RSS Feed

RIVERDOGS – The American Dream
Anthony Morgan
July 2017

Riverdogs (l-r): Marc Danzeisen, Rob Lamothe, Vivian Campbell and Nick Brophy

Outside of commitments with Sheffield, England-based hard rock outfit Def Leppard, guitarist Vivian Campbell plies his trade with Last In Line – Last In Line including founding members of Dio, among other musicians. February 2016 debut full-length studio album Heavy Crown arrived through Frontiers, the Italian label hoping to further strengthen its relationship with Vivian.

“They approached me shortly after the record was released, and asked me if I would be interested in doing a record with Riverdogs,” he recalls. “They were big fans of the original Riverdogs record; they wanted to know if we could do an album, if there was interest, that was very similar to the original Riverdogs record in style, substance, and sound.

“I really enjoyed working with Riverdogs. That first album we made, it’s sort of unfinished business in a way. I think we made a great record, and the record really fell off of a cliff. It never did anything, but it’s gone on to be bit of a cult classic all these decades later, so I really felt we had a point to prove. The fact that Frontiers were also big fans of the original Riverdogs album and wanted something in a similar style kind of gave us a chance to revisit that part of our life and our career. So, I called up the other guys in the band – Rob Lamothe (vocals and guitars), Nick Brophy (bass), and Marc Danzeisen (drums) – and I talked it over with them, and everyone was just as enthusiastic to do it. We got together, and California (July 2017) is the end result.”

Riverdog’s self-titled debut studio affair emerged in May 1990. “There was still a lot of hair metal going on here in LA, and Riverdogs were not like that,” the axeman views. “I mean, yeah, we had a lot of hair like everyone else in rock in those days, but the music we were making was much more organic. It was much more Americana. It was sort of a fusion of Americana and rock meets heavy blues. Kind of like if you imagine Free, but if Paul Kosoff (guitars) and Paul Rodgers (vocals) had moved to southern America for a year and done a record, it would have been influenced that way. The only thing that was comparable to what we were doing back then would have been Jake E. Lee’s band, Badlands, so it was a unique sound. We certainly didn’t sound like a lot of the other acts that were around at the time.”

Riverdog’s aforementioned self-titled debut jaunt wasn’t originally envisioned with Vivian handling guitar parts. “I kind of fell into being in the band,” he remembers. “When I first started working with Riverdogs, I was producing some demos for the band, and they had an original guitar player who wasn’t working out. They weren’t really working well with him, and I was with Whitesnake at the time. I could tell that my tenure with Whitesnake was coming to a close; I could sense that it wasn’t going to be lasting much longer. The Riverdogs, I’d be in the studio with them. At night when the guitar player was gone, they’d ask me ‘Would you mind doing some guitar parts on this record – on these demos – to bolster it?’ I said ‘Look, I don’t feel comfortable doing that. You have a guitar player in the band – it’s not my place to step on his toes.’

“Over the course of the next couple of months, I parted company with Whitesnake and Riverdogs parted company with their original guitar player, so I decided to join the band full-time. I was very impressed by the talent level, particularly by Rob’s writing and singing. I think he’s a world class singer, and certainly a world class writer. I’ve always had a lot of faith in his talents and in the band, so I took a chance. I joined the band. We started writing some more songs, and did some shows around southern California. We were all living in LA at the time, and seven months later we got a record deal. We signed with CBS Records, and they gave us a budget. What happened after that kind of set us back a long time.

“We had a very difficult time finding a producer that we were happy to work with and that our record company was happy that we worked with, so we went back and forth on a number of people. About a year passed, and we realised that we were dwindling the recording budget. We really needed to get into the studio and make a record, so we ended up compromising on our choice of producer. We went into the studio, but after about a month, we realised that the situation with the producer was untenable. It wasn’t gonna work, so we ended up getting rid of that producer. We brought in Jeff Glixman to finish the record, and that worked really, really well. We wished we had started the record with Jeff, so Jeff finished up the recording of the record, and he mixed it.

Vivian Campbell

“This took about a year and a half, from when I joined the band to when we got the record out. During that time, CBS Records had been sold to Sony. There had been a whole field of changes throughout the entire record division; a lot of the people that we had started working with were no longer there, or they had been moved to different departments. Most importantly though, there was a new label head who came in, and I remember he took us out to dinner the week the record was actually released. He said ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t feel like I can get onboard with this record. I don’t hear it, I don’t feel it. I’d like you to start work on your second album.’

“We were just devastated; we were all heartbroken. It had taken 18 months to get to this stage, and we just couldn’t do it. I personally couldn’t do it, because for the 18 months it had taken to get to that stage, I had been the only guy in the band not drawing a salary from the recording budget. I had been paying my mortgage and all of my bills, and I literally couldn’t afford to not work any more. I had to apologise to the other guys, and say ‘Hey, look. I can’t do this. I need to move on, and get a job that pays my mortgage.’

“The Riverdogs did continue without me. About a year or so after that, I ended up joining Def Leppard, and I’ve been with Leppard for about 25 years. The Riverdogs did continue, though; they made another couple of records with Nick Brophy moving from bass guitar to lead guitar, and that was it. So, it kind of does feel like unfinished business. We kind of got the rug pulled out from under us on the original album. It’s just nice to get a second bite of the cherry, and to come back and have a second stab at it.”

The composer has occupied the Def Leppard ranks since April 1992, Riverdogs’ output past the May 1990 debut offering not on the man’s radar. “To be honest, I’m not familiar with them,” he admits. “I honestly don’t know enough about them to have a comment. I know that Nick was originally a guitar player when he first joined Riverdogs, because there was an existing guitar player that I told you about earlier. Nick moved onto bass, so Nick is a great guitar player. He can certainly play the parts that I can play; he doesn’t play them in the same style or maybe with the same ferocity, but he’s a very, very competent guitar player. To be honest though, I’m not familiar enough with the records they made without me to actually pass any comment.”

Wind the clock forward just over 27 years, and Vivian’s ‘second stab’ as part of the Riverdogs fold arrives in the form of July 2017’s California – an album written in different circumstances. “We had very little budget, and consequently very little time to make this record,” Vivian shares. “We don’t all live in Los Angeles any more – myself and Marc Danzeisen still live here. Rob lives in Ontario, Canada, which is 3,000 miles from here, and Nick lives in Nashville, Tennessee, which is about 2,000 miles from here, so Nick and Rob would have to fly in to LA. We had very, very little time to make the record, so we literally had two writing sessions with each session being three days. We would write six songs in three days, and then the following two days we would go into Marc’s home studio and cut the demos, so it was done exceptionally quickly. Having said that, I think that there’s enough collective experience within the band, now after all of these years that we’ve all been in the business, that we were able to do this. I don’t think we could’ve made a record under these circumstances 25 or 30 years ago.”

The majority of California’s tracks originated from a riff authored by the axe-slinger. “It was mostly just a jam kind of thing,” he discloses. “They’d say to me ‘Viv, have you got a riff?’ I’d start playing something, and we’d piece it together. Rob did bring in a couple of songs that he had started with his son Zander. ‘American Dream’ and ‘The Revolution Starts Tonight’ were those two ideas; Rob came to us with the basic outline of those songs, and we just had a go at making them Riverdogs songs. Everything except ‘American Dream’ and ‘The Revolution Starts Tonight’ pretty much started from a guitar idea of mine. They were very, very collaborative; I’m not saying I came in with songs, but I would start the ball rolling with the guitar riff and we’d make it into a song within a couple of hours. We really, really wrote quickly on this record.”

Albeit using Riverdogs’ May 1990 self-titled debut foray as a template, Vivian never revisited the platter in preparation. “I didn’t listen to it, although Nick Brophy is not only a talented musician and a bass player, but for many years he has also been a professional recording engineer, producer, and mixer in Nashville,” he commends. “Nick went to great lengths to study the sound of the original Riverdogs record, and even talked at length with Jeff Glixman on the phone a couple of times to pick his brain about how to approach recording and mixing the record. I did go to the locker and pull out all of the original amps and guitars that I used on the first Riverdogs record, so to that extent, yeah, we did try to make it as close as possible sonically to the original record.”

Using the May 1990 self-titled debut LP as a framework, California nevertheless avoids simply rehashing its earliest predecessor. “The only thing that we tried to copy was the intensity, and the style, and the sonics of the record,” the musician pinpoints. “I mean, the songs are totally different, although to an extent it is a concept record. A lot of the lyrical themes on the California album are extensions of the lyrical themes from the original record. Rob wrote the lyrics on the record; he told us before we had written any songs, that he had this idea to continue the themes and the stories from the characters. Not all of them are connected, but there is a bit of a thread to the album in that many of the songs on California are chapter two of the stories Rob told on the original Riverdogs album.

“If you listen to the original Riverdogs album, almost every song included a character and tells a story. I’m not saying every song on the California record is an extension of those, but many of them are. Even the name of the album, California, there’s certain references in the songs to the late 80s and certain places in southern California that we are familiar with. It’s kind of autobiographical in a way, hence the title California.”

Musical differences exist between California and Riverdogs’ May 1990 self-titled debut. “The major differences I hear between California and the debut Riverdogs album is that there’s less acoustic guitar on the California album,” Vivian highlights. “That’s mostly because back in the late 80s when I first joined the band and when we first met, Rob was writing pretty much on acoustic guitar and we tried to marry the acoustic and the Americana sound to my naturally heavy style of guitar playing, like really heavy hard rock, heavy blues.

“On this record, when we were writing the songs Rob was playing electric guitar but with a hollow body and a cleaner sort of a sound. In recent years, I think that’s what he has sort of gravitated more towards. There are a couple of songs on California where acoustic is prevalent, but I would say there is a lot less acoustic sound than what was on the debut record. To my ears, that’s the main sonic difference. There’s a load of electric guitar; I did a lot of guitar parts on the California album as I did on the debut Riverdogs album, and that was also part of the template we were following – that we wanted it to be very guitar-intense.”

The performer’s guitar work within the Riverdogs camp does not bear specific hallmarks in comparison to his outside offerings. “Not really, no – certainly not consciously on my behalf,” he argues. “I just play like I play. It’s really whether there’s enough room in that particular band to come throughout. Riverdogs is definitely more blues-influenced than Def Leppard or Last In Line, so I suppose of everything, I get a chance to channel my inner Paul Kosoff when I do that, or go back to my original roots – that is Rory Gallagher, who was my first guitar hero. Obviously when I play with Last In Line, it’s much more of a heavy metal approach. It’s much, much more aggressive playing in that band, and then with Def Leppard, the focus is on the vocals.

“We’re a very vocal-oriented band; the guitar parts are more a part of the song, as opposed to a vehicle for guitar solos. With Def Leppard, the guitar solos are always very concise. They’re very subservient to the song, which fits the nature of the band, so it’s a different kind of thing. I don’t deliberately… Or I’m certainly not aware of any different hats I put on as far as playing guitar-intense in Def Leppard, Last In Line, or Riverdogs. I just pick up my guitar and play to suit the song, regardless of who the band is.”

As referenced, Rory Gallagher was an early influence upon Vivian. “The first album that I ever had was Live In Europe from (May) 1972, and the first concert that I ever saw was by Rory Gallagher,” he augments. “Indeed, the second and the third concerts were by Rory Gallagher, because I grew up in Belfast. In the 70s, we didn’t get a lot of acts come over there. Rory was the only one who would come to the city every year, and play the Ulster Hall. Rory was the first guitar player where I dropped the needle on the album, and actually tried to figure out what he was playing. I’m entirely self-taught, and Rory was my first major influence, and I draw a lot of my physical style from him and from that influence.

“In later years, the only other guitar player who influenced me more than Rory Gallagher would’ve been Gary Moore, who was probably the most influential guitar player for me. Gary, again, was a guitar player who could play a multitude of styles. When I first heard Gary play, a friend of mine played me Colosseum II. It was Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum, and that was jazz fusion. Even then I wasn’t a huge fan of jazz fusion, I was totally blown away by the intensity that Gary Moore brought to his playing. It didn’t matter what style of music it was; if it was jazz, or if it was hard rock with Thin Lizzy, or if it was blues-influenced with his solo career. Gary Moore always played on a pin; he was always full-on, 100% committed to what he was doing, and that’s what appealed to me more than anything else, was Gary’s style. That was the biggest influence that I drew from him. He played like he meant it, and I’d like to think that I bring that same kind of approach to my playing.

“I do think that guitar players are capable of playing in more than one style. Music to me, I always make the equation that it’s kind of like food. I love Indian food, but I wouldn’t want to eat it seven days a week. Variety is what it’s all about, and it keeps it fresh and it keeps it interesting. As a guitar player, I like to be able to work with these different genres and in these different capacities. As a musician, I love to do different things. In Def Leppard, the greatest challenge for me is to sing. We all sing in every song, and it’s really, really challenging because we’re doing it live, and we do it really, really well.

“Then when I step into a band like Riverdogs and Last In Line, the challenge becomes much more guitar-focused. I feel very fortunate as a musician that I can exercise all of these different muscles, and continue to grow as a creative person. That’s why I started doing this in the first place, was to keep exercising that creative muscle. Otherwise, I believe you become stagnant and become jaded about it. Several years ago, I really kind of rediscovered my passion for guitar playing. I don’t want to ever let that slip. I’ve kind of got to keep moving, and keep busy. There’s a saying here in the States: ‘An object in motion stays in motion.’ So yeah, I wanna remain in motion for a while.”

Riverdogs (l-r): Marc Danzeisen, Nick Brophy, Rob Lamothe and Vivian Campbell

Albeit rediscovering his passion for the instrument several years prior, the guitarist had never lost that passion per se. “No, not at all,” he cautions. “I’ve always had a passion for it, but I’ve kind of learnt how to pace myself. I think I took it a little bit too seriously for a few years. I don’t believe you can approach playing an instrument as purely a mechanical exercise; if your head isn’t in it, your heart’s not gonna be in it. I actually find I play better when I step away from the instrument at times. Like I said, it’s like food. If you eat Indian food three meals a day, seven days a week, you’re gonna tire of it really soon. I like to pace myself. There was a period of time where I would focus on playing guitar too much and I think it was to my detriment, because I was only focused on the mechanical aspect of the instrument and not enough on the emotional aspect.”

A follow-up to Def Leppard’s October 2015 self-titled full-length is a possibility. “I’m sure there will be,” Vivian muses. “We’re always writing songs. We just finished a couple of months of touring here in the States. We’ll get to it, but with Leppard, we’re not known as exactly being quick when it comes to making records, so it might be a while.”

As to which musical styles Def Leppard wish to pursue on future material, the axeman contends that “Def Leppard doesn’t necessarily pursue styles. We kind of make Def Leppard records at our own pace, so whenever the mood takes us, we’ll get in the studio and we’ll make another record, and it’ll sound like Def Leppard.”

Writing sessions have significantly progressed with respect to the follow-up to Last In Line’s February 2016 debut effort Heavy Crown. “We’re about 60% written for the new Last In Line record,” Vivian updates. “It sounds absolutely amazing; to me, it’s better than the Heavy Crown album. We go into the studio on 11th of September, again with Jeff Pilson (Dokken / Foreigner), and we’re super-excited about that.”

A release date has yet to be pencilled in. “That’s up to the record company,” the songwriter figures. “This is the difficult part of being in multiple bands. You don’t want to just release a record and not be able to do anything to promote it, so I’ve got to look at the schedule. We’ll deliver the album to our label by December, or maybe January at the latest. It’s up to them to decide when it’s released.”

Album number two from Last In Line will not necessarily deviate from the musical style established via Heavy Crown. “It’s going to be very similar, obviously,” Vivian divulges. “I mean, that’s the sound of the band. I would say the songs are a little bit more intricate, and some of the arrangements are a bit more riffy. We’re finding our feet as songwriters; we’re really getting to know Andrew Freeman, and how he writes. I would say it’s more riffy, more intricate, and a little bit more interesting perhaps – some great hooks. We haven’t written all of the album yet; like I said, we’re about 60% there, but it sounds great. It sound really, really exciting. I’m very pleased with the direction it’s heading in.”

The as-yet-untitled record will be bereft of the bass contributions of Jimmy Bain (ex-Rainbow), who died on January 23rd, 2016 at the age of 68 due to complications from lung cancer – several weeks prior to the release of Heavy Crown. Replacing is former Ozzy Osbourne member Phil Soussan, whose appointment was confirmed on April 11th of that year. “Losing Jimmy was a huge blow to the band, and obviously it does change the dynamic in terms of songwriting,” the axe-slinger laments. “Jimmy, Vinny (Appice, drums) and I worked very, very easily together, when it came to writing especially.

“We could just go in and knock out a song like no-one’s business, so yeah, it’s been a little bit different. Phil Soussan is about as close as we can get in terms of style and sound to someone like Jimmy. Phil has been great to work with. We were able to do a bunch of shows with Phil before we attempted the creative process, and the writing stage. I’m happy to say that so far, so good. He’s been onboard with it, and we’re all very pleased with how he has integrated into the band. We all miss Jimmy, though.”

On June 10th, 2013, Vivian revealed that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Four years later in 2017, the guitarist’s health is a topic of conversation among fans. “It’s the least of my concerns, to be honest, but then again, it always was the least of my concerns – even when it was at its worst,” he tells. “One thing I can tell you is cancer is not gonna kill me. It’s either gonna be fast cars, or angry women, or too much red wine. I refuse to capitulate to cancer. I’ve always refused to give in to that fucking disease, and I continue my life. I’ve been very fortunate that for the last couple of years, I’ve progressed from doing chemotherapy and doing stem cell transplants and all that nonsense.

“I was very fortunate that I was able to participate in a clinical trial for a new drug called pembrolizumab; I’m fortunate that I’m one of the few people – maybe 20-30% of people – that it actually works for. For the last two years, I’ve been getting an infusion of that for about once a month, and with very, very minimal side effects; no hair loss, minimal nausea, or tiredness, or whatever. I’ve been able to continue my life and my work. To be honest, the hardest thing about all of it has been scheduling the travel, and having to fly back to LA for once a month, from Singapore, or London, or New York, or wherever I happen to be to get an infusion.

“It’s the least of my concerns. It’s like going to the dentist to me, now. It’s just routine maintenance, and my doctors are happy enough for me to continue this treatment for the foreseeable future, which is fine by me. Like I said, the hardest part is the scheduling and the travel. It allows me to continue my work, and that’s a big, big part of dealing with it for me. If I wasn’t able to work, this disease would kill me, and of that I’m certain. As I said before though, as long as I can keep working, it makes me happy.”

The musician’s hefty musical slate is a source of relief, as given his Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis, it would be worrisome if we did not hear from him for several months.“I do think that that’s people’s natural instincts,” he remarks. “With a cancer diagnosis, you have to put everything in your life on hold and just focus on that 100%. That really depends on the nature of the cancer though, and the severity of it – what stage your cancer is at. I was very fortunate; I caught my cancer reasonably early, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma is not as severe as stage four lung cancer or brain cancer. It’s nothing like that. There were a couple of years where it was pretty rough, but now I’m at a stage where I can manage it and continue working.

“I’m glad that I never really put my sole focus on my recovery and stopped working, because I do think for me at least – everyone thinks and feels differently – that would have been a death sentence. I had a hard time convincing some of the people I work with that it was better for me, and I realised that they had my best interests at heart. They wanted me to stay at home and convalesce, but that’s not how I roll. Fuck the cancer; I’ve got a big middle finger for it.”

California was released on July 7th, 2017 via Frontiers Music Srl.

Interview published in July 2017. All promotional photographs by Kelsey Danzeisen.

<< Back to Archive News
<< Back to Latest News

Related Posts via Categories