AN INTERVIEW WITH STEVE CLARK AND PHIL COLLEN
If Def Leppard’s last four years were made into a movie, no-one would believe it, but their new LP Hysteria proves that it’s true.
SOURCE: International Musician and Recording World – Oct 1987 | By Paul Henderson.
It wouldn’t have taken a brain of Einsteinian proportions to anticipate the music press’s highly probable first question of Def Leppard now that Hysteria, their follow-up to the mega-platinum Pyromania album, is ‘in the can’; over and done with; finished. So their record company’s press release obliges with the (an) answer:
“We just kept doing it again and again and again,” says lead singer Joe Elliott. “We didn’t like this, and we didn’t like that. The album we were putting together wasn’t as good as the last, so we just didn’t release it. The decision cost us a lot of money, but we don’t care. It’s the final product that counts. I’d rather go down in the history books than the profit and loss columns.”
‘The question’ in question is, of course (if you have been following the Leppard saga for the past two or three years), why did it take so long!? Knocking on for three years… and a final ‘tab’ reputed to be a million pounds.
Def Leppard, you may recall, were in the vanguard of the early Eighties wave of new British Heavy Rock bands. For a bunch of young guns from Sheffield, playing what was then an unfashionable distillation of influences like UFO and Thin Lizzy, to have their first album go gold in the US was a bit like a school kid finding the bathroom taps running with two flavours of ice cream. Then their second album, High ‘n’ Dry, sold a million – chocolate cake for every meal! Their next album, Pyromania, was released in 1983, and by the following year had sold more than six million copies in the US alone, with only Micky Jackson’s somewhat popular Thriller keeping it out of the top slot. Don’t forget that this is a Heavy Rock band we’re talking about – tres uncool.
Rather than heralding the beginning of any Orwellian nightmare, for Def Leppard 1984 signalled the BIG time. But later that same year also saw the beginning of what could almost be described as a nightmare sequence of events that would have finished off many a band whose members don’t possess the mettle of this Northern quintet.
I joined Leppard guitarists Phil Collen and Steve Clark, in England for just the day in order to get a batch of interviews out of the way, for a drink and to share a couple of bowls of those highly-spiced nibbles that make you extremely thirsty and are always put out on the bar at places where the drinks are expensive.
After complaining that it had taken at least three phone calls to persuade an over-protective (ie paranoid) press office to let me hear even snippets of tracks from the new album, I enquired whether the band were already getting sick of the same questions coming up – like ‘Why did it take so long to record Hysteria?’
“Not really, ‘cause we’ve had four years of doing absolutely fuck all regarding interviews”, says a cheerful and raring-to-go Collen. “Fire away; anything you want!”
In that case, why be different: Why has it taken so long? What were the main contributing factors?
Steve Clark picks up his drink, tilts his head to one side, takes a deep breath and prepares to attempt a summary. Clearly it’s going to be a long tale:
“The success of Pyromania put us in a bit of a daze, really. The tour went on for about 14 months and somehow it didn’t quite register that we had to make another album. When it had finished Peter (Mensch, their manager) said, ‘right, you’re going to be back in the studio in six months'”.
“When we went into the studio, Mutt Lange, who had produced the previous two albums and who we wanted to work with again, wasn’t available. He’d been working with The Cars, Foreigner, AC/DC… and he just needed a rest. So without any notice whatsoever, we didn’t have a producer. Lots of people were interested but there was the problem of prior commitments, and, basically, the only person who was left was Jim Steinman. We worked with him for the best part of a year.”
Phil Collen: “The way he records was totally different to how we’d done it with Mutt. And the standard just wasn’t as high. It was really just that the way he worked didn’t suit us. In the end we just decided to scrap what we had, rather than put out something that we thought was sub-standard, and start again.”
“Then we went through a phase of trying to produce it ourselves,” continues Steve. “But we’re a very democratic group; we never really argue, we respect each other’s opinions. In some ways that can be a drawback, because you end up trying things each person’s way, and it can take a long time. Anyway, we did that for about six months and were getting nowhere really fast. Then Mutt felt ready to come back on to the project, so we just really started a fresh album. Apart from producer problems there was Rick’s (drummer Rick Allen) car accident, of course, and then everybody seemed to have accidents. We set last Christmas as the deadline for the recording of everything before we started mixing, and then Mutt had a head-on with a van and broke his leg or smashed his knee or something. Over Christmas all that just put us back another two or three months.”
Phil: “We ended up doing it in three studios. We did a lot of the guitars in Ireland. We kept going to and fro, but overall we spent about a year in Ireland, a year in Holland and three months in Paris.”
Steve: “But there’s a big fallacy about studios – that if you’re in a great studio with all the most up-to-date gadgetry then you’re going to get a great sound. And that’s total bullshit. If you know what you’re doing you could be in any studio. And it’s always the songs in the first place.”
Much has been said about Rick Allen’s tragic accident, but technological developments and the vast array of electronics open to today’s drummer have helped keep him in the band. The specifics of Rick’s kit are covered elsewhere, but I wondered whether they had become more interested in the technology side of things. (At the moment, Hard Rock bands as a breed are generally reluctant to embrace new developments in band hardware.)
Steve: “What happened in the accident was a terrible experience, obviously, especially for Rick. But if that hadn’t happened he’d still be using an acoustic kit and we’d be a standard Rock band – Marshalls and everything. But it opened our eyes up to technology that we would otherwise never have got into.”
Phil: “Rick’s is an instrument that we can turn down, and as we do a lot of backing vocals that’s a real bonus. You don’t get drums going down the vocal mikes, and as there’s no mikes on the drums, apart from the overheads for the cymbals, you don’t get guitars going down the drum mikes and whatnot.”
Steve: “When we realised what could be done with the kit it just led us to other things. The next thing was the Marshalls. We looked at them and decided they aren’t that great. And they’re not! We’ve binned the Marshalls and totally use Randall amps now. We’ve got the rack mounted ones, a couple each that we run in stereo. The great thing about them is that the EQ actually works! We went to America and just went through loads of amplifiers – a ‘working’ vacation – and ended up picking the Randalls.”
Phil: “We also used Gallien Krueger’s on some bits on the album, and Rockmans on quite a lot of the stuff – but with lots done to them in terms of EQ. Every sound is always a combination of different things; it’s never one amp for one sound, or whatever. As for keyboards, we actually used less on this album than before. There’s one track, Love Bites, that we’ve got keyboards on, but on the rest of the tracks we started to use more – and tougher – guitar. I got a guitar synth, and for the first week or so it was good fun, but being a guitarist I wanted to hear guitars, so in the end I binned it. Things move so fast. When we started the album, the Fairlight 1 was out, and when we finished it, the Fairlight 3 was out! We even had to update some of the earlier stuff, because it was already starting to sound dated.”
Steve: “We always thought that Pyromania, for it’s time, was a very well recorded Rock album. But dynamically there’s nothing there, compared to what we’re doing now. We were very conscious not to make ‘Pyromania II’.
We always try to do something slightly different with every album, and for this one we had a sort of standing joke between us – which we actually carried out – which was that at any particular time we never played the same chord. There’s always two different guitar parts going off at the same time, which don’t necessarily make any sense in the backing track unless you hear both of them together.”
I show them a copy of a Def Leppard Beatroute from some while back and ask if much has changed.
Phil: “Cor, bloody ‘ell! It’s totally different. You can scrap that! I’m now using Jackson guitars, new Sony transmitters, which have no noise at all, unlike the Nadys, Randall amplification and TC electronics for having lots of different pre-sets.”
Steve: “I endorse Gibson, who went through a really bad phase, but I think they’re coming back. They’ve just done me some that are really good – even updating the wiring and things for me – so I’m happy with Gibson now. Backline is pretty identical to Phil’s.”
Producer ‘problems’ and accidents were obviously major factors in the ‘why three years?’ saga. But ask the two guitarists about their method of putting down tracks – the bit by bit construction or the all in the studio together, ‘live’ approach – and it’s surprising they’re still not on the backing tracks.
Phil: “None of us play together. We get a drum click track down to play to and do the guitars next. It may not sound like it but we do so many guitars. Some of the stuff on there has chords where we recorded each string individually to get the fullness. We spend a lot of time on guitars.”
Steve: “There are certain notes that you might want to hit in a chord that might be musically what you want, but you get modulation – like if you hit a C# and a G. We might put a track of that down anyway, but then, as Phil said, we’ll play every individual note of that chord perfectly in time, to get the clarity. And we might do that eight times each. Yes, it takes a lot of time! And it’s very hard to get it not to sound like it’s been done that way.
So we do it that way, over the click track, then do backing vocals… and the bass last. And by then, if we could get enough dynamics playing just to a click track, with no cymbals or anything, then we knew that when we put the drums and cymbals on it was really going to elevate it.
But who knows how we’ll do the next one. We may do the fifth album ‘live’, with everyone playing together and everything going straight down onto tape.”
Phil: “We’ll probably do something of a combination. Whatever suits; if it’s a Rock track we’ll record it as a Rock band; if it’s something more involved we’ll probably do it this way. It’s not the way that we always record, it’s just the way that we chose to do this album.”
The way things stand at the moment, Def Leppard are preparing to go off on a tour that will keep them away for more than eighteen months once they get started. After the amount of time they’ve been stuck in studios it’s going to be like coming out of prison. Perhaps surprisingly the Hysteria experience hasn’t put them off poking their heads into a recording studio ever again.
Phil: “We’ve started writing for the next one already. It’s one of the things we’ve learned. You have got to start now. If we had some time, we’d start recording it now.”
Steve: “An idea we’re toying with now is that if we get four or five days off anywhere while we’re on tour, and we have a song ready, we’ll go into a studio and put it down. We might even have five or six tracks finished by the end of the tour!”
I was thinking of asking whether, in that case, they’ll only need 18 months in the studio to do the rest of the next album, but I thought better of it.