Def Leppard's Joe Elliott on New Music and Not Being a Critical Favorite: 'That Was Never What We Were Into'

Daniel DeSlover/ZUMA Wire
Joe Elliott and Phil Collen of Def Leppard perform at the Rock USA music festival in Oshkosh, Wisconsin on July 18, 2015. 

It’s been seven years since Def Leppard’s last album, and a good 30 since their two diamond-certified blockbusters, Pyromania and Hysteria. But on the new Def Leppard, due Oct. 30, the veteran British pop-metal act sounds as vibrant as ever, delivering a characteristic collection of hooky, vocal-harmony-laden rockers and ballads. “It’s the first record we've done without a record company, and it was a totally enjoyable situation,” says singer Joe Elliott. “And I think you can hear that in the grooves…or whatever the grooves are these days.”

“Let’s Go,” the first single from Def Leppard, is reminiscent of “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”

Yeah. It’s “Sugar.” It’s “Rock of Ages.” It’s “Let’s Get Rocked.” It’s that kind of arena rock, anthemic pop song. But, to me, you have a style that you develop and that’s why people like what you do. I mean, if you took a step back you could say “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Love Me Do” are similar, you know? And I dare say, if McCartney wrote another “Love Me Do,” the world would go crazy. So we’ve never been afraid to embrace what we are.

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More recently, that classic Def Leppard sound -- the big, clean riffs and stacked vocals -- has also been embraced by modern country artists.

That’s true. But [producer] Mutt Lange was a huge fan of country when we were working with him back in the Eighties. And so we would do country-style harmonies, only in a rock way. And I think you can see where it might appeal to people like Tim McGraw, who we’ve recorded with. Or Taylor Swift, who wanted to work with us [on CMT Crossroads]. Or Alison Krauss, who comes to see us because she likes what we do. Alison has said, “That album you did totally influenced me.” And I’m like, “How?” But I think it’s because we never did the straightforward rock format. That’s why I believe things like Hysteria and Pyromania were so much bigger than your average rock record -- because they appealed to much more than your average rock fan.

To that end, you’ve said that in the Eighties you had more in common with Duran Duran than a lot of the metal bands you were usually lumped in beside.

In all fairness, if you took all our Eighties videos and put them up against “Rio” or Dio, we are more Duran Duran, I’m afraid. We never did the Dungeons & Dragons thing. It was never our cup of tea.

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For a time back then Def Leppard were perhaps the biggest rock band in the world. But you were never on the receiving end of much critical love. Did that bother you?

Not at all. That was never part of what we were into. When it came to the sophisticates like, say, Roxy Music -- and don’t get me wrong, I love them to death, but the Bryan Ferry thing, with the bowtie and the white jacket and “Love is the Drug,” it was very classy rock. And those types of bands were massive in New York and L.A., and that was it. It didn’t mean anything in Cleveland or Denver or Battle Creek, Michigan. Grand Funk put more people in Shea Stadium than the Beatles, you know? So the public makes up their own minds. Anything else, you take it on the chin, you deal with it and you move on. 

Listen to Def Leppardand other artists featured in this week's issue of Billboard.

A portion of this story originally appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of Billboard.