Def Leppard’s Joe Elliot on His Father’s Passing, ‘Idiot’ Fans and Being ‘Undefeated’
As the frontman and driving force behind Def Leppard, Joe Elliott has spent most of his adult life leading stadiums full of fired-up fans in rousing, fist-pumping renditions of hits such as ‘Photograph,’ ‘Let’s Get Rocked,’ ‘Armageddon It’ and ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me.’ Having just celebrated his 52nd birthday while mourning the passing of his father, the well-spoken and extremely likable singer shows no signs of slowing down, as evidenced by his hit ‘Undefeated,’ one of three new songs on ‘Mirror Ball,’ which is otherwise essentially a live album.
In this exclusive interview with Spinner and Noisecreep, Elliott talks candidly about his songwriting process, their current tour with Heart and how he couldn’t give a damn if Def Leppard never gets a good review as long as the fans keep coming to the gigs. Just not the “idiot” fans.
How has performing changed for you over the years?
I don’t really feel any different when I get up on stage. Sometimes I might be archiving some old DVDs and I’ll watch a gig from three or four tours ago and go, “My God, we’ve changed.” And I don’t just mean getting older. I mean the way that we approach the songs, the way that we present them. But it’s always enjoyable. We’re blessed to be able to do this for as long as we have, because it’s what we’ve wanted to do since we were 12 years old. It’s difficult not to enjoy it.
So you still feel that same excitement and enthusiasm?
Sometimes you’ll be down a little bit. I’ll be quite honest, since we came back after my father passed away it’s been really hard not to be taking that baggage on stage, but you have to try and close that down and hope that nobody notices. You’re hoping you can just bury it for 90 minutes until you come off. And then people just think it’s a good show. And if anybody does know, you want them to walk away thinking it didn’t affect the show. Whether you succeed or not, it’s something I personally try damn hard to do.
On this tour you open with your new song ‘Undefeated’ and it gets everyone on their feet.
When you’re in a band that’s been around like we have, to be able to open up with a new song and not bore everybody to death is a challenge. A lot of people will say things like, “new songs from anybody from the Rolling Stones down to Bon Jovi or even U2 — it’s a beer break.” To play one new song out of the 90 minutes that we’ve got doesn’t sound like a lot, but we’ve got so many hits that we can’t even play them all.
‘Undefeated’ sounds like a Def Leppard song but there’s nothing nostalgic about it.
I wanted to write a song that’s known to the world as a classic, stadium-rock anthem. I wanted to create a song that I thought we could kill with as an opening number. It’s been huge on the radio. It’s the most-played song on classic rock stations in the last five weeks. So people actually know it, which is great. Do they know it as well as ‘Sugar?’ Of course not. But you have to give them a chance and I can’t be in a band that doesn’t at least keep trying new music. Because I don’t want to just be a nostalgia act. We get accused of being that all the time but at least we’re trying not to be.
Watch Def Leppard Perform ‘Undefeated’ Live
What’s your process for songwriting?
I was taking my time because we were in no rush to do this. Nobody was tapping the face of their watch saying, “C’mon, we need 12 new songs in the next nine months!” If I couldn’t think of a middle eight for the song, I just went away on holiday or went back to the kitchen for some coffee. I’d wait for it to naturally percolate and come together. Writing a song is actually quite easy. Writing a good one is very, very difficult. Any idiot who knows five chords can bang a song together. But it’s probably going to be rubbish.
What was the inspiration behind ‘Undefeated?’
I just basically stood myself in the role of a boxer. It was about one man against whatever, a machine, another man, with an entire world watching, that has to get back up on his feet and get back up again. It’s very Chumbawamba in that respect. It represents us because of what happened with [drummer] Rick [Allen, who lost his arm] and what happened with [late guitarist] Steve [Clark]. It represents anybody that’s been knocked down that’s gotta get back up.
During the show you ask the audience if they’d like to be in Def Leppard for 10 minutes. How important are the fans to you guys?
More important than anything. We gave up on critical reviews years ago when we realized we weren’t Roxy Music and we were never going to get any. We’re the kind of band that the critics don’t like. You’re never going to find someone wearing a Def Leppard shirt walking confidently into the office space of Rolling Stone. We’re not that kind of band that are gonna be critically acclaimed by anybody. And we don’t care. We write songs essentially for ourselves and hope that our audience likes them, too. But the audience is the most important thing because without
one you’ve got no band. You can live with bad reviews. I grew up in an era when Queen never got a good one, ever. And they were the biggest band on the planet for a while.
You have so many hits, how do you decide which songs to play when you tour?
If we’re in America, we choose songs because they were hits in the States. There are songs that we have to play in England that we don’t play in the States. And the same thing goes for Japan or Australia. We’re out on tour with Heart so we have a limited amount of time to play and you’ve got to cram it all in.
I had an e-mail in my Planet Rock account, because I DJ for this radio station in England once a week, and the guy accused me of being a fraud because these first four gigs back after the break we played exactly the same set. And I wasn’t going to say to the guy, “Well you know, my father just passed away, let’s just keep it simple for the first week and then we can get into experiments.” He’s writing this as if every single person comes to every gig. The only people that know are the ones that go online and look at the set list.
So he’s a f—ing idiot. And I don’t mind saying that out loud and please print this. When somebody like him turns around and says that ‘Love Bites’ is just a “beer break,” I’m like, “Wow, you’re a moron, so don’t bother coming back to any of our shows. We don’t want people like you in our audience.”
We have to play for the majority. If we don’t play ‘Photograph’ and ‘Sugar,’ we won’t get out the building alive. And that pays our wages. Not these idiots who sit in their mother’s basement eating Doritos and playing Dungeons and Dragons all day. I’m not interested in those kind of people.
How did you choose the live versions of your songs for the new album, ‘Mirror Ball?’
Most of those songs are chosen because of the audience reaction. Especially ‘Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.’ When we sat down and listened to it, we heard the audience singing a two-part harmony. We were actually looking at each other going, “Can you believe what you heard?” It became so important that it doesn’t really matter if we’re playing all that well or if I’m singing it that well. What’s important is that the audience just took the song on.
So getting the crowd to be part of the band, or our little choir, I think it’s a really neat thing to do. It makes them feel like they’re involved and they are, because you go to any Def Leppard show and most of time they’re singing every word from the start of the set to the end.
We’re all singing along before you invite us to.
Yeah! And it may confound the media, the typical media that disdain us and can’t believe why someone like Tom Waits can’t sell a record. I don’t understand where they’re coming from. I’d have a lot more respect if they stood up and said, “It’s OK to like a band like Bon Jovi or Def Leppard and still enjoy U2 and understand the drama of a Springsteen record.”
You don’t have to like it as a guilty pleasure. It’s just a pleasure.
There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure.