By: Robert Cavuoto
Def Leppard’s lead singer Joe Elliott has just released the third installment from Down ‘n’ Outz with a brand new CD, The Further Adventures Of…
Down ‘n’ Outz was formed when Joe was asked to open for The Hoople in 2009, when they re-formed for five shows at the Hammersmith Apollo. The Quireboys’; Paul Guerin, Guy Griffin, Keith Weir and Phil Martin volunteered to help him with the project. The goal was to bring the band back into the spotlight by updating Mott The Hoople songs.
All the songs are tight, fast-driven and neatly tied together.
From the first single, “Rock And Roll Queen” to the last track, “Sea Diver”, Joe’s familiar voice coupled with perfectly distorted guitar and keyboard lines provide a sound that’s reminiscent of a 21st century Mott the Hoople. The highlights of the CD are two standout tracks; “The Journey” and the mini-rock opera “Marionette.”
The album was also produced by Joe, along with Ronan McHugh at Joe’s studio – Joe’s Garage. The album offers a cool spectrum of musical components that are fun and inspiring, making this a very special release. Overall these classic hard rock songs will appeal to any music fan.
The Down ‘n’ Outz CD will fall on the heels of a 40 city summer tour of Def Leppard and Kiss kicking off in West Valley City, Utah on June 23. The tour celebrates Def Leppard’s arsenal of hits over their 35 year career.
It was a great pleasure getting a chance to catch up with one of my favorite artists and one whose songs were a main ingredient to the sound track of my youth. His work inspired me enough to grab a guitar and form my own band.
Check out the interview where we talk about out how Joe’s experiences with Def Leppard have allowed him to pursue this fitting tribute to Mott The Hoople, as well as to get an update on the status of Def Leppard’s highly anticipated forth coming CD.
Robert Cavuoto: You truly captured the vibe and essence of how these songs these were meant sound like. Kudos on your production skills!
Joe Elliott: Thanks, we did update things a little bit. We kind of put the songs through a “colorizer”, to use the technology that’s available to us now while keeping the flavor of where the songs originally came from. The songs are great for the time they were done in.
But we don’t have crappy four-track studios anymore. [Laughter] If you can’t make them sonically a little more enhanced, then there’s something wrong. It’s like watching Mad Men. It’s filmed now, but the colors and texture of the video looks like the ‘50s.
We weren’t trying to have Mott The Hoople sound like they went Hollywood, produced by Brian Eno. I wanted it to be realistic. You can tell it’s been recorded in this century.
Robert: The keyboard sound was extremely true to the original as well as the integrity of playing.
Joe Elliott: Well, that’s a blessing, because Keith Weir, the keyboard player for the Down ‘n’ Outz also plays with the Quireboys. He’s a fantastic rock and roll keyboard player.
These kind of songs demand that kind of playing. To me, that’s an element of piano playing. It’s not like a guitar, where you’ve got to put it through an amplifier, and then you’ve got a choice of how much distortion you want on it.
A piano is a piano; it doesn’t change. So what has to change is the intention of what you’re doing on it. And the fact that Keith is of that nature, he can really pull that stuff off, is phenomenal. It really does, as you say, work great with the songs.
Robert: Do you feel this is more a tribute to Mott the Hoople or is it done out of pure enjoyment for playing songs by one of your favorite bands?
Joe Elliott: I am just such a huge fan of those guys. I have to admit there was a certain amount of tribute to it, but that wasn’t my main goal. I just wanted to do something different, and it organically came around.
It wasn’t like, “Now I’ve reached a certain level and able to do anything I want in my time off, so I’m going to do a tribute to Mott The Hoople.”
I could have done that 20 years ago, and I’d have had a bigger audience to do it for. This only came about by accident. It was more like an opportunity to have a bit of fun with some songs that I think, deserve a light shining on them.
It just happened to be after they reformed the band, in 2009 for five London shows. They asked me to open for them. I’m sort of the “cultural ambassador” for 30-odd years for Mott, as I referenced them in interviews as an influence.
Word gets back to the original members of the band that I was doing this. Def Leppard was far more successful than Mott The Hoople ever was. Over the years I’ve met them all and become friends. They’ve been onstage with Leppard and I’ve been onstage with them. When they said, as a thank you, come and be involved in one of these shows, I didn’t really think they’d want me to play. I thought they just wanted me to introduce them.
And then they said, “No, put a band together and open for us.”
I’m like, “Okay.” So, the Quireboys were volunteered to me and all we were supposed to do was play a 45-minute set.
My idea was; what would I want me to do if I’m in the front row, watching me? What did they all do after this band?
Well, they carried on as Mott with Nigel Benjamin and they morphed into the British Lions with two albums. I thought, “I’ll cherry-pick ten great songs from that period.” Hardcore Mott fans may be aware of some of these songs and I thought it might be a fun thing to do them. When we did the gig, it went really well.
Afterwards we went to the bar and we had kids, literally, shoving us against the wall, saying, “Please record those songs, ‘Overnight Angels.” [Laughter] It was only then did it dawn on me, “Yeah, why not?”
So, it snowballed. It wasn’t like it was a game plan to make these records. Even the name of the band, we picked out of the newspaper about four days before we did the show. [Laughter].
Maybe seven or eight months after that gig, we had the album out, and, lo and behold, it started to gain a bit of traction, which I found unbelievable. We had no option but to carry on.
We were special guests at Emerson, Lake and Palmer, at the inaugural rock festival in England in front of nearly 35,000 people. Two of the songs went top five in America. “Overnight Angels” went to number one on the media-based rock chart back in 2010. All of the sudden it became pretty obvious that we couldn’t just let this thing go. It seems to be attracting some attention to a point the original versions didn’t.
Robert: I can feel your passion and love for these songs. You seem like you could have fit very nicely in that era. Do you think you were born a little too late?
Joe Elliott: I don’t think I would want to be born anywhere else in time, because I don’t’ think I would have had the success that I’ve had if I had. I could be wrong, but my gut feeling would be that I am what I am and my timing was right on. I’m not going to take anything away from the success of the work we’ve put into Def Leppard’s being what it is and what we’ve achieved over the 35 years.
With that said, I am definitely a child of the ‘70s when it comes to music. I was born in ’59, so I believe that most of us who are musically inclined, our brains start soaking it all up somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12. I think that’s really when you start having opinions that older people wouldn’t necessarily scoff at, whereas they would if you were eight or nine.
At the age of 12, I was quite musically formed in my opinions. I was playing guitar and writing songs, so I was actually off in my own universe. The times when I’m having a conversation like this, I go, “Yeah, if I was born just four years earlier, I would have been in a better position to have seen The Beatles live for a few gigs that I’ve only read about.”
I’ve gone, “God, I wish I was there.” [Laughter]. I’m glad I was born when I was and the way that it all worked out. I wouldn’t have been doing this Down ‘n’ Outz thing now if I had been born in that time. I would have probably ended up in a band like Mott the Hoople, but without that kind of success.
The infrastructure was different back then. Think about the bands that had success in the ‘70s, it was a far smaller than what happened in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Robert: What was fun and charming about the songs of that time period was the use of the word rock star; living like a rock star; wanting to be a rock star; and I’m a rockstar. You don’t really hear people singing about that now; it almost seems a like a taboo subject.
Joe Elliott: I agree with you. There are two schools of thought now and it’s split right down the middle, and has been since the early ‘90s.
You’ve got the shoe-starers, which is like the grunge era band.
In Great Britain, it would be Oasis and Blur who put absolutely no show on, whatsoever. The other side of things, is the David Lee Roth’s, Bon Jovi’s, and Def Leppard’s who put on a show, because we grew up watching these people on Top of the Pops. They were really going out of their way to put the visual side to the song.
The Old Grey Whistle Test in England was the program if you wanted to watch Jackson Browne, but if you wanted to see something that would kick you up the ass, you’d be watching, Top of the Pops.
Most of the stuff on Top of the Pops was shite, but there’d be a couple of hidden gems amongst all the “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” songs. You’d get a Suzi Quatro, or a Sweet, or a Slade or a Bowie, doing “Starman.” It made artists like myself, Morrissey, and Boy George diverse and want to be in a band. The excitement of singing about being a rock and roll star – nobody had really done that before.
People were rock and roll stars in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, but in the ’70s, people started singing about them. You weren’t going to get Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis singing about Roy Rogers. There was no infrastructure as a songwriter to use those historical reference points for lyrics. That came about in the ‘70s, with people like Bernie Taupin and Bowie writing about their heroes.
There had to be a second generation of rock stars for that to kick in. That’s why it was so exciting in the ‘70s for people to write like that. By the time we got to the ‘80s, it became the norm, as it’s all been done before.
Come the ‘90s, a new generation of people came in, and they don’t want to write like that. I can understand why Kurt Cobain wouldn’t want to write a song about touting a rock star. He’s heard it all before, and he wants to do something different.
Times change, music is always going to cause a social reaction to a certain degree. Sooner or later, there will be a backlash on that, and there will be new bands coming through, singing about being rock and roll stars and there probably already is, like; Airbourne.
Older, long-in-the-tooth, miserable journalists will just go, “Yeah, but I’ve heard it all before,” In a kind of similar way I was cynical when I saw Marilyn Manson. Do you think he’s scary? You should have been there when Alice Cooper came out. So I get it, but what you need is for the old journalists or the old media to die off, so that whoever is reviewing these young bands, whether it be now or in ten-years’ time are being reviewed by people that were the same age.
There are people, working for certain magazines who were reviewing The Doors and still doing reviews now!
Robert: You co-produced this CD. What did you learn from “Mutt” Lange that you incorporated into these recordings?
Joe Elliott: There’s not any one specific thing, but working with someone like “Mutt” on and off for 11 years, it’s impossible not to pick up some of the techniques. “Mutt” was a stickler for perfectionism. I wouldn’t take that portion of his personality or his production techniques any further, because I’m not that bothered about it being perfect on this particular kind of project.
I think the biggest thing I learned is always working with a brilliant engineer does help. “Mutt” was a great engineer, but he would always work with one anyway. I’m definitely a back-seat driver. So when it comes to production techniques, it’s a case of knowing your studio, knowing what works and what strengths you can add to it to make it sound different from anybody else’s version of a guitar sound or a drum sound, if that’s what your intention is to achieve – also not being scared to put your opinions forward.
Most of this production stuff is about opinion. Most of it is about making great decisions, not knob twiddling, The knob twiddling you can leave to an expert, but tell the knob twiddler that you want it to sound like a jumbo jet taking off in the middle of a shopping mall, and he might be able to interpret what you’re saying.
That’s the difficult part. For me it’s just been using the cinemascope as well. I’m very big into dynamics, so using the stereo to its full effect, counting things from left to right; you listen to “Drivin’ Sister” off the Down ‘n’ Outz album.
There’s a section in the middle where there’s a car, revving up. When you have a car taking off and skidding, it makes complete sense to have it go from left to right or right to left, so you get the impression of it driving away.
Believe me, straight up the middle just fades away; you don’t have any directional clue to where he’s going. So that, to me, is just common sense more than anything else. That’s what mostly the production thing is, just getting everything set, sonically, beside everything else. If you put everything in the same space, they will block each other out.
It’s like standing in front of someone who’s trying to sunbathe. They’re not going to tan if you’re blocking the sun. Lie down beside them and you’ll both get one.
Make sure your drums and your bass fit nicely as your foundation in the back. Then if you’ve got two or three guitarists, as we do, you have left, right and center. Make sure they don’t have the same frequency outlets as the vocals, so that they clash with each other.
That’s just stuff that you pick up. You’d never be able to write it all down as to how or why it worked. I certainly wouldn’t; I’m more of a field guy when it comes to that kind of stuff. I can certainly walk into a studio and whoever was crazy enough to ask my opinion on why something wasn’t working, I couldn’t tell them technically why it wasn’t working, but I could say, “Well, I can’t hear the vocals,” or “The vocal is too cloudy sounding.”
That’s when your engineer takes that information and translates it into technology by twiddling knobs and shifting it to a different space.
That’s the kind of thing I picked up from “Mutt”. With “Mutt,” his biggest technique was vibe. He didn’t care if something was a bit out of tune or a bit out of time, if it had the absolute right intention.
And that’s the most important thing. It’s not how technically proficient your production technique or your mix is, it’s whether you’ve got a vibe. Make sure you’ve got a good combination of something that sounds as pristine as say, Dark Side of the Moon. It’s got the vibe.
Robert: There must be a sense of freedom, when working on a project like this compared to a Def Leppard CD as there has to be more expectations for keeping with the integrity of the band legacy. Is that the case?
Joe Elliott: Yeah, they’re two totally different projects. It wouldn’t be belittling Def Leppard to say that it’s more fun to do Down ‘n’ Outz.
It’s certainly more – I don’t want to use the word easy. For one reason and one reason only. When it comes to the Down ‘n’ Outz stuff, the rest of the guys in Down ‘n’ Outz are more than happy to just let me do it, like be solely in charge of song choice, arrangements and production, etcetera.
They’re like, “Dude, just get on with it. We just love the fact that it’s sounding great.” But, with Def Leppard, it’s a five-way thing, so you only state your opinion. Sometimes you might come in with an opinion and everybody will agree with you. But, there’s other times where you might say it and the other four will say,”No.”
Or three will say “Yes” and two will say, “No.” Then you have to sit down and discuss it and go through the politics. That’s always the problem with any kind of a band. It’s a band.
The upside is normally there are situations where you get a better product at the end of the day because most of us won’t admit to the fact that we don’t always get it right. Three months down the road, you’d turn around and go, “You were absolutely right about that. It wasn’t the right tempo or that lyric did need a rewrite.”
Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you finish and you go, “I was right. I should have stuck to my guns.” So these are the kinds of differences – I’m not saying Down ‘n’ Outz is a solo project, but it’s such a different vehicle, that it’s very hard to draw any kind of comparisons.
If they were both the same, there would be no point. I wouldn’t need to be in two bands. I’d stick to one and save myself the hassle.
The best way to describe it really is it’s like making your first and second album with 30 or 35 years’ experience and 12 records, which is an oxymoron in itself; it’s physically impossible. [Laughter]
It’s a different headspace altogether. With the Down N Outz at this moment in time, it’s still a honeymoon period, as well. We know each other pretty well, but we haven’t had any arguments about anything. Whereas with Def Leppard I’ve been in the band 35 years and we’ve had plenty of arguments. [Laughter] It’s a totally different animal.
You get used to the dynamic changes in the band, probably on a yearly basis. The day we got together to rehearse was what we thought was the only gig we were ever going to play.
Robert: Can you give us an update on the status of the new Def Leppard album?
Joe Elliott: Well, the new Def Leppard album is, at this moment in time, just a writing session that lasted the entire month of February. We were hoping, at best, for three or four songs, maybe five. We ended up walking out of there with 12.
They’re all in various stages of undress, if you like. There are three songs that I think we could actually release tomorrow. The other nine are anywhere from having “la-la melodies” to “we need to record it properly’.
But, we’ve filled them up with songs that will be in the album. We’ll probably pick 12 from 16 or something like that. But we’ve got 12, and I’m going to be working on one of them this evening.
We’re all coming back to my place the last two weeks of May to do a bit more. It will probably be more writing than recording, because we don’t believe we’ve finished writing yet, even though we’ve got all those songs on the go.
And then there’s the tour with Kiss this summer, which will take us through to September.
In October, I’ll be producing Black Star Riders’ second album until the end of November and then go back and finish recording and mixing the Leppard record. The vocals get done last, so I’ll be singing up to and beyond Christmas. I’m hoping, fingers crossed, but I am making this up as I go along, so bear that in mind that we can actually deliver the CD by February 2015.
Robert: What’s the vibe of the 12 songs so far?
Joe Elliott: It’s exactly what Def Leppard has come to be known for. Say from Hysteria onwards, there’s a lot more variety to what we did. Pyromania was a solid record, but other than a couple of slow ones, all the songs was pretty much a similar feel. High and Dry was very much that way too. Maybe the first album was a bit more, say adventurous – but a bit more unfocused, if you like.
With Hysteria, we realized that we could go in any direction we wanted to. We had big, glorious ballads like “Love Bites;” strip around songs like “Sugar;” massive, epic pieces like “Gods of War;” pop songs like “Animal” and “Love and Affection.”
Straightforward rockers like “Run Riot.” We were covering all bases, and that’s because everybody in the band was starting to contribute more and more to the writing and everybody in the band is different.
In the mid-’90s we had Slang, where we had the title track which was a full-on romp through us doing Bowie meets Prince. Some of the stuff sounded like Zeppelin while others sounded like an R&B band. We were just letting our musical individuality ooze out.
On these new recordings, they’re all very much guitar-based, rock and roll songs – almost punk. Some of the stuff is Beatlesque with mellotron. We’re all over the place. It’s not unfocused; it’s not a collection of songs that all sound the same. It’s very, very wide cinemascope when it comes to the kind of tunes that we’ve written. There really is a bit of everything.
Robert: Will you be playing any of the new Def Leppard songs on the summer tour with Kiss?
Joe Elliott: We’ll get ruined by being on You Tube by midnight. We’ll have everyone banging on our door for a year asking why can’t we get the CD done. I don’t think you’ll find many bands these days doing that kind of thing, maybe smaller ones.
Plus, when you’re co-headlining with Kiss, you’re both eating into each other’s time, so we both have to cut back our sets. Consider that there are 17 hits in 40 years on our greatest hits record. It’s really a no brainer; we’re not going to be going to be doing the Ded Flatbird thing like in Vegas.
People are going to spend good money at these shows and are going to want to hear stuff that they know. That’s what our environment is all about these days. The experimental ‘60s and ‘70s were 40 and 50 years ago.
For people these days, it’s a different headspace. You can talk to the kids, you can talk to the promoters, and you can do all the research you want, but your gut feeling also tells you if you’ve got a bunch of fans in front of you, they don’t want to hear something they’ve never heard.
A new song that’s not available to buy, everybody will tell you that’s just suicide. We wouldn’t do it anyway. That’s just my gut reaction.
Robert: On the cover of the CD, which superhero are you?
Joe Elliott: I’m the blond guy holding the shield. Greg’s got a beard, Captain Keyboard is Weir. He’s the one on the surfboard. The redhead is Paul Guerin, the lead guitarist. Then pretty boy is Mr. Martini, the drummer.
Wait until you see the artwork. It’s really cool. It’s all done like a comic book. It’s like a poster on the artwork. The lines that the characters speak are all lyrics to the songs.
Robert: Has Ian Hunter heard the new Down ‘n’ Outz CD and what did he think?
Joe Elliott: Yeah, the phone rings at midnight and I’m like, “Who the hell’s calling me at this hour?” And it was Ian. He had the CD on and the champagne open. [Laughter] He was raving about a solo song of his, “The Journey.”
It sounded like a little party going on in the background with wife screaming she loved “One of the Boys”. “It’s not my favorite, but she loves that one. I love “The Journey” and “Marionette.”
I’ve been talking to Pete Watts on email. We did two songs that he wrote, “Stiff Upper Lip” and “Broadside Outcasts.” And also Morgan Fisher, who was the keyboard player on the Hoople and all the post-Hoople stuff like British Lions, etcetera. I sent him a copy of the album when it was finished, because he was begging to hear it.
He said exactly what we talked about early. It’s like we took a great black and white film and put a bit of Technicolor in it. I think that’s a great quote. It was his birthday about two weeks ago.
Our press people in the U.K. are the same press people he uses, and they gave him a copy of the record and “Rock and Roll Queen,” which is the first song he wrote. He just couldn’t believe after 45 years since he wrote it – it’s gone on to gold. It’s top ten on AirPlay in the States. He didn’t know that at the time, but he was just blown away that even recorded one of his tunes.
Robert: I loved your version of“Marionette”; can you share some insight about it?
Joe Elliott: There’s a very strong rumor, even from the Queen camp, that it’s the song that inspired Freddie Mercury to write “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It doesn’t sound anything like Bo Rhap, but it is a mini-opera.
In 1974, Queen opened for Mott The Hoople when they were playing “Marionette”. Every night, Freddie would stand at the side of the stage watching it. These little stories are hovering around in my brain. They just kind of keep coming up now and again; I find them fascinating.
The song is actually about the music industry. These guys were ahead of their time. “Just shut up and sing and we’ll do all the work. We’ll keep all the money and you’ll not get paid.” It’s like they put you back in your box when the show’s over. No, not on my watch.
I appreciate your support of the record. I know it’s one of those projects where people will either get it or they won’t. It’s rewarding when somebody actually gets it!