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Joe Elliott Celebrates the ‘Criminally Ignored’ Mott The Hoople With New Down ‘n’ Outz Record

Photo credit: Maryanne Bilham-Knight

Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliott’s love for the music of Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople is well documented, which is why it’s not surprising that he would eventually wind up doing a project like the Down ‘n’ Outz, his rough-and-tumble salute to Hunter and Mott, which features musical backing from members of the London-based Quireboys.

The band first came together in 2009 as a result of an invitation to open for one of the Mott the Hoople reunion dates. Reaction to the gig was so positive that the musical union stuck and produced an album, ‘My ReGeneration’ and subsequent live DVD.

Now Elliott and crew are back to file another chapter with the April 22 release of a second studio album called ‘The Further Adventures Of …’

We had the opportunity to speak with Elliott about the new album and what it’s like to open for one of your musical heroes. Elliott also gave us an update on new Def Leppard music that’s in the works.

It’s great that we’ve got “further adventures” of the Down ‘n’ Outz to talk about. It must be a real joy for you to have a hand in bringing these songs back around for new generations to consume.

Well, that’s really my total ulterior motive for doing this. You know, I think they’re criminally ignored for God knows how many decades when people just go on and on about Zeppelin and the Stones and the Beatles and rightfully so, but it comes a point when it’s like: “Well, sometimes the underdog needs reexamining,” whether it be Humble Pie, Spooky Tooth or Mott the Hoople, which just happened to be my favorite band. So it is, for me, a great opportunity to do something slightly different to what I normally do and I’m doing it totally for the love of the music. There’s absolutely no other reason to do this.

Listening to songs like ‘Marionette’ and ‘The Journey’ on this album, you really get an appreciation for how epic the music of Mott the Hoople and the related projects could be.

Absolutely right. I’ve read many times that when Mott were playing ‘Marionette,’ specifically places like the Uris Theatre, they had Queen [opening]. It was the only time that Queen opened for anybody — they opened for Hoople. You hear the stories about Fred [Freddie Mercury] standing on the side of the stage and watching the band play ‘Marionette.’ When you look at ‘Marionette,’ it is almost like a mini-opera.

You know, it’s been said and he actually said himself it was partly an inspiration for him writing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ the fact that they could take this song and not just write this regular three minute verse/chorus/verse/middle 8/end kind of song. It’s a bit more dramatic than that. It’s almost theatrical. So you can see what it is — the songs don’t sound anything like each other — but there is a kind of connection if you like, just through the dynamics of them both.

How much time did you spend recording the stuff on this new album? There’s a good looseness to it. It doesn’t feel like you spent too much time deliberating things, but at the same time, it seems like you had fun building an electric atmosphere with these tracks.

Yeah, that’s right. We spent as much time on them as necessary. I wanted it to be tight but loose, because it’s not Def Leppard. It’s not supposed to be an ultrasonically polished 21st century shining example of production and all of that stuff. I wanted to be able to use good production but not massive production. I mean, you learn, when you work with Mutt Lange for 11 years, some of it rubs off and then you’ve got your own theories and your own methods and your own things that you want to try.

This is a great example of being able to get really good songs, obviously better than Mott could achieve themselves, just because technology has evolved — not their lack of ability, but 16-track studios in those days were a luxury. Now today, if somebody went in a 16-track studio, they’d be complaining about it. But yeah, the Quireboys, who basically the Down ‘n’ Outz are, are a kind of Stonesy/Faces type band, so there is a type of looseness to their playing, anyway — which is magnificent for what this project is. But at the same time, we have the ability to tie things up where it needs to be.

Like when I was augmenting ‘Marionette’ with the saxophones and the violins and all of that stuff, giving it the authenticity that it needed — it does tie everything up and it does put a kind of sheen on it all, which brings the songs to life. It was recorded over a two-year period, but if we took all the recording [time] and squashed it into a certain amount of days, I think the whole project took maybe eight or nine weeks — or less than that, even, because that’s including the mixing. I think the recording of it, maybe we spent five weeks doing it and I spent about a month or so mixing it.

As meticulous as you’ve been in the past recording with Def Leppard, how much of an adjustment was it for you to know when something was done?

It wasn’t that difficult, because I’m always the one who’s normally kicking and screaming to keep going! [Laughs.] I’m like “It sounds fine!” All of the bands that I grew up listening to, whether it be Zeppelin, the Stones, the Beatles, Mott the Hoople, they were all relatively sloppy! The only people that I ever really listened to that I would say were ultra-tight, was like I don’t know, Supertramp or Boston or something like that. Queen were super-tight.

But a lot of the other acts, even Bowie with the Spiders, it was kind of like a raw rock band. So for us, it was a combination of wanting it to be — with Def Leppard, there’s always songs that are kind of looser than others and some that are just ridiculously overproduced, because that is just what we were going for. But it’s not that hard to regress to a simpler way. What’s harder is to stop yourself from going too far. Because once you’ve learned how to do that big production thing that Mutt does, there’s no limit to where that mountain goes.

You can say: “Well, why don’t we just spend another three weeks doing this that and the other.” You’d never finish the project, you know? So, it was not that difficult. Plus the fact that if you take me out of the Def Leppard camp, I’m a different beast. Because when I’m Mr. 20 Percent, I throw in [my opinion] and everybody else does and we come to a kind of decision. With the Down ‘n’ Outz thing, they pretty much leave me alone to do it.

The guys come in and they play — we’ve never had a discussion about “well, I don’t want to do it that way, I think we should do it that way.” They’ve been very respectful to the original versions of the songs, which is how I wanted it to be and they’ve pretty much left me alone to get it [where I want it to be]. They supply the backing tracks, if you like, and I finish them off. That’s how we made the record. When we play live, it suits that because it’s not overly complicated.

By including the [subsequent Mott offshoot band] British Lions-era material, it suggests that you were in for the whole ride when it came to this music, whether it was Mott the Hoople, Mott or British Lions.

Pretty much, yeah. We didn’t do any Lions on this one, but we did two Mott tracks. We did one from ‘Drive On’ and one from ‘Shouting and Pointing,’ and the rest of them are all Hoople. I wanted to go deeper into the Hoople catalog, because I didn’t go anywhere near Hoople at all on the first record, because the record was born after the gig and the gig was the only thing we were supposed to do. Talk about organically growing, it wasn’t like “let’s get together and form a band,” it was “will you open for Mott the Hoople on the last night of their London run in 2009?” I’m like: “You’re kidding — really?”

The Quireboys lent themselves to me and they said “will you pick the songs?” and I thought: “Well, what do I want?” I thought: “If I was me, watching me from the front row, what would I want me to play before Mott the Hoople went on?,” and I thought: “Why not everything that they were doing after they finished?” That made sense to me and I was one of those kids that followed every split level, even to the point of watching the English Assassins, which is Nigel Benjamin’s band after he left Mott. I mean, you could go on forever — I would buy Hanoi Rocks albums because [Dale] “Buffin” [Griffin] and Pete Watts were producing them. That’s what you do when you’re a fanatical music fan like I was, and still am.

I was more than happy to throw in the British Lions stuff, because I saw the Lions twice and I really enjoyed them and the fact that they normally medleyed at the end of their set with some old classics. But on this album, I was able to go into the Mott the Hoople catalog, which I couldn’t do [last time]. Out of respect for Hoople, I wasn’t going to play any of their songs when I was opening for them. But with this, I’m not opening for them. It’s just another record that’s organically grown out of the first one being relatively successful. I mean, I still pinch myself when Jody, our radio girl, says: “You know, ‘England Rocks’ got to No. 4 and ‘Overnight Angels’ got to No. 1 on the Mediabase rock charts,” in the states. In fact, it just doesn’t make any sense really, because it was never really ever going to be a band. It was a 45-minute live performance that just took off.

Even with the parameters that you set going into it, that Mott the Hoople opening gig had to be pretty daunting when you stepped out on a stage, playing music that does have connections to the group that’s going to follow.

I didn’t feel any pressure like that at all. In fairness, when you were there in the moment, there was absolutely no pressure, because nobody knew we were on. It’s not like we were advertised. Nobody knew that the guy from Def Leppard’s opening for Hoople. We were just one of five different acts. I think Glen Matlock was on the night before me and it just said “Mott the Hoople with special guests.” They didn’t know what they were getting — when we walked onstage at 7:30, it was maybe a third of the hall and the rest of them were all in the bar.

We had to get very clever by making a ton of noise with me talking: “Go and tell your mates that we’re about to play some stuff that’s going to blow your f–king mind and all of the sudden, by the second song the place is full and by the last number they were on their feet. It was like a classic ’70s gig in that respect. It didn’t feel daunting. To me, it was just like it was a great thing to do. Even when I saw that Pete Watts and Ian Hunter were onstage sort of eyeballing us. It wasn’t like: “Oh my God, we’ve got to this right.” It was just like: “Hey, look, we are well-rehearsed” — and we were. These guys spent the entire summer learning the songs, and I spent the entire summer learning the songs.

Which was ridiculous was that we all spent eight or nine weeks working our nuts off in our spare time for a 45-minute gig in front of a few thousand people. Why would you be bother? But of course, it’s a longstanding commitment to this 12-year old kid inside of me who is like: “This is an honor.” What I do for a living is great, but this is your true love, you know. And the fact that maybe the reward for doing that hard work was the fact that it didn’t end after that last song. Because when we went to the bar during the interval in the gig, there were [people] enjoying beers coming up to us saying: “I never thought I would hear ‘Shouting and Pointing’ or ‘Overnight Angels’ live ever again.” Then other kids were going “you have to record these songs,” and that’s when we decided that while they’re still fresh in our DNA, we should do it — so we did.

It’s pretty cool to hear that all of this is leading towards the band doing some original material for the next album.

Yeah, we’d already made that decision before we started this second album. There was talk of a third album being covers of other people’s stuff, but we just knocked down the idea pretty quickly over a couple of beers and said: “No, let’s just try it.” And I had a backlog of songs that were not Leppard-like that I thought might work, and I sat down and started weeding through all of these ideas that I’ve got on various microcassettes and I started piecing some stuff together and then writing lyrics and melodies.

I demoed six or seven songs about a year ago while we were maybe a third of the way through doing this record. The guys had recorded all of the backing tracks and I was waiting for a chance to finish them off and then to go in and do the next bunch, because we were both touring with our other bands around the world. It really is a case of catching the moment. It’s a bizarre, organic project when you look at it from that point of view. But it is exciting that the third album will be original material. It will obviously be sympathetic to the way the first two Down ‘n’ Outz albums sound. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say it’s going to sound somewhat like Mott the Hoople, Mott and British Lions, because it is. It’s not going to sound like the Quireboys and it’s not going to sound like Def Leppard — other than my voice, which is always a bit of a giveaway.

Musically, it’s going to be obviously a lot more piano-driven and the guitars will be a different style of guitar playing — not just all guitar riffs and big shiny choruses and all of that kind of stuff. Obviously, there’s still going to be a certain amount of melody there, I mean after all, when you listen to things like ‘All The Way From Memphis,’ ‘Roll Away The Stone’ and ‘Honaloochie Boogie,’ Ian Hunter could write a hit single, so I’m not going to try to avoid the simplistic pop song, if you like, if one comes along. But a lot of the stuff that we’re writing is very much in the line of ‘The Journey’ or ‘Death May Be Your Santa Claus’ or ‘Walking With A Mountain’ and that kind of stuff where it just chugs along. It’s epic in a different way.

Def Leppard will be on the road this summer with Kiss. Can you remember the first time that the two bands crossed paths?

We never really did. The first time that the two bands crossed paths was at the ‘VH-1 Rock Honors’ awards, where kind of a junior band inducts you into this VH-1 thing. I think the All-American Rejects did a Def Leppard song and then we played. I can’t remember who Kiss had, but it was us, Kiss, Queen and Judas Priest and of course we were all milling around backstage. That was the first time we’d performed on a stage in the same building.

Me and Gene [Simmons] have been onstage together in the Rock & Roll All-Stars. Two years ago we did a little tour of South America. But other than that, we haven’t played together before. We’ve socialized, but we’ve never played together. Phil has when he was in Girl. They opened for Kiss on a British tour in about 1980.

The band has been writing for a new Def Leppard album. Where does that stand at the moment?

We all came to my studio here in Dublin in February. They stayed in my house. Phil [Collen] was in a little cottage on the back and Sav’s [Rick Savage] got a house here, but Rick [Allen] and Vivian [Campbell] stayed with me. We got together every morning at 11 and worked through until about 10 at night. We kind of figured that we might be lucky enough to get two or three songs on the go and we ended up with 12. So it’s looking really good at the moment. To be honest with you, we could release three of them tomorrow — they’re finished, they’re done, they’re great.

But we’ve grown out of the idea of releasing a three track E.P. because the album is dead. It may well be, but the music industry doesn’t know what it’s doing, so consequently half the people in it, us included, don’t either. We change our minds like the business changes its mind, so we are looking to do an album and not just release two or three new songs. They’re coming back here in May for a couple of weeks. We’re going to record and we’re going to rehearse for the tour at the same time. So we’re really covering a lot of ground. Then we’re doing the summer tour and then we’ll get together towards the end of the year and we’ll finish the album off. But I’m very excited for what we’ve got so far.

Next: Top 10 Def Leppard Songs

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