Interview: Def Leppard's Vivian Campbell Reflects on 23 Years of Being the New Guy

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Def Leppard
Photo by Maryanne Bilham-Knight

Editor's note: This article is featured in the June 25 issue of Broward-Palm Beach New Times. As the paper went to press, it was announced that Vivian Campbell will undergo treatment for a recurrence of cancer and will miss a number of Def Leppard shows, including the band's set at Coral Sky, which will go on. We are including our interview with Campbell here as it reads in the paper, and we wish Campbell a speedy recovery. 

"I’ve been with Def Leppard 23 years, and I’m still the new guy,“ Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell says from Oslo, Norway. It’s a rare day off on the band’s European tour, and the guys have spent it posing for photos for a new album — their first since 2008 — which Campbell believes will be out this fall. “It’s a very vocal-heavy album from a vocal-heavy band. Our sound has always been more Queen than AC/DC, but I can say it’s the best record since I’ve been in the band.”

Campbell caught the rock ’n’ roll bug on a Thursday night in 1971, in his hometown, Belfast, Ireland, when he saw Marc Bolan perform with T. Rex on the TV show Top of the Pops. “That was my epiphany. I started wearing my sister’s clothes and growing my hair. Guitar became my purpose in life.” For years, he was a musical journeyman, a founding member of metal legends Dio, as well as stints with hair rock gods Whitesnake and less-renowned groups Riverdogs and Shadow King.

Def Leppard was a completely different animal. The Sheffield, England, natives were one of the biggest rock bands of the 1980s, with hits like “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Photograph.” But when guitarist Steve Clark died in 1991 and singer Joe Elliott called his friend to audition as a replacement, Campbell was torn.

“It was a weird time,” he says. “I had been in so many bands that were bad experiences. But I auditioned, and it was a pleasant surprise for them that I could also sing. So it became a courtship. We saw the Rolling Stones movie on IMAX together; we played soccer. A lot of young musicians come up to me and ask how to fit in with a band. As important as it is to be proficient on your instrument, you have to be socially proficient. Bands are like submarine duty. You’re on the bus together, the stage; we still share a dressing room.”

Two recent life experiences have kept Campbell feeling fresh about his duties as a rock star. The first was playing with his childhood heroes, Thin Lizzy. The experience inspired him to get the surviving members of Dio back into a room together and work on a new record under the Last in Line moniker that he hopes to release (and tour behind) next year.

The second is his battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That struggle could explain why he’s now keeping so busy. But Campbell says he’s never taken his ability to make a living playing guitar for granted. “I’ve always enjoyed my work,” he says. “It did accentuate and highlight that every day is a gift.”

That gift is one he and the other members of Def Leppard wish to share with audiences, though they do expect something in return. “The show is good, old-fashioned, high-energy rock ’n’ roll. We’ve played ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ so many times, but we know each time is somebody’s first time hearing it live. The feedback from the audience is crucial to how high-energy the show is.”

Considering the set list, fans should have no reason to respond otherwise.

“The set list picks itself,” he says. “We have so many hit songs, the downside is that we have to play them all.”

Def Leppard, with Styx and Tesla. 7 p.m. Thursday, June 25, at Coral Sky Amphitheater, 601-7 Sansbury’s Way, West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $25 to $245. Call 561-795-8883, or visit livenation.com.

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