Of all the places you imagine rock stars go, the dog groomer is probably not one of them. Not so for Def Leppard’s thunder man Rick Allen, who woke up at seven o’clock to take his little cairn terrier, Ricky, to get his hair coiffed and paws manicured.
Then again, Rick Allen is no ordinary rock star. Joining the Leppards as a nineteen-year-old pup himself, Allen rode the effervescent wave of Britain’s heavy-metal renaissance on the brink of the eighties. With their trademark trickling vocals and opulent guitar riffs, the multiplatinum, Union-jack clad lads from Sheffield are one of the biggest-selling bands in the world. But their success did not come at a low price. On New Year’s Eve, 1984, Rick Allen walked away from a lethal auto accident with only one arm—a death knell for the career of a drummer. Two years later, Allen miraculously took the stage again, this time playing on a specially customized electronic drum kit which compensates for his handicap.
The resilient Rick Allen spoke to Maximum Ink, in his ever-cheery English accent, before Def Leppard churns the wheels of their unusually long three-year tour towards Summerfest 2007.
MAXINK: Are you exhausted yet?
Rick Allen: [Laughs] It’s amazing what happens when you sit in front of an audience, no matter how tired you feel, you seem to find the energy for somewhere.
MAXINK: Is week just about spending time with family and friends before another long haul?
Rick Allen: Actually no, after I drop the dog off, I’m off to rehearsals and just sharpening everything up, putting in some different songs…it’s good. It’s going really well, but it’s kind of hectic. This last week is just thinking like what I need to take with me on the road. When I’m off the road, I feel like a part time rock star—between the dogs and family—now I’m starting to get back into tour mode again.
MAXINK: How do you balance family with life on the road? There’s got to be a push and pull somewhere.
Rick Allen: There is. When I’m sitting on a plane and I’ve resided myself to the fact that I don’t have a choice, then I get excited about it. But before then, there’s like a longing where I want to stay and spend more time with the family and just finish up things that I’ve started. It’s a choice. The band is what I chose to do and my family seems to fit in really well with what I do and they’re really excited for me. You know I feel very blessed doing what I do and you know what? It’s probably not something that lasts forever, but we keep making new music and we keep being given the chance to go out on the road, so it’s really a great way to live.
MAXINK: How did playing with Styx and Foreigner come about?
Rick Allen: That was a management suggestion. We’ve always been Foreigner fans and I remember getting into Styx a long time ago, when I was a kid. And I think between the two of them, or the three of us, I think we’ll bring out a really good crowd.
MAXINK: I’ve been reading a lot about your Raven Drum Foundation. It’s admirable how involved you are in promoting such a beneficial program.
Rick Allen: Ah, to be able to share such an ancient form like drumming with the community is really rewarding. It’s really interesting, because I think what happens is people re-remember a part of themselves that really was forgotten. And drum circle really is a metaphor for community; it’s like a cross-section of the community. And it’s beautiful to see that we can be supported by the rest of the community no matter what we’re going through—good, bad, or indifferent. And some of the things that have really been rewarding are some of the cancer programs and incarcerated teens, I really enjoy working with them, and I still get really involved in a few local programs. Obviously I can’t do everything especially when it’s a touring year, but I really try to get involved as much as I can. My wife, she’s really instrumental in creating the programs and finding some of the teachers to send out there, but like I said, whatever I can, whenever I get the opportunity to get out and involved. It’s really good, it really grounds me.
MAXINK: Knowing all the obstacles that you’ve had to overcome, when you get to meet these people, what types of questions do they ask you?
Rick Allen: ‘What made you want to come back?’ ‘What made you want to do what you do?’ ‘How did you relearn playing the drums?’ And interestingly enough, I have a theory that you don’t actually relearn, I think it’s a natural response of the mind and body to re-channel information that is already there. For example, I’ve spoken with several men and women coming back from the Middle East who have lost limbs. And it is interesting—there is a response that the body just automatically does and then I think the learning curve takes over if you have the will to go on. So it’s a combination of two different things. And you know, I just tell them: ‘Whatever it is that you do, do it from your heart and you will succeed.’
MAXINK: Going back to the drum circles, can you explain what those are for those who don’t know?
Rick Allen: Basically what we’ll do is play three or four different rhythms with an intention in mind. One of the intentions may be letting go of things that don’t serve us anymore, with a specific rhythm in mind. And then another rhythm or intention may be bringing in things that do serve us—those positive human attributes. And then one of the last rhythms may be a celebration of sorts. So it’s done in more of a ritualistic sort of way, more like our ancestors would have done. But if you got back long enough, we’re all tribal. We all sat around a fire, we brought in new life, we mourned when there was death in the family, and it was something we used a lot, and unfortunately we’ve forgotten that way of being because this society is so busy, you know? It’s very difficult to get together and be a community sometimes. So really that’s what the drum circle does. It’s a good excuse to get together and celebrate.
MAXINK: Are there any parallels between a Def Leppard show and a drum circle?
Rick Allen: Well, you know, it’s always good to get people out and to get them out of their intellect and into their hearts. As soon as people get into their hearts, the possibilities are infinite, and that is really what the drum circle is, more specifically.
MAXINK: Have you always regarded the drums in a spiritual and symbolic sense?
Rick Allen: No, it wasn’t until I had my accident which on the face of it would seem like a huge negative, but in hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise.
MAXINK: Almost like a second chance.
Rick Allen: Yeah and then my priorities shifted, and I saw that there was a need for sharing my life experience and that’s basically what I do through the drum circle is share my life experience.
MAXINK: Not many people know that you received the Humanitarian Award in 2001. It must have been nice to be recognized for your individual endeavors outside of the band.
Rick Allen: Always. I mean, it’s always nice to get a pat on the back [laughs], but you know, having said that, awards are very nice, but really getting out there in the community and being thanked by somebody that might not be here for very much longer is equally, or even more rewarding.
MAXINK: When you did come back though, you were undoubtedly supported on all ends, but was it difficult to reconnect with your band mates and family again?
Rick Allen: Sometimes and sometimes it still is. Some of the experiences that I’ve been through are unknowable. You can’t necessarily put them into words. I think it’s of an experiential nature, and as you know, when something is experiential it’s not necessarily something that can be expressed in words. You have to live it. You know, it’s almost like you go through an experience and you come back knowing you’d said, ‘well, instead of turning around in death’s throws or trying to preach it’ you kind of have to [pauses] just live it.
MAXINK: And being a rock star, of all vocations, is one that I am sure is hard to explain at times.
Rick Allen: Well, yeah, you know what it is? I think if you’re just yourself and you don’t get too heady with it, or egotistical about it, I think it’s something that can be really beneficial. I think doing what I do, it’s almost like living many lifetimes in one, because the pace of life tends to be a little quick.
MAXINK: Sometimes even in uncontrollable situations, like your accident, we tend to feel a sense of guilt. Did that ever happen to you in the aftermath?
Rick Allen: I didn’t want to let people down after my accident. That was a really interesting motivation; I didn’t want to let people down. So that was one of the factors, one of the ingredients, for me wanting to come back and wanting to play again, which is kind of twisted in a way. But hey! Whatever it took. Instead of curling up and disappearing and just isolating, I realized that it was good for me to share the experience.
MAXINK: Speaking of twisted, do you think it is a tragic necessity for all iconic bands and artists to have that “rise and fall” factor?
Rick Allen: I think if you don’t, and we’ve seen this many times, what tends to happen is the individuals within the unit get a sense that it’s all about them. It becomes very narcissistic. Whereas if you have ups and downs, you get more of a sense that ‘wow, it’s the chemistry between us that works.’ And I think the one beautiful thing about Def Leppard is that it was always based on a friendship and even after my accident, it was even more about friendship.
MAXINK: With that said what sort of advice would you give to up and coming rock n’ rollers, who are just beginning to experience what you guys have gone through?
Rick Allen: Again, I think the most important thing is whatever it is you do, as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons and it’s not necessarily a financial gain, as it were—yeah, we’ve all got to pay the bills—but I think if you’re coming at it from the point of you, and a heart-based way of being, as opposed to the intellect. I think it will work because a combination of your passion and something you know to be true to yourself, it’ll work.
MAXINK: Let’s talk a little bit about your recent VH1 documentary, Hysteria: The Story of Def Leppard. Needless to say, it was very well received, but having seen the way other bands have been portrayed, were you wary of the artistic license they would use in the process?
Rick Allen: I mean, a lot of the information was good, it was true, but I think where the artistic license came in, was really the characters, and the actors. I think they weren’t necessarily exactly as they were. You know, Mutt Lange was portrayed as this go-getter, and in a way he way, but in many ways, he was one of the most humble people I know! Just very, very easy. In a way, he would tap into your own sense of competitiveness, not necessarily that he was competitive himself; he was just very clear about what he wanted.
MAXINK: How about the band as a whole? From the day you guys started, you must have thought ‘how is all this going to go down in the books,’ and now that picture is starting to be painted…
Rick Allen: You know what, that’s really interesting, because I think when you’re in it [the band] you don’t necessarily think of things like that, ‘What are we going to be remembered for,’ because to me, when someone says ‘Remember that record you released,’ and you go ‘Was that twenty-eight years ago? Now way!’ When I remember it, it feels like yesterday. Maybe the thing I want to be remembered for is the fact that we stayed together, we didn’t disappear up our own rear-ends, you know.
MAXINK: Which Def Leppard song—past or present—do you wish would have been a hit?
Rick Allen: I wish “Promises” had been more of a hit, that’s such a great song. But when I go out in front of an audience I love playing “Rocket.” I love that tribal nature and maybe it taps into the part of me that we talked about before when we do the drum circles. It’s more of an ancient sort of rhythm, more of an African rhythm, and really, all the rhythms really comes from a lot of the ancient cultures, African being one of them.
MAXINK: Like you just said, in African culture, the drum brings the community together, whether for war, marriage, religion, whatever it may be.
Rick Allen: It’s beautiful, beautiful. The drum, in many cultures, is really the heartbeat, and that is one of the things we start out with whenever I meet a new group of people. You know, the first thing we ever heard was literally the beat of our mother’s heart and none of us can deny that. Unless of course, you didn’t have a mother [laughs] and I’ve met some people where it’s debatable. No, but joking apart, rhythm is one thing that really brings us all together. We are rhythmic beings; you know, we shed our skin, our hair changes, our skin changes, we have a pulse, a heart beat; all these different rhythmic elements. So anyone who says they can’t play drums, I say, ‘You know, you’d be really surprised.’ And I think when you do the drum circles, even if you can’t play, when you get the feeling of a dominant pulse, you find your own rhythm.
MAXINK: Does the essence of the drum gets watered down in today’s society?
Rick Allen: I think the emergence of a lot of electronic drumming and certain aspects of the way we record music these days, it does take the soul out of it a little bit. I think a combination is good. Like, mapping out drum tracks using electronic drums is kind of cool, because you can be real heady about it, real intellectual about it, but then what is really fun, is lairing a performance on top of it, which I tend to do quite a bit.
MAXINK: What is the biggest difference between playing your electronic drum kit versus your drums before the accident?
Rick Allen: It’s the same difference between driving a VW Beetle and a Formula 1 car [laughs]. The Formula 1 car has a specific intention—you just wanna go fast—and it’s great because I can express myself really well. But when I go back in the studio, I go back to the VW Beetle, which is something I do very well and I’ll do a pass with kick, snare, acoustic drum in front of me, and another pass with say, the cymbals, and then try to marry the two. And then when I get out on the road, it’s easier with the electronic kit, to play it all together.
MAXINK: Your electronic drum kit is a novelty within music, but I can imagine there are a lot of nuances that take time to get a handle on.
Rick Allen: It’s true, just kind of coming to terms with playing the electric drums, having spent all this time being off the road and being in the studio and getting all acoustic with everything, and then all of a sudden I’m thrown into having to play this electronic drum kit again. It’s about all the neurological pathways opening up again, all the mental memory comes back. It’s different, but it’s a challenge.
MAXINK: Did you ever try to use a prosthetic arm?
Rick Allen: Yes, and I tried it, and not that I would tell anyone to shy away from it, because it is a very valid point. But with me I lost so much of my shoulder it felt awkward, so I didn’t necessarily pursue it.
MAXINK: What’s next in the studio for Def Leppard?
Rick Allen: Actually, we’ve just finished working on a new record. We’ve been working on it since the last tour. We have a room that we call the Sparkle Lounge, and everything we do we work out in the Sparkle Lounge first, but it’s really nice because we go on tour so you get an idea of what works live and what works in the studio. I think that when it’s just four walls, you don’t necessarily get a sense of how an audience are gonna react. As soon as you play a new song in front of an audience you go ‘ah’ now we know how it really needs to go.