Joe Elliott,
The TVD Interview

Anybody who has listened to Def Leppard at any point in their life has their own personal, lasting memory of the band during their thirty-five-year career—a group of young, brash Brits greeting the States in rock anthem style with “Hello America,” Joe Elliott’s Union Jack shirt nearly ubiquitous on MTV, or “Pour Some Sugar On Me” propelling them to superstardom.

Rather than relics, Def Leppard has both fully embraced their past and moved into the present—exuding a youthful energy and sounding top-notch. Prior to embarking on a U.S. tour with Styx and Tesla, we had a chance to chat with the band’s iconic lead singer, Joe Elliott.

While Joe may not share the same enthusiasm for the vinyl format as some of our readers and staff, he both embraces its history and sees its place from a musician’s perspective as his side project, the Down ‘n’ Outz, released a vinyl EP for Record Store Day 2015 in the UK. Joe gave us a look at Def Leppard’s past, present, and potentially long future, as only he could.

As we go to press, it’s been announced that the band’s guitarist, Vivian Campbell will be taking a hiatus from the road due to the return of the cancer he’s fought bravely in recent years. It’s in this light that Joe’s comments on the band’s future prove both thoughtful—and prescient.

Hi Joe, how are you doing?

Excellent, not too bad at all.

Good to hear! You’re about to kick off a huge summer tour with Styx and Tesla. How did that combination come together?

These combinations are all suggested tours made on the premise that we want to tour with people that we are familiar with or the audience are familiar with. In other words, kind of like the old ’60s package tours, if you like. I’m a huge fan of these old Fillmore West and Fillmore East—or even the Marquee London posters—with The Who on the same bill as The Move or Amen Corner or Humble Pie, or something like that. Not just bands that are “special guests,” which I hate.

We’ve always said to agents through our management, “Throw suggestions at us who we could go out with.” That’s why every ten years or so, you’ll see us out with the likes of Bryan Adams ten years ago, Journey, Poison, we’ve been out with Styx and REO [Speedwagon] before, Cheap Trick, Heart, you know. These bands are multi-platinum bands.

We toured with Tesla back in ’87-’88 when we were doing the Hysteria tour for most of that tour. When they went away, we went out with bands like L.A. Guns, Queensryche, or Europe. These bands are all selling two, three million albums, so we were always out with well-known bands, and I think it makes a better night. Ticket prices, especially these days, you know, parking, and ten dollars for a beer. You’ve got to make it a value for the money. I think that should start at 7:30, not at 9:00.

Absolutely, that’s a great philosophy on touring. So you did a Las Vegas residency back in 2013. Did it go as well as you hoped?

Oh yeah, it went better than we thought. We weren’t really sure what to expect. We always go in with our eyes wide open, and a good sense of humor in case anything goes drastically wrong. It didn’t, though, it was fantastic. The upside of it was that the audience goes on tour, but we don’t move, so it affords you twenty-three nights in the same bed. Three shows a week, and it really doesn’t get any better than that—compared to a seventy-two date grueling tour that we’re about to do.

It also afforded us the opportunity to see two sides of our personality. When we did Hysteria, we’re obviously doing it in sequence, starting it with “Women,” and ending it with “Love and Affection,” playing the album as it is. That was always gonna be eleven nights of exactly the same thing, which would drive anybody crazy, so to compensate for that, we invented a fictional support band, which was us, under the name of “Ded Flatbird,” going out there doing Def Leppard cover songs. We were doing old b-sides from thirty-three years ago, everything from Pyromania, High ‘n’ Dry, On Through the Night, and Slang. Really weird stuff. We wouldn’t do the same set twice. Hysteria had to be the same set every night, so the opening part of it was different. We’d do forty-five minutes of goofing off, go off for about twenty minutes, and rapidly try to get changed, then go back on for the million-dollar show, having just been our own support band.

We had a real good laugh with that, and it afforded us a lot of fun, amongst obviously, I don’t want to say pressure, but the demand of what the audience expects if we’re going to play Hysteria, we better do it damn well. It kind of loosened us up a bit. By the time we came out and did Hysteria, we’d already goofed off for forty-five minutes, so we were already in a good zone, rather than just coming out blindly and just playing Hysteria. We didn’t want it to be kind of stiff and rigid, we wanted it to be solid rock and roll, and it worked out pretty well.

Did it feel good dusting off some of those old songs after so many years?

Yeah, it did for many different reasons. You either adapt or die in this business, but sometimes when you adapt, a lot of negativity comes along with that. You know how people go, “We’ve noticed by going online that you never change your set.” They see it as a negative, but they are reading about it in Boise, Idaho, but we’re playing the set in New York. When we go to Boston, it’s a different set of people. It might be the same set to us, but it’s a different set of people.

It’s like, it’s always some kind of bad thing to play the same song night after night, but those songs are important songs, you can’t just change them up to make somebody happy that’s living in their mother’s basement that just happens to go online, checking out your setlist, and they don’t even go to the gigs. It’s kind of an annoyance, and you try to ignore it, and you go, “Ok, you know what? Fine.”

That first night out in Vegas, we opened with a song that was so obscure, that when it was finally posted on YouTube, the guy that did it didn’t even know what it was called. For us, that was like, “We got ya!” Because you’re always bitching that we never change the set, and when we do, you don’t even know what we’re playing.” It’s kind of a comical swordfight between the, we call them the “Dorito boys,” the guy that still lives with his mom in the basement, because he can’t get out of the chair, because all he does is eat Doritos, and all he does is sit there scouring the internet for negativity.

To the fans, it’s really not necessary. You can’t help but, I won’t say be affected by it, but be aware of it. People always want to say, “Did you see what that guy said about the set last night?” Of course, you never read it, cause they’re fucking idiots, you know.

I don’t think you could ever please everybody.

No, you can’t, which is why in many respects it’s a sidebar issue. It’s not like I lose sleep over this shit. I kind of find it funny now. I find it funny that twenty-five years ago people started accusing us of miming and using tapes because we actually take the care and attention and have the talent to go out there and sing in tune. We used to get really kind of pissed off, but then we started thinking that it was a pretty good left-handed compliment, you know? They say we’re miming, we must be pretty fucking good. [laughs]

So again, it comes and it goes, and you move on. You can’t please everybody, so we’ve always said, without wanting to sound selfish, we always try to please ourselves. Everybody else has got to come along for the ride or don’t bother coming. Don’t put a painting up in a gallery, hang it there, admire it, and let somebody walk up beside you and say, “I want to buy that, but can you just repaint the bottom left-hand corner a different color?” That’s it. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it, otherwise it’s done, it’s finished, I’m not changing it. You could poll every single person in the audience. Every one of them, from way back to Shakespeare up to now, and say, “What do you think?” “Oh, they should have played blah, blah, blah.” Whether is was McCartney or the Everley Brothers or Slipknot.

There will always be somebody where they didn’t play such and such a song. You can’t play everything, so you have to pick and choose what you think is the right thing to do. If people generally get it, then we don’t really care about the three percent that are gonna go, “Thumbs down.” You just can’t worry about it.

Like me, coming from the era of vinyl, what’s your take on the current resurgence of vinyl?

I think it’s charming. that’s what it is. I’m all for it. In fact, I’ve got a side band called the Down ‘n’ Outz, and we just did a Record Store Day thing purely for the UK., five hundred twelve-inch vinyls of an EP. I think it’s great that there are people out there, some people call them stuck in mud, I think it’s kind of cool, because it’s that forever argument between CD and vinyl.

I personally, I’m not a huge fan of listening to vinyl, because I’ve got used to not listening to crackles. When I took delivery of my copies of the Down ‘n’ Outz EP and I played one, I put it on and I went, “Cool, great.” Ten minutes in, I was like “Fuck!” The thing’s never been played before and it’s got crackles on it.

You don’t get any nostalgic feelings from the crackle?

I’m sorry, but the CD sounds fine. I don’t buy into the Neil Young thing where it’s “warmer” and all that. Ninety-nine percent of us don’t have the time to sit at home, strapped to a chair, listening to speakers that have chains that are suspended in the air off chains to a deck that’s screwed to a wall with a concrete post. Whenever this argument gets tested, I say, “Really? How does your vinyl sound when you go jogging? What’s it sound like in the car?” Then they say, “Oh, you’re just being stupid.”

No, I’m not. I’m making a point, that ninety-nine percent of the people who I see every day of my life are walking through airports with pods in their ears. Getting on the tubes, getting in airplanes, getting in cars. They listen to music on the move. That’s why I’m all about MP3s and CDs, because I haven’t got the time to sit and listen to vinyl.

For those of them that do, good luck to ’em. I’m happy that they have hours upon hours of time at home in a little room—soundproof, no doubt—to actually do that. Who gets the time if you’ve got kids and a job. You listen to music for the wrong reasons if you’re doing that. I don’t listen to music for it to be sonically fantastic. I listen to it because I like the songs. If I hear it on AM radio, and it’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” or “Babylon” by the New York Dolls, I don’t give a shit. If I like the song, I don’t mind it being squashed and squeezed up on AM, I don’t mind hearing it on FM, I don’t mind hearing it on vinyl, but if I want to go jogging with it, or go on the treadmill with headphones on, or driving to the shop and it’s on in the car with an engine throbbing underneath it, you’re not listening to it for the sound because you’re listening to an engine and the record. You’re listening to the song, and you kind of shut the engine out, which you wouldn’t be able to do [with vinyl].

I dare say that a lot of these vinyl freaks, if they’ve got an air conditioning unit, it would not be in the room where the air conditioner is. I just don’t have the time myself to spend that kind of energy caring about vinyl. I love the ones that do, God bless ’em, and I will always contribute. The next Leppard album will probably be pressed on vinyl, maybe a limited edition. I’m all for doing it, if that’s what they want, but I don’t want it. Not anymore. It’s kind of like moving back into your mom’s house when you’ve already moved out.

Take us back in time—Def Leppard started off with a bang, with On Through the Night. Things really start to take off with High ‘n’ Dry. Were you at all prepared for the two gigantic leaps you experienced, first with Pyromania and then with Hysteria?

I think, to a point, we were. As you said, it was gradual, so we got through stages of progress. We didn’t go shooting out like a bolt, like say a Boston or a Van Halen, where the first album sells ten million copies, and you’re like, “Where do we go from there?” We were really fortunate. The first album was just a recording of what we had been playing live for the previous year, so it was more of a document of how we were, as opposed to where we were going. It was where we were going to anyone outside of the Sheffield area, so it works both ways. We did alright, the album went top twenty in Great Britain, just outside the fifty, I think it was fifty-one in Billboard in America. We got to tour with the likes of Pat Travers, Judas Priest, Ted Nugent, and the Scorpions that summer of 1980 in the States and did some headline shows in the U.K.

It was nice, but let’s not forget that once that tour finished, we did a little European run in September of 1980, we had to wait until February of 1981 to start working on High ‘n’ Dry, because Mutt [Lange, producer] was stuck in the studio with Foreigner. We had this six months of waiting around. I had to go back to working on the building sites because we had no money. That kind of grounds ya. When you’re working with your girlfriend’s father and you’re carrying twenty bricks over your shoulder and you’re going up and down ladders, and it’s pissing raining in the freezing cold winters of Yorkshire, it’s not a pleasant experience.

When we did High ‘n’ Dry, it didn’t sell as much as everybody thought it would because it was Mutt Lange, and it was following Back in Black, and everybody thought we would do the same, but we didn’t. It was a reality check, but at the same time it was still progress. It sold more copies than the first record. While we were making the third album in 1982, the second album, because of MTV started to sell, because they were playing “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak.” There wasn’t many videos to watch, and we’d shot three for that album. It had kind of been gathering dust for a while, then all of a sudden when MTV needed something, they had these. Early on they got played, then they got requested to be played, then they started to get requested to be played on the radio, and it just kept bouncing back and forth.

All of a sudden, by the time we delivered Pyromania, we had gone gold on High ‘n’ Dry. We had a primed audience for a new album, and when Pyromania, obviously with hindsight didn’t disappoint, it came right out of the box with “Photograph” and it went through the roof.

By then, we had been a band for seven years. I think that we were well-prepared for it, although I’m not denying that we may have had a little “I think I’m king of the world” moment. I think everybody probably does, but reality sort of kicks you back down, and you start behaving like a human being again.

We’ve had a funny route to success, because even after Pyromania, which was only really big in Canada and America, it wasn’t big anywhere else in the world, we had to wait another four and a half years before the next album came out. Talk about frustration, we watched Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi go sailing past and selling trillions of records, and U2 carries on while we were stuck in Holland making the album.

It would eventually come out and overtake all said bands once again, but it was like four years, which is a long time in rock and roll. You think about certain bands that we all know and love only lasted four years. We went an extra six months between records, in the prime of our lives, in our mid-20s, when we should have been out there doing it. Again, with hindsight, I wouldn’t change anything because had Hysteria come out in ’85, it might not have been as big of a record as it was in ’87-’88. It obviously would have been different, could have meant a lot of different things. I think we were ready for it, it’s just a funny way of getting there.

What do you see in the future for Def Leppard? Maybe going back and doing another residency, more traditional tours, more albums?

Hopefully. Our thought process changes from month to month as to what we want to do. Five years ago, I thought we would probably be knocking on the head about now, because touring was getting tedious, I had just had a kid, I wanted to spend more time at home, you know, the usual human instinct things started kicking in. Then, you kind of trudge through all that stuff, and you come out the other end and realize that things aren’t all that bad, and you’ve got a good reason to do it.

The residency was good for us. It really was kind of a pivotal moment and working with Taylor Swift was the same kind of thing. It showed somebody else was a huge fan of ours in the industry, and wanted to work with us. It was something unique and different for us to do, and got us off of that treadmill of album-tour, album-tour. The future for us is anything it wants to be, and that is all dependent on those five people in the band all being on the same page at the same time. To say that we’ve been mostly on the same page at the same time for the last thirty-five years, or with this lineup, twenty-three, is pretty outstanding. Most people can’t even look at each other, but we can still share a bus, plane or a car, because we all believe in what we want.

As long as we all keep thinking that, we could be doing this another ten or fifteen years. Look at the Stones, I didn’t think that they’d still be around, or The Who, but they are. We have a new album in the can, and it’s coming out in October, I believe. Again, that might change, but as I speak to you right now, it’s coming out in October. The industry being what it is, things change so fast that anything could happen. It might be November, it might be August, I don’t know, but let’s just say October.

I really believe the record’s a good album. It was a very natural record to make, and we had a lot of fun doing it, which makes a change. Normally, we’re pulling teeth making records. It just had a natural energy to it, which was fun. Everybody came to the table with some top quality stuff. Again, a great band instinct’s to be able to do that. It’s not always one person writing, it’s everybody throwing ideas in. Some songs we all wrote, some songs we all contributed their style of writing, and they were sort of “Leppardized” by the team once they got their teeth into it. There’s some good stuff.

We’ve been asked to go back and do the residency thing again, so Viva! Pyromania is probably on the horizon somewhere. We’ve got a cruise in January, but this tour doesn’t finish until just before Christmas in our hometown of Sheffield on the twentieth of September, so we’ve got no promo for the new album. The album is coming out just as the American tour is ending, which is weird. Which probably means that we’ll be back around next year, playing some of the newer stuff in the States. We’ll be breaking it in in a worldwide way, in Japan and Australia and the U.K., and then we have to kind of play catch up and get the rest of the world with it next year. So, for the immediate two or three years, it looks like we’re going to be pretty busy. If everyone’s health stays pretty good, and all the stars are in alignment.

Def Leppard’s U.S. tour with Styx and Tesla began on June 20th. A full list of dates can be found here.

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