April 21, 2016 Interview – Vivian Campbell of Last in Line & Def Leppard
Life seldom ever turns out the way one envisions. Full of triumphs and disappointments, it is an incredible journey impossible to predict. Living proof of such is Northern Irish Guitarist Vivian Campbell who has been up, down, and spun around only to forge a lasting Rock-n-Roll legacy. Known primarily for his time a part of the original Dio band, Campbell continued to build a name after spending time in Whitesnake, and furthermore after two plus decades in Def Leppard. Now an professional musician since a teenager, Campbell has plenty of stories to tell about his incredible road to success. Recent we sat down to speak with Campbell about such stories, including the one behind Last in Line, his times in Dio, finding stability in Def Leppard, fighting cancer, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in Rock-n-Roll for almost four decades professionally now from Dio, to Whitesnake, to Thin Lizzy, to Def Leppard. First, tell us, what has this incredible journey been like for you?
Vivian Campbell – There’s two ways of looking at it, I never thought I’d be in so many bands. My first band, which you didn’t mention there, was Sweet Savage. Actually, I formed that band when I was about fifteen back in Belfast, in Northern Ireland where I grew up. We wrote original music, we had a couple of recordings, and we never got a major record deal. We toured Ireland, we toured the UK opening for a bunch of bands. I guess, basically, we were knocking on the door and the door never opened, unfortunately (laughs). Back then, that was it to me. I kind of wanted that band, I had visions of us being together for decades, making albums, and world tours. It never worked out that way.
I was very fortunate that Jimmy Bain heard me playing in Sweet Savage and he recommended me to Ronnie, when Ronnie was putting the original Dio band together. I flew over to London and auditioned for that, Ronnie promised us the night that the band was born that by the third album we’d have an equitable situation. Even though we were hired for the first two albums, we were kind of working towards the goal by the third album would be an equity situation. We were all creating for the band, we were writing the songs as well. So I’m thinking, “Ok it’s not quite what I really wanted, but it’s got the promise that it’s going to be there.” Unfortunately, by the third album, that promise was not fulfilled and I was fired. That was my first really big disappointment in the music industry. I was very fortunate, not long after, that David Coverdale called me up asking if I’d like to play in Whitesnake, I was with Whitesnake for eighteen months. That was a great lineup on paper, really talented musicians, but I don’t feel that we really gelled as a band.
I came off of that thinking, “Ok, where is my career going here?” Situations where things were just not working out with bands. Then was was doing a record with a band called the Riverdogs who are great guys to work with. Rob Lamothe was the principal writer in the band and the lead singer, just a remarkable talent. We made what I thought was a really strong record that totally fell into the abyss never to be heard (laughs). I was just so pissed off with these band situations not working out. I was very disillusioned and I had given up on the idea of being in a band after Riverdogs. I did a short-lived thing with Lou Gramm called Shadow King. That did not work out at all well creatively for what it was supposed to be. Lou went through some severe personal problems during that time and kind of wasn’t present, so there was no future in that project. That fell apart very quickly.
From that point on, I was still under contract with Sony records after making the Riverdogs album. I had a record deal and I was just going to make my own record. I had been working on my voice for a long time, taking singing lessons and really working hard at that. Working with all different co-writers, I built up a catalogue of songs. I was happy, I was headed towards making a solo record cutting demos. Then, Joe Elliott called me, and that was twenty-five years ago, so here we are. Def Leppard is a very different kind of band than any other band.
I must admit when Joe called me and offered me the opportunity to be part of Def Leppard, that doesn’t happen every day. That’s obviously a massive opportunity, but I was still approaching it with some trepidation, given my history. The fact that I’d been in and out of so many bands and situations hadn’t worked out for one reason or another, I approached that very cautiously. I wanted to make sure it was going to work, the same was true of Joe and the other guys of the band. They were looking for someone to come in to fill for Steve. That was obviously a very difficult situation for them to be dealing with. They had to make sure that the personalities fit and they had looked at my history and said that this guy has been in and out of a lot of bands, what’s the issue here? We went through this period of several weeks where it was kind of like a courtship, it wasn’t an audition because they knew I could play guitar, that wasn’t the problem or issue. We just needed to know that it was going to work out on a personal level. Like I said, that was twenty-five years ago, so I think it’s working out.
The short answer to your question is, it would have been nice to have just been in one band in my career from start to finish, but for various reasons that never happened. Looking on the plus side, I’ve gotten to work with some absolutely incredible musicians, great singers, great songwriters, great drummers and bass players, guitars and keyboard players, and producers. I’ve learned so much and it has been fantastic education. To summarize, I have no regrets.
CrypticRock.com – That is quite a story to tell and it has been a roller coaster for sure, but it is wonderful that you persevered not to give up. It sounds as if the situations could have been rather discouraging at times.
Vivian Campbell – It was very discouraging. There’s been tremendous highs and tremendous lows in my career. That’s life, you take the good with the bad, you get through it, you learn.
CrypticRock.com – Very true. You had mentioned being part of Dio. You were part of that 1983 debut record, Holy Diver, through 1985’s Sacred Heart. Through the ups and downs of the project, do you, over all, have fond memories of working with Dio and the rest of the guys?
Vivian Campbell – I have good memories and bad memories. The first two records were great. I have not so good memories of the third album, that’s when the wheels really started to fall off. There was a lot going on, Ronnie’s mood was very dark when we were writing and recording the Sacred Heart album. He had split from Wendy Dio, who was not only his wife, but his band’s manager. His mood was difficult. He was very difficult to work with during that time. I think we all felt the same way. When we were recording Holy Diver and The Last in Line, we all hung around the studio, it was very much a gang. We were all there supporting and encouraging each other, nobody left early. When we were in the studio for Sacred Heart, nobody stayed except for Claude Schnell, the keyboardist, because Ronnie had decided for Sacred Heart he wanted more keyboards on the album. He wanted more complex arrangements and parts. Jimmy, Vinny, and I didn’t share that enthusiasm, we weren’t on board with that idea. We always felt that the original nucleus of the band was guitar driven, which is incidentally why we went that direction with this Last In Line album. We decided to go back to our nucleus of the Dio band – guitars, drums, bass, and vocals.
Sacred Heart was a difficult one. Also, as I mentioned earlier, when the band was formed, Ronnie had promised by the third album it would be an equitable situation and up that point we were salaried players. We would go on tour, we got none of the albums, t-shirt, or ticket sales. We were actually paid less than the road crew. I was the squeaky wheel, I was the first one to actually say to Ronnie, “You’ve made us this promise, are you going to honor this? Can we talk about it?” He kept pushing it off and saying, “Let’s get the record done first and we will talk about it when we are on tour.” I said, “Ok, fair enough.” I let it go, we went out on tour. I brought the subject up again and I said, “Ronnie, you’ve made us a promise since the band was formed that by the third album it would be an equitable situation. We worked for less than the road crew, we wrote those songs with you, it’s time to do this,” and I got fired. I was the first to go, it left such a bad taste in my mouth because the promise had been broken. I was fired and portrayed in the press afterwards as being the one who left, which is absolutely 100% untrue. I never wanted to leave the band.
For many years, I couldn’t even listen to Dio music, I wanted nothing to do with that part of my history. The music came on the radio, I turned it off, wanted nothing to do with it. It took a long time for me to come around full circle and realize that it’s as much my legacy as it was Ronnie’s, Jimmy’s, and Vinny’s, it belongs to all of it. We created those records together. We will never get paid for them. Wendy Dio has my publishing for Holy Diver, but we made great music together. It was nice to reconnect with that finally.
CrypticRock.com – That is really unfortunate that all transpired. It was great that you did reconnect with the lineup of Dio in Last in Line. You initially started playing some classic Dio tracks live, then this kind of morphed into something more original based. What inspired you?
Vivian Campbell – It happened by accident, there was never a plan to any of this. It happened basically in 2010 and the first half of 2011, Def Leppard were inactive. I got a call from Scott Gorham of Thin Lizzy asking if I could go on tour in Europe for a couple of months as a stand in guitar player. He knew I was with Def Leppard, he was borrowing me so-to-speak. I leapt at the chance because Thin Lizzy was the most influential band for me – their songs, their music, the guitar parts – when I was in my formative years. When I was 15-17, really honing my craft and finding my fate as a guitar player. I was intimately familiar with the catalogue. Just being out on stage with Scott Gorham and the original Lizzy drummer Brian Downey playing the songs of my youth, it just really reconnected me to that time in my life.
I came back from that tour and I was really re-energized about guitar playing, I just wanted to play aggressive guitar again. So, I called Vinny and Jimmy and I just asked if they could go to the rehearsal room and they said absolutely. We got together and played. At this point, middle of 2011, it had been around twenty-seven years since we’ve played together. We started playing and the chemistry was immediate. It was soon as we started playing it was the sound of the early Dio band and we got so excited and energized by all that. One thing led to another and Vinny was the one that suggested that we jam with a singer. We were jamming at this phase just for fun. He suggested Andrew, and at the time, Andrew lived in LA. He came down and as soon as I heard Andrew sing, that’s when I had the idea that we actually had to go out and do some gigs. If he had come in sounding like Ronnie, it would have been weird and creepy and I would have never wanted to do it. Because Ronnie was unique, the best of his genre, an incredibly strong voice. Ronnie had passed away about a year or so before that and it just would have been wrong.
The fact that Andrew was powerful enough to sing on top of the noise that Vinny, Jimmy, and I make together, yet his tonality was completely different to Ronnie’s, it got me thinking there was an interesting pairing. I immediately suggested, because Ronnie had passed away, Vinny, Jimmy, and I were the last ones standing. I said, “We are the last in line, why don’t we just call it Last in Line and play those songs that we did with Ronnie,” and that’s all we did. That was our very limited ambition at that point and that’s how it remained for a couple of years. Then we got an offer to go to the UK and do some shows, which we did. A couple of months after that, we got an offer to go to play the Loud Park Festival in Japan, which we did. Immediately after we got back from Japan, that’s when Frontiers Records called our manager and offered us a record deal and asked if we would be interested in writing and recording new music.
I can honestly say that up until that point we really hadn’t thought about doing that. We were all committed to our day jobs, mine being Def Leppard. We decided to give it a go, we went into the studio and started playing in exactly the same spirit and the same method that we did with the Holy Diver record with Ronnie. Just kicking around ideas, just jamming, and inspiring each other. The songs came to us, they came really quickly, it was a really easy, joyous experience making this record. It was entirely organic.
CrypticRock.com – That definitely shows in the music. Heavy Crown is really enjoyable to listen to. It is being received well and topping the heatseeker charts. How redeeming is it to see it all paying off?
Vivian Campbell – It’s a bittersweet time for us because of Jimmy’s passing. Like I said, the record was in the can for a year. It could have been released a year ago and we didn’t release it because we all believed in it so much that we wanted to be able to tour and promote it. We should have been on tour right now. We cancelled the tour when Jimmy died. We find ourselves at a very interesting crossroads. We have this great record that we all believe in so much, that Jimmy believed in so much, that it’s getting a tremendous response. It would be weird to just go on tour, that is why we did not do it. We are, however, going to do a couple of festival shows. There’s a festival in Italy in the end of April which we will play. Then there is Rocklahoma festival at the end of May. We will do a couple of warm-up shows in advance of both of those. To be honest, I don’t know what our long term plans are going to be. Part of me wants to keep doing it, but part of me feels it is very difficult because I know it will never be the same. You cannot just replace musicians, we can get a bass player who plays a lot like Jimmy, who sounds a lot like him, who will be very close, but it’s never going to be the same. We are still a little bit heartbroken about that.
CrypticRock.com – Of course. It is also still very fresh, it just only happened a few months ago. It is very tragic because you guys had that chemistry and friendship. That is what brought you back together, so one could imagine it is very bittersweet.
Vivian Campbell – Yeah, friendship is a good word. The unmistakable chemistry that we had when we played, but Jimmy was our friend too. It’s been over thirty years we all knew each other, Jimmy and I were roommates when we were writing and recording Holy Diver, and the same with the Last in Line album. We shared a lot of good times together. He was the guy that gave me my first break, he introduced me to Ronnie. He recommended me for the original Dio band, I basically owed Jimmy my career. It’s a very deep loss for me, very personal. At this stage, it’s very difficult. On the one hand, we owe it to Jimmy’s memory and the record that we created together to do what we can with it. It’s going to be difficult, Jimmy actually got Last in Line tattooed on his arm. He died with one tattoo on his body and it was Last In Line. He was so into this band and into this project.
The last year of his life, he finally overcame the biggest demon he fought his entire life, the demon of addiction. He was addicted to drinking and drugs his whole life and fought that battle, and in the last year and a half. He was stone cold sober when he was writing and recording this record with us. I’d like to think that it was because the focus of this project that really helped him overcome that demon. It’s just particularly sad he won his greatest battle and made one of his greatest records and he didn’t live to see it released.
CrypticRock.com – That is very sad. Somewhere, Jimmy is smiling down to see that the record is doing so well. It is bittersweet, there is no other way to put it. You are a very busy guy, you keep yourself busy with a lot of different things. Obviously you heavily toured with Def Leppard and you are celebrating twenty plus years with them. You guys released a new record in 2015. What was that record like for you?
Vivian Campbell – The new Def Leppard record, I can honestly say, I think it’s the best record that Def Leppard has put out in the twenty-four years I’ve been with the band. The irony is, it’s the record that I’ve had the least involvement with. I don’t know what that tells me (laughs). There might be some significance to that. The moral of the story might be, get out of their way and let them do what they do. I didn’t have involvement in the record for several reasons, primarily my health; I’ve been dealing with cancer for the last few years. I wasn’t able to contribute to that record as much as I’d like. The good news is, it is the strongest record many decades from Def Leppard. We are all very proud of that. It’s a very diverse record, it’s got some genres that the band has never experimented with before. We were equally pleased with the reception that it’s gotten. I am look forward to playing some of the new tracks when we go on tour this summer.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely. It will be exciting to see Def Leppard back on the road in the summer following the postponement of the winter tour.
Vivian Campbell – Joe was having issues with the voice and a specialist told him he had to stop singing immediately otherwise he was risking permanent damage to his voice. That was the bad news. The good news, he won’t need surgery. He just literally needed rest and he will be fine. We are looking forward to this year.
CrypticRock.com – That is very good news to hear. You had mentioned you have been fighting hard against cancer over the past few years. One can imagine that can be an extremely wearing, mentally and physically, thing to go through. What has been the key for you to maintain your health moral through all of it?
Vivian Campbell – To be able to work, it’s as simple as that. My work, for a big part, defines who I am, it always has. It has always brought me great joy. I’ve always felt very privileged to be able to do this. That’s all I ever wanted to do with my life, was play guitar in a Rock band, and I got to do it with many great Rock bands as we discussed earlier. I just wanted to continue to do it. At first it was a bit of a battle with the guys in Def Leppard, particularly with the management. Obviously I could be a liability given that we don’t really know how the treatment is going to go. Fortunately, I was able to convince everyone to allow me to continue to tour. I find that very cathartic and they helped with my recovery to just immerse myself in my work, not just with Def Leppard, but with Last in Line too. The creation of Heavy Crown, reconnecting again with Jimmy and Vinny, as well as my work with Def Leppard, has really helped me immensely.
CrypticRock.com – Positivity goes a long way. Support and positivity can go a long way in a battle against cancer. With that said, how are you doing now?
Vivian Campbell – I’m still dealing with it, it keeps on coming back. I did three different chemo treatments. It’s been 3 years and I’ve done 3 rounds of chemo. Towards the end of 2014, I did a stem cell transplant and I was really hopeful that the stem cell transplant was going to do the job, but it didn’t. Last May, I did scans and I find out the cancer had come back. Since June of last year, I’ve been doing a course of treatment called immunotherapy. I’ve been taking this new experimental drug called Pembrolizumab, it’s the same stuff that cured Jimmy Carter’s melanoma. It’s a shiny star in cancer treatment, this whole course of drugs, in particular the Pembrolizumab. I do scans every 3 months and I am very happy to say that recently I did another set of scans and it’s really good. It’s looking like it’s doing the job slowly, but it’s starting to take us in the right direction.
I can continue doing this treatment for about another fifteen to sixteen months. I don’t know if it’s going to cure it, but, at the very least, it’s slowly pushing it back and holding it in such a position that I can continue to work. There’s absolutely minimal side effects with this drug, for me at least. It is certainly nothing compared to the chemo I went through, but I managed to tour even though I was doing the harshest of chemo, so this is actually easy street by comparison. We will see what happens in the long term. I may have to be dealing with this for the rest of my life, but I’m not at all worried about it or concerned in anyway, I always have been very positive about the outcome of this. I found my cancer early, as far as I am concerned, I’ve always been one step ahead of it, and I always will.
CrypticRock.com – That is a positive thing, and catching it early is really important. Glad to hear things are working well for you and we wish you the absolute best. We had one last question. If you are a fan of Horror or Science-Fiction do you have an favorites?
Vivian Campbell – I am sorry to disappoint you, I am a fan of neither (laughs). There’s no particular genre, I can appreciate a Drama as much as I can appreciate a Comedy, but my first instinct would be something light-hearted. When I watch a movie, I just want to escape with them. Although sometimes heavy Drama can be escape in a different way. Honestly, I am not really a movie watcher. Because I fly so much, I tend to catch up on movies in international flights where I’ll sit there and go through two or three of them at once. I’m a guy, I like Action for mindless entertainment. I enjoy a good James Bond movie or Bourne Identity kind of vibe.
CrypticRock.com – That is ok, everyone has their different tastes. Movies are time consuming. If you do not have time to watch them that is perfectly understandable.
Vivian Campbell – That’s it, some people invest a lot of their time in a TV series, movies, and stuff like that. I’ve never been one of those guys, when I’m in hotels I don’t even turn the TV on. I live online, there’s so much on the internet, I don’t even see the point of having a TV (laughs). Put it this way, I’m a big car fan. Modern sports cars, Porsche in particular, I’m a bit of an anorak when it comes to that. Old classic cars, I love old Jags, as well as cars from the ’50s and ’60s. I use most of my life pursuing car porn on the internet.
CrypticRock.com – (laughs) Very good. Do you in fact collect classic cars yourself?
Vivian Campbell – I’m not a collector, but in the last few years, since I got my cancer diagnosis, it really reminded me how precious life is and how short it is. I have learned a lot of very positive lessons from how to deal with cancer. It also inspired me to go spend some money on myself (laughs). I have a few Porsches, but I am not a collector, my pockets are not that deep. I also have two teenage daughters that are going to college within the next few years, so I kind of saw this as my window of opportunity to have these cars because I know I am probably going to have to sell them in a couple of years to fund college. I am enjoying it while I can.