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In conversation: Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott and Ghost’s Tobias Forge

Def Leppard were one of the biggest bands of the eighties. Swedish rockers Ghost are a modern phenomenon. Here, Joe Elliott and Tobias Forge discuss their individual and unique experiences.

By Mark Sutherland

Def Leppard's Joe Elliot and Ghost's Tobias Forge (Picture: Press)

“He’s at sea level and I’m at the top of the mountain,” chuckles Joe Elliott.

“But we wish we were in the same place,” smiles Tobias Forge.

Forge and Elliott are talking about their locations as they Zoom in to chat to Rolling Stone UK – Elliott struggling with the low oxygen levels on tour in Mexico with Def Leppard, Ghost frontman Forge chilling at home in frosty Stockholm. But their varying elevations could also serve as a metaphor for what’s happened to rock stardom between their respective generations: few modern bands get to breathe the rarefied air of stardom’s uppermost peaks.

Def Leppard spent much of the ‘80s and ‘90s as one of the biggest bands on the planet, selling 100 million records across multi-multi-platinum albums such as Hysteria and Pyromania and turning songs such as ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ and ‘Let’s Get Rocked’ – with Elliott cheekily inquiring, “I suppose a rock’s out of the question?” – into a massive worldwide hit. They’re still enormous enough to be co-headlining Wembley Stadium with Mötley Crüe this summer.

Ghost, meanwhile, are modern metal’s most irresistible cult. Their theatrical, ritualistic live shows pack out arenas, while anthem-strewn latest album Impera hit No.2 on both sides of the Atlantic. Pretty damn impressive, especially because – as Forge points out – things have changed a bit since the days when rock ruled the world.

“When I was 20, I wanted to become a rock star so bad,” sighs Forge, who paid his dues in Noughties Swedish bands Repugnant and Crashdïet before hitting the big time as the mysterious, masked frontman of Ghost through his alter-egos Papa Emeritus and Cardinal Copia. “Then the whole decline of the record industry happened and I – as someone who had clearly missed that train – don’t have a negative superlative that can properly explain the frustration of seeing that.”

Of course, Forge has done his best to reverse rock’s fortunes since, and is happy to have found global success as a “late bloomer.”

“Our A&R man once said, ‘If we were in 1983 right now, I would know exactly what to do with you because back then, rock was the thing. I’d know which producer to call, where to sell your record and, if I threw you on tour with Def Leppard, you would do 100 shows in the US and that would sell you two million records…’

“Whereas, we’ve never really had a roadmap from a commercial point of view,” he adds. “But we’ve managed to do it anyway. And I’m so happy I get to do it with glancing forward but learning from the masters…”

One of those masters, of course, is his new buddy Elliott, who sings on the refreshed version of Ghost’s epic tear-up, ‘Spillways’, out as a single now. The Lepps were a key influence on Impera, with Forge – who often likes to put himself in the shoes of his favourite rock stars when recording – drawing inspiration “straight off the Def Leppard modus operandi” as he expanded his writing style away from Ghost’s typical punky verse-chorus-verse approach.

“I grew up in the ‘80s, so Def Leppard was part of my DNA,” says Forge. “And one thing I’ve always found fascinating, if you look at the really big commercial records, Pyromania and Hysteria, it’s amazing how unconventionally written they are.

“The songs are very spaced out; there’s a long intro, then a verse, then this pre-chorus, then another pre-chorus in a completely different key, then there’s a breakdown and then comes the big chorus,” he expands. “That takes guts and, from a modern point of view, where you’re supposed to write very to-the-point and be at the first chorus in 30 seconds, that seemed like a very big challenge for me.”

The original ‘Spillways’ met that challenge head-on with its flamboyant keyboard riff and multiple, monumental hooks, so it was no surprise that it caught the attention of Elliott – already an admirer of Ghost, having been introduced to the band by Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen.

“That song stood out for me,” says Elliott. “It’s like ‘Animal’ was for Hysteria or ‘Let’s Get Rocked’ was for Adrenalize: a real flagship song. Shamelessly, with no embarrassment, I’m a huge fan of Ghost.”

Elliott bigged up the Impera album in interviews and played Ghost on his Planet Rock and Sirius XM radio shows and, soon enough, the “grown-ups” on the two band’s teams brokered a conversation between the two frontmen. The amped-up ‘Spillways’ 2.0, and its eye-catching, pub-karaoke-session-gets-possessed-by-evil-spirits video was born.

“When ‘Spillways’ was put in front of me, as a song I loved to death, I think I’d actually recorded it before he’d even given me the heads up to do it!” Elliott laughs. “An already written song, a beautifully put together piece of work – and all I had to do was lend my abilities, whatever they are, to it.”

And it’s clear that, while the two rockers may today be at different altitudes, they share the same attitude. This is clearly a cross-generation collaboration drawn from a mutual admiration of each other’s music, rather than drawn up in a record company marketing department. Throughout, they enthusiastically chat about studio techniques and their shared love of punk rock, although Forge stresses comparisons between modern rock stardom and the genre’s heyday are nigh-on impossible.

“It’s hard not to go into carnal territory, so let’s stay away from that!” he quips. “But people on the label side that have been around for longer than 20 years are like, ‘It’s so hard now. In the ‘90s, every Monday there was 20 new gold records in the lobby, our office had 200 people and there were parties every week’ – it was a completely different thing.”

Joe Elliott, of course, has been there, done that and sold millions of the T-shirt. But, as part of their rock’n’roll levelling up agenda to return the genre to the top, both stars both hope this meeting of metal minds won’t just be a one-off.

The pair pledge to perform ‘Spillways’ live “if we’re on at the same festival”, while Forge says collaborating on fresh material is hopefully on the agenda.

“If we write something together in the future,” says Elliott, “It will be very interesting to see how it turns out, because we’ll have two different perspectives coming together.”

And with these very different bands in perfect harmony, Forge and Elliott both hope a real rock revival may no longer be out of the question.

“You don’t hear [rock] collaborations every day, and this was as organic as it gets because it was out of love and respect for each other,” concludes Elliott. “So maybe this will bring a bit of attention to this kind of music, because it’s two different generations meeting in the middle.”