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Vivian Campbell: "For the first time in my professional career, I actually planned my solos!"

(Image credit: Joe Branston/Future)

Backstage at Wembley Arena, a few hours before Def Leppard hit the stage for the final night of their 2018 Hysteria tour, guitarist Vivian Campbell invites MusicRadar into a dressing room decorated with velvet curtains and offers us a beer out of the fridge, before sitting down on the leather sofa. The dimly lit space is an oasis of calm from the bright corridors outside, busy with bodies as final preparations get underway.

While the British arena-rockers take a break from anniversary commitments of their 1987 bestseller, returning to European festivals in summer, Campbell will resume touring with other project Last In Line, in support of second album, II...

If I had known the band would get to this stage, I wouldn’t have called it Last In Line!

“When I’m not working with Def Leppard, I devote all my time to this because I believe in it and enjoy it,” he says, of the group started in 2012 by the remaining members of the original Dio band.

“And though it’s not the most original name, II fits perfectly. This really does sound like a band’s second album. I also think because we took our band name from the second Dio album, some people didn’t quite get us. Honestly, if I had known the band would get to this stage, I wouldn’t have called it Last In Line!”

Having formed a year after the death of one of metal’s most passionate and powerful voices, however, it was the name that felt most appropriate to their shared legacy.

“This started as a jam in 2011 that ended up being part of some cover nights in the small clubs of LA,” continues Campbell, noting its underground heaviness in comparison to the hit-ridden pop juggernaut that is Def Leppard.

“We had no real ambition, but it grew and we got asked by Frontiers if we wanted a record deal. After Ronnie passed away, it seemed like we were the last in line. It was an appropriate title, but none of us knew this would become a serious band!”

It must feel like the rigs used in your two bands couldn’t be any more different - aside from the guitar in your hands…

I have no idea how my Leppard rig works… I never have!

“I have no idea how my Leppard rig works… I never have! There’s a real disenfranchisement with a lot of that gear for me, because our techs hit all the buttons and do the changes, going back to when we used to play in the round. We’d have three different mic positions, so instead of having triple the amount of pedals it made sense for them to do it. Maybe as a result of that, I became less involved with my gear in the band.

“The rig I have now sounds really good - it’s the new Fractal and we’re all using it, [co-guitarist] Phil and [bassist] Sav, too. It’s really good for a band like Leppard, because we require such a large palette of tones.

I got that Les Paul out and it was like, ‘Fuck! This is what I started on and feels more like me!’

“With Last In Line, it’s the opposite: I need one sound. I can use the pickup switch and volume knobs on my Les Paul to keep it simple and organic. It’s a noisy rig, though… it sounds a bit like a Friday night in a Glasgow chip shop, haha! We play loud and noisy rock ’n’ roll; who said it should sound pretty?!”

What Les Pauls did you use for the latest Last In Line album?

“My Dio-era Les Paul, number 72987537, was on every track and pretty much every solo, though I also used my new Les Paul Custom Shop model for a couple of things. Plus there were guitars in Jeff’s studio - like a 335, an old Gibson 12-string, a Strat for overdubs, but that was it. Everything mainly came from that Les Paul.

“I started out on that guitar; I got it when I was 15 and in Sweet Savage. I used it for the Holy Diver recordings and tours, then I put it away and started plating pointy headstock guitars with a wang bar just like everybody else in the '80s. Years later, joining this band, it didn’t make sense to have a hot-rod Strat because that’s what Phil uses. I got that Les Paul out and it was like, ‘Fuck! This is what I started on and feels more like me!’

“I tend to lean into the guitar and torture it like Gary Moore. I’m a very physical player and floating Floyd Rose bridges tend to go all over the place. For tone, pitch and musicality, I’m a much better player on a fixed bridge… that’s my jam!”

There seems to be a lot of that Gary Moore influence in your playing...

“Gary Moore is still the guitar player I put on a pedestal above all others. The main thing I took from him is he would never play a note like he didn’t mean it. Every fuckin’ note would get played with so much physical effort and power behind it.

“I discovered his genius in my teenage years and learned even the simplest of notes deserve all the meaning behind them.”

So what did you plug the guitars into? We’re guessing it wasn’t the Fractal…

I really didn’t want it to get too saturated; that’s when it becomes metal and less rock

“It was mainly an Engl and a Marshall. The only thing in between the guitar and amp in this rig is a Dunlop Hendrix wah. I use a cable live instead of a transmitter like I do in Leppard, because I don’t want that much false compression, even if they are much better these days. Also, it’s less shit to go wrong.

“I love the Engl Blackmore heads going into the 4X12 cabs with Vintage 30s. I use two heads on stage with Last In Line, my guitar going into a splitter box after the wah. It’s so simple, I can set it up myself!”

“I tracked with the Engl, dialling it in more clean than I would for a gig. These parts were then double-tracked using either an old JTM45 or an amp by Naked - one of those boutique amps that looks like a vintage Marshall. I really didn’t want it to get too saturated; that’s when it becomes metal and less rock.  

“I love the power of AC/DC. You think it’s heavy, but actually there’s not much saturation there. That’s what gives you more punch. A lot of modern hard rock sounds too flappy for me. There’s too much high gain on the rhythm tracks.”

Much like your debut, II seems deeply rooted in that break point where rock starts blurring into metal…

“It definitely is. I remember Thin Lizzy turning into metal in 1983 on that Thunder And Lightning record. That’s when they moved away from rock into something heavier. On our debut, we tried to follow the same path that we did for Holy Diver which was just going in and kicking around riffs.

“This was also very organic - no-one came in saying they had this finished song; it was all about ideas, sparks, riffs and even titles. That’s how the early Dio albums were crafted and that’s how we’d get the flavour of the band. We wanted it to be old-school, not too much distortion on the rhythm guitars in favour of more clarity.

“It became the template we followed because this band essentially started out playing the early Dio songs just for fun. It’s a side-project, though very much a serious one in recent years. A lot of songs would start on Vinnie’s massive grooves, because he’s such an inspiring drummer…”

In what way?

“He does things that make you want to play on top of them. The opening track Blackout The Sun, for example, is dark and heavy track with serious intent… which is something Vinnie excels in! He is the master of tempos and it’s a godsend to be in a band with him. Whatever kind of song you play him, he will know the exact perfect beat for it. He doesn’t need a metronome; he’s faultlessly immaculate with time-keeping.  

“He also has the experience to know where that golden sweet spot is to make a song to have more impact. He makes us play at the top of our game - even better than we think we can, going on tangents and leaving the rest of us hanging on in there, which keeps things interesting!”

Sadly, [bassist] Jimmy Bain passed away before the debut’s release. How did Phil Soussan come into the picture?

The main difference with sonics and production this time round was we didn’t feel as constrained to capture the feel of Holy Diver

“Obviously, it was heartbreaking losing Jimmy. That was a major obstacle to overcome and I really do believe he would have wanted us to continue. Phil was an all-rounder. We’d played with some big name players, but something about the tone wasn’t right for us. With Phil, it was immediately obvious. It was only after that I realised how much he looks like Jimmy, people started asking if they were related and where the connection was.  

“He has the same kind of Ozzy/Sabbath connection - he was with Ozzy around the same time we were with Ronnie - so it feels like we were cut from the same cloth. Plus he’s English; I like that balance of two Americans, an Irish player and a Brit. He has our humour, which is important. You spend a lot of time together in bands, it’s important you do more than play music together… you have to get along.

“Phil’s really found his niche early with us. He came up with some great ideas for this album, too - his energy is strong and work ethic is great. He’s been really good for this band.”

What felt different coming into it with one album already behind you?

“The main difference with sonics and production this time round was we didn’t feel as constrained to capture the feel of Holy Diver. On Heavy Crown, I wanted to keep guitar overdubs to a minimum like we did in the early days, cutting all the tracks live and then a doubled rhythm track panned hard left and right, then the solos and maybe a couple of minor embellishments.

“This time, I added guitar tracks as the songs needed them, rather than following the old roadmap. As a result, the songs feel more developed…”

(Image credit: Joe Branston/Future)

Has your approach to leads changed much over the years?

“For the first time in my professional career, I actually planned my solos. I didn’t do it on the first album; I was a bit hit and miss - [producer] Jeff Pilson would help me build something. I don’t know why it took so long - 40 years, in fact - for me to realise it’s better to go in prepared. Maybe it comes from the Rainbow In The Dark solo, which was my first take on my first song for Dio. It might have imbued me with a false sense of security, giving me a reason to fly by the seat of your pants, because somehow that solo came out fuckin’ epic!  

Instead of being sensible and mapping something out, I just played in A minor all day drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, getting jacked up on caffeine and nicotine

“The night before Ronnie asked which I wanted to start with, and instead of being sensible and mapping something out, I just played in A minor all day drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, getting jacked up on caffeine and nicotine. We spent 20 minutes getting the guitar sound and they said, ‘Roll tape!’

“After I finished, Ronnie said, ‘Wow, that’s fuckin’ amazing! Let’s try another.’ That’s when I started go into mad panic mode… we ended up keeping the first. So I’ve been doing that ever since. Nine times out of 10, I miss the target, but every now and then it comes out great!”

So what’s your practice regime like these days?

“I’ve been playing a lot! I hadn’t been with the first album, when we were recording I was still dealing with a lot of heavy-duty chemo and stem-cell transplants. I couldn't even keep my calluses. It was painful to play. I use heavy strings in Def Leppard - for a while it was 13-52s, because my role isn’t to play solos; that’s mainly Phil. Then I switched to using 11-52 Dunlop customs, which were still quite painful to play. I didn’t really feel up to speed on Heavy Crown. This time I did.

“And I always have something in my back pocket, even if it was unfinished. A solo has to be a theme within a song; it has to start somewhere and go somewhere interesting. It’s not about how many notes you can fit into 16 bars of wank. I’m not the most technical guitar player out there - I can’t rely on that, anyway!”

Last In Line’s II is out on 22 February via Frontiers Records.