Interview: Def Leppard
Published on May 20th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Def Leppard are an intro-writer’s dream: the sixty-five million plus worldwide album sales, the inspirational story of their one-armed drummer Rick Allen, the band’s induction into the Guinness Book of World Records for performing on three continents in one day, even the band’s continued activity after the 1991 death of long-term guitarist and co-song-writer Steve Clark, a man who was once given a Fender Stratocaster by none other than Jimmy Page.
Their ascent from Sheffield hopefuls to transatlantic superstars now spans across five richly-storied decades, from which the Leps – as they are known fondly by their legions of die-hards – have somehow managed to emerge as popular as they were back when albums such as Pyromania and Hysteria were making friends and breaking trends amidst the strange, hairy bubble that was (and still very much is) the eighties hard rock scene.
Back from a year-long sabbatical following 2008’s Songs from the Sparkle Lounge and its subsequent, substantial promo duties, Def Leppard are all set to embark on their latest wave of activity: the June 20th release of first ever live album Mirrorball, which includes three brand new studio tracks as well as a bonus DVD, and a second headline slot in three years at the Download festival.
Rocksucker caught up with bassist, co-song-writer and founder member Rick ‘Sav’ Savage to discuss Mirrorball, his unwitting acceptance of the role of “set meister”, the changes to the band’s writing and recording processes and a rather curious side project of which he was not aware…
How did you decide upon the set list for Mirrorball? You must have had to trawl through quite a lot of footage…
What actually happened was that, during the 2009 tour, we literally recorded about a hundred shows. Because of state of the art hard drives, you don’t need much space to record these days. Every so often after a show, the sound engineer would come backstage and we’d say, that particular version was very good tonight, or that version of a song wasn’t very good. Most of the time when you’re recording live it’s just one or two shows so there’s a tendency to become paranoid at the fact that you’re recording yourself that night; but, because we were doing it every night, we absolutely forgot, so it was capturing us at our most natural.The only thing that we had to do – well, that the engineer had to do – was trawl through all the different performances from all the different nights and basically put together what were the best performances of one particular song. We compiled it as if it is one show, as such, but the songs are from various different nights and different times throughout the whole tour. There are a lot of versions that would never see the cold light of day because there are mistakes that don’t sound good; mistakes are part of the live thing but we just wanted to get the best versions, obviously, to represent what we were doing that night. They were literally all plucked from tours in the UK, Europe or America from the 2009 tour.
Did you consider including other songs that you performed on the Songs From the Sparkle Lounge tour, such as ‘Go’, ‘Hallucinate’, ‘Mirror Mirror’, ‘Wasted’ and ‘Let It Go’?
One regret I do have is that we didn’t for some reason – and I know one reason is that we didn’t play this in America – but I’m sad that we didn’t get a live version of ‘When Love and Hate Collide’. We only really played that in England because obviously it was a big hit there. It’s a pity that we didn’t manage to get a version of that but pretty much all the other stuff that we managed to capture is more or less what we recorded. I do remember playing ‘Go’ a few times, certainly in Canada, but I don’t think we were recording those shows, which is the only reason it didn’t see the light of day unfortunately. But pretty much everything else that we were playing – at least on a regular basis – made it to the album.
Perhaps such recordings might be brought out as part of a box set one day?
If there are versions of them. Box sets are a hard one to get your head around because that’s something that record companies kind of force you into doing, or ask you to do, but it can be a bit of a pain trying to compile it. At the end of the day, the only reason that we’ve taken so long to put out a proper live album is that we’ve always been a band that’s thinking forward and not thinking retrospectively. We’d be in the studio making a new album, we go out on tour to promote that album, the tour will be quite long and, by the time we’re finished that tour, we’re ready to start writing songs and move on to the next project; so we’d never really stopped, sat and put together this live album. Last year, we decided to take a whole year off from touring because we thought it was the right time to get a live album together.
According to Vivian [Campbell, co-guitarist], you are – and I quote – “the set list meister”. Is this true?
(Laughs) Yeah. I don’t know whether I took that baton or whether it was just handed to me but I’m kind of the one who puts an order and a logic to things. There’s a pacing that’s got to be right in a set: you don’t want to play all your biggest hits at the front, it’s got to build up but, at the same time, it’s got to be entertaining. Yeah, it kind of got thrown at me – like, “we want to change it around tonight…have you got any ideas, Sav? – so it was left to me to put an order and a logic to things, because some of the guys will have what they think is this brainstorming, fantastic idea, and I go, “No, you can’t do that.” “Why not?” “Well…you’ve got to do this.” Then we’ll listen to a mock running order made up of the studio versions and they’ll go, “Oh yeah, you’re right. Let’s do it that way.” (Laughs) So I got lumbered with it, I’m afraid!
The set lists these days are typically heavy on material from the High ‘n’ Dry to Adrenalize era. Is this your favourite run of albums?
When you’re performing live, it’s different when you’re starting out and you’re trying to establish yourself. Once you have become established, sure, you’ve got to play songs that you’re comfortable with and enjoy playing, but at the same time there’s a hell of a lot of people that have bought millions of our albums so you’ve got to bear them in mind as well. There’s always that fine balance of playing specific songs that they want to hear, because they’ve paid money, so a big bulk of our set list has to come from the Hysteria, Pyromania sort of era. Those were the albums that first of all made us famous.There have been times when we’ve played obscure songs from the High ‘n’ Dry or even On Through the Night albums and ten per cent of the audience has gone absolutely ballistic because they can’t believe that we’re playing them, and a lot of the other ninety per cent are going, “I don’t recognise this song…what’s this?” (Laughs) It’s like anything else: if you go and see The Rolling Stones, you feel a little bit miffed if they don’t play ‘Brown Sugar’, or if you go and see The Who and they don’t play ‘My Generation’. Whether or not they’d like to perform that song, at some point you’ve got to cater for your audience as well and play the songs that they want to hear, so it’s a bit of a balancing act to keep all parties happy.
Is there a lot more emphasis on playing live shows now, in this era of the download?
I don’t know if it’s more emphasis but I do think that there seems to be a growing interest in going to see bands like us live. I don’t think that fifteen or sixteen year-olds who really like guitar music have got their own bands like we did in our day. We were a product of the seventies and eighties – we had our bands, whether it be Queen or AC/DC or Led Zeppelin or whoever – they were our bands and you never really lose that. I don’t think that the teenagers of today have got the identity with their bands that we did so I think that they’re trawling back through the decades, even as far as the seventies and the eighties, and are getting into those bands.It’s great for us and bands like us – whether it be U2 or Bon Jovi or REM, all those eighties bands – that people are still interested in us and there’s a hell of a lot of people that, when you think about it, weren’t actually born when those albums were released. I think that’s the most interesting aspect of it, that fifteen year-olds are actually cottoning on to us in the way that fifteen year-olds did back in the eighties.
In that respect, are there any plans to release your back catalogue on iTunes and/or Spotify?
That is purely a contractual difference that we have with the record company at the moment. It’s something that’s ongoing and that obviously needs to get sorted out but we do have an issue with Universal Music about that. I’m in no doubt that an agreement will be reached but that is the only reason that those types of songs have not been put on iTunes. I can’t really go into it too deeply but there is an issue between the band and the record company with regards those tracks.
Back to the new songs: any plans to make a music video for ‘Undefeated’?
At this point in time, it doesn’t look likely. There’s very little time for us to do it and, for us, it’s a shame but the impact that a music video has these days doesn’t carry the weight that it did back in the day, as it were. In many ways, music videos – certainly in America – helped break us really big but, in this day and age, everything’s got so diverse and the way of promoting yourself has changed so much that we never really got round to doing a video for any of the songs. It’s just one of those things and we didn’t want to confuse the issue too much because, essentially, we’re trying to promote a live album which by definition is all our retrospective hits, our past music.The three new songs are a bonus, along with the DVD as well, and they will be on the next Def Leppard studio album, no doubt about that. It’s given us a good starting point and a good yardstick of how the other eight or nine songs have got to be because we’re really pleased with how the three new songs have turned out. We think we’ve raised the bar somewhat from a song-writing point of view and a production point of view and it’s something we have to aspire to to get the other nine songs up to that quality.
About the bonus DVD: are the Download performances on there the same as the broadcast ones or were they remixed by your sound engineers?
They’re certainly remixed, yeah. I’ve got to be quite honest with you: I’ve not studied either that close! (Laughs) I do remember watching it to make sure we were happy with the edits and that it was actually in sync with the music, because for some reason I don’t know really know why that can sometimes become a problem. So I never studied it that much but I can only assume that the engineer remixed and probably effected certain instruments or voices. Just tarted it up, as it were.
I was reading this interview with Phil [Collen, guitarist], in which he spoke about the way you record these days, describing it as a sort of “drop box” style which doesn’t necessitate you all being in the same studio together. Do you find this approach refreshing?
I think it has its advantages but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend making a whole album in that form. It’s absolutely possible to make an album where you’re never in the same room as each other and it is great for certain things, especially from a convenience point of view. If we need a guitar part from Vivian or Phil and they’re in Los Angeles while we’re recording in Dublin then, yeah, they can bang it down, stick it on an email or such and we can transfer it into the master that we’re recording onto. But when you’re making an album, a lot of the time you’re re-recording or rewriting sections and I think, for that process and for that reason alone, you get more value when you’re sat in the same room and you’re all on the same wavelength at the same time, on the same time zone! I think you get the best value from doing that but it certainly has its advantages in degrees to be allowed to record in that [the drop box] fashion.
It appears that you write more individually these days…
Yes we do. Certainly with the three new songs but that’s purely because, when we spend time away from the road, we’re literally spending time away from each other as well because we live so far apart these days. The only time that we really got together was when Phil got married in May last year or when we’re doing something specific to do with the band, interviews or such. It gave us the opportunity to experiment and we were writing songs just because we had the time and not necessarily just for a specific album as such. So we could do it in our own space and our own time, not having to do it in two weeks because of a deadline or something.
That’s just how it turned out and when we finish this up and coming tour and start writing songs for a new album, what usually happens is that some of us can write what they think is a whole, finished song but very often we can write just a guitar idea or a quarter of a song knowing that the parts will then be used in a different song, because someone else will have a half-finished song. So sometimes it will end up being four of us contributing and sometimes somebody comes in and says, “I’ve gone through the houses; this is how the song should be.” And we’ll listen to it and go, you know what, it sounds fine and doesn’t need altering just for the sake of it and nobody’s trying to get their little bit in, so sometimes it’ll be just the one person.
There have been murmurings that the next album will be more “riff-based”, in a High ‘n’ Dry sort of way. Can you shed any light on this
?I can’t really say to be honest, at this point in time. I’m aware of certain song ideas but that’s all they are, they’re not even finished songs. Something we’re very conscious of is that the essence of Def Leppard was that the riffs have got to be there, a big emphasis on guitar parts, and ally that to melody, lots of backing vocals, lots of harmonic content. It’s welding the two together, that’s all we try and do when we’re writing a song. I’ve always said, certainly in interviews, that if you could describe Def Leppard then it would be somewhere between Queen and AC/DC: it’s got the raw power and head-banging ability that AC/DC always create, but also the melodic and harmonic aspect of a lot of Queen songs as well. So we’re sort of in the middle, always drifting more towards one or the other and I don’t see the next album being too different from that.
Have you had a chance to hear Dreaming with Def Leppard yet?
No, I’m not aware of that even.
Apparently Phil and Vivian have been recording lullaby-style versions of Def Leppard songs to be released as an album of that name.
(Laughs) I have not heard it but it’s funny you should mention that because we were in Los Angeles last week doing promo, lots of press, and we went to a restaurant with our manager. Outside the restaurant, there were loads of people with cameras looking for little snippets – Christ knows why they’d want to film us going into a restaurant I’ve no idea! – but one of the guys, just to try and stop us in our tracks so they could get more footage of us, actually said, “Is it true you’ve done a lullaby album?” We had no idea what they were talking about. I should have a word with Phil and Vivian about this because, at this point in time, I honestly know very little about it! Whether it’s just acoustic versions of the songs…honestly, I’m not trying to pass the buck here, I really don’t know. I certainly haven’t heard anything, put it that way.
Have you at least had a chance to leaf through Def Leppard: The Definitive Visual History? It’s being billed as your “first coffee table book”.
Well it is, yeah. We’ve been around for the best part of thirty-odd years now and we’d check into hotels or visit book stores and see these really expensive-looking, really tasteful hardback books of legendary bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Beatles and Pink Floyd: they’ve always had these really nice books and we’ve always thought, “It would be nice if we could do one of those!” We recently acquired all the photos taken by Ross Halfin, who was the photographer of the day back then, and this year off we’ve just had gave us the opportunity to put together basically a definitive history of the band, going back as far as 1979 when we were just starting out. I find it really interesting to look back and see how the band has progressed throughout the years.
Can you believe that it’s been twenty years since Steve passed away?
I can’t really, no. You get yourself in this little bubble in 1979 and you don’t know where it’s going to end. You do what you do and time flies. We still class Vivian as “the new boy” but he’s been in the band for nearly twenty years. It’s weird: when you’re nineteen, you can’t really see past the age of thirty, and anything above thirty seems alien. We’re now all in our late forties – some of us are in our early fifties – but, as daft as it sounds to an outsider, it still seems as fresh as ever. It’s almost like, time goes on but, in our bubble, it’s still 1981 to us.
Would you ever consider putting on another big outdoors show like you did at Don Valley in 1993, with the likes of The Quireboys and Thin Lizzy as part of a big Def Leppard fest?
Yeah, something like that is always something that we’d consider, absolutely. This summer we’re playing at the Download festival again and, in many ways, the Donington site has been a bit of a spiritual home for Def Leppard. In 1986, that’s where our drummer Rick made his first real comeback after his accident, so it’s always held a special place in our hearts, to play there and be part of that scene. The great thing about the Don Valley gig was that to play a gig like that in our home town was very special and if we could recreate that at some point in the future then that would be fantastic.
Do you get approached to play at more mainstream festivals, such as Glastonbury, Reading or V?
Not that I’m aware of. Maybe we have and it never gets as far as the band because we’re not available but I’m not aware of ever turning it down, put it that way. I think it would be very cool to play at a more mainstream festival, even if that meant us going on third from top of the bill as opposed to headlining. We’re comfortable doing pretty much anything really, from clubs to stadiums so, personally, I’d like to feature in something like that.
Is Taylor Swift really your “number one fan”?
I wouldn’t say “number one” fan. She grew up being a fan of Def Leppard, which I think originated from her mother, who’s her manager now. Without ramming it down her throat, she was exposed to Def Leppard from an early age and, you know, she does like our music and always has done, along with probably a lot of other bands and artists as well, I’m sure. But she does like our music and she’s made no secret of the fact.
Finally, would you be able to name – as of this very moment – your top three albums of all time?
One of them would be a Queen album for sure. Off the top of my head, the way that I’m feeling right now, probably their third album Sheer Heart Attack. Going back to being six or seven years-old and being exposed to music for the first time, I would say Help! by The Beatles. And, just because it’s a little bit more modern, I thought the last Muse album [The Resistance] was absolutely fantastic: a lot of rock, a lot of Queen-like melodies. Muse to me are the great modern rock band.
Sav, thank you.
Mirrorball will be released on June 20th.