VIVIAN CAMPBELL
Two Sides Of If
TCE interviews Def Leppard guitarist about blues album
by Todd K Smith

Many know Vivian Campbell from the many bands he’s played in or contributed to over the last 20 years. We were first introduced to the young Irish guitarist through Dio’s Holy Diver who sprang to fame with his fiery solo in “Rainbow In The Dark.” Next came the Whitesnake years and oh, how we remember those videos. For a short stay Campbell hooked up with Foreigner’s Lou Gramm producing a fine piece of plastic (Shadowking) that was dismissed by critics and buried by the record labels, as was The Riverdogs project. Joe Elliot claims to have “hand selected” Campbell for Def Leppard after the tragic loss of Steve Clark – and it’s in Def Leppard that he remains to this day, 12 years later.

For nearly 25 years none have ventured out on their own from the Leppard camp. They seem a tight machine focused on perfection all the time. However, this year we see two compelling side project come to fruition from the metal popsters; Phil Collen’s Man-Raze and Vivian Campbell’s electric blues record Two Sides Of If.

So why a blues record? What does Campbell have to offer one of the greatest (and beloved) traditions in US musical history? For starters he has passion, and that emotion pours out from this 12-track study with nervous excitement and wobbly knees.

“I love my day job,” Campbell told us over the phone. “I’ve gotten to the point where I can play the Lep set almost perfect. After awhile though, I wanted to do something a little less perfect, more emotional, more roots-based.” Campbell found his outlet in an exhaustive study of the blues and those that made the genre legendary. On Two Sides Of If there is Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready”, “I Ain’t Superstitious” and “Spoonful.” Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen”, Booker T’s “The Hunter” and Rory Gallagher’s “Calling Card,” all delivered with Campbell’s own spin and voice.

That’s right, he sings – and does so with such conviction that what could be run-of-the-mill standards takes shape in the tones of an Irish boy’s first love. Throaty and raspy comes the rocked up “Messin’ With The Kid”. Fleetwood Mac’s “Like It This Way” scorches a whisky tale, while “Good Or Bad Times” muscles it’s way to the top of the heap sounding aged and mature. From Campbell’s guitar comes the perfect duet, colorful, steady and loaded with texture, elements that embrace his voice.

Surrounding himself with top-notch musicians including Terry Bozzio (drums), Michael Fell (harmonica), Mark Browne (bass), Bruce Cornett (guitar) and Tor Hyams (piano, organ), Campbell keeps the session fresh. Recording the whole disc in just three days not only gives credence to the band’s workmanship, but also replicates a work ethic long forgotten. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Joan Osborne stop in to add their own contribution including Gibbons’ original, “Willin’ For Satisfaction” penned specifically for this project. The blues has found another hero in Campbell’s eloquent playing and vocal interpretation. A musical tradition passed on from generation to generation.

After spending several weeks getting to know Two Sides Of If, we contacted Vivian Campbell to understand how a stadium rock guitarist in one of the world’s most successful bands could bring homage to the blues – to the point that he would record a set of traditional standards with his own voice. The following are excerpts from that interview.

The Cutting Edge: What is your history with the blues and how did this project come about?

Vivian Campbell:
My history of the blues was and is very limited. Much of my blues knowledge did not come from the original artists but from guys like Clapton, Jeff Beck and Rory Gallagher. I owe more to their interpretation of the blues than I do the original guys that sang/wrote the songs. I don’t think that’s unusual. I think most of my generation got turned on to the blues listening to bands like Cream, Led Zeppelin and Free.

My wife had a lot to do with this record. As I stated in the CD booklet, I was invited to play at my daughter’s school fundraiser. I was to sit in with a band, basically made up of other parents, and do a blues set. There I met Tor Hyams a fellow parent, musician, producer and he convinced me that I should do a blues records. I told him that if he could get me signed, I’d consider it.

TCE: Most of us know you as a guitar player. I think what will surprise folks is how well you sing.

VC:
(Laughing) The vocals have been a long time coming. I’ve always wanted to sing. As a teenager I was really into the guitar not so much the voice. My first original band was Sweet Savage back in Ireland. I wasn’t the lead singer in the band but I sang a couple of the songs out of our set. I didn’t do it well, but I was half interested in singing then. It wasn’t until 1987, when I joined Whitesnake that I really started to take an interest in it. I started taking lessons, going to vocal coaches and really putting in the effort.

When I joined Dio and started playing hard rock for a living, I found it a very narrow - even restrictive genre. It was at that point in my life - 20, 21 - that I started to listen intently to a lot of other kinds of music, particularly soul. I got into Motown and singer songwriters. That didn’t go well Ronnie Dio. He never encouraged me to sing. He was of the mindset that singers sang and guitar players played guitar and never the two should meet. I wanted to sing harmonies with Jimmy Bain and he was very against it.

I guess because Ritchie Blackmore didn’t sing, and Tony Iommi didn’t sing, he thought that [my singing] would water down the “guitar hero’ image, which I entirely disagree with. To me, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Rory Gallagher were all guitar heroes and singers.

TCE: When did that change for you? When did you feel you were ready to explore that side of things?

VC:
When I joined Whitesnake. David Coverdale was much more encouraging. He gave me a lot of tips, a lot of pointers. He turned me on to a vocal coach, who was one of many. I went through four or five until I found one who was best for me. I wasn’t particularly good, but I was keen and learning. I sang a little more with The Riverdogs a few years later. Working with Rob Lamothe was a great experience. He is such a great singer and way under the radar.

I ended up cutting a half-dozen demos for a record of my own, just immediately prior to joining Def Leppard. They weren’t blues songs – they were more in the pop/soul vain. From a guitar player’s point of view, it was difficult to integrate what it was people expected of me.

TCE: Were you struggling with a direction, or finding a genre that you were comfortable with?

VC:
It was difficult for me to figure out how to let the guitar work within its own space, separate from the vocals. With the blues thing, it’s a lot more straightforward. Both aspects of what I do can live side by side. It’s a good marriage because I can develop my playing, my singing and my songwriting.

TCE: Have you learned a lot from Def Leppard that’s helped with this process?

VC:
Leppard’s such a song band. I’ve learned a lot about production and making records but more than anything else - the vocals. We’re such a vocal-based band. I feel I am a much stronger singer just having spent 12 to 13 years in Def Leppard.

TCE: That is definitely one of the most important elements about Def Leppard. However, the band is known for their long production schedules. What was you studio time for Two Sides Of IF?

VC:
Very short – only three days.

TCE: Three days!?

VC:
Yeah, in fact a lot of people told me it was a ballsy move to be doing a record where I’m singing and recording it live. But I had to play and sing in real time. That’s what the blues is. I listen to the record and right away I can hear parts where I pushed too hard or went sharp. There’s a couple songs that, in hindsight, are a little beyond my scope. But most of it works. It may have been a bit ambitious, but I think the tonality of my voice suits the blues.

It’s definitely the more rock side of blues. There’s a certain gravel in my voice that lends itself to singing blues and I had a passion for it. The passion is much more important than technique.

TCE: So, no overdubbing?

VC:
I was prepared to let it go live. To me it wouldn’t be right to fix a blues record. The blues are supposed to be about the passion. We had limited time so we had to make each take count. There are mistakes on the record and at first the guys in the band were like, “We’re going to fix that right?” and I’m like, “No, either we accept this one, or we do a whole ‘nother take – how lucky are you feelin’?”

TCE: Glad you brought up the band. You surrounded yourself with some amazing players – not all blues guys though.

VC:
Right. Terry’s (Bozzio) big thing is Frank Zappa and the Mother’s Of Invention. I’ve known Terry for 15 years and it’s pretty ironic that he’s playing the blues on my record. But it’s no more whacked-out than me playing the blues. Neither of us have any blues credentials but we’re competent musicians. He definitely wanted to play more fills and I wanted him to play less, but we worked it out.

TCE: You also invited Billy Gibbon’s to sit in.

VC:
When I was putting this whole thing together, the record company asked who I’d like to work with. I immediately listed Billy Gibbons and Joan Osborne. I later met up with Billy and he seemed interested but didn’t commit. Literally a couple days before we went in the studio, Billy was in town and called to ask when I needed him there. He came in on the second of the three days. It was so funny – he walks in and immediately starts teaching everyone how to play their instruments, including Terry who’s like this world-renowned drummer. He took over the whole session.

We did “Like It This Way”, the old Peter Green Fleetwood Mac song. Billy had so much fun cutting it he suggested doing an original song he wrote called “Willin’ For Satisfaction.” It was almost done when he came in. He just needed help with the third verse. He came back the next day, wrote out the third verse, asked what I thought – like I was going to argue with him. I was under the impression he was going to sing it but he asked me to sing it – which caught me off guard. I believe in the spontaneous energy you get when you have really good musicians playing in real time. I tried not to sweat the details and it came out better than I thought.

TCE: Being in Def Leppard - isn’t it almost against your nature to be spontaneous?

VC:
I’ve been listening to a lot of Marc Bolan - T Rex stuff at home. I’m a big Tony Visconti fan. He was involved with Lizzy, Bolan, and Bowie. It was the music that really influenced me and the guys in Leppard. And it was the live performance that we were attracted to. There is something in Leppard that almost doesn’t trust spontaneity. But they’re slowly moving past that.

TCE: I hear a bit of magic when I listen to the songs on Two Sides Of IF. It could be the quick, as you say “Live” delivery but also confidence.

VC:
There IS great magic about the record that goes deeper than the music. The A&R guy was the same guy that signed Dio. He’s a big blues guy and I’ve known him for years. He was a little nervous in that he’d signed me to a record deal but never really heard me sing. It was a real leap of faith.

TCE: Was he relieved to hear that you could sing and pull off a blues set?

VC:
Oh, yeah. I go out to this Irish bar in LA, and for the past year I’ve been doing this little blues set for as few as five people. It’s given me the confidence to sing and play in real time. The human voice is the greatest form of musical expression - the dynamics, the melody and motive as well as the lyrics all form a unique expression. Instrumentalists like myself can attempt to convey some kind of emotional expression through our instruments, but we can’t put a word on it. I’ve worked with some of the greatest rock singers out there. Dio, Coverdale, Lou Gramm. Rob Lamothe and now Joe Elliot. I consider myself very lucky and have learned from each of them.

TCE: How will your fan-base react to your singing and playing the blues?

VC:
We’ll I’m not going to quit my day job (laughing). This record has cost me a lot more money than what they gave me to do it. It’s something I wanted to do. It was a point I wanted to make. My hope is somebody somewhere will remember it.

TCE: Let’s talk about how you selected the songs for the disc. Willie Dixon is well represented but you also pull from Robert Johnson and Rory Gallagher.

VC:
When I started this project, I didn’t have a great understanding of the history of the blues. I come from a rock background so my knowledge of the blues is limited. I did spend the last year and a half going back and researching the blues and gained an appreciation of guys like Charley Patton, Willie Dixon and Son House but my interpretation is still based on ‘70’s artists who brought the blues to my ear – Gary Moore, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Rory Gallagher.

Until a few years ago I thought “Messin’ With The Kid” was one of Gallagher’s. I thought “Reconsider Baby” was Eric Clapton’s song and “The Hunter” a Free song. In fact my version of 32/20 Blues owes more to Clapton than Robert Johnson.

TCE: Now it’s your turn. People might think some of these are your songs.

VC:
I certainly tried to add my own voice to them. The true tone of any guitar player comes from his hands and fingers.

TCE: In your CD booklet you listed the guitar you used for each song and included a photo of the guitars you used in making this record. That’s a very cool thing to do for the fans – especially aspiring players.

VC:
When I was a kid I wanted to know every thing I could about my guitar heroes - what picks they used, what amps, heads and stings. That was gold dust to me. I remember buying Pat Travers’ “Putting It Straight” because you could see his gear set up on the cover. As an aspiring guitar player, it brought me closer to that nirvana.

A big part of my inspiration for making this record was Clapton’s “From The Cradle”. He seemed to return to the fire that got him started. I love to hear that progression. The process of making this album has made me a more economical guitar player and ultimately that’s to my benefit. I play too much because I have the technique and I play too easily. After you’ve been doing it for so many years, you fall into a rut or vibe.

The other night Joe Elliot was showing me an old Thin Lizzy DVD. It was shot in Australia with Gary Moore. I was amazed to see him play – like every note mattered – it counted for something. It was like he was hanging on to every note. The next night I think I played better than I had in a long time, at least it felt more intense because I was so focused. That’s what the blues is really about – the economy of playing and making the notes matter.

Special thanks to Vivian for taking the time to speak with us.

Website:
Vivian Campbell, Sanctuary Records