The Vivian Campbell Interview (2022)

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By Greg Prato

Vivian Campbell’s resume is an impressive one, having played in three separate arena headlining bands over the years — Dio, Whitesnake, and Def Leppard. But it is the latter who he has been associated with the longest — having joined the Leps in 1992 (and has remained a member ever since).

And this year will prove to be a busy one for the band. Def Leppard will finally launch “The Stadium Tour” in the US, along with Mötley Crüe, Poison and Joan Jett (which should have happened back in the summer of 2020…but we all know why it was postponed), as well as issuing their twelfth studio album overall, Diamond Star Halos.

Campbell spoke with me just days before rehearsals were to begin for the tour (and a few weeks before the album’s release) — discussing both his current projects, as well as his past.

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How much are you looking forward to the start of The Stadium Tour?

You won’t believe how much I’m looking forward to it. And I’m pretty sure the rest of the guys feel the same way — we had to postpone not once but twice. We’re very anxious to get back to work. I live on the east coast, so I’m flying to LA tomorrow morning and we start rehearsals this weekend. We are going to probably focus on the new album more than people may expect us to. And that wasn’t initially the plan, but I think we were very enthused by the response that the record has gotten — not just from radio, but from across the industry. And the fact that this is the first album in…I don’t know, twelve or fourteen years that we’ve done with a major label.

And the label is hot on the record — they were very enthusiastic about it, they’re very excited about it. And that’s genuine — that’s not just them blowing smoke up our ass. We can genuinely tell that. So, they’re bullish on it, we’re bullish on it. We kind of felt in recent weeks, “Y’know, we should play as much of this as possible.” Which isn’t normally what you’d expect. Normally, we’d think, “We’re just going to play the hits” — because nobody is going to be interested in new music. But if you strategically put these songs in the set — in the right place and in the right way — they could actually come across. So, you never know. There’s just a general feeling that it’s appropriate to actually focus on some new music for this tour.

Let’s discuss the new album, Diamond Star Halos.

It’s certainly different in the way we recorded it. We didn’t see each other at all — it was entirely remote. So, back in spring 2020, we’re anticipating going on tour, COVID happens, tour’s postponed, everything shuts down. We live all over the globe, so we’re in different time zones, so email is how we mostly communicate. So, Joe emails everyone in the band and says, “You know what? I got some songs I’ve been working on. If we’re not going to go on tour this summer, let’s slowly start making a record. There’s no pressure, nobody knows we’re making a record, there’s no schedule, there’s no timeline — just easy peasy.”

But I immediately started to panic, because I’m a Luddite — I have a hard time with technology, and I didn’t have any sort of home recording setup. So I had a very quick, very steep learning curve with regard to technology. I spent a lot of time on the phone talking about how this stuff worked and I had to buy some more gear. That was difficult, and I had a little anxiety at first but it got easier. And then I came to appreciate the other side of the equation — that it’s actually a lot better to work that way for me because there is no pressure of having anyone looking over my shoulder. And as a guitarist, I really appreciated that. Because in the past, you were in the studio and maybe have a rough idea of what you’re gonna do, and you go in and start playing. And it’s like “OK, that’s not bad. You wanna try another?” And then you start getting direction — “OK, let’s clean this up, let’s do that.”

But this time, I’d do something and I’d live with it for like a couple of days and then I’d come back and I think, “Y’know, that last part could be better. I don’t feel like doing it now…I’m gonna go have lunch and I’ll come back there tonight.” So, it’s just it was really easy. It really allowed me to be more reflective on my playing in particular. So, I feel strongly about the guitar playing on the record. I feel it’s probably some of my best playing, and I feel the same is true with Phil. And I think we all really appreciated being able to work on that sort of schedule.

But having said that, I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that the band could have done on the first or second album. I don’t think that they could necessarily make a record this way remotely. But we have so much road under our wheels. We’ve made so many records. And just the very nature of the way that Def Leppard has written and recorded in the past, even when we’re all the same room I think kind of really set us up and enabled us to be able to deliver a record of this quality by doing it remotely.

What are some of your favorite tracks on the album?

Well, the first songs that came in, Joe had been writing on piano for the last five or six years he’s traveled. And when we’d gone to hotel rooms, he had an electric piano with him. So, the first three or four songs I heard were “Joe piano ballads.” I’m thinking, “God…this is gonna be a very mature record! Very grown up.” But then Phil weighed in with some very typical Def Leppard sounding rock songs, and then Sav wrote some great songs. Sav has a couple of songs on the record that that bookend the album — the first song and the last song [“Take What You Want” and “From Here to Eternity”]. I really like those songs in particular. I like a lot of the record — there’s nothing on the record I don’t like. But the Sav songs, for whatever reason…I think it’s because he’s a mad Queen fan, and his songs may seem simple at times, but there’s parts in them that are very, very, very complicated. And as a musician, I think I appreciate that.

There’s some gorgeous songs on the record. We had Alison Krauss sing a couple of songs that elevated songs that were good songs to brilliant songs with the benefit of having her voice. She’s such an incredible musician — she sings like an angel. “Lifeless” was one of the songs she sang on, that really became so elevated after she sang on it. We had fourteen songs done and we thought the record was finished, and then Phil had written a song [“Kick”] with a songwriter called Dave Bassett — an English guy, I believe. And Phil sent us a song and said, “Hey, this is a co-write. I wasn’t sure if this is appropriate for Leppard. What do you think, before I pass it along to someone else?” And we all immediately emailed back to Phil and said, “Absolutely this is a total Def Leppard song. This is what we need.” So, in the end, that ended up becoming the first single. And it is such a Def Leppard song. I don’t know why Phil didn’t hear that in the first place, but it was absolutely something we had to put on.

Is it true you used your black Les Paul from back in the Dio days on this album?

Yeah, I did. Ever since I started doing the Last in Line…when I do Last in Line recordings and live shows, I use that guitar exclusively — because it just seems appropriate. Because that was the guitar I did Holy Diver with. So, I have sort of rekindled my relationship with it. And then for this record — recording at home — I essentially used four different guitars. But I did most of the solos…in fact, I think I did all of the solos maybe on that particular Les Paul — the Dio one. But the other guitars I used was another Les Paul — the custom shop Viv Campbell model that they made in 2018, and I have a ‘66 Fender Telecaster that I used, and I used my blue Tom Anderson 1988 Stratocaster on a few things. Those were the four guitars that I used.

Is there a story behind how and when you obtained that Les Paul?

When I first started playing, Rory Gallagher was my first guitar hero, first album I had, first concert I saw. And Rory was famous for his old, beat up Stratocaster. So, at first I wanted a Stratocaster — but I couldn’t afford one. Because I was only twelve or thirteen at that time. But at that time, I worked every summer, every school holiday, every weekend — ’cause I was “a guitar kid,” I wanted to save up money to buy guitars, effects pedals and stuff and guitar strings. By the time I had saved enough money to buy a proper guitar, I had fallen under the influence of Thin Lizzy and their guitar players, Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham. And in particular, an Irish guitarist who had been through Thin Lizzy a bunch of times — Gary Moore. Gary I would say was my ultimate, ultimate guitar hero. He’s a guy that shaped my playing more than anyone else. He was famous for playing that Peter Green Les Paul [aka “Greeny,” now owned by Metallica’s Kirk Hammett] — the guitar that Peter Green had given him.

So, I wanted a Les Paul, and I had gone to my local mom and pop guitar shop. And this is Ireland in the late 1970s — you don’t have Guitar Center. You don’t walk in and see a wall of shiny Les Pauls and point to that one and that one. So, I ordered a gold Les Paul Standard. And I waited for months and months and months and months and months to come and show up. And then one Friday afternoon, I went into the shop on my way back from school, and they said, “Well…good news and bad news. The good news is we finally got a Gibson Les Paul. The bad news is it’s not a Standard.” It was a wine red Deluxe [1977]. The Deluxe was a little bit cheaper than the Standard, so that was a good thing, too. But Scott Gorham from Thin Lizzy played a Les Paul Deluxe at that time, so I thought, “Well, if it’s good enough for someone of that caliber, it’s certainly good enough for me.” So, I ended up buying the guitar.

I didn’t like the color and I never liked shiny guitars. Because of my Rory Gallagher influences, I like guitars that have patina. So, I took it home that night and I took sandpaper to it, and I took off all the shine — all the varnish. And then within a month or two I took it to someone to put humbuckers in it and to repaint it black — the color that it is today. And I basically changed every facet on that guitar — all the hardware, changed everything. Y’know, the machine heads, the nut, the jack plate, the bridge, the frets, the pickups…every aspect of it. It’s all been “hot-rodded” over the years. So, that guitar meant a lot to me. It was the guitar I really learned how to play on. That’s when I really became a decent guitar player — was when I got that. I really invested in playing it and that was the guitar I used in Sweet Savage, that was the guitar I used for the Holy Diver album and tour. So, I consider it the most valuable instrument I have. And it’s also the only one I know this serial number to!

You just mentioned Dio — after you left, was there ever any possibility of you and Ronnie getting back together or talking?

I’d like to clarify — I was fired from Dio. I did not leave Dio. And that’s a bit of an urban myth, because all these decades after, a lot of people are under that misconception thinking that I left the band. I never wanted to leave Dio. I was fired in the middle of a tour. But I was a squeaky wheel. I was the one who was trying to get Ronnie to uphold his promises and be true to his words, and it didn’t work out. So, I don’t think there was ever any chance that we were gonna work together again.

Ronnie’s wife, Wendy, right up until the day he died, she was his manager — and she never saw me as being of any value to Ronnie. She always thought I was just a guitar player and I was easily replaceable. I think Ronnie knew a little better. So, I think if Ronnie and I had met each other without Wendy, and we’d gone to the pub and we’d had a pint of beer and talked through our differences, yeah, I think we could have worked together again and it would have been great. But as long as Wendy was controlling his career, that was never going to happen.

Do you regret never getting the opportunity to make amends with Ronnie before his passing?

Yeah. Y’know, we both said ugly things about each other in the media — which is never a good idea. But you get goaded into these things. And everyone makes these mistakes. That was unfortunate. But Ronnie was a complicated guy — like everyone. When people ask me, “What’s so-and-so like?”, it’s hard to summarize the human experience in a couple of sentences. I mean, we’re all complicated beings – we have good days and we have bad days. We have good attributes from our personalities and we have negative ones. And Ronnie was complicated. We had days when he and I got along really well, and there were days where I thought he was a total asshole…and I’m sure he thought exactly the same about me! But the one thing that we did good together was we could make music together.

I always found it a very strained relationship because of…and I will own most of the responsibility for that, because I was very bashful around Ronnie. Because I was 20 years old and I’d been listening to Ronnie in Rainbow and Sabbath for years before I ended up being in a band with them, and finding myself in the studio in LA, and just in this whole surreal, very different environment that I’d known before. And being in a band with this guy whose albums I’d been listening to since I was about thirteen years old. So, I just had this strange sort of deference towards him — where he was a rock star, in my opinion. Plus, he was so much older than me. You almost wanted to call him “Mr. Dio.” I didn’t, but I kind of felt like it. Like, I probably should be more respectful in that regard. So, it was a little bit strange to have that sort of relationship. I never felt quite comfortable around him. The only time I did was when we were playing music.

Looking back, what are your favorite Dio tracks that you played on?

Gosh…I was never particularly fond of the Sacred Heart album – mostly because of the way that it was made. The mood in the band was very dark then. Ronnie’s mood was very dark and nobody wanted to be in the studio. So, I don’t listen to that record much. But every time I do hear something, I think, “Wow. I did play pretty good on that.” The first two albums, the environment in which they were made was much more healthy. So, I’m definitely more familiar with those.

I mean, I like the solo in in “The Last In Line” — that the title track of that album — I think that’s a well-constructed solo. Obviously, I’m proud of the solo in “Rainbow In The Dark,” but I wouldn’t say that’s a well-constructed solo — because that was a first take and I didn’t know what I was doing. But I think I got really lucky with it. There’s different aspects of other solos on the early Dio records that were like pulling teeth — I really had to kind of make composites out of some of them, and others were really easy to do. “Don’t Talk To Strangers” I think is a particularly strong solo.

They’re difficult. I didn’t realize at the time and when we went out played this stuff live, I didn’t really play live what I played on the record — the solo was always sort of morphing into something different, week after week over the tour. And it was only actually when I went back to put together the Last in Line band a decade or so ago that I realized that I had to go in and actually learn the solos the way they were on record and play them pretty much note or note — because it’s been so long, they’re part of the DNA of those records. It was quite challenging to go back and learn it. And it was only then that I really started having an appreciation of what I was doing then.

Because after that point, I never had any confidence in in that that era of my career. I finally could hear what Ronnie and what others heard in me in those days. But back then, I was just…I couldn’t understand why Ronnie had hired me for that band — when there were so many technically great guitar players in LA. You were tripping over them in LA! And I was frustrated that I couldn’t play like those guys because they had so much more technique. But with the benefit of all this passage of time, now I can go back and I can realize, “Oh. He hired me because I was different than those guys.” I was entirely self-taught as opposed to learning it from a technical point of view. I approached it from a blues-based background and we was entirely self-taught — so I was forced to kind of learn the instrument inside out.

Before you mentioned Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore as influences. Did you ever get the opportunity to meet either of them?

Yes, I did meet Rory — I met him as a fan. I grew up in Belfast in the 1970s, so nobody played Belfast because of the troubles. And Rory was one of the very, very few people who would come back and play Belfast every year. Every December, he would play a concert or two at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. So, that was the first concert I saw — in 1974. Then I went back again in 75, 76, 77 and 78. So, it was the first concert I saw, and it was also the second and the third and the fourth. I got to see a few other artists too over the years, but Rory was the “staple go-to.” And I actually got to meet him as a fan backstage. He was one of those guys who would literally stand there and sign every last autograph ‘til whatever time in the morning. So, he was very, very gracious — he signed my concert stub.

So then, in later years, I actually got to meet Rory in the mid 1980s, a few years before his death. A guitar magazine asked me to interview him as a peer to peer sort of thing, so I got to meet him at LA, which was a real treat. I got to play the Strat — which was more difficult than I had anticipated, because he used heavier strings. But he was just a lovely, lovely really down to earth human being. And no pretense of being a star or celebrity — he was just like an old school blues musician. Just loved to play the music and loved the lifestyle.

I met Gary Moore under very strange circumstances one time — and it didn’t go well. That certainly would be one to file under the headline of “never meet your heroes.” I had been asked about four or five months before Phil Lynott passed away…Jimmy Bain — the bass player in Dio — was really close with Phil Lynott. They were good friends. But I’d known Phil also — from my years in Sweet Savage, we opened for Thin Lizzy a bunch. I didn’t know him terribly well — I wouldn’t consider him a peer — but he was very supportive of Sweet Savage, and got on stage with us a few times and jammed with us.

But anyway, long story short, Jimmy had said that Phil was looking for a guitar player to record some demos with for a solo album. This wasn’t Thin Lizzy, this was to be a Phil Lynott solo album. So, I went to London for about a week in 1985. I remember the original Live Aid was on — I remember watching it on TV at Phil’s house. So I went there, and like I said, this was several months before he passed away from basically a heroin overdose. So, Phil was just very, very distant. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying — he was mumbling, he was in cold sweats. His wife and kids had left him and he was living in this house. He had this minder guy — a driver guy — who was looking after him, and a couple of Swedish au pairs. I mean, it was really bizarre, kind of strange, surreal rock star stuff. And I was just like, “What the hell is going on?”

So anyway, I was in Phil’s house, and then one morning I came down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and I walked into the kitchen and Gary Moore was in the kitchen…in Phil’s house! It was totally unexpected. I don’t know if he had a key or if the door just wasn’t locked or whatever. So I walk into Phil Lynott’s kitchen and everyone else is still sleeping, and Gary Moore is standing there. And he had come round to check up on Phil. And he obviously felt that I was part of this whole…y’know, I was enabling him to be doing what he was doing. He thought that I was complicit in Phil’s drug addiction — which, obviously, I wasn’t. I mean, I’ve never done heroin in my life nor would I want to. I knew nothing about it. But Gary was not friendly. I was like, “Oh Gary, what kind of strings do you use? Blah blah blah.” And he wasn’t having any of it. He was like, “Where’s Phil?” “I think he’s still asleep. I haven’t seen him.” “Well, tell him I was here. Tell him to call me.” But it was definitely cold. He was not friendly towards me. But I don’t blame him — Phil was his friend and he thought that I was one of those people that was enabling Phil’s demise just because I happened to be there. So, that was unfortunate.

How are you doing health-wise? (Campbell revealed in 2013 that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma)

Good, thank you. It’s ongoing. I still have to do maintenance, but I’ve been very fortunate — I have good doctors and I live in an era when there is a lot of options, good options, and a lot of new things coming along. So, I’m hoping to get on another trial for CART (a type of cell therapy), so I’m just waiting for a trial to open. And hopefully after this summer’s tour I’ll get a chance to do something like that. But it’s good. I mean, it’s not something I’ve ever spent a lot of time fretting over. It’s all part and parcel of the process.

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