s’, at what is considered its creative peak, but I know that you two were not very much on good terms. Is this something that you regret now, not to have had the time to make up with him before he died?
No. Even when I was in the band with Ronnie [James Dio] back in the days, we never had a very strong relationship beyond music. That was what brought us together: we were on stage together, recording and writing songs… It was a very strange relationship between he and I. It was a lot of miscommunication, of misunderstanding and I think a lot of it was generational. Ronnie was a lot older than me and I found it very difficult to communicate with him and vice versa, I think he found it very difficult to communicate with me. A lot of people have thought for years and years that I left the band, which is not true, I was fired. I never wanted to quit the Dio band. I didn’t have any reason to contact him again after he fired me. It had been 25 or so years since Ronnie had fired me from the band. I’ve never seen him again, I’ve never spoken to him again, he never contacted me. It is what it is. I’m very proud of the records that we recorded together, but you can’t go back. You gotta keep moving forward.
Phone interview conducted the 31th of May 2011.
Def Leppard website: www.defleppard.com
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