HEAVY CROWN: Vivian Campbell On Crafting Last In Line’s Ferocious New Album

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Legendary guitarist Vivian Campbell has spent the better part of four decades pouring his heart and soul into some of rock music’s most memorable projects. From Dio to Whitesnake to Def Leppard, his impact as a rock guitarist is undeniable. As an artist, he continues to forge ahead creatively, while continuing to inspire generations of fans, both young and old. His latest endeavor is quite literally a blast from the past. As part of Dio, Vivian Campbell, Vinny Appice and Jimmy Bain had cut their teeth as Ronnie James Dio’s co-conspirators and co-writers. The would work hand-in-hand on “Holy Diver,” “Last In Line” and “Sacred Heart” albums – the records that defined the classic early Dio sound and have gone on to become part of Rock History. In 2012, these three old friends would reunite in a Los Angeles rehearsal room for a casual reunion jam in a Los Angeles. During that first, highly-spirited jam, it was apparent the chemistry of the original band was intact – even after a 27-year hiatus.

The excitement generated by that rediscovery led to a second session, this time they called in vocalist Andrew Freeman (a friend of Vinny’s) whose credits include singing in the Raiding The Rock Vault production in Las Vegas and background vocals for The Offspring. Hearing Andrew’s interpretations of the songs was a revelation for Vivian, who immediately suggested they book local shows for fun. In Vivian’s mind, the fact Andrew could put a different spin on the songs made it an interesting prospect, and one that would justify taking things to the next stage outside of the rehearsal room. Over the ensuing years, a handful of local LA shows led to a handful of overseas shows in the UK and Japan, and eventually to an offer from Frontiers Records to record a new album of original material.

During 2014, the band wrote and recorded 12 new songs under the guidance of longtime friend and producer Jeff Pilson. It proved to be a symbiotic relationship with Jeff that captured the organic crunch of the band and brought out the very best in Andrew’s voice and delivery. After long last, Last In Line’s debut album, “Heavy Crown” was released in February of 2016. However, for the members of this band, the release was bittersweet for the band as Jimmy Bain passed away just weeks before the album’s release. serves as another tremendous example of the rock ’n’ roll spirit he brought to every project of which he was a part.

Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Vivian Campbell to discuss his journey as a musician, the making of Last In Line’s ferocious debut album to life, the impact Jimmy Bain had on him personally and professionally and much more!

I like to start at the beginning. What are some of your first memories of music?

Well, my folks listened to a lot of stuff in the car like Simon and Garfunkel and all of that. The first epiphany I had was when I saw and heard Marc Bolan and T. Rex on TV in the early 1970s on “Top of The Pops.” That was what did it for me! I was watching this guy and I loved the sound of the electric guitar. Basically, anything with electric guitar caught my attention but Bolan was the first one who made me want to buy a guitar, grow my hair long and wear my sister’s clothes!

You got started in music at such a young age. What impact has that had on you through the years?

It was definitely a blessing! I think I have been really, really fortunate that I have been able to have such a career. It is all I have ever wanted to do since that night in 1971, when I was probably 8 or 9 years old, when I had that epiphany, that was the dream that I followed. I have been extremely fortunate to have had such an extremely colorful career playing in so many bands and playing with so many great musicians. I so grateful to be able to do it! The only time in my life I ever had a real job was when I was a teenager trying to earn money to buy my Les Paul, so I have been very fortunate!

Your latest musical endeavor is Last In Line. What got the ball rolling when it came to bringing this amazing project to life?

Last In Line's debut album, "Heavy Crown'

Last In Line’s debut album, “Heavy Crown’

This all started by accident. In mid-2010 and early 2011, Def Leppard were on hiatus. I got a call from Scott Gorham from Thin Lizzy asking if he could borrow me to go on tour for a few months in Europe as a second guitar player. I lept at the chance because Thin Lizzy were such an influential band for me in my formative years. When I was a teen and really honing my craft as a guitar player, they were my go to band. Being out on tour and playing the songs of my youth with the original guitarist Scott Gorham and drummer Brian Downey was just like a school boy fantasy. I really reconnected to my instrument and I found myself really wanting to play aggressive rock guitar again. I have been in Def Leppard for 24 years and it is a great, great band. I get to play a bit of guitar in Leppard but certainly not to the extent that I did in my early career with Dio. I just kind of wanted to get back to that and wanted to get angry with my Les Paul again. This was around mid-2011, when I came back from the Thin Lizzy tour. I called up Vinny Appice and Jimmy Bain and asked them if they would like to go into the rehearsal room just to jam for some fun. That is what we did!

It grew from that but none of us were approaching it thinking, “Hey, let’s form a band and go out and do gigs.” It just happened very organically. Even when it did start to happen, our ambition was entirely limited to just playing local LA area shows and doing songs from the first three Dio albums. We had no intention to write and record a new album. After a couple years of doing things very sporadically, we got offered some shows in the UK and a festival in Japan in late 2013. Immediately after that, we got a call from Frontiers Records asking if we would be interested in writing and recording a new album. Up to that point, we honestly hadn’t thought about it but the fact that we were being offered a record deal and a chance to do this allowed us to take that step.

Did you have reservations about going down that path and creating new music?

No, no. None at all. You know, it has been a strange journey. Up until that point in 2011, I didn’t even listen to Dio records. It just wasn’t on my radar for various reasons. When Ronnie [James Dio] fired me, it had left such a bad taste in my mouth the way that it had happened and the reasons it had happened for, I just didn’t want anything to do with that. I really uprooted myself from that part of my career. For many, many decades I literally didn’t even think about it as my music and my career. Now, I look back at it in a very, very different light. I embrace it and realize that those records were as much my legacy as they were Ronnie’s. They were as much Jimmy Bain’s and Vinny Appice’s. We we wrote those early records with Ronnie. We didn’t get paid for them [laughs] but we created them! A big part of this project was to reclaim our ownership of our early history, ya know. It kind of had been taken away from us for years and years. All of us had been fired along the way for various reasons. I was the first one to go. It is nice to get back to that and look at it in an entirely different light and embrace it.

What can you tell us about the songwriting process for Last In Line? How has it changed and how has it stayed the same?

Well, it hasn’t! We went in to write this record in the exact same way we approached writing the “Holy Diver” album back in 1982. That is part of the reason Claude Schnell is no longer with us. When the original Dio band was formed and when we were writing and recording “Holy Diver” in late 1982, there were only four of us. It was guitar, bass, drum and vocals. Keyboards didn’t come in until after the record was done. I discussed this with Jimmy, Vinny and Andrew [Freeman] and we all felt stronger that we should go back to the original genesis of the original Dio band and just have guitar, bass, drums and vocals. When we were writing the “Holy Diver” record and the early DIo records, Jimmy, Vinny and I would go into a rehearsal room and would kick around ideas. We would start with something and, even if we didn’t have an idea to get the ball rolling, we would just jam. Within a little while, we would have something interesting. We would kick around an idea for a few hours in the afternoon. In the evening, Dio would come in and we would play him what we had. Sometimes, Ronnie would make suggestions like, “Change this part. Make this longer. Make this shorter.” Other times, he would sit there and look at his lyric books and eventually step up to the mic and start singing. It was a very quick way of writing and we did it the exactly the same way with this.

At the time we started making this Last In Line record, Andrew had moved from LA to Las Vegas, so he wasn’t always available to be in the rehearsal room with us, so usually it was just Vinny, Jimmy and I and we did things the same way. I’d have a riff or Vinny would have an idea or Jimmy would have an idea. We would just start playing and cobble together what we felt was an arrangement. We would record it as an MP3 and send it to Andrew that night. Andrew would email us back and would say, “This is great. I can write a melody and lyric to this.” Or he would make suggestions as to how to change it. Other times, Andrew would fly or drive to LA and be in the room with us. That was interesting because when he was with us it added a different dynamic that we wouldn’t have normally had, so we had the best of both worlds with that! The record happened very easily and very organically, just as those early Dio records did. There wasn’t any forethought to what we were going to write. We just started playing and shit comes out! [laughs]

You make it sound so easy, Vivian!

It is easy! It has always been very easy for Jimmy, Vinny and I to create something together and that is what made the early Dio records so great. We were quite literally creating them out of nothing. Like I said, even if we didn’t have an idea to start with, Vinny would lay down a monster groove! I get so inspired by playing with Vinny that I just come up with stuff and vice versa. We’ve always inspired each other!

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I want to talk about Jeff Pilson. What was it like working with him as a producer and what did he bring to this project?

Jeff was golden! I can’t praise Jeff Pilson on this record enough! He is such a talented engineer and producer. He totally got what we were trying to do. We cut the tracks live and did minimal overdubs, just like we did on the early Dio records. He totally got that! The technical way we recorded the record with very little compression at the tracking, mastering and mixing stages is something he totally got too. We wanted it to be a crisp sounding record that is sonically reminiscent of records of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and we think we delivered that with this album. Jeff really, really got it and where he totally excelled is how he worked with Andrew on this. Not many people know just how good a singer Jeff is, as well as a musician. He has such a great voice and so many years of experience singing. He really got inside Andrew’s head and I think he really helped bring out the best performance out of him.

We can’t talk about this album without mentioning the impact of Jimmy Bain, who passed away shortly before its release. I know he was a big part of your life and music. What impact did he have on you personally and professionally?

Yeah, Jimmy was a very, very talented man and very much the unsung hero. I owe my career to Jimmy, probably more so than anyone else. It was Jimmy who actually heard me play in Sweet Savage back in Ireland in the late ‘70s and it was Jimmy who recommended me to Ronnie [James Dio], which got me the audition. I have known Jimmy for that long and he was a very, very good friend of mine. Jimmy is one of those people who, when I look back at records he was involved in and when I think back to the records I made with him, I know he was never credited to the full extent that he should have been. He wrote a lot more music than his name appears on. Jimmy is one who always had an idea. It is very, very important in the creative process that you don’t get hung up, stop and start spinning your wheels. Jimmy was always the best one among us for keeping things going. He would constantly be sparking with different ideas. Some of them were great and some of them not so, but at least he was fearless in the way he created. There is a great quote by someone about the creative process saying, “Write without fear, edit without mercy.” That was Jimmy! He was fearless in throwing out suggestions. He played guitar, bass and keyboards and would come up with melodies and lyrics. He was an all around talent. Unfortunately, just being the bass player in a band, people generally tend to overlook you. I have played with so, so many great musicians in my career, I have been very fortunate that way, and Jimmy Bain is right up there in the top five. He was an uber-talent!

Vivian Campbell and Jimmy Bain in the early years of their careers.

Vivian Campbell and Jimmy Bain in the early years of their careers.

What does the future hold for Last In Line in light of Jimmy Bain’s passing?

We are at somewhat of a crossroads and we really don’t know what we will do in the long term. We had a tour planned, which was supposed to start about a week or so after the record came out, at the end of February but with Jimmy passing, we cancelled the tour. We didn’t feel it would be appropriate. However, we are going to play some of the more high profile shows we were booked to play. We will be playing the Frontiers Festival in Milan, Italy on April 23rd. We are also going to play at the Rocklahoma festival at the end of May. We have a couple of warmup shows in advance of those, a couple of club shows. Beyond those handful of shows, we have no long-term plans. I am not saying that we won’t but it is kind of a moot point anyway because immediately after that, I go back with Def Leppard. I will be busy until the middle of October. If anything does happen in terms of further Last In Line shows, it wouldn’t be before the end of this year. We may just decide to not do anything but, at the same time, we kind of do feel we owe it to ourselves, Jimmy’s memory and this record because this record did come out so, so well. It meant a lot to Jimmy. It is just a question of finding the right balance and being respectful to his memory or giving up. Somewhere in between there is the right path but, like I said, it’s not a bridge we have to cross yet.

For the handful of shows Last In Line will be playing, what can we expect from the band?

Obviously, now that the record is out, we are going to feature that as much as we feel is appropriate. It is a good feeling for us to be taking this step and not to just be playing early Dio songs, even though those are our songs as much as they were Ronnie’s. Especially for Andrew, I think it is a great relief to be focusing on new music and it is exciting to play that! We are going to start rehearsals the week after next and we will be playing a bunch of new songs. Our show will be an hour-and-a-half or an hour-and-three-quarters, so we will also heavily feature the early Dio records. Most of our set has been mostly comprised of “Holy Diver” and “Last In Line,” not so much “Sacred Heart,” although we have played some of those songs.

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Last In Line: An undeniable force in rock.

You mentioned Def Leppard. We know Joe Elliott had some vocal issues recently. How is everything going there?

Yeah, Joe saw a couple of doctors when we were doing shows in February. The second doctor he saw put a scope down his throat and told him he needed to stop singing immediately or he was going to do permanent damage. That is why we had to unfortunately postpone a few weeks of shows that we will be making up in May. The good news is that it doesn’t require surgery and just requires rest, so he will be fine! He will be grand!

Looking back on your career, how have you most evolved as an artist?

I started solely as a guitar player. Early on, my entire focus was just putting my head down and playing guitar, which is why I think I got be reasonably good at it. [laughs] Right from the time I first joined Dio, I was starting to become more aware of what goes on in the industry and wanting to expand my talents beyond just playing guitar. I wanted to be a better writer. When I was writing with Ronnie, I wouldn’t think of it as writing in terms of a whole song, I was just concerned with the guitar parts and riffs. I would let him, or Vinny or Jimmy shape it into a song and a melody. Since then, in my early 20s, I really started studying singers. I really wanted to sing and that is when I first started taking voice lessons. I started listening to other genres of music. More importantly, up until that point, I had only focused on guitar music. If it didn’t have guitar, I wasn’t interested. In my early 20s, I had this ravenous appetite for all sorts of music from pop to country to soul and Motown. I amassed a huge collection of cassette tapes in the process. I feel so blessed to have worked with so many great musicians in bands and producers over the years. I have learned a lot about how to make records, how to sing, how to play, how different instrumentation works. Along the way, my focus wasn’t always so much on my lead guitar abilities. It has been a very, very joyous rediscovery for me over the past several years of playing with Last In Line and really making that my primary focus. It is the one thing that I do best! I like to think I am a reasonable singer and a half reasonable songwriter but the one thing I undeniably do is torture the fuck out of a Les Paul, ya know! I do it in my sleep! That is my first love and it is great to get back to that, reconnect to it and have it be so important in my life again.

You always seem to have plenty of irons in the fire musically. What does the future hold for you?

Ya know, I do like to have a lot going on! Def Leppard, we worked a lot last year. We have a fairly busy year this year, as well. We probably won’t play too many live shows with Leppard, if any, in 2017. However, we almost certainly will go back into the studio and make another album. That is certainly going to keep me busy! As I said, I don’t know what is going to happen with Last In Line to be honest. I am enjoying it but I was enjoying it a lot more until Jimmy passed away. It has put us at this peculiar kind of crossroads. There is another band that I used to be in many, many years ago that I am getting together with next week to start writing for a new record. I can’t mention who it is yet but it is one of my past projects and we are kind of getting back together and we have been offered a record deal. I like to stay active as a musician, even if it just means going to the local club and playing. I have a little bar band that plays very, very occasionally. It is entirely covers from Thin Lizzy to early ZZ Top and early Fleetwood Mac from the Peter Green era and other stuff like that. It is kind of a quasi-blues rock band. Even if it was something like that, I really believe you are what you do. I have always been a musician, so I always try to stay busy!

What is the best lesson we can take from your journey as a musician?

Vivian Campbell

Vivian Campbell

Musicians always ask me if I have any good career advice and stuff like that. I always come back to the same thing. It is always more important to be true to yourself than to try and emulate someone else. I know that is a difficult lesson to absorb when you are young. I know when I was young, I was spinning my wheels constantly. I was frustrated, even when I was making the Dio records, I was very frustrated that I couldn’t play the guitar like Yngwie Malmsteen or Paul Gilbert. I didn’t have the technical chops that they had and the control that they have. Looking back at it now, through the years of experience, I am glad. That is what makes me unique, my lack of certain abilities that helped to shape my sound and style. I think that is more important. It’s more important to be unique than to be proficient, regardless of what your instrument is. I think that is what the world wants. That is what people hear in great art is that human connection. I think too often as musicians we spend a lot of time trying to perfect it. I also think, without getting too far reaching, it kind of speaks to a lot of modern music. Technology has made it too easy to correct everything nowadays. As a result, modern music is very homogenized and sterile because the human tone is being lost in the technology. If you listen back to great Motown records, those records were played live by real musicians in real time. That is what makes them still sound so great in this day and age. They are by no means perfect from a technical point of view but they have so much soul, so much heart and so much humanity that so many modern records are lacking because it is far too easy to correct the drummer or auto-tune the singer. Technology is doing the job for us. It is just important to be authentic is what it all boils down to. If you want to put it into one word — authenticity!

I think you hit the nail on the head, Vivian! Thank you so much for your time today, my friend. It has been a true pleasure! I wish you continued success!

Thank you, Jason! It has been a pleasure to talk to you! Take care!

For all the latest news on Last In Line, visit the band’s official website at www.LastInLineOfficial.com. Connect with them on social media via Facebook and Twitter.

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