Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott on New LP, Upcoming Motley Crue Tour, and Why They’ll Never Retire
They’re about to start a three-year stadium tour with Poison and Mötley Crüe, but just don’t call them hair metal
In the spring of 2020, Def Leppard made plans to gather at Joe Elliott’s house in Ireland to record a handful of tunes before starting rehearsals for their stadium tour with Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Joan Jett. They knew they wouldn’t have nearly enough time to finish an album, but they wanted to start the process and hopefully resume it once the tour wrapped for the year.
They planned on coming together in late March, just as the pandemic was shutting down global travel along with the entire live music industry. “They weren’t allowed to fly in from America,” Elliott says. “And so there we were, brides at the altar.”
The singer called up guitarist Phil Collen at his home in California to try and figure out an alternate plan. “We spent 40 minutes on the phone going, ‘OK, now what?’ ” Elliott recalls. “By the end of that phone call, we decided that we could make a record remotely. We’d never done an entire album that way, but we’d certainly done bits of one. We’d worked in two or three studios at once. It’s nothing new to us to piecemeal bits together.”
The process eventually led to their new record Diamond Star Halos, which arrives May 27, just a few weeks before the long-delayed tour with Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Joan Jett finally kicks off in Atlanta, Georgia.
We phoned up Elliott while he was driving around town (“I can walk and chew gum at the same time”) to talk about Diamond Star Halos, the upcoming tour, the band’s long hiatus from the road, selling their publishing, and why he doesn’t think Def Leppard will ever go on a true farewell tour.
You’ve been off the road now since late 2019. Def Leppard started touring in 1978, and you haven’t taken many long breaks since then. What’s it been like to be home for so long?
We’ve been off the road for two years and four months. Let’s not forget that between the last show of the Pyromania tour [in 1984] and the first show of the Hysteria tour [in 1987] was a lot longer than that. The last show of the Hysteria tour in October 1988 and the first show of the Adrenalize tour in May 1992 was longer. They were during our years when we weren’t supposed to be taking that much time off.
But it’s been great to be home. Pretty much ever since then, we toured almost every year besides 2004 and 2010. In 2004, we recorded a lot of the Yeah! record. And in 2010, I personally recorded a lot of my Down ‘n’ Outz album. I’ve always been doing something if I wasn’t touring. To be at home, I had to be doing something. And I’m really glad it worked out that we were able to make this record in such bizarre circumstances. The fact that we were at home was great.
Tell me the process you guys used for recording this new record remotely.
We used to just sit down together and play each other demos and hear what everyone thought. But instead of doing that, we were in a situation where nobody felt peer pressure of four sets of eyes staring at them while they played the cassette. We just talked about these songs. Turns out I had three. Phil had two he’d written on his own and two he’d co-written, so we had seven right there. Then we brought [Rick] Savage in on the conversation and he had two ready to go. Then we had nine.
We were thinking, “Why don’t we just trust each other that these songs are up to scratch? We wouldn’t suggest they were if they weren’t. Let’s just do them and worry about how they sound at the end.” It gave us something to put our teeth into.
Honestly, I swear to God, I don’t think we’ll ever make a record again in what you call the “traditional sense.” This is the most focused, enjoyable album that we’ve ever made. I said that after the last record we did in 2014. We accidentally made that one since we sat down to make three songs and came up with 12. Then we added two more to the pile later one. Without any plans, we had an album, and it was awesome.
This was even better since it broadened our horizons of what sort of material we want to sink our teeth into. There’s what you might call “classic Leppard,” there’s some left-field stuff on this record, but it’s not for the sake of left field. It’s not like, “Hey, let’s try and be Kraftwerk.” It’s us branching out.
I don’t want to make this comparison musically, but I believe what this album has done to our legacy is very similar to what Rumours did for Fleetwood Mac or what Hotel California did for the Eagles. What came before, there was nothing wrong with. It was awesome. But what came with those two records was a quantum leap. And I believe this is a quantum leap for us. And 45 years into this band, that’s a hell of a fucking statement to make. But I’ll hang my hat on it because I truly believe that we’ve made, from where we are on our careers now, a truly great record.
What drives you to keep making records? So many of your peers gave up on that years ago.
I don’t understand. Honestly, it’s not a case of what drives us. It’s what doesn’t drive them. Maybe it’s because of our tradition. When we signed in 1979 to Mercury, we signed having been raised on other artists for the previous decade. And when you signed a record deal, you signed for four, five, or six albums. You were in for the long haul. That’s what we did. We signed for a six-album deal. We were in the exact same footsteps as Elton John, who signed to the same label in 1969. It was just our thing to keep going.
When we parted company with Universal in 2008 because the contract was up, we still, three years later, put three new songs on at the end of the live album [Mirror Ball – Live & More]. Three years after that, we had our last album out, knowing full well that touring had become a more important part of our job than making records. But we still had that fire to do it, even outside of the band.
Me and Phil did the Cybernauts records [of David Bowie covers with the Spiders From Mars] 20 years ago. He did two Man Raze albums and the Delta Deep album. [Guitarist] Vivian [Campbell] has done three Last In Line albums. I’ve done three Down ‘n’ Outz albums. We’re always in the studio. Sometimes we’re doing covers. Something we’re doing stuff that isn’t Leppard-like. Sometimes we’re doing stuff that is Leppard-like. That’s our driver.
But when you’ve got a handful of songs, it’s really difficult, I think, to shove it all down and go, “Well, there’s not really any room anymore.” Look at someone like Ian Hunter. He’s in his eighties and still writing songs. Why not? If you’ve got a headful of songs, you should write them. It’s your job. It’s a gift to do what we do.
If you sit down with a guitar in a nice, little quiet moment when the kids are in the garden, or whatever, or down at the piano, and something just goes, “Ping!” you need to take out your iPhone and open up the app that says “voice recordings” so you don’t forget what it is tomorrow. That’s pretty much what the process has always been.
There was a giddiness to us all during lockdown since the best thing we could do was stay safe, and so we self-isolated to the extreme by never really leaving the house unless we put the hazmat suit on to go get the weekly shop.
The beautiful thing is that if everyone was at my house, or we went to a neutral studio, when one of us is in there singing our head off or playing our head off, the other four are sitting around twiddling their thumbs watching the news or Netflix in someone else’s house or a hotel. They are missing their home life.
Doing the album this way, that didn’t happen. Everybody was at home. Collectively, we spent 10 or 12 hours a week on this record for seven or eight months. We knew we didn’t have a delivery date. We knew we didn’t have anything that would make us rush it. And so we just had this real pleasurable experience of being able to take a day away from it and live with it. If you couldn’t come up with a killer hook then, wait a while and it’ll pop into your head or pop into someone else’s head.
We were just trading ideas and Ronan McHugh — our co-producer, who is an incredible engineer, and was totally on board — he went, “This is easy.” It’s actually not that different than when we work in the studio since everybody comes in individually and we bang out the bass, drums, guitar, leads, backing vocals, solos, and we build like building blocks.
We did exactly the same thing here, but we were in three different countries. We were all on the same page, though. And Ronan glued it all together. We say that on the sleeve. We write, “Recorded, engineered, and glued all together by Ronan McHugh.” That’s literally what he did.
God bless technology. In an insane time, it gave us the opportunity to do something so unique, so groundbreaking for a lot of people. It freed us to be musicians and not worry about travel or accommodation or, “Hurry up, I want to do my part.” That’s normal stuff all bands go through. We go through it too. It freed us up to just be human beings with our families and to take time to make this great album. It was pretty impressive.
How did Alison Krauss get involved?
Well, we’ve known Alison for a long, long time. She’s such a fan of us that she actually volunteered to interview me for Q magazine, a long-lost British magazine, back in 1996 for the Slang album, as a journalist. Whenever we’ve been in Nashville and she’s not on the road, she goes to the show. We hung out backstage when we were, believe it or not, nominated for a country award for the thing we did with Taylor Swift.
We’ve always been aware of who she is. I was actually texting back and forth with Robert Plant about soccer, of all things, when he asked what I was up to. I said, “Making a new record, but don’t tell anybody.” He said, “I want to tell Alison. You know you’re her favorite fuckin’ band, right?” I went, “Yeah, OK, fine.”
Then our manager Mike [Kobayashi] just happened to be talking to her manager about something completely different, and he said the same thing. He said, “We heard she’d probably be up for doing something if you want her.” We went, “Yeah, please.” And so I texted her and said, “OK, so are you up for this?” She said yes. I said, “We wrote two songs. I don’t know which one you’ll like best, but they both have a bit of a country tinge to them. Why don’t you pick?”
I sent both to her. About 30 minutes later, she texted me back “OMG” and a bunch of exclamation marks. “I can’t pick.” I just texted her straight back and said, “Do you want to do them both?” She goes, “Yeah.” We let her do anything she wanted and we left everything she did on. We heard it and went, “This is gorgeous.”
How about [David Bowie pianist] Mike Garson?
I wrote two songs on the piano. But think back to the beautifulness of “Life on Mars.” Bowie wrote that, but he had the brains to have Rick Wakeman play on the record. My rudimentary keyboard playing wasn’t going to stand up too far. And because I’d been working with Mike now for four years off and on with Bowie tributes, he just came to mind. I called Phil and was like, “What about Garson?” He just went, “Oh, yeah.” We’re both huge fans of Aladdin Sane, which is where we discovered him. I rang him and was like, “Fancy playing on a couple of Leppard songs?” And he was all over it.
On this album, there is a nice little group of people who have been on the periphery of our projects for years. But we brought them into the mothership on this one because it just felt comfortable to do it. And it felt brave or different just pushing the envelope a bit more.
Tell me about the song “This Guitar,” where you sing, “This guitar saved my life.” Is this a personal story?
There’s a great story about this one. Phil wrote it 19 years ago. I heard a demo of it in 2003. Every once in a while I say to him, “You ever do anything with this song? Give it somebody?” But no. I said to him, “You’ve got to do something with that song.” I probably suggested if halfway through [Songs From the] Sparkle Lounge in 2007.” But maybe eight songs into that project, we realized it would have stuck out like a sore thumb, so no. I probably suggested it during the last record, and the same thing. But because we were throwing songs together at the beginning of this project, he was so giddy and open-minded. I said, “Can we finally try ‘This Guitar’? I’m dying to give it a go. I want to try singing it.”
He said, “Yeah, sure. Why not?” Everyone else was waiting to hear the finished result before they chimed in with an opinion. Once I put my vocal on his new backing track, everyone was like, “Yeah, this is going to work.” Vivian put on some awesome slide guitar. There’s some pedal steel on it. It was a finished song. The Alison job came in when it was already done. We have both versions, but the one with her is obviously the boss one.
It reminds me of the Sinatra song “It Was a Very Good Year.” It’s one of those kind of songs where it goes through someone’s life. As far as I’m aware, we’ve never done one. Maybe that was its appeal to me. It’s a phenomenal lyric. I love the melody. I thought the chorus just built brilliantly. There’s a nice payoff at the end. I said to Phil, “This needs orchestration. It has to be our version of ‘Wichita Lineman.’ It’s gotta have that sort of Jimmy Webb–ness about it. It needs all that drama. And it needs equal drama in the music.”
When you look back at all the greats and the world, like “Eleanor Rigby,” which is just McCartney and the orchestra, or whether it’s “Angie” by the Stones where there’s barely a Rolling Stone on it — it’s strings and stuff like that. It’s whatever makes a song work best. We put it all on and were so happy with the way it worked out.
I also liked “Angels (Can’t Help You Now).” Can you talk about that one?
That was me doing what I do when I don’t have three kids chewing up my ankles. I sit at the piano. It’s my go-to instrument at the moment. I mean, I pick up the guitar all the time, but there’s something about playing the piano that’s just amazing for me because I don’t really understand it too well. There’s all sorts of things to discover by accident. You put your finger in the wrong place by accident, but it still works and you’re like, “That’s cool.” Over my lifetime of meeting Ian Hunter and Elton John, occasionally, when we brought up stuff in conversation, they said to me, “When you discover what all the black notes do, there’s nowhere left.” And I haven’t discovered that yet. I’m still on a learning journey on the piano, but I can write a tune on one.
Once I had to play “Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding” by Elton John for a tribute show. And when I did it, three members of Kiss were standing on the side of the stage watching me do it. So no pressure! I figured to myself, “If I can get through 11 minutes of probably the greatest thing Elton John has ever done, I can probably write on this thing as well.”
I started and I did. I wrote all the Down ‘n’ Outz songs on it about five or six years ago. A week or two before [the latest Down ‘n’ Outz album, 2019’s This Is How We Roll] was delivered, I just kept writing and carried on. But I didn’t write these songs for the Down ‘n’ Outz. I didn’t write them for Def Leppard. I just wrote them and it just happened to be they were finished. I wrote “Angels” and “Goodbye for Good This Time” and put them on the pile when we were compiling songs. When everyone heard the demos, they were like, “Holy shit. Well, that’s a keeper.” It was the melody and the whole vibe of the song where I pushed the envelope probably beyond what people would expect us to do.
The single “Kick” sounds like it was written to be played in stadiums. Are you thinking in those terms when you write a song like that?
Absolutely. We’re always looking for the next anthem, stadium anthem or arena anthem, or whatever. If you look at the songs that are 40 or 50 years old and still getting played, whether it’s “Brown Sugar” or “Satisfaction” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “We Will Rock You,” there are thousands of them. But they’re really not easy to write, and there’s only a handful of good ones out of those thousands.
But you keep trying. We’ve got “Let’s Got Rocked,” “Rock of Ages,” “[Pour Some] Sugar [on Me].” Without repeating yourself, you’re trying to come up with something that is of that ilk, but doesn’t sound like a complete copy of a previous work. It’s just in the flavor of glam-tastic Seventies. I don’t think it sounds like one particular band, but it’s from that era, and we brought it into 2022. We put our spin on it. It’s one of those instant songs.
It’s only been out four days, but the reaction has been amazing. It was the number-one most-played song by Saturday afternoon. In this day and age, of course, you get all this information sent to you from Soundscan and other places almost instantly. It went from 10 to two to one in three days. It seems like other people have the same feeling we have about it.
Are you beginning production rehearsals on the tour soon?
Soon-ish. With the album coming out in May, we’re doing a lot of what I’m doing right now. We start rehearsing in early May. Then we take a break for a while and then gather for full production rehearsals just a week or so before the first show in June. We will be well prepared by the time we get to Atlanta since we spend a lot of time behind closed doors ironing out all the stuff. As you said, we’ve been off the road for two and a quarter years. But we’ve been off for longer before. For us to get our chops back won’t take too long.
This stadium tour gives us an opportunity to promote our new album, but we’re not stupid. We’re not going to play every song off of it. We’re going to play a select couple or three. It’s a stadium show. People come to hear what they know, and we’re going to play exactly what you expect from us. The beauty of it is we couldn’t have done this in 2020 since we didn’t have the album. We can do it now.
Is playing a stadium any different for you than playing an arena, since a stadium is usually outdoors and about three times bigger?
Not really. I don’t find much difference. There’s a huge difference between a stadium and a club. But when you’ve got your actual stage, the stage in the arena isn’t that much smaller than a stage in a stadium. If you’ve got the ramp going out, it’s the same thing. There’s just vastly more people out there. That’s never freaked me out.
When I was a kid, and you saw footage of the Beatles at Shea Stadium or film of Woodstock, it never perturbed me. That’s what I want. Some people just want the open-mic night at some basement bar and they’re happy with that. We were never that band. We were, “Reach for the stars and then see what’s beyond the stars.” And so I don’t really have an issue with that. I never have.
I spoke to you back in 2006 or so and you said being labeled a “hair metal band” by the press was like a “case of herpes you couldn’t shake.” Do you still feel that way?
It doesn’t bother me until somebody brings it up. What bothers me is if you print in your article that we were. I’ve given people plenty of opportunities to see beyond that. And I don’t have a problem with bands being that if that’s what they want to be. I have a problem with people that can’t see beyond the fact that although the Sunset Strip was alight in 1985, 1986, 1987, we were in fuckin’ Windmill Lane [Recording Studios] and Holland making Hysteria. We were so far removed from all that stuff. I’m not saying we don’t fuckin’ have hair, but fuckin’ Paul Weller’s got hair! So does Robert Plant, lots of hair! It doesn’t make them hair metal or hair pop. To me, it’s lazy journalism. It’s just lazy.
We never wanted to be a part of any movement, whether it was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or hair metal. Our theory was always if a movement dies, everything in it dies. We have to stand alone. There was the Beatles and the Merseybeat [scene]. Those were two different things. That’s how we try and stand.
In fairness, we take it all in good humor. It’s not like I get angry about it. I just go, “Come on, really? There’s more to us than that.” If people haven’t figured that out yet, they’ve been living under a rock. I can’t make excuses for them.
It’s just that Poison and Mötley Crüe are arguably the two biggest groups of that genre and they’re both on the tour.
Are people going to start calling Joan Jett hair metal? She’s shaved her head! On this tour, we’re the only British act. That again separates us.
One of my favorite images and icons of all time is Johnny Thunders. He invented the Eighties hair. But we wouldn’t call the New York Dolls hair metal. It’s just hair. It’s the same thing as Steve Stevens from Billy Idol’s band. He looks like Johnny Thunders since he has this massive hair and he never got rid of it. It’s just his choice. He’s like, “This is me and I’m happy who I am.” We’re happy with who we are. We just aren’t hair metal.
The Stones, McCartney, and the Who are all touring this year, but they’re all turning 80 very soon. They probably won’t be touring that much longer. Do you think Def Leppard and your peers from that time will fill that void they leave behind with these big stadium shows?
I would like to think we’d get an opportunity to do it. It’s totally up to us. We can’t just expect to be planted on a stage and think, “Well, the Rolling Stones aren’t here anymore, so we everybody that is a Stones fan will just see us now.” It doesn’t work like that. We have to earn the right to step into the shoes of the Stones, the Who, McCartney. Even people more of our generation like U2 or Depeche Mode … and there’s Aerosmith and AC/DC that are kind of in between us and those guys age-wise.
There’s opportunities to do this. It’s not going to happen if we just sit around pushing the back catalog for forever and a day. We have to keep creating, I think, to be able to do it. And we have to be able to make sure what we do create doesn’t embarrass the back catalog since it has to stand up to it.
That’s why we aren’t going to do an album every year. We’re going to cherry-pick what we do. We’re going to put our full weight behind everything we do. And we’re not going to put it out until we’re 100 percent that it’s ready to be heard. I think we’ve done that with this record. That’s going to give us an opportunity to stay in stadiums.
Are you thinking beyond this tour? Maybe doing Las Vegas again in the future or some other smaller-scale shows where you can showcase more of the new record?
Of course. It’s always a bit nice to do anything. But this stadium tour is potentially going to run for three years all over the world. It’s a case of finding a space between when we stop this year and start again next year to get in and do something that would benefit that situation.
At this moment in time, we’re just focused on the stadium tour since everything else is so far off and just an idea. It’s an idea that we talked about. I don’t see why we shouldn’t or why we couldn’t. Being away for two and a quarter years, let’s just focus on the now.
I hope to God the tour actually happens. By the looks of things, it’s 99 percent definite it’s going to happen. It would have to be something better than World War III or Omicron to stop it now. We just want to enjoy the fact that we can do this now. And then we’ll start making plans, but this stadium tour is going to go worldwide. That itself is going to be an event, which is what we want everything we do to be. The first new album in seven years is an event. This tour was an event before the pandemic was a big event. It’s an even bigger one now. We just want to get on that particular horse and ride it for as long as we can and see how long we can stay on it.
Tell me about the deal you made with Primary Wave regarding your publishing.
We just re-signed. We have two publishing deals. The Primary Wave one is historical and goes back 15 years. They just wanted to extend the deal along with our current publishing deal. We thought it was the right time to do that. It freed us up to make better decisions about where our music gets placed. Financially, it puts the band in a better position. Nobody knew if we were going to be able to tour again, so we just wanted to have our ducks in a row for our own personal and professional future.
They’re a great company to be with. There are rules in place regarding where our songs can go. Everything is a negotiation. We can say no to any suggestions, but we’re open to anything. It’s a case of protecting our legacy, which is long and goes back a long way, but hopefully it goes a long way to the future as well.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame finally brought in T. Rex. Who do you want to see next?
Mott the Hoople, obviously, or Ian Hunter since he’s still active. He should have been in years ago. Todd Rundgren finally got in. I was chomping at the bit for him to get in even when he was up against us. I went to see him at a little theater in California. When I went to see him afterwards, he walked into the green room and went, “Ah, the competition.” I said, “We’re not competition. We’re allies. I want you in. I voted for you.”
T. Rex getting in is a big deal for me. But from a personal point of view, Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople. Please, get some sense. They deserve to be in. They may have been cult, but my God, they were fucking awesome.
The Spiders From Mars should get in as sidemen.
If that’s a category, of course. I didn’t know you could do that. But yeah. Absolutely.
Do you think there will ever be a Def Leppard farewell tour?
I think it would be, in fairness, something that we find out was a farewell tour after we’ve done it. We’re very fortunate that we don’t have announce a farewell tour to sell some sleepy tickets, which is what a lot of artists do. They’re selling really well as it happens.
We haven’t even contemplated packing it in. We might have 20-odd years ago before it all started kicking back up again. Not collectively, but individually we were like, “What are we doing?” But we re-branded. We woke up. We poked the bear and were like, “This is not the way it has to be.” And we started rebuilding from the ground up. And we haven’t gotten anywhere close to where we want to get. I can’t see us saying, “I think we’re done now.” I just don’t.
I look at McCartney. I look at the Stones, Aerosmith, AC/DC, and even U2, Duran Duran, Iron Maiden. All these bands have a reason to carry on. It’s not just money. It’s all they know and it’s what they really like doing. Why would you want to stop when you can play to thousands of people every time you go on the road? It’s what we craved as kids. It’s what we wanted.
From Rolling Stone US.