The multiplatinum masters of ’80s melodic metal Def Leppard recently released their self-titled album and are set to tour the United States starting this month.
Lead singer Joe Elliott talked to FOX411 about modern-day recording, where they got the idea to do all those impossibly stacked vocal harmonies, and their country connection with one Taylor Swift.
FOX411: I love the feel you and your producer Ronan McHugh got for this record. The sound is impeccable.
Joe Elliott: Yeah, thanks, it is a great-sounding record. The thing about making records in 2015 is you can make them sound any way you want. We could have made this record sound like the first Clash record, or we could have made it sound like [Pink Floyd’s] "The Dark Side of the Moon."
Ronan knows what to do to make it sound like we’re in Abbey Road, even though we weren’t. But all that is meaningless if there’s no song and no substance to work with in the first place.
FOX411: I like how the album closes with the slow build of “Blind Faith,” which is the right way to end a record that starts with the energy of “Let’s Go.” It’s a full-circle statement.
Elliott: Once we accepted that we were making an album and not just recording three songs for a digital-download release, we said, “Well, let’s do a traditional record. Let’s use our experience and age without being miserable old farts about it. Let’s make the kind of record that all of our fans from Day 1 remember standing up to go over to flip over.”
There was an argument that “Blind Faith” could have been the center of the record, or have it where “Stairway to Heaven” is on “Led Zeppelin IV” at the end of Side 1, or have it be the classic sign-off song at the end of an album. The ebb and flow of this album runs against the way people have been front-loading CDs, or when digital became more massively important. We decided to venture away from that way of thinking.
FOX411: In guitarist Phil Collen’s recent autobiography "Adrenalized," he mentioned that when he joined the band, one of the things you and he talked about was how to make your harmonies different from Styx, Kansas, Foreigner, and other vocally strong bands of that era. You guys figured out another way to do it.
Elliott: Yeah, it was based on the multitracking abilities of a band like Queen, but we took what they did to the next level. Queen maybe tripled or quadrupled their backing vocals — we did it like 20 times!
We wanted it to sound like the quality of Queen but the size of Slade. And when Slade did things like “Cum on Feel the Noize” and “Mama Weer All Crazee Now,” they did it by swamping everything in echo and reverb. We didn’t want to have to do that. We wanted to do it by size, so it ended up needing multiple takes of choruses to give us a unique sound.
It was fun to do, though it wasn’t exactly fun at the time. Once you finished, you needed to take two days off, you know? (both chuckle) And when you listened back to it, it was like, “Nobody’s ever done this.” It was quite unique.
FOX411: Speaking of ebb and flow, “Def Leppard” feels like a live set the way it’s paced, because you do the same thing in your show. There’s a different feel in the live set by the time you get to “Rock On” and when you go out there alone with your acoustic guitar for “Two Steps Behind.” That’s a necessary tone break, right?
Elliott: Yeah, it gives the audience a chance to take their breath, and it gives us a chance to set up Part 2 of the show, if you like. It’s kind of split into three where you’ve got the beginning, the middle, and the end in the same way that they do with the great movies. You’ve got to have a beginning that sucks you in, a storyline that keeps you interested, and an ending that makes you want to stay until the credits roll.
And that’s the whole point of a set or an album, really — it’s the dynamics of it all. A lot of artists won’t be aware of that. They can all write songs and perform, but when it comes to that part of the record or the live set, they get lost in the fog.
That can make a huge difference in the way an artist is thought of or represented over the years. When you do the comparison of, say, a Paul McCartney to someone who’s the lesser of him, you see they don’t put the work ethic into it that he does.
FOX411: A lot of people might expect the very last song you play in your encore — we hope we’re not spoiling anything here — would be “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” but you don’t. They might think that’s it for the night, but then you come right back with “Rock of Ages” and “Photograph.”
Elliott: Absolutely! It’s a case of using what you have. I’m not being a big head or a show off when I say that we know what songs we have cause a stir and make a reaction. We also know what songs need to be in a certain spot to be the most impressive. We wouldn’t get away with playing “Paper Sun” as an encore. But if we put it in the middle where everybody has just settled in and then we come in with this obscure album track, the visuals behind us are so compelling that the people standing there are going, “What the hell is this?” — and they indulge us with it.
FOX411: Another reason people flock to your live show is to see an actual band playing instruments and singers actually singing live, right there onstage.
Elliott: We don’t use tapes. We used to be accused of miming or using samples, and we’d get annoyed, but, hang on — in a left-handed way, it’s actually kind of a compliment. People think we’re miming, but we’re not, so I’ll take that. (chuckles)
FOX411: And the fact that you have a country song in disguise in “Pour Some Sugar on Me” near the end of the set helps too.
Elliott: It’s very well disguised. The whole thing was written as a tribute to the British glam-rock scene we grew up listening to in the ’70s — the big drums and the glam guitar sound from bands we loved like the Sweet or Slade. But when you work with [producer] Mutt Lange, who’s a huge country fan, he will introduce some subtle little changes in the harmonics and the melody.
But there are harmonies that are country harmonies. We’ve done that a lot on our records. There are some more obvious examples, like “Heaven Is” and “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad,” both off the “Adrenalize” album (1992). And even on “Armageddon It” [from 1987’s “Hysteria”] — those little vocal sweeps could easily be interpreted as country, for sure.
FOX411: Plus, you did that CMT Crossroads episode with Taylor Swift in 2009.
Elliott: There’s no doubt there’s a subliminal tip of the hat to that country direction just from a melodic point of view. It’s like the Eagles — the “Are they country, are they rock?” kind of thing. We don’t sound like the Eagles, don’t get me wrong — we’re not just using the standard third or fifth straight harmonies that most rock bands do. We were always encouraged by Mutt to go a little bit different.
And that was all heard by Taylor’s mom [Andrea Swift], who was the original fan of the band in the family — but Taylor was listening to us in her mom’s womb. She was born to us in 1989, and probably had “Hysteria,” [1983’s] “Pyromania,” and “Adrenalize” on rotation as a child. It all just sunk in, even though she’s a country girl who’s gone pop. The reason we did that show with her was she announced in an interview the only band she’d ever consider doing it [CMT Crossroads] with is us.
Alison Krauss is the same. Alison Krauss is a huge fan. Listen to Union Station — obviously not a bit like us, but she recognizes there’s something in the way our vocals are that links to what she does.
We’re all fans of other types of music. We don’t sound like Tom Waits, but I love him to death. We’re all fans of things we don’t do. In fact, it’s a relief. I don’t think Taylor or Alison are sitting around all day listening to country music, because that’s what they do for a living. Just like I don’t sit around listening to bands that sound like Def Leppard. We listen to alternative stuff.
FOX411: You’ll enjoy hearing this: I know the line in “Pour Some Sugar on Me” is about a “radar phone,” but these days, I can’t help hearing it as a “red iPhone.”
Elliott: (chuckles) Yeah, everybody hears it differently. People may take that to mean I can’t pronounce my words properly, but I say, “Good! That makes me more like Mick Jagger.” Sometimes you just get the benefit of having an accent like that, so that works for me.
FOX411: I saw quite a few shows on the 2015 tour, and it just seemed like it kept getting bigger and bigger in terms of the attendance. Why is that? Why are more people coming to the show now?
Elliott: I… (pauses) I wish I could pull that out and sell it. There’s really no answer to it; there’s just opinion. We didn’t have our new record out yet, so it wasn’t because of new songs helping shift things along. We know full well that for bands like us, people are coming for the songs they knew when they were kids.
It’s a hard one to call. We’re obviously a pretty decent band with a lot of hits, so there is a bit of history there with the fans, which is positive. You also have to take into consideration that the alignment of the stars has to be right, and there’s also the “last man standing” vibe with any band that’s been around as long as us.
This lineup has been together for at least 23 years, so there’s the “gang” factor. People dig the fact that it’s the same five people.
FOX411: And we want to see you keep doing what you’re doing for as long as you can go out there.
Elliott: We want to do the same thing — as long as we can pace ourselves and do it well. I’ve never been of the headspace of the “Let’s just see how many gigs we can cram in as we can” guy, because then you tend to wind up doing a lot of bad shows. I’d rather do fewer shows, and do them well, rather than doing more shows, and doing them blasé.
You need to make it special. It has to be cleverly done if you’re going to tour relentlessly. You have to do something special each time you go out there — or at least something a little bit different, so you’re not just repeating yourselves.
So, yeah, we want to keep doing it. I’d love a little more time off, especially in the summers, but you can’t kill the goose when it’s laying so many golden eggs, you know? When there’s a resurgence in the band’s popularity the way it’s been this past year, it’s really inspiring. It makes you walk an inch taller, really.
Mike Mettler is the former editor-in-chief and current music editor of Sound & Vision, and he interviews artists and producers about their love of music and high-resolution audio on his own site, Soundbard.com.