Singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson may be known for the sensitive and soulful songs in his repertoire, but the man also loves his heavy rock. Having recently finished his new album, which is due out later this year, he found himself itching to get back into the studio and to geek out with his guitarist/bandmate Aaron Tap “on the greatness of other people’s songs.” Looking to one of their favorite bands, they conjured up the six-song Def Leppard covers EP Pyromattia, which drops Friday and also includes their bandmates Shiben Bhattacharya (bass and keyboards) and Chris Lovejoy (percussion).
Nathanson is not a stranger to the heavier side of things. He and Tap (along with this writer) graduated from different high schools in Lexington, Mass., in 1987, steeped in the harder music of the time from Dangerous Toys to Judas Priest. The two even worked in the same hometown restaurant (Bel Canto) back in 1992, long before they teamed up musically around 2005. In recent times, Nathanson and his band have actually performed amped-up classic ’80s tunes in concert, including an impromptu, crowd-inspired rendition of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” in Clifton, New York in August 2014 (Tap nailed the solo without rehearsing it), and dressing up as Poison to cover “Talk Dirty to Me” and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” at their Halloween 2013 show at Terminal 5 in NYC.
“It’s fun to meet people who don’t necessarily play metal music who love metal,” says Nathanson. “I was on That Metal Show [on VH1 Classic], and it was fun to talk metal because people don’t expect me to love metal. I also love Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge and Tracy Chapman, but metal was one of the fundamental building blocks of who I am. That was what was fun about being able to marry all of it together for this EP and just spend time celebrating the greatness of a band that does not get celebrated for their greatness very often.” He feels that Def Leppard transcends pop and metal by being who they are, and he always buys their new albums because he always finds something to like on them.
The singer-songwriter has always been drawn to bands that evolve throughout their careers. He invokes Metallica. A fan of all their music, he specifically enjoys the quartet’s catalog from …And Justice For All onward, where they kept changing. “U2 does the same thing,” adds Nathanson. “REM did the same thing. Kanye West is another person who just never makes the same record twice and always pushes himself. We’re in this place where hip hop is doing that quite a bit. Every record Kendrick Lamar makes is different than the last one, and it feels like he’s pushing the listener forward a little bit.”
For Nathanson, Def Leppard’s evolution throughout their first four albums (On Through The Night, High ‘N’ Dry, Pyromania, and Hysteria) is unparalleled in rock. “I don’t know of a band that has an arc that good, where they go from kind of just being a band of kids playing riff metal to getting a handle on songwriting and getting a handle on emotion, and then delivering a fucking masterpiece of pop-rock metal,” he gushes enthusiastically. “I think that’s why they’ve always kept my interest.”
While he is a big fan of Van Halen and Prince, Nathanson feels that those groundbreaking artists (along with David Bowie and Queen) were like aliens from other planets, very talented but not mere mortals. He connected more with Def Leppard because he felt that they were just five young kids who progressed and pushed themselves at an incredible rate to make better and better music, and he also notes that many of their lyrics were darker than most of their peers.
“Nobody’s a nerd for Def Leppard,” asserts Nathanson. “That’s the other part that’s so annoying. Everybody says, ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ or whatever. But nobody’s like, ‘I fucking love Def Leppard, man.’ I have every book that you could possibly have on the band. I’ve read every interview, and they’re badass. So there was just no question that we would do a tribute to them.”
One of the six Def Lep covers on Pyromattia comes from 1981’s High ‘N’ Dry (“Bringin’ On The Heartbreak”), two from Pyromania (“Stagefright” and “Comin’ Under Fire”), two from Hysteria (the title track and the inevitable “Pour Some Sugar On Me”), and “Promises” from 1999’s Euphoria. The inspired acoustic reinterpretations offer Nathanson’s personal take on the tunes featuring acoustic guitar, piano, and strings, with whistling emerging in “…Heartbreak” and melodica on “Promises”.
Given his strong fandom for the band, one wonders how Nathanson and his band made their selections and what other choices they might have considered. “That was what was so fascinating about it,” he says. “When we broke them down, we tried really hard to include stuff from On Through The Night and High ‘N’ Dry as much as we could. We tried a bunch of songs from the band’s catalog and settled on the ones that felt the most natural for me. A song like “Photograph”, one of my favorite songs ever, didn’t really work for me when we played it broken down.”
As much as Nathanson loves the early, riff-oriented Def Leppard era with guitarist Pete Willis (who was replaced by former Girl axeman Phil Collen on their third album Pyromania), he explains that when they broke down those songs “into the acoustic guy format, they just felt disingenuous, like we were doing a schtick. I really didn’t want this to feel, in any way, like we were taking the piss, even with ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’. That one was really hard to find my way into. It almost didn’t make the cut because it’s so iconic and stylized, as well as having kinda nonsensical lyrics.” He adds that they worked hard to find a way to reinterpret the song that worked and felt honest. He is pleased with the results.
“For nerds like me and Aaron, music is everything,” proclaims Nathanson. “I got to make a fucking Def Leppard EP with my buddy in his house, and we got to listen to all the Def Leppard songs over and over and crack them open. Hopefully people dig them. And if they don’t, I dig them.”
It turns out that Nathanson had a friend with a direct line to Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliott and forwarded him the song six-pack. The famed singer “sent a response back and said he loved it,” reports Nathanson. “He said that our version of ‘Stage Fright’ was great, and that, ‘I’m lucky I didn’t have to sing that part an octave up for my entire career.’ It’s fun when he gives feedback and says that our version of ‘Stage Fright’ is something that he digs. Game over. I’m good.”
Nathanson says that he and Tap, like the members of Def Leppard, have sought to take their musical influences to make records they like. “I do it because music is the only thing that matters to me,” he declares. “I like music more than I like people, and all I want to do is dip my toe in the lake of greatness from the records that changed my life and keep changing my life. I related so severely to Def Leppard and still do. They’re just these super fans of music. Joe Elliott has an encyclopedic knowledge of the music that he loves, and so do I, and the records reflected that sort of love. Def Leppard always led with their heart.”
It turns out that Nathanson is considering other covers EPs. “There are so many bands that I’d love to cover,” he says. “I think maybe the next one might be about a place or celebrating certain things. That’s what’s fun about it because there are so many great songs. Maybe the next one will be a tribute to being from Boston. There’s so much great music out of Boston.”