It’s now been 25 years since Vivian Campbell joined Def Leppard, stepping in after the death of original guitarist Steve Clark. Campbell spoke to Ultimate Classic Rock as the band was wrapping up a summer tour with Poison and a new album from his pre-Leppard project Riverdogs celebrates the recent release of California,a long-awaited reunion that found the group knocking out its first full album of studio recordings with Campbell since the 1990 debut. And fans can look forward to even more new music by the veteran guitarist, who’s getting ready to resume work on songs for the sophomore release from Last in Line, his group with former Dio bandmate Vinny Appice.
This is the 25th anniversary of you coming into Def Leppard. That must be pretty hard for you to believe.
It is bizarre, yeah. Because it’s also the 40th anniversary of the band itself, of Def Leppard, and that’s something that Joe [Elliott] speaks about every night onstage. The irony is that I’ve been in Def Leppard longer than Steve Clark was, which is really bizarre to think about. The way the band works is quite extraordinary. In recent years, we’ve been really fortunate that we’ve seen this new surge in our popularity. For the most part, that’s fueled by younger people coming to the shows. We’ve been seeing it for the last 10, 12 or 15 years, you’d notice younger kids in the audience, but especially in the last couple of years, it’s grown exponentially.
I really do believe that this is the upside of music piracy. You know, people bemoan the fact that you can’t sell records anymore, but for a band like Def Leppard at least, there is a silver lining in the fact that our music is reaching a whole new audience, and that audience is excited to hear it and they’re coming to the shows. It’s been fantastic. There’s a whole new energy around Leppard, in fact. I think we’re playing better than we ever have. Which you’d like to think anyway. They always say that musicians, unlike athletes, you’re supposed to get better. Athletes have a finite window for their career, whereas with music, you do get to nuance your performances. I’m not sure that anyone other than the band really notices, but I notice it and I know that the other guys do too. When I play “Rock of Ages” for the 3,000,000 time, it’s not the song that excites me, it’s the energy from the audience. That’s what really lifts our performance. When you’ve got a more youthful audience coming to your shows, it only goes in one direction.
When you came into the band, was there a particular song that was difficult for you to get a hold on?
I’m not saying this just because I was a guy who was brought in to replace Steve Clark, but I always, still to this day, prefer playing the songs that were obviously Clarky riffs. “Too Late for Love,” “Gods of War,” “Billy’s Got A Gun,” even though we haven’t played that in a long, long time. Steve was a great riff writer. I think he was very inspired by Jimmy Page, probably the ultimate riff writer. But it’s always fun to play the Clarky songs. There’s a bit more of a rock intent to that. There’s obviously a great amount of diversity to Def Leppard’s music, but it’s nice to do the rock stuff, because, as a guitar player, I like to connect to my licks.
It’s cool to have this new Riverdogs album in hand. It was great to hear that there was a new record in the works when the news started circulating last year.
Serafino [Perugino], who runs Frontiers Records, called me. I know him through the Last in Line connection. So after the Last in Line record was out, he called me and ran it by me. He said, ‘Would you have any interest at all in doing another Riverdogs record?’ But he did stipulate that he was only interested if we would be willing to make a record that was reminiscent of the original album. I totally agree with him on that. The last thing that Riverdogs put out was six or seven years ago and it wasn’t even really a record. We didn’t mean it to be. We just happened to all be in L.A., and we got together with a few acoustic guitars and wrote a few songs and very casually and nonchalantly recorded them. I called the other guys and everyone was into doing it. We just negotiated from there. It was very much guerrilla-style, the way it was written and recorded. The budget, with all due respect to Serafino, is pitiful. [Laughs] The biggest expense now is the fact that we don’t all live in the same city. [Drummer] Mark Danzeisen and myself are still in L.A. But [bassist] Nick Brophy lives in Nashville and [Riverdogs singer] Rob [Lamothe] lives in Ontario. The bulk of our budget was eaten up with flights and car rentals and Airbnb and stuff. But we did it really quick. Nick and Rob flew into L.A. for five days. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we wrote six songs, Thursday and Friday we went into Mark’s home studio and cut the demos, and then a month or two later, we did the same thing. Five days — we wrote six songs in three days and tracked them over two days. On later dates, we did drums in a proper big drum room, and then a month or two later, we did guitars in a lovely studio, Serenity West in L.A.. Rob flew to Nashville and did lead vocals with Nick, and Mark and I did background vocals in his studio. And then we kind of just flew it all together. Nick was the technical guy.
Nick is actually a mix engineer by trade. He’s in Nashville and mixes a load of country records. So he kind of put it all together. We paid particular attention to the sonics of the record. Nick even spent a lot of time on the phone with Jeff Glixman, who had produced and mixed the original Riverdogs record. So he really delved into trying to get the secrets of the sonics of the original record. I even used the same gear and the same amps as I had tracked on the original Riverdogs album. I still have all of that stuff. We really wanted to make it reminiscent of the songs and the sonics and the feel of that first record. Rob took it a step beyond that. He actually wrote the lyrics…the lyrics are an extension of the stories and the characters from the first album. So in many ways, it’s kind of a concept record.
Listening to “The Revolution Starts Tonight,” it sounds like you really got a chance to open things up and play some guitar on this record. What was your process? Do you find yourself with a factory of riffs that you can tap into personally?
I used to have a great home studio with Pro Tools. I’ve never been a tech guy, but I was reasonably proficient in a Pavlovian manner. I’d have my smart engineer friends come around and show me what to do. So I could find my way around Pro Tools, but this was years and years ago. And then I got divorced. That process started in 2009, so that was the last time I got to work in my home studio. Ever since then, I’ve kind of been in a bit of a state of flux. Long story short, all I have to record ideas on these days is my iPhone. So if I come up with something, I always try to capture it on my iPhone. I always know if it’s appropriate for this, that or the other. I always think, “Okay, that definitely sounds like a Def Leppard idea” or “This definitely sounds like Last in Line.” The last year or two, I’ve had to add Riverdogs to that.
I’ve captured so many ideas over the years, I just kind of went through them all on my iPhone. The great thing about the Riverdogs is that it’s a very judgment-free zone. I feel very comfortable about playing anything for those guys. In a way, even things that I would have never thought could have been made into a song. There’s a song called “The Heart Is a Mindless Bird” and that was just a little guitar thing that I had. I said to Rob and Nick, “I’ll play this for you, but I really don’t hear how it could be turned into a song.” They were like, “Oh no, this is great!” The next day, Rob comes back in with a lyric and a melody and stuff. Then at the very end of that, I think it was Rob who suggested, “You know, we should go real heavy on this, like we did at the end of ‘Baby Blue’ on the original Riverdogs album.” I just started playing some chords and away we went. It turned out to be a really interesting song and probably one of the most interesting on the album. But it was made out of nothing, really. It’s a great testament to Rob’s ability to hang a melody on anything. I mean, he’s such a great, naturally gifted singer that he could just make it happen.
I was going to mention that song, because that’s really cool. Right around the 3:15 mark, I love the way the vocals drop away and the guitar comes in. It’s just cool how the guitar comes in, but then not too long after that, you just start burning, and you burn through the rest of the song. It’s an intense tune.
It’s great to be able to let rip like that on guitar again. These are great outlets for me as a guitar player, both Riverdogs and Last in Line over the last several years. I don’t get to do that a lot in Def Leppard. Leppard’s a very different thing. We’re very song-structured, very self-policed. Very contained. And even when we do have a burning guitar solo in Def Leppard, it’s always held to four bars or eight bars or whatever. So it’s nice to just be able to go back and let loose. I’ve really been enjoying my playing in the last several years. I’m very thankful to have these outlets to be able to do it. It’s fun to kind of reconnect with my first passion, which is playing angry, aggressive Les Paul.
How did you first connect with the band?
I first started working with the Dogs producing demos for them. I was still in Whitesnake and we were starting to do pre-production for a Whitesnake record. We’d completed the tour. I was in between that, and I was flying back to L.A. where Whitesnake were working and cutting these demos with Riverdogs. The guitar player in Riverdogs at the time, they were not happy with. They kept saying to me, “Will you replace the guitar parts on the track?” And I said, “No, I won’t do that. I mean, you’ve got a guitar player in your band.” Between one thing and another, the writing was kind of on the wall with Whitesnake that I wasn’t going to last in that band. The writing was on the wall with Riverdogs that their guitar player wasn’t going to last. Over a period of a week or two, that kind of happened. I was no longer with Whitesnake, the original guitar player was no longer with Riverdogs, so I elected at that time to actually join the band full time. I really believed in what they had going. Rob’s talent, I couldn’t believe and I still can’t believe to this day that he’s not a huge star. He’s one of the most talented singers and songwriters that I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. We jumped in there and we went through the whole process. We made the record, did gigs, we took a long time at it, because we had a hard, hard time finding the right producer for the record. In fact, we ended up starting the album and cutting the basic tracks with Mike Frondelli producing the record. That didn’t work out and we ended up parting ways with him, and that’s when we brought in Jeff Glixman to finish it up. So the record took a lot of time, it exhausted our budget, which back then was a generous budget, because that was back when record companies actually put some money into making records. But the whole process had taken the better part of a year and a half. During that time and toward the end of that time, we had been signed to CBS and they had been sold to Sony and there had been wholesale changes within the record label. People were fired, laid off. People were moved to other departments and the biggest change, the one that impacted us the most was the fact that there was a new managing director who came into the label.
I remember the very week that our record was being released, he took us all to dinner for a meeting and sat us down and said, “Guys, I’m sorry, but I don’t feel this record. I don’t hear it. I’d like you to start working on another one right away.” Talk about the rug being pulled out from under you, we’d spent a year and a half doing this. It was just heartbreaking. Personally, I couldn’t afford to do it anymore. Some of the other guys had dipped into the record budget to supplement their living expenses over the 18 months, whereas I had totally paid my own way. I had a home, I had mortgage payments to make. I said, “Guys, literally, I can’t afford to do this. I can’t afford to take another year without income.” That’s kind of when it all fell apart, which is really a shame. We believed in the record and we felt that it was a very strong record. I think that we’ve been vindicated in the decades since, because there’s not many people who have heard that record who don’t like it. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s received a lot of acclaim, not only in this country, but especially in Europe. So in a way, we do feel vindicated with that. We made a really, really good record and the fact that our record company couldn’t see that or couldn’t get behind that, that was unfortunate, but you know, it’s a familiar story in the record business.
You mentioned Last in Line. How far are you into the process on the next album?
We’ve got about half the record written. We’ll do the rest over the summer. We have some shows in the States and then we’re going to Europe for three weeks. But we’re scheduled to go back into the studio in mid-September, with Jeff Pilson producing again. There’s some really, really interesting song ideas going on. I’m very excited for that. Hopefully, there will be even more guitar on that one. It’s just been so much fun playing with Vinny Appice again, and playing with Jimmy [Bain] prior to his passing away was great. Phil Soussan has stepped in and has taken over the bass duties. He’s as close to Jimmy’s sound as we can get. That was kind of heartbreaking for us when that happened. But we’re marching on with that, and I know that Jimmy was very proud of the record and we felt that that was the right thing to do.
Have you seen where you’re going with these new Last in Line songs develop a little bit, now that you guys have had a chance to play some shows and kind of become a band?
Very, very much so. The band has really gelled. Some of the arrangements for these ideas that are in play at the moment, I would say they’re a little more complex than what’s on the first record. But it’s really starting to take shape as a band, and we do very much try to write as a band. That’s how we did the first record with Last in Line, we’d just get in there and kick around ideas. A lot of times, stuff would come out of nothing. I’ve always said that I’ve been fortunate to play with so many great musicians and so many great drummers over the years, but Vinny inspires me like no other. There’s just times when we go in to write when I kind of feel like I don’t have any solid ideas that I can bring to the party. Vinny will just play a beat, and he plays with such great intent. It just kind of inspires me. Frequently, we’ll come up with ideas, just because of a groove that Vinny’s laying down. It is very uplifting, I’ve got to say.