Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell talk about the unusual necks on their favorite axes, the brutal process of writing new Def Leppard material, and "Mirror Ball: Live & More"—the ’80s juggernaut’s first-ever live album.
Phil Collen onstage with his Jackson PC1 signature model.
It’s amazing that, after a 34-year career full of hits and sold-out arenas, Def Leppard is just now releasing its first live album. Mirror Ball: Live & More bristles with the same raw, visceral excitement that made the band’s music the inescapable rock soundtrack of the ’80s. It’s a power-packed, two-CD set culled from the best performances of their 2008-2009 tour. Staples such as “Foolin’,” “Rock of Ages,” “Too Late for Love,” and “Photograph” are served up with gut-level urgency, while three additional studio tracks round out the package.
Though the band first got attention based on the work of original guitarists Pete Willis and Steve Clark—as exemplified by hits like “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” and “High ’n’ Dry (Saturday Night)”— Phil Collen replaced Willis during the recording of Lep’s 1983 breakout hit, Pyromania. In 1991, Clark died from an accidental overdose, and in 1992 former Dio and Whitesnake guitarist Vivian Campbell took his place. Since then, Collen and Campbell have constituted the band’s 6-string team, though both have also moonlighted in various side projects to keep their creative juices flowing in directions not quite fitting the Leppard mold: ManRaze is Collen’s edgy, punk-funk-dub project starring Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and former Girl bassist Simon Laffy, and Vivian Campbell is finishing up a dream gig touring with one of the greatest rock bands of all time—Thin Lizzy.
PG caught up with Collen and Campbell just before Leppard’s 2011 tour to talk about the new album, their creative process, and the gear they love.
Why did it take so long for you guys to release a live album?
Vivian Campbell: It’s well known that it takes forever for Def Leppard to make a record.
Phil Collen: [Laughs.] This is true. It’s been that cycle of album, tour, album, tour. Traditionally, when you’re with a major label they’re not really fond of you doing a live album because, historically, they don’t sell as well as a studio album.
Campbell: We were always focused on making studio albums and didn’t have the time to focus on anything else. Between tours, we’d take some time off, write some songs, and be back in the studio. We’ve always done that, and we’ve always wanted to keep moving forward that way. In fact, we didn’t actually record Mirror Ball specifically to release as a live album. We just started to archive it. In the old days, when you did a live album you had to get a mobile truck and it was big and expensive—and it was just one show. There was all the pressure and red-light fever—“Oh my God! I better get this right, it’s going on a record forever!” We didn’t have any of that because we were just doing our shows.
The technology nowadays is cheap, affordable, and portable enough that all you need is a laptop, some software, and a bunch of hard drives. Basically, we started recording every night, and we did that all over the 2008–2009 tour. It also takes the pressure off the band, because you forget you’re being recorded. The hardest part was actually going through the material and deciding what the best performances were. We left it to Joe [Elliott, vocals] to figure out which night he sang best on a certain song. He has the hardest gig, being the lead singer. The human voice wears down more than my fingers.
Vivian Campbell playing live with his Les Paul.
What were some of the interesting things you noticed while going through the tracks?
Campbell: Our tempos are so consistent that we could literally splice the front half of a song from one night, and the second half from another night, and put them together. You would never know the difference.
Collen: We’re very precise in that way.
So does that mean there aren’t any mistakes on the record?
Collen: [Laughs.] I’ve got a few mistakes on there. I heard a couple of bum notes and bad chords. I like the fact that I get to do that on a live album. We left mistakes on Hysteria and Pyromania. I remember going to [producer] Mutt Lange and saying, “Hey—that chord!” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah—it sounds great!” It’s kind of funny, because everyone thinks he’s such a perfectionist, but it’s actually the vibe he goes for. That’s more important than getting all nitpicky. If it’s got character, it deserves to be on the record. [Turns to Campbell] How close do you stick to Steve Clark’s guitar parts, Viv?
Campbell: Pretty close. Not 100 percent, note-for-note, but certainly 90-something percent. His parts weren’t guitar solos per se. They were very much a part of the song—very melodic, very thematic. I think it would be an injustice to the song if I were to go way off and do my own thing.
And yet you can still hear your Vivian Campbell-ness on the record—even though you’re playing someone else’s parts.
Campbell: [Laughs.] Thank you. I play heavier than Steve did. When I take the solo in “Armageddon It,” I don’t play it 100 percent, but I definitely play it in my style—which is much, much heavier.
Campbell with a sparkle-finished Les Paul equipped with a DiMarzio Super 3 in the bridge position.
Is this record intended to serve as a bookend to a certain era, so you can begin another chapter for the band?
Collen: Not necessarily. I know we’re going to tour next year, so I don’t think we’re going to take time off to do a record. It takes a year to do that. We may do a few songs. I like the idea of doing three songs, because it goes back to the days of the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, and Bowie. They would record one or two songs at a time. You can put more energy and effort into it.
So you feel like you can get better results and focus all your energy on three songs rather than, say, 12?
Collen: Absolutely. [With more], you end up watering some songs down and the main songs don’t get as much attention. That’s why those old songs sounded great—they got a lot of time. They just thought about that and didn’t have to spread themselves out and go crazy thinking about 12 songs.
How did you collaborate on the new songs, and how did you decide which ones would make it on Mirror Ball?
Collen: On these three songs, we didn’t collaborate at all [during the writing phase]. But everybody played and sang on each other’s songs. It was really easy and a great way of doing it. We had fully produced demos and they got the Def Leppard treatment.
Campbell: I wrote a song for the record, but the fourth song didn’t make it. Mine was the fourth song. It was decided that three was enough. Mine was the last to arrive and I was late to the party. “Kings of the World” was a Rick Savage song, which was something he had been working on for a long time. It just happened to have come to fruition when we needed it. That’s the thing about Def Leppard— we’ve never been precious about our individual songs. We have a tendency to be very critical of each other’s work, but not all the time. Sometimes somebody writes a song and we say, “Okay, that’s great. Let’s record it.” There’ve been other times when you bring a song to Def Leppard and you think it’s, like, a masterpiece—but then it totally gets torn apart and something like five percent of it remains! [Both laugh.] We have a healthy respect for each of our abilities, and we don’t take it personally. [Turns to Collen] You wrote the new studio track “It’s All About Believin’.” Did you have that song around for a while?
Collen: Only [since] last year. Me and my buddy C.J. Vanston, who I write with all the time, have written tons of songs together. We came up with this song, and it sounded so obviously like a Def Leppard song, so we played it to the guys and they loved it.
Campbell: When we were in New York last November doing the Celebrity Apprentice thing, Joe first played me his idea for the song “Undefeated,” which is the third song. That’s a great song, and we’re going to be playing it live this summer. It’s a very Def Leppard song, as well.
Collen’s Jackson PC1 features a mahogany body with a highly figured maple
top, a quartersawn hard rock maple neck, a DiMarzio Super 3 bridge humbucker,
and a Jackson Sustainer/Driver in the neck position.
Although Def Leppard is a hard-rock band, it sounds like there are modern country influences in your music. Did that come from Mutt Lange?
Collen: Yeah, Mutt invented that stuff when he got with Shania Twain. He made that crossover possible because, before that, everyone was struggling with pure country and western. A lot of the rock guys who lived in L.A. after the ’80s metal thing kind of went away all moved to Nashville. They cut their hair and started playing other stuff—playing sessions. Mutt actually fused the two together. I’m not a huge country fan, but I remember while we were doing Pyromania and Hysteria, I’d go to his car and he’d have a George Jones cassette lying on the floor.
What are your main guitars now?
Collen: Mutt Lange introduced me to Grover Jackson back in the day, and that’s what I’ve been using since then. I have some great, customized guitars, and Jackson got them right. Some of the guys who do my stuff now worked there back then, 20-something years ago. They know what I like—the size of the neck, everything. We just keep improving on them. My main guitar is a Jackson PC1. I have two models: One’s a natural—and it’s an old workhorse—and I just got another one called the PC Supreme, which is a neck-through. It’s got a big, fat neck. In fact, it’s the biggest neck I think Jackson has ever made. When I pick up other guitars, I don’t enjoy [them] as much. When I play my own, I get a thrill out of it. That’s been a constant thing with Jackson.
Campbell: Mine is a bastardized Les Paul Custom with a silver-sparkle finish. It started life as a ’78 Les Paul Custom that I bought at a pawnshop in Nashville in 1993. It had a great neck, which was the reason why I bought it. Then it got run over by something very heavy when I was traveling to Europe. What remained of the guitar was the headstock, the neck, and the front pickup. I had the guitar re-bodied with a 1958 Jimmy Page-style knock-off body, so it’s smaller and a little bit lighter than a regular Les Paul Custom. I refretted it with Dunlop 6000 fretwire, which I have on all my guitars. It has a DiMarzio Super 3 in the bridge, which is the same one that Phil uses in his Jacksons, and TonePros hardware. I’ve got a 300k pot on the Volume knob, so it cleans up a little more when it rolls off. Basically, the entire guitar has been reworked, but there’s something about that guitar that just sounds and plays great.
You guys have different amp rigs for Def Leppard, depending on where you are in the world, as well as separate rigs for your side projects, right?
Campbell: For Def Leppard, I have the typical switching system, with a refrigerator rack full of digital delays and stereo processing— which is necessary. My Def Leppard rig hasn’t changed for years, but this year I swapped out my Marshall cabs for Engl cabs, which sound a lot brighter to me. I’ve also put in Engl power amps, which have a lot more flexibility. I’m still using the Marshall JMP-1—I’ve had it in my rig for 15 years—but in addition to those, I’ve been given a couple of Engl preamps to try.
I also have a brilliant-sounding rig that I built for the Thin Lizzy tour. It’s basically a Mojave Scorpion 50-watt head and a Mojave 4x12 cab. It’s a very direct signal path. With that rig, I run my Les Paul on a cable, because I don’t like what a wireless does to your guitar sound—but in Def Leppard I have to use a wireless because of the size of that stage. With Thin Lizzy, it’s my Les Paul into a Dunlop Hendrix Wah pedal to a Way Huge Angry Troll boost pedal to the front end of the Mojave. The Mojave doesn’t have an effects loop, but it has an adjustable line out, so I take the line out and feed that into the front of a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo. watt amp that powers a Marshall 4x12 cab. So I have a dry cab and a wet cab with a tape delay, and it sounds so good.
Collen: On the new ManRaze album, I used exactly what I used on the three Def Leppard bonus songs. It’s all software based. I used Native Instruments Guitar Rig 4 from my laptop, and it sounds killer. Live with Def Leppard, I’ve been using the same thing for, like, 15 years—a JMP-1 rackmount with an old Randall solid-state power amp from the ’80s. It’s been really reliable. I’m not really much of an effects guy. In fact, my tech, Scott Appleton, does all the effects changes for me. It saves me from jumping around on the pedalboard. With ManRaze, a lot of the time I use a Fender Cyber-Twin for live shows. It sounds great when you put it through cabinets. It really gets the high gain and everything, and it has effects built into it. I just use an overdriven sound for solos and add a bit of delay. For the most part, it’s very straightforward.
Despite its somewhat straightforward “super strat” look, Collen’s Jackson PC1 signature
model has two pop-out 9-volt-battery hatches around back. One is for the active DiMarzio
humbucker, and the other powers the Jackson Sustainer/Driver in the neck position.
Vivian, what do you like about Mojave amps?
Campbell: They really breathe, and when you hang onto a note, you’re hearing all these rich overtones and undertones that you don’t hear in a lot of amps. Basically, the Scorpion is like a slightly hot-rodded version of an early JTM45, so it’s got that old-school thing.
Phil, what do you get from ManRaze that you don’t get from Def Leppard?
Collen: It’s the edge thing and the excitement. It’s very instant and immediate. Even lyrically, I can go places that I can’t go with Def Leppard. There’s such a precise sound in Def Leppard that we can’t really stray too far from what we’ve done, otherwise the fans kind of turn off. We can’t go off and do things in left field, because they wouldn’t appreciate it.
With ManRaze, your guitar has a rawer sound.
Collen: It’s less processed. Also, a lot of the stuff is first take with ManRaze. I really think that makes a huge difference. A lot of times when we record the Def Leppard stuff, we do lots of parts, we edit, and therefore it comes out in a different way. With ManRaze, a lot of the lead vocals and most of the guitar is done in one take. We did Punkfunkrootsrock in two weeks.
Vivian, what’s it like playing in Thin Lizzy?
Campbell: It’s a dream for me. I wanted to be in Thin Lizzy when I was 18. It’s like being a teenager again being able to do that. I’m so familiar with the catalog—it’s ingrained in my DNA. It’s such a pleasure to get out onstage and be Brian Robertson, Eric Bell, and Gary Moore all in one night. I haven’t been this excited in decades about my instrument, and I think I’m playing better than ever as a result.
Will there be a Def Leppard studio album in 2012?
[Both answer simultaneously.]
Campbell’s Les Paul is shown here bedecked with Jim Dunlop
stainless steel picks—a key part of the Leppard guitar sound.
Phil Collen’s Gearbox
Jackson PC1, Jackson PC Supreme
Marshall JMP-1 tube preamp, Randall RRM-2-250 solid-state power amp, four Marshall 4x12 cabs
TC Electronic D-Two digital delay, TC Electronic 1210 Spatial Expander+Stereo Chorus/Flanger, TC Electronic G-System, MXR M117R Flanger, Alesis MidiVerb II, Digital Music Corp. Ground Control, Digital Music Corp. GCX Expander
Strings and Picks
GHS Boomers (.013–.054 seets), Dunlop stainless steel picks (for electric), Jim Dunlop 1.14 mm Tortex (for acoustic)
Vivian Campbell’s Gearbox
Rebuilt guitar with 1978 Gibson Les Paul Custom neck, Gibson ’56 Custom Shop Reissue Les Paul
Marshall JMP-1 tube preamp, two Engl Tube Poweramp E850/100 power amps, Mojave Scorpion head and Mojave 4x12 cab (for Thin Lizzy)
Way Huge Angry Troll, Jim Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Signature Wah, three Jim Dunlop Cry Baby wahs, Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, Yamaha D1500 digital delay, TC Electronic TC 2290 Dynamic Digital Delay+Effects Control Processor, Eventide Omnipressor, Rocktron Chorus
Strings and Picks
Jim Dunlop strings (.013–.054 sets), Dunlop stainless steel picks (for electric), Jim Dunlop 1.14 mm Tortex (for acoustic)