Interview by: Robert Cavuoto
Vivian Campbell is most notably known for playing guitar in Def Leppard, but prior to joining the band 24 years ago; he was in Dio and played on their first three albums. Together with Ronnie James Dio, Vinny Appice, and Jimmy Bain they co-wrote three of rock’s most definitive metal albums – Holy Diver, Last In Line, and Sacred Heart. Albums that not only created Dio’s sound but help forged a genre of music known as heavy metal!
After a 27 year hiatus from Dio, a casual and fun reunion jam in a Los Angeles rehearsal room in 2011 turned into a fully-fledged recording project that has taken on a life of its own. The band Last In Line takes its name from the Dio’s second album released in 1984. Chemistry intact, the band called in Andrew Freeman to handle the vocals.
The end result is a hard rock CD driven by heavy riffs and melodic vocals from the opener of “Devil” to the closer on “The Sickness.” Heavy Crown is being unleashed on February 19th by Frontier Music and is produced by Jeff Pilson of Dokken fame.
I caught up with Vivian to talk about Heavy Crown after the passing of his friend and band mate Jimmy Bain on the Def Leppard Cruise as well as his approach to playing guitar. Though Vivian is very humble about his guitar playing, he truly is a guitar hero. Thousands of Dio and Def Leppard fans will testify based on the songs he has written, played on, and performed.
Robert Cavuoto: Sorry to hear about Jimmy Bain’s passing; allow me to extend my condolences. Can you share what transpired on the Def Leppard Cruise? Was Jimmy ill prior?
Vivian Campbell: Thank you, it was quite surreal. Being on a ship at sea and Jimmy passing was quite bizarre and sad. Jimmy had been dealing with pneumonia for a couple of weeks before his death. He called me about a month ago saying he spent the night in a hospital with pneumonia and was given an expensive prescription. He didn’t have the money for it so I gave him the money to get the medicine he needed. The following week we started rehearsals in anticipation of the two performances on the cruise. He was very weak in rehearsals and on the second day, he said he had been back in the hospital as he wasn’t feeling any better. They changed his prescription but he still looked really jaundice, as his skin was very yellow. During all of our rehearsals Jimmy was sitting down and would have to leave early. We did a pre-cruise show on January 20th at a casino in Miami Florida the night before the cruise, he got through it, played great like he always did but he was very weak; he was a real trooper. We were very concerned about him, the following day we got on the ship and that was last time I saw him. I know Vinny and Andrew were looking in on him those first couple of days to make sure he was eating and resting. On Saturday evening Andrew looked in on him and he was dead.
Robert: The Cruise seem like it was cursed with Joe getting sick and not being able to perform as well.
Vivian Campbell: Everything was really bizarre! On top of that, at the casino show our Last in Line tour manager had a seizure and had to be rushed to the hospital right after the sound check.
Robert: Will Last in Line carry on without Jimmy?
Vivian Campbell: We were scheduled to do a tour to promote the release of the CD but have cancelled it. We have two obligations which we will fulfill; the Frontiers Festival Italy this April as we are headlining two nights and Rocklahoma on Memorial Day weekend, with whom on bass I don’t know as of yet as we just not are there yet. Jimmy was just buried and we want to be very respectful to his memory. He believed in this CD and it’s a strong record that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his other recordings. In the last year and a half while we were making the CD, it really gave him focus in dealing with his sobriety and overcoming that demon. He focused his energies on it, believed in it, and was very proud of it – as we all are. It’s weird to think about performing without Jimmy as he was so much a part of the process. It was reuniting the original Dio band and the chemistry is to never be replaced. I personally don’t subscribe to the feeling that you can replace a musician; we are unique like our finger prints. Where we play, where we don’t play, how we play, the spaces we leave, and our timing. The tonality we each have is very individual, every musician is very unique. It’s going to be different; it’s never going to be the same. We believe in the project, the record, and we will work it to some extent.
Robert: The spirit and energy of those early Dio albums came out on many of the songs on Heavy Crown. Did you revisit leftover riffs from the 80s for it?
Vivian Campbell: No, not at all. All these songs were written specifically for this record. There was no agenda to make it sound like Dio. But that just happens to be the noise that we make when Jimmy, Vinny, and I make when we get together. That was the sound of the early Dio records because that was us. The difference is Ronnie vs. Andrew. We just went in and started playing. The songs were written very organically and very quickly, just the way we did with the Holy Diver record. The only similarity was that we put ourselves in the same set of circumstance and mind set; to go into a room, bounce ideas off of each other and then send the ideas to the singer. For the Holy Diver record we would get together early afternoon and then have ideas to show Ronnie in the evening. Sometimes Ronnie would make suggestions other times he would listen, look at his lyric book, then 30 minutes later step up to the mic to start singing something. With Heavy Crown, most of the sessions were just Vinny, Jimmy and I as Andrew was in Las Vegas. Vinny would record it on his Zoom recorder and then send Andrew the MP3s. Andrew would get back with suggestion or provide lyrics so we could cut the track. When Andrew was at the sessions in LA, it was great as his input would take us in a different direction. It was done piece meal over a period of eight months at three different recording sessions. We would write a couple of songs then go into the studio the following week to record.
Robert: Stylistically I can’t help but notice you’re guitar playing in Dio and on this Heavy Crown differs from how you play in Def Leppard.
Vivian Campbell: I would say that I don’t have a lot of input in Def Leppard. Leppard is a different ship on a different course. The Leppard juggernaut was already well down the road when I joined it, even though it has been 24 years since I joined the band. There is a way that Def Leppard has worked and always will work that I have little impact on to be honest. I think what you are hearing on Heavy Crown is naturally what I do. You are also inspired by who you are playing with. When Vinny starts playing it takes me to different place. It’s about the chemistry in the band and it’s difficult to image Jimmy not being there. We each push and pull each other in certain way and that makes us play the way we do. If I was playing a riff to Vinny, he would play the snare drum where I heard the kick drum and vise versa. He hears things differently than a lot of other drummers. That in itself would inspire me to play in a different way from what I was thinking of playing. The Leppard thing is very different, there are elements of hard rock but it’s more polished. When Def Leppard makes a record it is not always one genre. With Last in Line we were making a straight up rock record we did it very easily and very naturally as that’s just what we do. When Leppard goes into the studio it’s more of a thoughtful and analytical process. It’s not just jamming and having song ideas, it’s a very carefully put together record like checking certain boxes, we have to cover the rock element, then move to the pop element, then something else. It’s a completely different process and very seldom includes any live interplay between us.
Robert: When you look back over your career, how do you think you’re playing technique has grown and improved from Dio to Def Leppard to Last in Line?
Vivian Campbell: Sometimes I think “How the fuck did I do that?” [laughing] Other times I cringe and think I was bending that note way to sharp or my vibrato was kind of nervous. I go to both of those things on the early record. I didn’t listen to those Dio records for decades. It’s only in the last five years that I have gone back and revisited them. Because of that passage of time I have a much better perspective of it now. I’m very critical of my own performances and with the benefit of my years of experience able to listen to my early work and appreciate it which I could never do back in the day. I still critique myself from those days. I do think I’m a better guitar player now in a lot of ways. I think I’m more comfortable with my style. I was never that comfortable in my early 20’s as I was always frustrated that I couldn’t play like Paul Gilbert, Yngwie Malmsteen and Vinnie Moore – all these fantastically technical proficient guitar players. I was literally spinning my wheels and frustrated that I couldn’t do sweep arpeggios or manage 54th note alternate picking. Now I’m happy that I can’t, as my limitations on the guitar, in which there are many as I’m self-taught, helped me craft my own style, sound, and identity which I think are more important than pure technique. As a young guitar player you get blindside by technique and try to aspire to that only. With some experience you learn what really makes you stand out is to have something unique. I feel fortunate that I have that but it’s by accident, not by design oddly enough.
Robert: I love great riffs and though it’s what makes Heavy Crown tremendous as all the songs have big riffs. My two favorite tracks are “Burn this House Down” and “Blame it on Me.” What can you tell me about their creation?
Vivian Campbell: Everyone collaborated in the creation of this CD. The origins of certain songs have stronger associations with certain people. “Burn this House Down” was collaborative thing with all of us. It was an idea that floated around for a while. I wasn’t too impressed with it at first. Vinny actually drove it along as being something useful and then Andrew came in and tied it together. It was a strange one for me and I didn’t think it would be good song. I’m pleasantly surprised that it came out so well. I give credit to Vinny and Andrew on that song.
“Blame it on Me” was actually a Jimmy riff. It was one of the last songs that we wrote. Jimmy wanted a heavy ½ time “Kashmir” type of vibe so he came up with it. We started making arrangements around it. If you are looking for someone to take credit for that riff and song its Jimmy.
Robert: Do you have a favorite Dio LP of the three you were on? My personal favorite is Holy Diver.
Vivian Campbell: I was more comfortable on the Last in Line record than Holy Diver. It’s hard for me to separate the two as they are both are of the same note. I can honestly tell you that I didn’t enjoy Scared Heart; I don’t think any of us did. There were issues with the Dio band during that time of making the record. That’s when things were starting to go wrong personally and creatively. Ronnie was going to write more with keyboards which Jimmy, Vinny and I were not in favor of. We felt the guitar was the main focus of the band as we were a guitar driven band. We thought Ronnie was trying to overly complicate the arrangement particularly with keyboards. They weren’t necessarily making the songs better it was just for the sake of having it in the song. It became more difficult to write songs. Also Ronnie had split up with Wendy at the time who was our manager. His mood was exceptionally dark and nobody wanted to be in the studio with him. With Holy Diver, we were all in the studio at all times even when you completed your part as you were there offering encouragement to everyone else. It was collaborative and a group effort. For me, Last in Line and Holy Diver were both the same in terms of quality as they were both strong records. I personally felt more integrated in the Last in Line record. I established how I was working within the band and felt a bit more comfortable. The Holy Diver record was so new to me as it was my first record and I just showed up in a LA from Ireland still having culture shock. Jimmy and I shared an apartment [laughing]. The whole thing was surreal making this record with Ronnie who I had been listening to his albums for years as he was a bonafide rock star. Here I was at 20 in this strange city, in this strange culture, sharing an apartment with Jimmy, and going to the studio at night to make a record. As good as it was I was shell shocked.
Robert: I recall reading years ago that you never wanted to be the lone guitar hero in a one guitarist band. I never knew if that was true and if so have your views on that changed?
Vivian Campbell: It’s not that I didn’t want to be the only guitar player in the band, I’m quite happy with that. It’s just that I’m a bit of a reluctant guitar hero. I still am to an extent, it’s just my personality. I don’t have that outgoing exhibitionist personality that makes for the best guitar hero [laughing]. I don’t think that Jimi Hendrix would been as nearly successful if he wasn’t as flamboyant as he was. I don’t have any of that what-so-ever. I’m a very reflective person. I guess I never thought this through when I was a kid. I was fascinated by the sound of the electric guitar. Everything with electric guitar from the opening of “Day Tripper” by The Beatles to Hendrix fascinates me and I was drawn to the instrument. My passion was to play the instrument. Then there is this whole other side of it if you want to do it seriously. To make a career of it, you have to go on stage to perform in front of people and wear a persona that isn’t really you. It has taken a lot of years for me to get to that stage. I do it and I think I do it proficiently but it’s not part of my personality.
It’s more the performance aspect, I’m more than happy on the musical aspect to do it. It’s just that part of my personality is not outgoing enough. [laughing]
Robert: Was there any concern about going out with Last in Line as you are the focal point of the band.
Vivian Campbell: It’s a different thing with Last in Line, we are not young and were not attractive [laughing] so it’s not like we are out there trying to be something we are not. We just go out and play guitar. I’m happy to do that and it’s easy to do it. In the early days of my career with Dio, it was much more about performance. Ronnie was big on the theatrics, like the big rubber dragons, knights having sword fighting on stage, lasers, and bombs. That meant that the band had to bring some of it forward to the show. That what I’m talking about which was always a little difficult for me.
Robert: When do you think the Def Leppard tour will start up?
Vivian Campbell: We are rescheduling those shows for May. We are and always were planning to do a summer US tour in mid-June, so the shows that had to be postponed are just in advance of that.