One of the benefits of becoming a rock icon: being recognized by, and often befriending, your musical peers and idols. Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott has never hidden his appreciation of, and passion for, seventies British rockers Mott The Hoople. He was obviously over the moon when he “got to know” guitarist Mick Ralphs, bassist Pete “Overend” Watts, and singer/pianist Ian Hunter, who even attended the front man’s wedding. So, when Elliott was asked to open for one of Mott The Hoople’s five 2009 London reunion shows, he excitedly agreed… without giving thought to who his backing band would be or what songs he would perform. The stars aligned, however, when The Quireboys agreed to join him for a set of tunes popularized by Mott’s members after they split.
Performing as Down ‘n’ Outz, the supposed one-off band were so well received they were persuaded to head into the studio to record the covers. The resulting My Regeneration [Mailboat Records, 2010] was so successful, it led to Mott The Hoople-centric The Further Adventures Of… [Mailboat Records, 2014]. By this time, the band had morphed into a supergroup of sorts with Elliott and Quireboys guitarists Paul Guerin and Guy Griffin and keyboardist Keith Weir being joined by Vixen bassist Share Ross and Wayward Sons drummer Phil Martini.
For the last five years, Down ‘n’ Outz were dormant as the band’s members returned to their respective “motherships.” During this time, however, Elliott continued to compose music on the piano; songs that did not fit Def Leppard’s repertoire. Elliott wondered what to do with his heavily seventies-influenced material, until it became apparent it would fit a third Down ‘n’ Outz album.
Although it could have been released 45 years ago, This Is How We Roll (uME)is not a tribute. It features 11 original tracks that nod in the direction of piano rock classics by Elton John, David Bowie, and others. It also features one cover, performance art alternative rockers The Tubes’ “White Punks on Dope.”
Elliott recently spoke with The Aquarian about becoming a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his love of seventies British rock ‘n’ roll, his creative process, and the future of Def Leppard.
Have you gotten used to being referred to as a “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee”?
It is still a little odd. People put a lot of value on it, but I’m still me when I wake up in the morning. And I’m still me when I go to bed at night. I am not using it to my advantage. I’m not standing in line at nightclubs shouting, ‘Do you know who I am!?’
Hall of Fame athletes add “HOF” to their signatures and charge more money for autographs.
We’re not doing that yet [laughs]. We just did the [induction ceremony] and then took some time off and then went back on the road in Europe. We then did a month in Canada and then [the month-long residency in] Vegas. Last weekend, we performed at the iHeartRadio Music festival and, on October 12th, we have the huge Exit 111 festival in Manchester, Tennessee. We also have a gig in November in Sacramento. Otherwise, we are done until 2020. Then, it is all about Down ‘N’ Outz.
The fans were instrumental in Def Leppard’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
When we saw a lot of people for the first time [since the induction], they congratulated us. It was overwhelming the first few weeks, but then it slowed down. When we got to Vegas [for the Planet Hollywood/Zappos Theater residency], the congratulations were a constant thing again. It is a great club to be in. I’m told there are only 330 inductees, so what an amazing thing to be able to say you’re in it. Without a shadow of a doubt, I believe we would not have made it in without the fan vote.
Down ‘N’ Outz: For a band that was created to play just one show, it’s surprising that there will be a third studio album.
Mate, [in the beginning,] we didn’t think there would be a first album. The band was born by accident. It was 10 years ago when Ian Hunter’s wife Trudi e-mailed me with a big “Shush” headline. [She wrote,] ‘Don’t say anything yet, but [Mott the Hoople] are going to reform and they want you involved.’ I responded, ‘Okay. What do you want me to do? Do you want me to introduce them on stage?’ [She wrote back,] ‘No. We have a different act opening up each night and we want you to open the last night.’ I said, ‘Well, Def Leppard can’t do it’ and she said, ‘We know. We just want you.’
How did you find, what was essentially, your backing band for the show?
The guy who was promoting the reunion shows also looked after a band called The Quireboys. [Singer] Spike [Gray] stepped aside and the band graciously donated their talents and time.
How did you choose the night’s setlist?
I picked the 10 songs I thought we should do—all connected to Mott The Hoople but not actual Mott The Hoople songs. I didn’t want to do their songs and then have them perform them again in an hour [laughs]. So, I chose songs they were involved in after they split up. There was solo Ian Hunter stuff, Mott [the name they continued under after Hunter left], and The British Lions songs.
How did a supposed one-off performance wind up in a recording studio?
We were just going to play for 45 minutes and that’s it; we were going to go our separate ways. When we finished, and before Mott The Hoople went on stage, we went to the bar to grab a pint and we had kids in tears pushing us up against the wall. They were crying, ‘I can’t believe I heard those songs on stage. I never thought I would hear them [performed live] again. Are you going to record them?’ That’s when the penny dropped. I said, ‘Well, there’s an idea. I never thought about that.’
And that was how Down ‘N’ Outz’ debut, My Regeneration, was born.
A couple of days later, I called the guys up and said, ‘While they are still fresh in our DNA, do you want to make an album?’ And they all to a man said yes. They went into a studio in the U.K. and recorded all their parts, sent their stuff to me at my home studio in Dublin, Ireland, and I finished it off….
It was such a success that it created a demand for The Further Adventures Of….
It was insane stuff. When that happened, I thought, ‘Of course, there is going to have be a second album now.’ But by the time we got around to doing that—we recorded it in 2013—we were no longer opening for Mott The Hoople, so we could delve into their catalogue. That’s why the album has [renditions of] “Marionette” and “Rock and Roll Queen” and “Drivin’ Sister.’ We did some shows and then we returned to all four of our respective motherships.
By then, Share Ross had joined the band and she is busy with Vixen; The Quireboys are busy; Def Leppard are extremely busy; and Phil the drummer from Wayward Sons, who are also busy.
It must be difficult to get the entire band in the same room.
It is extremely difficult, which is why that never happened. The drums for the second album were recorded in London; Share recorded her bass parts in Florida; and the files were sent over to me. I brought the other guys over to my studio [Joe’s Garage] to complete the recording and then we pieced it all together. It was a tough one to do.
This Is How We Roll took five years to complete?
By the time we had finished our second record, I had started writing songs on the piano and I started to think that these might work for a third Down ‘N’ Outz album. It consists of like-minded material. It is piano-based rock ‘n’ roll. It just came about because we had done the two records and [wondered], ‘What next?’ We briefly talked about doing a third covers record, which would have contained various stuff from different bands. That discussion, however, only lasted about 15 minutes. What we did decide was, no matter what we ended up doing, we were going to cover [The Tubes’] “White Punks on Dope.”
That cover seems like an odd choice.
I know it was written [to playfully satirize] British glam rock and punk, but it has always been a favorite of mine. It is a phenomenal work. When I suggested it, everyone was on board. It just made sense to make it the last track on the record. We’ve established that this band has legs; it can stand on its own two feet and write songs. But it is also okay to throw the odd cover in. Even David Bowie covered Morrissey.
Is Down ‘n’ Outz the band you would have formed had you been born a decade earlier?
If you can hear anything on this album that sounds like it [was written and recorded] after 1975, I’ll be disappointed. It is [the type of music I grew up] listening to. It is [heavily influenced by] Elton John, David Bowie, Leon Russell, Sparks, Joe Cocker, Queen, and Cockney Rebel. There are even small hints of early Roxy Music on songs like “Creatures.” I love piano-based music, but I put that off to the side when Def Leppard took off.
It is a departure from your work with Dep Leppard.
This Is How We Roll is not a solo album, but it was entirely written by Joe Elliott. It is my vision, but I could not have done it before Def Leppard, because I did not have the tools. I would have had the ambition, but not the skills to pull it off. I would not have had the songwriting ability, nor would I have had the piano playing ability. Def Leppard is a total cooperative where you are only 20 percent of the band. And the way that band grew out of its embryonic form was to be a rock band. I wasn’t about to walk into our second rehearsal saying, ‘We need a piano player.’ We would have never taken off.
That worked in your favor.
It is not as if I have been pent up for the last 40 years. But there has been this thought on the backburner that one day, as my piano playing got better, I would create these songs. It is a skill set that has been developed over a long, slow period.
It is a full-fledged second band; an avenue to express another creative side.
I now have this fantastic opportunity whenever I sit down at the piano and come up with new music. I can offer it to Def Leppard and they can reject it for stylistic reasons. Or, they can accept it, because it is not as if we have never done songs with piano. [The members of Def Leppard] all have other outlets. [Guitarist] Vivian [Campbell] has The Last In Line to pursue the really heavy stuff he likes. The really bluesy stuff that [guitarist] Phil [Collen] comes up with is great for Delta Deep, and if he chooses doing his roots rock/reggae stuff he has [his band] Manraze. We all have these great outlets to explore these ideas, so we don’t sit down and try to find a way to crowbar them into Def Leppard.
Down ‘n’ Outz must also cleanse your creative pallet for when you return to the mothership.
Absolutely. At the same time, I am not going to walk into a room and say, ‘I am not going to sit down at a piano anymore.’ I was writing at a piano just yesterday. What I do is put my phone at the top of the piano, open my voice-memo application, and record it so that I don’t forget it. I have loads of these files on my phone. I recorded three new ideas yesterday. But there is a guitar in the corner of the room that will get picked up a lot more as we get to work on new Def Leppard music.
How does that work?
With Def Leppard, sometimes Phil or [Rick] “Sav” [Savage, bass] will say, ‘I’ve written this thing that’s got no lyrics.’ And I’ll say, ‘Okay. Hand it to me.’ That’s how we’ll write songs. Phil wrote the music to “Dangerous” and I wrote the melodies and lyrics. Sav wrote the music and melodies for “Let’s Go.” I only wrote the lyrics. My palette is indeed cleansed for the time being, because This Is How We Roll comes out on October 11th, and there will not be another Down ‘n’ Outz album anytime soon. There might, however, be some new Def Leppard music next year or in 2021.
Will Down ‘n’ Outz be touring?
Yes. As our schedules and respective Motherships allow.