Def Leppard Rejuvenated By Guitarist's Cancer Scare

'Do it while you can,' says Vivian Campbell of fiery new concert film

Phil Collen of Def Leppard performs in Barcelona, Spain.
Jordi Vidal/Redferns via Getty Images
October 22, 2013 1:20 PM ET

When Def Leppard's Phil Collen watches the group's new live album/DVD Viva Hysteria (out this week), he sees a rejuvenated band.

See Where Def Leppard's 'Hysteria' Ranks on the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

"I think it's the best live performance we've ever captured, and better than most other bands," he tells Rolling Stone of the set recorded earlier this year in Las Vegas. "We sounded 20 years younger [with] an aggression that for some reason we haven't had on previous live recordings. It had a punk ethos."

Rolling Stone recently sat down in Santa Monica with Collen, guitarist Vivian Campbell and drummer Rick Allen to talk about the new concert film, Campbell's cancer diagnosis and chemo treatments and the band's future.

A lot of bands are uncomfortable watching themselves. Have you seen the concert film yet?
Phil Collen: I've seen it. I think it's fantastic. We actually really sing our stuff. Everyone touches stuff up, but this is really us being live. We use different stuff from different nights, and the angles – they shot over two nights so they used the best parts. This is phenomenal. It's mind-blowing.

Vivian Campbell: I don't like watching myself, I took that in consideration when I stood in front of the bedroom mirror pretending to be Marc Bolan. I was also really, really sick when we filmed this. When I look at pictures I look very pale because I was anemic and everything, so I'm not in a hurry to go see myself on the big screen.

How does Def Leppard keep the passion up?
Campbell: The problem with being a musician is it's hard to keep up that passion. You start doing it for the right reasons, then it becomes a job, like anything. We're all different, we find separate things to motivate us, but we're in a good place right now. I think I'm playing guitar better than I've ever played in my life because, unlike an athlete, it's not like a physical thing where your body packs in when you're 30. You actually get better and better. Every time we're on tour, I have a moment where I think, "Fuck, this is really fucking good." And also having this whole fucking chemo and cancer bollocks, the fact I've been able to work through it has really helped me mentally. And I'm really enjoying playing my instrument again, which I wouldn't have honestly been able to say 10 years ago.

Collen: There's a fire there. Normally as you get older you get comfy. You're a great player, but the fire goes. This is the opposite, for whatever reason. We've all got it, and it's actually captured on this [film], which is pretty amazing.

Rick Allen: It's like an out-of-body experience. You're listening to it, the whole band, and you're going, "Am I actually doing that? Are they actually doing that?" It really does sound that good.

Where do you think the fire came from?
Campbell: We took 2010 off and I did a few months as a stunt guitar player with Thin Lizzy, and that's what really reignited my passion again, because Lizzy were an influential band for me when I was a teenager. Through Thin Lizzy I discovered Gary Moore, and he was my single biggest influence as a player. So being onstage playing with Scott Gorham and Brian Downey, playing "Black Rose" and "Jail Break," was kind of living the dream. And that's when I came back from that tour and said, "Fuck, I really love playing guitar again." Then, obviously, the cancer thing was like, "Do it while you can."

Allen: I actually think what you were going through did something to me and to all of us. There was a camaraderie.

How so?
Allen: It reminded me of my own vulnerabilities, and the whole idea of just being courageous in the face of something so daunting. I was just feeling for him, and it reminded me of where I was not too long ago, and it made me do the best I could. He rose to the occasion, and it was like, "Fuck me, I better pull out all the stops." Collectively, it just felt as if the whole band rose to the occasion.

Collen: Also I think, which is pretty fucking weird, we've had so many great opportunities over the last few years, the Rock of Ages thing . . . Nothing really blew us up, we were Def Leppard, but it didn't take us to that next level, so I thought perhaps we were gonna be winding down, that this was a last hurrah. I played to that, thinking, "Fuck, we'll go out with a bang." And that's not the case. We are moving forward, gonna be writing songs. January we're gonna be going into the studio and stuff. But I do think there was a bit of floating around. "The band is winding down. We've got this great album. Let's represent ourselves.” And we stepped up to that.

What's the status with the new record?
Collen: We've got a shitload of new songs anyway, it's just implement them and then, "What direction are we gonna take? Who are we gonna get to produce it? Are we gonna do it ourselves? Are we gonna do multiple stuff?" An album would obviously take too long, so we're gonna do about four or five songs, get those out and then next year have an album come out, so it'll be an EP and an album.

Who would you like to work with going forward?
Collen: I love Skrillex. I think [he's] fucking awesome, and he's a huge fan. Love to work with him, that would be killer. It's pretty specific and it's not necessarily Def Leppard, [but] I think it'd be great.

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