Joe Elliott of Def Leppard (Exclusive Interview)

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It’s the early 1970’s and Joe Elliott is a kid in Sheffield listening to some music when he discovers Mott The Hoople, that quirky yet rocking band featuring a curly-haired dynamo named Ian Hunter. And it literally changes his life. Move ahead to 2009 and Elliott, now a famous frontman himself for the British band Def Leppard, and he is asked to open for the very band that set him off on his own musical path. Mott The Hoople are playing a big show at the Hammersmith, so Elliott forms a tribute band in their honor. This leads to an album, My ReGeneration, some shows, some videos, some hit singles and finally a live DVD.

Elliott hunkers back down with his Leppard mates for a big summer tour with Poison and Lita Ford, followed by a successful residency at the Hard Rock’s Joint in Las Vegas celebrating their Hysteria album. But Down N Outz, that band he formed to honor Mott The Hoople, is still very much on his mind and when time allowed, another album was created. And this is why Elliott has carved out an afternoon while on vacation in Spain last week to talk about The Further Adventures Of …, which comes out April 22 in America. He is noticeably excited about the record and eager to chat about his love for the band and the music that continues to inspire him to this day. He’s like that eleven year old kid again and we spend our interview time focused solely on Down N Outz and Mott The Hoople. “I don’t get to talk about Down N Outz very often so I take as many opportunities as I can,” he said with a convivial laugh. When I tell him that I want to JUST talk about this, he responds very happily that, “We can talk about anything as long as I can get in a sentence or two about it.”

Where are you at today, Joe?

I’m down in Spain actually. I’m on a little vacation with the family. I was in LA for the week doing the press conference and a bunch of promo for the KISS tour and the Down N Outz release. So this is about the only time off we get this year. So we disappeared out of the crappy Irish weather and down into the sunny weather of Spain.

It sounds like you guys had a lot of fun making the new album.

We did, you know, but over a period of time. It was a difficult record to make because of getting everybody together. We had to do it in bits and bobs. So in fairness, half the guys recorded their stuff in London and sent the tapes over to me in Dublin and only after I’d put maybe another sixty percent of work on the record did I get some of the guys, like Keith the keyboard player and Griff [Guy Griffin, guitar] and Paul Guerin, the lead guitarist, over to my place in Dublin to finish the record off. So we did actually do quite a lot of this record together but some of it I just said, “Look, guys, go record the backing tracks and I’ll fix them up when I get them back to the house.”

Because the songs are already written, you don’t have any worries about having to rewrite or making the chorus stronger than you think it needs to be stronger, you know. You pick these songs because you believe in them in the first place. So that was the easy part. But yeah, it was a lot of fun to do because it was all hands on deck. We don’t have a permanent bass player so a guy called Snake, who used to play in Thunder, played on half the record, cause he did the last tour with us. But I played bass on one, the co-producer/engineer played bass on one and Paul, the guitarist, he played bass on like four of them. So we really were having a lot of fun cause it was like, “You want to play bass or shall I do it? We know how this song goes, let’s just get it done.” So it was a lot of fun.
And they’re fun songs. These are the kind of songs that define, to a point, or partly define, who I am as a musician/human being, if you like, cause I grew up on all these songs. They made me want to be in a band so I just feel blessed I’ve had an opportunity, that I’m afforded the chance to actually do this and put these songs out there and hopefully give them a new home and expose them to a new generation of people, cause I think they’ve been criminally ignored for thirty-five years, some of these songs. It’s about time they got heard.

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I totally agree with you on that. Was there a song that you HAD to have on this album?

All of them (laughs). I mean, every single one of them. I chose every one of them. They were all chosen by me. The great thing about Down N Outz, what it is it’s a band, and I couldn’t do it without them, but they’re more than happy to leave me in charge of musical direction because they know that that’s how the band was born. I was invited by Mott The Hoople about five years ago to open for them as a kind of thank you for being their cultural ambassador for thirty-five years (laughs). But I didn’t have a band and the Quireboys were offered to me and Spike, the singer, gratefully kind of stood aside, very gracefully – I did get him up on one number – and we did this forty-five minute gig opening for Mott The Hoople playing songs they’d all done after Mott split up. So it was the solo stuff, it was Mott when they abbreviated the name with a different singer, and then they morphed into a band called British Lions. I thought, how fun would it be if I sat in the audience waiting to see Mott The Hoople, what would I want to hear me do? And I said, I’d want to hear me do what they did after Mott The Hoople.

So the first album didn’t feature any Mott The Hoople songs and it was my choice then. I just sent them an email going, “These are the ten songs we’re going to play” and then through fan demand, literally ten minutes after we finished we went straight out to the bar at the venue and all the kids that just watched us play noticed we were actually out in the public area, and they were going, “Can’t believe you played those songs. Are you going to record them?” And more people pinned us against a wall going, “Please make a record, please make a record.” So we said, fine, we’ll do that. So while they were fresh in our DNA, long story short, we cut the album, which was My ReGeneration which came out in 2010.

Cut to this one, knowing we weren’t going to be opening for Mott The Hoople, we could go into the Mott The Hoople catalog, which we couldn’t do on the first one. So I had this luxury of picking the post-Mott songs, or post-Hoople songs, for the first record. It was like now I can go back even further to the real stuff and cherry pick all my favorite songs. If I was putting a playlist together of Mott The Hoople songs, all those songs on this album would be on that, for one reason or another. Either they’re a moment in my life as a kid, like for example, there’s this song on the album called “The Original Mixed-Up Kid.” It was the first Mott The Hoople song I ever heard and something about the name of the band, the look of the band, that song, made me want to investigate who they were because it was a track on an Island compilation record. So it was alongside Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens and Nick Drake, Free, bands like that. And I just heard this one song and it just stood out to me. I was only like eleven years old, and I was going in there like Lester Bangs, you know, trying to find out who this band were.

So that was a no-brainer for that reason, it was an emotional thing, but just for something that was fist-pumpingly got to be done, “Marionette,” “Violence,” “Crash Street Kidds,” “Stiff Upper Lip,” which is one of the two songs that is not Mott The Hoople. It was Mott with the Nigel Benjamin line-up. And “Rock & Roll Queen,” which is the first song to radio, the first song that Mott ever released. And we wanted it to be a full-on rock record, all featuring piano but still three crunching guitars, drums, bass, vocals. It was that kind of record. So there isn’t one on there that is like some kind of compromise. Every single one of them is an absolute favorite of mine.

Ian Hunter, Mott The Hoople The Jack Tar Hotel , San Francisco Francisco 8/70   sheet 693 frame 27

 

What do you think Mott The Hoople had, that Ian had, that no one else had at that time when they were coming out?

Well, I think people catch artists in their own way. It’s easy to be a Beatles or Stones fan cause millions of people are. It’s not that easy being a fan of Humble Pie or Mott The Hoople or bands like that cause only a few thousand people kind of like them. So you’d be in the toilets at school and people going, “Why do you like that band? Nobody else does. What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you like the Stones?” I do like the Stones. I just like this cause maybe I just go for the underdog. And I think with Ian, I think that is what it is. I think he always came across as vulnerable, and don’t get me wrong, he’s one of the most confident men I’ve ever met, cause he has the arrogance you need to do what we do. He’s got it in spades. But I think it all comes from a humble background. He was a factory worker, he didn’t have much luck with the ladies as a teenager. We all went through that (laughs).

I think I resonated with him. The lyrics, you’re singing my life. He did a cover of a Sonny Bono song on the first Mott The Hoople album, a song called “Laugh At Me.” And when I look at the lyrics and it’s pretty obvious he’s being picked on, I’m going, well, I was too. I think you draw yourself into people cause they’re telling your story, if you like. But in more simplistic terms, just seeing this guy up there with his Maltese Cross guitar, the long reddish hair and the shades. He was just an image that was unbeatable. I mean, the name of the band itself was completely bonkers. Everything about it was definitely not normal and I really, really just got a kick out of the fact that they appeared to be very eccentric. The bass player’s name was Overend. I mean, it was just a mad bunch, you know. And the songs were very non-standard. They were very different, they were not what other people were doing.

Now don’t forget it’s Mick Ralphs’ birthday [Ralphs was the original guitar player].

Yes, he was seventy yesterday. I spoke to him on email. He sent me an email and I said, “It’s your birthday, you’re twenty-one” and he said, “Yeah, I wish.” (laughs). Yeah, he was congratulating me because he just heard “Rock & Roll Queen” on Planet Rock in England and he wrote the song. And he can’t believe it. He’s like, “It’s the best birthday present ever.”

It surprises me that he wrote a flashy song and he’s not a flashy guy.

(laughs) Yeah, he was a noisy guy when he was in his early twenties when he wrote that (laughs)

I heard that the next album will be all original material. To “Hoople-ize” the songs, how do you change your songwriting?

Good question and yes, you’re right, it will be. It’s already half written. I’ve had five songs for the next Down N Outz album written for the best part of a year but I can’t put them out till we get the second one out and done, you know, cause we’ve been making this record for two years. Just in the meantime, I was writing stuff and I went through a little purple patch. It was after the end of the last Leopard tour and I just spent a bit of time in California with a piano and I just sat down and this stuff just came pouring out of me. And I was like, where the hell is this coming from? But they were songs written on the piano so they were intentionally written NOT to be Def Leppard songs. Music is music but I’ve been writing songs since I was eight so I know about song structure and style and writing. If somebody says to me, “Can you write me a song that sounds a bit like Steely Dan?” I go, “Oh yeah, give me a few weeks or a couple of days and I’m sure I can pull something together;” because you know what they sound like so you mimic what they do. I wasn’t really trying to mimic anything that Mott did. I was just trying to avoid sounding like Def Leppard. So there were no crunching guitar songs or anything like that. They were more off on tangents, which is something Def Leppard doesn’t really do. Musically, we can do it but it’s all based on guitars, whereas this, there’s going to be guitars all over the Down N Outz third album just like there are on the first two. But there’s also going to be the piano and to have written some of these songs that feature some really good guitar stuff – one of the songs I did do on guitar – but it’s written in such a way not to sound like Leppard, you know. It’s much more Humble Pie-ish, very sixties/early seventies, not trying to be all futuristic like Leppard tends to do.

It’s just a case of using the ability of a gift you’re given if you happen to be able to write to the best of your ability. I’m just very fortunate that I know what I want to do when I write a song. This moment in time I’ve got three outlets for my songwriting. I’ve got Leppard and we’ve just written twelve new songs this February gone and I contributed to four or five of them. So it’s not like the entire thing has anything to do with me. It’s us. With Down N Outz so far, I’ve written everything, that I’m aware of. I mean, they may have written some stuff but we haven’t played it to each other. I don’t know what they do in their down time (laughs). But I’ve written these specifically for the Down N Outz. And I’ve got another project with a Canadian singer-songwriter called Emm Gryner and we’re going to do an album that will be like a Hunky Dory version of Plant and Krauss, if you like. I’m writing most of the music for it and she’s writing the lyrics and singing most of it. It’s a weird concept. So if I wake up one day either with an acoustic or a piano and I write a song, you see, I just let the song write itself and decide where it’s going to go, rather than sit down and try and create something for a specific band. It’s a much healthier outlet, really, cause you’re not pinning yourself down. You decide later where it’s going to end up.

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You co-produced this album. What is the hardest part about producing yourself?

For me, for this kind of record, the production is not hard because you can keep revisiting and go back. But since the invention of Pro Tools, production has actually just become easy. It’s like landing a jumbo jet in 1970 was a lot harder than it is landing one now. Production these days is all about what you’ve got in your head and what you want to come out. For me, as long as I’m working with a great co-producer/engineer like I am with Ronan McHugh, he knows the dashboard of a studio inside out. If I say to him, “I want you to make that guitar sound like it’s going through a bagpipe that’s being driven around Scotland in an E-Type Jag,” he’ll go, “Arrgh, ok,” (laughs) and he’ll try and make that sound.

You just got to get the music to balance. You’ve got to have your drums in the right place sonically and the bass to sit with it nice, and all your top line stuff, which is your guitar and your piano, just has to pop but not bury the drums and bass, and then the vocals have to sit on top without sounding too separate. This is just stuff you pick up. You can’t be born to know that but you can be born to learn. I always jokingly say, whoever is the best brain surgeon in the world, yes, you have to go to college, you have to go to University, but he was born to be that guy. You can’t just take any random guy and put him through college and he’ll be a brain surgeon. It’s a combination of natural talent and what you pick up and learn.

We worked for eleven years with Mutt Lange and I was always hovering over his shoulder. And if you don’t learn something from working with a producer like him, you’re a moron. And I’m not a moron (laughs). I really tried to pick up as much as I could. You take any recipe from Barefoot Contessa and go great but then you say, you know what, I’m going to jazz it up a bit by throwing a bit of my stuff in there and all of a sudden it’s YOUR recipe, not hers. And that’s what it is with music. So production just evolves naturally, as long as you’re working with a guy that knows how to record, it kind of takes care of itself. It’s all about decisions and being brave enough and big enough and knowledgeable enough to make it.

What still excites you about playing music after all these years?

The fact that I’m still able to, I think. The fact that, compared to other veteran artists that are still going, whether it be the Stones or McCartney or any of those guys, we as Leppard and me as Joe Elliott, are relatively still babies in comparison to the David Crosbys or your Joni Mitchells who are pushing seventy or whatever. I’m fifty-four. But we’ve been doing this professionally for thirty-five years and the fact that there is still a demand for Leppard – you know we’re going to do this co-headlining tour with KISS this summer – the fact that people indulge me enough to want to do this Down N Outz record, and let’s be honest, I was never NOT going to make a second record after the first one did so well in a small way. I mean, it’s not like you’re challenging Lady Gaga on the charts. It’s not meant to. But the fact that “England Rocks” went to number four on the media-based charts and “Overnight Angels” went to number one and stayed there for like twelve days, keeping Eric Clapton’s new song off the top, you know that it’s genuinely got a right to exist. So that in itself when you wake up in the morning you go, “How cool is that.”

I’m not breaking my back in a factory or I’m not working in a McDonalds serving hash browns to somebody at 8:00 am. I’m actually still a working musician and everybody in both the bands that I’m talking about now works extremely hard to keep their head above water. The Quireboys, they play two hundred shows a year in clubs and theaters all over Europe. And Def Leppard is always on the hunt to be three minutes away from a hit single that brings you right back into the same areas with the McCartneys and the Stones and that’s what you’ve got to aim at. Doesn’t matter if you get there or not. If you stop playing the game, you don’t buy the ticket, you can’t win. So it’s that challenge of staying relevant as best you can and keeping your dignity as best you can and enjoying the music you make.

Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough

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6 thoughts on “Joe Elliott of Def Leppard (Exclusive Interview)

  1. DOB Reply

    Joe, next time that you spend your holidays on Spain don’t forget to call to have a beer! :-)

  2. Alanna Reply

    Great interview, can’t wait to see Leppard this summer for the first time!! :D

  3. Kellie Trentham Reply

    Thanks for sharing this it’s a great interview. Kellie

  4. Lou l Reply

    No mention of the drummer – idiot joe Elliott ! Phil martini is one of the best in the business

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