Interview: Def Leppard reissue ‘Slang,’ head back into the studio

An interview with Def Leppard’s Vivian Campbell.

So, why the decision to reissue “Slang” over many of your other classic albums?
Well, it’s very simple really, we don’t own the other albums. Ownership reverted back to us sometime in the last couple years for the masters to “Slang.” But the band’s original recording contract means that the earlier classic albums all the way up through “Adrenalize,” the one before “Slang,” are owned in perpetuity by the label unfortunately. So we never get those back.

I know you weren’t in the band for many of those records, but being as intimately as you’ve been involved since then, is that something you think you would have done differently while negotiating terms with the label?
Oh yes of course, but I guess when your’e 18, or 19, or 20 and you’re signing a record deal and you’re getting a lot of money in advance to make a record you don’t think about 30 years down the road, you know? So that’s actually part of the reason we’ve been re-recording some of the bigger songs. We did “Sugar,” we did “Rock of Ages,” we’ve redone the song “Hysteria,” and we’re in the middle of doing “Love Bites” at the moment.

So we’re slowly re-recording, doing exact replicas of our masters *laughs*, because we’ve had this ongoing battle with the label about the digital distribution, because for years and years Universal were selling digital songs and not accounting for the band. So we had to do an audit with them, and they eventually did pay us our money but we couldn’t come up with what we felt was a fair split for future digital downloads. So that’s why we’re kinda in this slow standoff with the label.

Do you think they were doing this out of malice? Doing it behind your backs on purpose?
Well, the fact was they were exploiting a loophole that existed. When the band first signed a record contract this technology didn’t exist, nobody knew that was coming down the pipeline. So they were exploiting that void and basically sitting on a lot of the band’s money for years and years. We did a settlement with them for pennies on the dollar. It’s as old as the music business, isn’t it? It’s not exactly a pure business, but very few are.

I read something somewhere about how there was an instrumental track recorded during the original sessions for “Slang” that was tentatively titled “Heavy Metal Christmas.” How serious were you guys about that? What became of the track?
*Laughs* Yeah, I don’t think we were ever really serious about that. It just happened to be approaching Christmas time when we had it done so we had a bit of a festive spirit down our necks. There’s no danger we’re making a heavy metal Christmas album.

Was that song ever used for anything, or is it one of the bonus tracks?
I believe it is but you know what Andrew, I gotta be honest—you’re talking to the wrong guy. *laughs* I don’t even remember, I’m looking forward to the re-release so I can hear this stuff for the first time in many years. Aside from the obvious fact that we’re re-releasing “Slang” because we can, because we now own it, it’s also the fact that we’ve always felt it never really got a fair shot when it came out. It was kind of the wrong place at the wrong time. It was the mid-90’s and ere was Def Leppard, a big-haired band from the 80’s, and it just wasn’t what people wanted to hear.

I remember the first single in the states was a song called “Work It Out,” which I had written, so this was my first writing contribution to the band. Here I was, stoked that the label had decided to go with that for the first single, and I remember someone from our management at the time calling me up to tell me the bad news. These modern rock stations, in particular this one somewhere down in Florida, had tested the song and gotten great reaction to it but they realized they couldn’t play it because the DJ’s couldn’t announce afterwards that “that was new from Def Leppard” because they figured they would lose so many listeners. They were playing Pearl Jam, and Nirvana, Soundgarden, and they couldn’t slot in Def Leppard alongside them even though they liked the sound of the track.

It was a very frustrating time for us. We got certain critical acclaim, like Q Magazine in England gave it a really, really good review, which I think is the only time that they’ve ever given Def Leppard a positive review. But it was very hard to get anyone to pay any attention to new Def Leppard music in 1996. So for that reason we’re kinda glad that with the passing of the last 20 odd years we can put it out there, and hopefully it will be judged impartially this time around.

I was also curious about the aesthetic of the album. This was the first album in the band’s catalogue that didn’t have the same classic logo and comic book art-style of the records before it. Were you doing this to separate yourselves from the past, or from current trends in ’96?
Oh yes, it was all done very consciously. The kind of record we were making, they way it was presented, the packaging, all of that was coming from the same line of thought. We knew we were going to be crucified no matter what, we were almost apologetic. It was like, “I’m sorry to make you listen to our new record.” It was really a bizarre time, we were damned if we did and we were damned if we didn’t.

Sonically, the underlying brief for the writing and recording of the album was, “It can’t sound like a Def Leppard album.” You can ask the other members of the band and you’ll get five different opinions, but my personal opinion of “Slang” is that we went a little too left field. I think we could have been a bit more Def Leppard in terms of the songwriting. There’s no backing vocals to speak of on the record, which was a big Def Leppard trademark. There’s no real sense of that melody, the hooks that Leppard records of the past had. I felt that being the new guy, I didn’t rock the boat too much. I was just glad to be there, but I think we went a few degrees too far left. We could have addressed a little more melodic structure and production value. But like I said, either way we knew we were facing an uphill struggle. It’s nice that it will get a second run and be judged by a different generation.

I know you said you were still new at the time, so you were “just glad to be there.” But a lot of people remember “Slang” as “Vivian’s first album.” Did anyone try to pin the wild new direction of the band on you?
No, no I don’t think so at all. Although there were a conflict of influences at the time, like the grunge movement. I do feel that my personal musical taste are a little bit more organic, perhaps. So you know, I do think I helped the band kinda get into the mindset of picking up an acoustic guitar every night again and doing an acoustic version of “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” or something. Up to that point Def Leppard was very much production-heavy and bombastic. But leading up to that process, and leading up to the “Slang” record, the band kind of became a little more in touch with organic elements that it probably hadn’t dealt with much in the past. But no, nobody’s ever come up to me and accused me of ruining Def Leppard’s sound *laughs*.

As an outsider though, it was nice that you guys went out of your comfort zone. It was fresh.
It is fresh sounding, and that’s the one thing that I really really love about “Slang.” It’s sonically very vibrant sounding, and the way that we approached recording it was very different from the typical Leppard MO in the studio. It does sound good to me, I love the fact that Rick Allen played an acoustic drum kit again. I love the way we recorded the guitars, it’s kind of old school. And the fact that we recorded it in a house in Spain instead of going to a professional facility. We recorded stuff in the kitchen, garden, bathrooms, in the living room, under the table, in the stairway. It was very makeshift and it has a bit of that Guerrilla recording sound to it, which I think still sounds fresh.

And, while I’m thinking about it, I’m headed to Dublin on Friday and we’re going to be recording over there at Joe’s studio. And in the first time in that many years, since we did “Slang” we’re actually going to try to record that way again. Rick’s going to play an acoustic kit and we’re going to play in real time. People have been doing it that way for 50 years, but for Def Leppard this is new and exciting and to actually go and record as a real band.

We usually record to a drum machine, one guy at a time, very slow and methodical and boring. But Leppard’s a great, great live band and when we play live there’s a real dynamic sense that we don’t get when we’re building the track bit by bit by bit. So we’re excited about that, we’re basically songwriting and recording while we go. We won’t get a new album done this year, but we’re hoping to get a song or two or three done over the next couple of months.

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