DEF LEPPARD The X-Press Interview

UK 80s rock icons Def Leppard have graced worldwide stages with their glamorous, over-the-top, pop-orientated heavy metal sound for over 40 years, since forming in Sheffield in 1977. They were prime movers of the new wave of British heavy metal in the 1980s and manipulated this genre to make it their own with the release of Hysteria in 1987. With lush vocal harmonies, melodic guitars and intricate layers of sound, Hysteria earned the band worldwide success. ALEXIA LARCHER chatted with lead guitarist Phil Collen about the creation of Hysteria, early influences, and the band’s upcoming Perth Arena show on Friday, November 2 supported by Scorpions, which will see them perform Hysteria in full.

I was just looking at Def Leppard’s tour schedule and looks like you are set to play at The Gorge in Seattle tomorrow, The Gorge is a large 27, 500 seat outdoor venue. What do you feel like when you step out in front of those large stadium audiences? Do you get nervous before you play?

Depends who you ask. I never get nervous at all. We did Rock in Rio last year and I was trying to monitor my heart rate and how I felt. We stepped out in front of 95,000 people – it’s Rio, it’s bonkers – and nothing, it didn’t even change my heart rate. But I think the typical stage person is different from me. I am an avatar and that’s who goes out on stage, and he doesn’t get nervous or anything.

It’s been quite a large tour, you will be on the road until December 18 and will be playing Hysteria in full. Do you like being on the road and touring, or do you prefer to be in the studio creating and recording?

I think recording is more mentally stressful and it’s kind of an unhealthy thing doing that all the time. I actually like being out there and playing live. That’s the reason we all got in a band in the first place, to play in front of people. At the beginning of this year I was out on tour with Joe Satriani and John Petrucci doing the G3 Tour; it’s a guitar tour that goes round. So January and February I was out on that. So I’ve been touring most of this year. But I love it, it’s great.

Let’s talk about Hysteria. It’s been 31 years since you released Hysteria in 1987. Do you still get a thrill from playing it live on stage?

Absolutely. We love it, our albums are our kids. We put so much work and effort into that record. Obviously with (producer) Mutt Lange, that was his thing. He said that we had to make it really special. We’d come in and say “This is the chorus”, and he would say “Nah that’s not good enough for a chorus, use that as a bridge”. So we did that with all the songs and it really made a difference. So whenever we play that stuff it’s a joy and it’s great seeing people get off on it. It’s amazing, still is to this day.

The album encompassed a new strain of hard rock, with lush vocal harmonies, melodic guitars, intricate layers of sound over pile-driving riffs and distorted power chords, defined as more of a ‘pop rock’ sound. Was this a sound you were intentionally aiming to bring forward in the album, or did it just sort of happen?

It was totally intentional. Mutt Lange said “Look, we don’t want to be sounding like all these other bands”. We were using these little guitar things called Rockmans that weren’t real guitar amps. But we used them so that sonically you could multi-track. We used Queen and AC/DC as our two goal posts and we thought we were somewhere in between the two of them. That’s the sound we were going for. The closest we got was a more hard version of Queen. Queen multi-tracked but we obviously multi-tracked way more than they did. But we took that as a starting point. And not to be gratuitous, but to make it sound greater. All the melodies and everything. We felt that the vocal parts and the melody were really important parts to get over. So it was essential that we recorded it that way. We wanted to sound different from everyone else. But it was all Mutt Lange’s idea, he is actually a genius so it was great doing all the stuff we’ve done with him, he’s amazing.

The album definitely has a studio-intensive feel to the music. Did you and the rest of the band ever find it difficult to recreate Hysteria material on stage?

Oh shit yes. So we did the song Love Bites and we had never played it together live. It was all done separately in the studio, like 150 voices, stupid stuff. And it went to number 1 in America while we were on tour, and we were like “Shit, we have never played this”. There’s like eight guitar parts on the record but we only have two guitar players, so we had to bring through the most apparent parts and sort of bring it all down. And it was the same with the vocals. There were so many vocals going on and there’s only four of us who actually sing, so we had to do the same thing and edit it down and make a different version of it, a more adaptable version for live. The recording side is always going to be the immortal part, that’s going to live forever. So you worry about the live stuff later on, it’s not as important. It’s like when Queen did Bohemian Rhapsody. They didn’t worry about the fact that it would be a struggle to play it live. They pulled it off one way or another. And that’s really how we felt. We were very much influenced by how they did stuff.

What are your favourite tracks to play on the album?

All of them. I can’t really choose between them.

Hysteria was one of the most expensive records even to be produced in the UK in 1987. What were you doing that made the album so expensive to record?

It was studio time really. Back then you were getting charged 1800 dollars or quid a day plus equipment, accommodation and road tour and that. And before you know it you’re three years in. And that really adds up. So that was really it, the time we spent in the studio. You wouldn’t do that so much these days. We’ve done current albums with quite a  lot of stuff on them and we’ve done it in a lot smaller amount of time and not in an expensive studio. I recently produced an album for the band Tesla. And we did it while we were on tour, backstage on a laptop really.

What do you think made the album so successful?

Mutt Lange should get all the credit for that, because he pushed us to do something different and not just for the hell of it. He pushed us to make the songs great and make the melodies appealing and make it a joyous experience, but still a rock album. It was all of those things. The sound was different to anything you’ve heard before, and sonically we’d really worked hard on it. Even though some of the guitar parts were simple, it was complicated to get them the right tension, feel and the right sound, and technically right for the song. Performance in backing vocals and lead vocals took a lot of time. We used a lot of different influences to create the album. A lot of rock bands just stick with other rock band influences, but we were listening to artists like Prince, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Run-DMC and stuff like that. Lots of different types of music. Duran Duran, INXS. We just kind of added all this stuff and combined the whole thing to make a rock version out of it. I find that a lot of rock bands are very narrow-minded and they just stick in their rock genre. We liked the fact that, say, INXS or Prince would go back and forth from being a rock band to create, say, a dance song. It was just combining all those elements that made the album so different for a rock band.

When you joined Def Leppard in 1982, what artists and style of music were influencing the you and the rest of the group to create your early sound?

I really like the punk stuff. I’ve always been a Motown fan and I like glam rock. They are all pretty wide from each other. I also like jazz music and dance music and what became soul music. Lots of different genres. I’ve always been that way, I just like everything. In terms of influences, Queen, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Thin Lizzy because of the twin guitar thing. It was all of them. But more specifically David Bowie and T. Rex, and a lot of other English glam rock. Again a combination of artists. A lot of rock bands just stick to their genres and only listen to rock and that. We never did that, we listened to everything. The more you let in, the more you have to put out. If you just listen to country and western music you are going to be limited. If you listen to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and just everything, you will have better control of what you put out and you will be more inspired.

I know that Joe Elliott is a fanatical follower of Mott the Hoople. Do you think you guys were inspired by Mott at all in creating that early Def Leppard sound?

Yes, I was a huge fan of the band. I actually saw Queen as the opening act for Mott the Hoople in London. That was really cool. It was a combination of all the bands. We never followed one band specifically.

As a guitarist, you are renowned for playing Jackson electric guitars. What is it about Jacksons that you find so appealing and appropriate for Def Leppard’s sound?

When we were writing Hysteria Mutt Lange had one of the early Charvel guitars. Jackson and Charvel were pretty much the same company. And he said “Hey, you should check this out,” which I did and I just fell in love with it. I was using it all the time. And then he introduced me to Grover Jackson and they started making customised guitars for me. I still have two of them out now – they are 6 years old. I’ve got one with Bela Lugosi painted on it and another one with a crackle finish. I’ve got my own signature model, PC1, and we keep updating it. Adding titanium parts, they bake the wood so the sound is sweeter and so it sounds more like a vintage guitar. We are constantly updating things. My necks get fatter and the tone gets better all the time. I’ve stuck with them. I’ve been loyal to them and they’ve been loyal to me. They do amazing stuff for me. It’s constantly a work in progress. That’s what I love about Jackson guitars.

So you find Jackson guitars better for your sound than say a Gibson SG or Les Paul?

For what I want, yes. I used to use a Les Paul all the time, and the main guitar on Hysteria was a Fender Stratocaster that I kind of customised. I still have it, it was a 21st birthday present from my mum. It had DiMarzio pickups on it. My PC1 Jacksons are kind of a version of that, but they are really souped-up if you like. When I play any other guitar they don’t really have the same feel to it that the Jacksons have, well my Jacksons anyway. The PC1 is my favourite guitar in the world.

When you were picking up guitar growing up, what guitarists were you inspired by?

The first person I saw was Richie Blackmore, that’s why I started playing guitar. I saw Deep Purple live and that event made me want to play guitar. I pestered my Mum and Dad for two years and finally got a guitar and that was it really. But also Jimi Hendrix, Mick Ronson who used to play with David Bowie, Jeff Beck, lots of different stuff. Some of the jazz guys like Al Viola. And then Led Zeppelin for the vastness of it and the sound. And the fact that that Jimmy Page was doing different stuff, he was writing different types of music, it wasn’t just standard rock stuff. It was very influenced by different things like folk, jazz. So yeah, just a bunch of different guitar players.

How old were you when you first picked up guitar?

I was 16 when I started. I got my first guitar on my 16th birthday and that was it really. I never stopped.

Def Leppard is set to tour Perth, Australia on November 2. You’re obviously playing the album in full, what are you thinking for an encore?

No clue. We haven’t even figured our set out yet. We are doing the Hysteria album. We have a couple of ideas we have been floating around. We have to play loads of other songs as well that we don’t have time for, so we are going to have to whittle it down when we get to Hawaii and have our rehearsals.

Do you enjoy playing Australia?

Love it, absolutely. I love playing anywhere where they like us. I like being a tourist as well. We just have a blast wherever we go. I’ve been out all day today in Portland, Oregon, and it’s just been amazing. So yeah I love going to Australia, it’s wonderful.

Vivian Campbell revealed in an interview last month that members of the band have been writing and recording a few songs in hotel rooms whilst on tour. Are you hoping to put together an entire album?

Yeah absolutely. We are recording a new right album now, and yes we are doing some of it on tour. We are constantly working on it.

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