Joe Elliott: A Def Leppard Changes His Spots (Q&A)

3:56 PM PST 03/25/2014 by Steve Baltin
Maryanne Bilham-Knight

The veteran frontman talks Kiss tour, hanging with Robert Plant and listening to Tom Waits in the bath.

After Joe Elliott’s 35 years fronting Def Leppard, fans might think they know the charismatic vocalist. But there is another side to one of the most successful frontmen in hard rock history, one that listens to Tom Waits in the bath, would love to do an acoustic record and can barely contain his fandom at meeting David Bowie.

That Elliott persona is emerging in public this April when his side project, the Down ‘N’ Outz, releases The Further Adventures of …, a collection of Mott the Hoople covers.

Of course, Elliott, the arena-rock star behind diamond albums Pyromania and Hysteria, will also be on full display this year, hitting arenas for a massive summer spectacle with 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Kiss.

THR sat down with Elliott at a Santa Monica café last week for a revealing look at both sides, discussing everything from his disdain for the Rock Hall to his admiration for Nick Drake. Here is a side of Joe Elliott you rarely see.

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How much fun it is for you to get to live in both worlds, that of Kiss on tour and the Mott covers project, clearly a labor of love?

I love that. The last time the Down ‘N’ Outz played, it was as the opening act for Paul Rodgers on an arena tour of Britain. But the juxtaposition is interesting. It’s what keeps me ticking because doing Def Leppard for 35 years, you start looking for alternative ways to get out of the hamster wheel of album, tour, album, tour. So, for us, it was phenomenal fun to work with Taylor Swift, and then to do Viva! Hysteria Vegas. We just came out of a writing session in February with 12 new songs. We’ve got this tour, then we’ll finish the album after that. We’ve never been this busy, really.

Paul Rodgers is one of the great vocalists of all time. How did that inspire you on a nightly basis?
I had the opportunity every night to sit on the side of the stage and listen to this great singer. There’s no competition; I can’t sing like Paul Rodgers. Never could. But it doesn’t matter. To me, Joe Elliott and Paul Rodgers sharing a stage on the same night is no different than, say, Dylan sharing a stage with Otis Redding. They are both valid. One of ‘em can’t sing and the other is probably the best singer in the world. But as long as Dylan does his thing, people buy into that. It’s not about being the best; it’s about being an individual. 

Tom Waits is one of my favorite singers, too, but his voice drives some people nuts.
He chose not to [sing] from Swordfishtrombones onward, especially on things like his ‘80s albums, but you listen to him sing a song like “Martha,” off Closing Time, and it’ll blow your candles out. He is one of the most important artists of this century and last. It’s a very important part of my life, especially when I’m tired. It’s midnight, I’m in the bath and I want to listen to music. I’m not going to listen to Zeppelin II; I’m gonna put on Tom Waits.

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What are your other late-night albums?
I’m a huge Nick Drake fan. Ever since I first heard him on those Island compilation albums they put out in ’71, ’72, Bryter Later, Five Leaves Left. I listen to those two records and they’re kind of funny. He has a weird voice and his song structures are bizarre, but I like that naivete.

Would you ever do an acoustic album?
I absolutely would. I’ve done plenty of acoustic stuff on the side, enough dribs and drabs I could almost put together an album. There’s a bonus track on the Down ‘N’ Outz album, for iTunes only, which is just me and a piano on a song called “Sea Diver.” We do a version of “The Original Mixed-Up Kid” on the new album, which includes our band’s three guitarists and a fiddle player, which is very acoustic. We’ve done unplugged stuff so many times it got boring. But when it comes to doing an acoustic record, almost like Zeppelin III, or Hunky Dory, I could definitely do that. I love all that shit.

The three guitarists and fiddle player made me think of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

I hung out with [Robert] about two months ago. When Patty Griffin came to do a TV show in Dublin, he phoned me up and asked me to come down and hang with him. We went to Doheny & Nesbit’s, which is this real famous pub in Ireland, and nicked pints at two in the morning. Then got up the next day, went out to a fish restaurant and had a lovely time, just talking about soccer.

Do you ever lose that sense of wonder that Robert Plant calls you to hang out?
Not at all, you never lose that. I’ve known Ian Hunter since 1980, but when Mott just reformed again for the second time this past November, I went to every gig, standing with all the fans. There’s no wonder in watching from the side of the stage; it comes from being down there and seeing the spectacle everybody else has paid to see.

The enthusiasm to do it never goes. And the fan is always there. I met Bowie twice and I really have to double-check myself not to sound like a journalist because all I wanted to do was ask him a thousand questions and I can’t, I just can’t, so I went in a totally different direction. I held his attention much more. We discussed his early work, like “Uncle Arthur,” “Sell Me a Coat,” “Silly Boy Blue”… stuff like that. He was astonished that I even knew those songs.

If you were a journalist, what two questions would you ask Bowie?
I would probably ask him how real did he feel he was when he was hiding behind any one of his particular guises, especially the Ziggy one, because I’ve seen many retrospective interviews where he said, “I actually became Ziggy.” I would want to know who Ziggy really was because he doesn’t unfold too much in the lyrics of who Ziggy was -- dead rock star, alien. But he’d be so bored of that question he’d probably punch me in the face. Maybe I wouldn’t ask that one. (Laughs) I would probably just ask him if he wanted to go for a coffee and see where that conversation went.

Are there any artists other than Tom Waits and Bowie who’ve reinvented themselves that you really admire?
Reinvention doesn’t work if you’re a band. It only works for solo artists. We failed, the Who failed, Zeppelin failed, the Stones failed at that. I don’t care what you say, most Stones fans are going, “Just fucking write another ‘Start Me Up.’” And they did with “Doom and Gloom,” which is one of the best songs they’ve ever done. But for reinvention, Bowie is the absolute king. He went from an English vaudeville singer to an alien rock star to a white soul singer to a Berlin-based Nu meets Kraftwerk guy. He’s been everywhere; he even did drum and bass for god’s sake.

But reinvention as a band is impossible because you’ve got to get four or five members all on the same page and the reason they got together in the first place is because the original sound they made is what appealed to them.

Will you be sticking to the hits on the Kiss tour?
We’re not in competition with Kiss, but we’re not stupid. They’re gonna play their top tunes; we’d be f**king stupid not to. We don’t want to come across as, “Well, you just handed it to them by playing B-sides that came out in Holland and Japan to an American audience.” I don’t care what the critics think. If you can’t handle the responsibility of a hit record, don’t write one.

Do you care about getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
I haven’t thought about it until literally today because they’re asking us our opinion on the Kiss thing. I imagine the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame as this board table with six Mr. Roboto’s sitting around, faceless tuxedo-wearing prats. This is the way I look at it as there are two hats. They pull out the one, “Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Kiss, Motley Crue, fuck that, no.” “Leonard Cohen, John Cougar Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, REM, the Pixies, we want all them in because they’re cool. We don’t want Ratt, we don’t want Poison.” I was really happy when I saw Johnny Rotten tell them to go f--- themselves. That’s what I would do … even if I did get talked out of it by the other guys in the band. But I don’t care. I don’t gain anything from it. If you get an Oscar, your next film you’re gonna be offered five times the money of your last film, and better scripts. When you get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the next day you wake up in the same bed. You don’t get tours thrown at you to open for Led Zeppelin or find out Paul McCartney wants to write a song with you. It’s rubbish. There’s no gain from it.

Have you found a producer yet for the next Def Leppard album?

Def Leppard is producing the album, because when it comes down to it, every producer that we ever think of and talk about falls at least number two behind Mutt Lange. We’re not gonna get Mutt, but we worked with him for 11 years in a studio, so we know how it works. Queen made their own records. For the state of the music industry and the place that we hold in it, if we’re even in it, 'cause I’ve always thought we were in our own little universe, there’s no need. If we have a hit, it won’t matter who produced it … It’ll be down to the song. And we were determined to write all these songs on our own and what we’ve got going so far sounds incredible.

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