Rick Allen: The TVD Interview

Reprinted from The Vinyl District

With both an art exhibit and a North American spring tour on the horizon, Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen remains hard at work as ever. Allen brings his latest collection of work entitled “Rick Allen: Drums for Peace” to both Wentworth Galleries in the Washington, DC metro area on Saturday, February 18 with special appearances at the Wentworth Gallery in Bethesda, Maryland from 12:00PM–3:00PM and in McLean, Virginia from 6:00PM–9:00PM.

In addition, a portion of the proceeds from each sale will be donated back to Project Resiliency’s Warrior Resiliency Program sponsored by Allens’s charity the Raven Drum Foundation, and each purchaser will also receive a limited-edition, hand-signed Commemorative Purple Heart piece.

We caught up with Rick to discuss his new exhibition, the intersection between his art and music, and some of the bands and concerts that spurred him to take up the kit in the first place.

First off, the upcoming “Angels and Icons” art exhibit, that’s on February 18th. How long have you been laying the foundation for this event?

Actually, we changed out the “Angels & Icons” to “Drums for Peace.” It’s just the climate at the moment. Everybody needs to chill, y’know? I just wanted to put a slightly different emphasis on my intention. It’s a strange time we live in, so I want to do as much as I can to bring awareness to the fact that there needs to be more dialogue.

And it’s great you’re going that route. So you’ve done a number of exhibits in the past, I’m assuming?

Yeah, I’ve done tons of them. Whenever I get a chance to, when I’m off the road, I’ll go out and visit various galleries. Wentworth has a bunch of galleries throughout the country, so it makes it really convenient in terms of being able to organize art shows. They’ve been very kind to me.

I imagine the overlap between art and music must be pretty hectic. Have you been able to distribute a fair amount of time to painting, and photography, and other visual arts over the years, or has it only become more manageable in, say, recent years?

Basically when I’m out on the road, I’ll be planning out things that I want to do or taking inspirations from places I visit, things that I see, people, and just relating things to my own experience. For the past two weeks, I’ve just been spending a couple of hours in the art studio putting all those ideas into practice. It is pretty hectic, but the one nice thing is I feel as though any kind of creativity, like what you do for instance, if you’re artistically inclined in one area, I feel like it’s interchangeable.

Playing music and doing art, I basically go to the same place in myself. I find myself in the moment. That to me is one of the most valuable things, being able to just be in the moment and not thinking about what went before or what I’m going to have for dinner. It’s really a hyper-focused state where I just start drooling and the work comes out, whether that be musically or artistically. So it’s just another avenue to explore and build my creativity.

Did your love for art coincide with your passion for music in any way, or did it come about somewhat later on?

Art came first, believe it or not! Then I came full circle when my youngest daughter came along and she started getting into painting and artistic endeavors. I recognized something in her that basically is the same place I go when I make music, so I started to paint in the same way she does where it’s not necessarily so thought-out. Obviously, there’s a certain amount of organization that has to take place, but I would just kind of go for it and come up with things that were unique. So I guess I was pretty inspired by just being around my daughter. All these years later, I decided to get back into doing art and then when Wentworth Gallery got involved, they were able to help me spread the word.

It seems like so many of the pieces in your latest exhibit incorporate either the Union Jack or the American Flag. Would you say that a sense of place is among the more integral themes to your work?

Yeah. My perception of the US was very different before I came here. Then when I arrived on American shores it was like “Wow!” This was so different from how I had imagined it. I was just taking it in from a TV perspective, which is such a skewed sort of perspective of what America is really all about. And then I bring with me my experience of growing up, my experience of England. Like the telephone boxes. Y’know on the face of it, yeah, it’s a telephone box, but as a kid it was, especially when it was cold outside, a way for my friends and me to stay warm.

And this is something I can discuss with people when I do the art show. It’s nice to be able to discuss what the feeling was, what the emotion was, what I was doing at that particular time, and then bringing that into the present and creating art out of it. So it’s really a mixture of my experience growing up in England and then my experience of being here. I’ve been coming to America since 1980 and then I finally settled here by ’91. It’s basically a collection of all those experiences put together.

What kind of balance do you get among audiences? I would imagine you’re getting a mix of both art enthusiasts along with Leppard fanatics coming out in droves.

It’s a difficult world to get into. No disrespect to anybody, but there is quite a bit of snobbery when it comes to art, but I’m just doing what I enjoy doing and if people like it, then great. There was a bit of fear involved in the beginning of presenting work that I had done. I was a little afraid of how people would react to it, but the response was so good and people really liked it. As you suggest, it’s a nice cross-section of people, young and old, Def Leppard fans, non-Def Leppard fans, art students, people who just have an appreciation for art. So it’s been a wonderful experience for me.

Of course, we’re speaking of radically different environments, but does the feeling of having all your art on display and getting to interact intimately with exhibit goers, is this a similar satisfaction that you would get from, say, performing, just in a different sense?

I thought the art would speak for itself, which it does to a certain degree, but then people want to talk and it’s a nice way for me to interact with them on a level that I normally wouldn’t. Usually, I’m hiding behind a drum kit and hyper-focused, doing what I do musically. But then with the art, having to kind of come out into the world and talk about it, which is basically talking about myself—I’m not a huge fan of that. I’m quite a private sort of person, but I start to really enjoy it because I start to see the similarities with people. They have the same emotions and reactions, but everybody has a unique spin on it, a unique perspective. That’s one of the things I really enjoy is listening to what it is people see in the art and where their idea of it maybe doesn’t quite fall into line with mine, but more often than not it’s similar. People get why a certain piece is the way it is.

Any chance of seeing some of your work on a future album cover?

You know what, there are a few pieces of the art in some of the tour books that we’ve done. I’m not really going to the guys saying “Well, we gotta use one of my pieces!” More recently I’ve started incorporating the art into the drum sets, which is really nice being able to paint the drums and just do all really cool designs based on the artwork that I’ve already done. So it’s a nice way to incorporate the music and the art and present that to people viewing or listening to the show.

Speaking of the band, the US spring tour kicks off on April 8th in New Hampshire. Is this setlist looking like it could be more heavy on the older hits or will the latest album from 2015, Def Leppard, remain the focal point of the tour?

Yeah, it’s kind of a continuation of the tour that we just did. A lot of the areas we’re going to, we haven’t really visited in many years, so we want this to be a conclusion to that tour and to the new record. I say the “new” record but it’s been out forever. There’re still a lot of people out there that have maybe heard the record but they haven’t necessarily heard us play some of the songs live, so this is our conclusion to the previous tour.

And you’re going out with Poison and Tesla?

Yes, whom we’ve known for many years. Tesla we’ve known since about 1987 on the Hysteria tour, and we’ve played with Poison a few times in the past. We’ve done a couple of tours with them already but it’s been awhile. So it’s a nice group of people. I think that’s one of those things where, when we go out on tour, we want there to be no drama. Just get up on stage and get on with it. The better each one of the bands is, the better the experience is collectively for the audience, so that’s always been our philosophy. Let everybody do what they want to do. They’ve all got their own sound engineers, lighting engineers, all their own crew, and we normally find that it’s a great experience when you put three organizations together like that.

Aside from maybe the “no drama” part, in what ways does a gig or tour nowadays differ from those twenty or thirty years ago?

In terms of our commitment to people who come and see us, that hasn’t really changed. If anything, we value that more than we ever have. I think as you start to get older and more experienced, you realize how big of a gift and blessing that is, to be able to do what we do. But things have changed a little bit. It’s kind of rock ’n’ roll tea parties these days as opposed to the stereotypical rock ’n’ roll lifestyle which…it happens. You get older. We all have different commitments now, different responsibilities. People have kids. So things have changed, but not as much as you would think.

How prominent was the music scene in Sheffield when you were growing up? You were raised in a suburb outside the city, if I’m not mistaken?

Before I even joined Def Leppard, I think all of us went to the same concerts, probably rubbed shoulders with the guys that I ended up being in the band with. We’d all go and see the same shows like Thin Lizzy, Slade, and Sweet, and when American bands came over we’d all go and see them too. The music scene was pretty healthy. There were quite a few bands coming up, not necessarily rock bands like ourselves. I think a lot of the bands we grew up with were kind of frowned upon a little bit, like the Human League and Joy Division. It was sort of these parallel worlds. We were kind of going for the rock thing and this whole set of pop-alternative things sprang up around us as well.

I wanna say Joe Cocker was from there as well.

Actually, my first drum teacher was with Joe Cocker for quite a bit and I learned a lot from him, guy called Kenny Slade. That was a really nice experience. My parents couldn’t afford to buy me a drum kit so they said, “Well, maybe if you go for lessons we can get a drum kit on lay away,” and that’s exactly what I did. I washed everybody’s cars in the neighborhood, did all the odd jobs, and at the same time I was going for lessons. It was great because by the time I got a drum kit, I was actually quite proficient, so it was a really positive thing and definitely kept me off the street corners.

Funny you should mention Slade. I had a feeling they might be among the groups you guys dug back then. I’ve never understood why Slade seemed so restricted to England and, for one reason or another, never managed to take off over here, despite the fact that people are still listening to “Cum on Feel the Noize” to this day with no knowledge as to whose song it actually is.

No, me neither! They wrote some great songs. It was kind of strange to me how that ended up being the way it was. To us as kids, the perception was that these bands were huge and they were huge everywhere, but we’d never left England so we didn’t really know. Looking back and realizing that some of these bands never hit the highs that we did is just amazing to us.

So would you say there was a particular gig you might’ve caught back then that was somewhat of an epiphany for you, one that had you saying afterwards, y’know, this is what I wanna do with my life and one way or another I’m gonna try to make it happen?

Whenever I’d go and see all those bands I just mentioned, there was a sense of “Wow, I’d really love to do this.” Just getting involved with local bands—I was in a band from about the age of eleven with my best friends—and then I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. I saw an article in the newspaper that said, “Leppard Loses Skins,” made a call, got in touch with Joe [Elliott], and about a week later I met Joe and Steve [Clark] at a local club. We realized we loved all the same music, and we’d been to all the same concerts. It just seemed like a good fit, and it really worked. I went for an audition and fortunately I got the job. As they say, the rest is history.

Considering you started drumming at such a young age, did you start making the rounds at the local record stores early on as well?

Back in England, the outlet was sort of…we’d start out in the front room at home performing to family and friends. Then we moved up to playing in these clubs, where it’d be like a family sort of situation. They called ‘em working men’s clubs, so there’d be people sitting around watching the local talent and we happened to be one of the local talents, as it were. Record stores, that was another thing that was like every weekend, you’d go into town, check out all the new music and everything that was going on. And that’s back in the day of cassettes and vinyl, so yeah, at the end of the day we were all really big music fans and that’s what inspired us to be doing what we’re doing today.

Have you managed to hold onto your collection?

A lot of the stuff is in boxes since we’ve been moving things around, but it’s nice to dig into a box and see, basically, my history, all sitting in the box in the form of music.

Based on the covers album you guys did back in ’06, am I right to assume Roxy Music and power pop outfits like the Nerves were staples on the turntable as well?

Yeah, and there were tons more where that came from. There are actually quite a few songs that we never released, but everybody had a short list of songs they really wanted to put on there as these songs were influential. I think we put about fourteen songs on there and we just discovered recently that there’s a ton of stuff which we didn’t include. So hopefully those versions will surface in the not-too-distant future.

Between those bands and some takes on the Faces and the Kinks, it’s a great mix of choices all around.

Yeah, it is great. We grew up in a wonderful time period. Growing up in the ’70s, to me it was one of the best times for music there’s ever been. A lot of the music I listen to from back then still sounds fresh. It’s still inspiring and obviously came from a very inspired place. I always find that, whenever we’re going into making new records, I tend to go back to that coming-of-age time when I was discovering all this music, and it’s a great way for me to get all those influences out and into the recordings.