Rick Allen first appeared behind the drum kit with Def Leppard nearly 40 years ago, at the tender age of 15. His drum sound would go on to leave a distinct impression on modern popular music, appearing on more than 100 million albums sold and winning him fans the world over. It was overcoming the loss of his left arm in a horrific auto accident, however, and his subsequent return to the stage, that endeared fans to Rick Allen the person.
In recent years, Allen has been expressing himself through his artwork, and is currently touring a vibrant collection called Drums for Peace, which includes a painted drum series, mixed media originals, sculptures and other artistic forms. He and his artwork will be at the Wentworth Gallery at the Mall at Short Hills from 5 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 13. For information, visit wentworthgallery.com/allen or rickallen.com.
In this conversation, Allen tells us what others Def Leppard members think of his art, the benefit of being childlike, what he says when he pretends to dodge fans in public, and the pressure of paying homage to a dearly departed bandmate.
Q: Rick, your artwork will be shown by the Wentworth Gallery, a fine art dealer that has displayed works by artists ranging from Peter Max to Picasso. That’s fairly good company.
A: I would say so! For a drummer from rural England, it appears I’ve done pretty good for myself. [laughs]
Q: Did you show any of the band members your artwork when you were first starting out, and if so, what kind of reaction did they have to it?
A: Joe (Elliott) actually bought a couple of pieces, which is the biggest compliment he could have ever paid to me. We are always encouraging each other to pursue side projects, and this is one of those things that everyone in the band realized I was very passionate about, and they support me in it. It’s great.
Q: From the outside looking in, and more than most bands, you all come across as being true friends.
A: Absolutely. I think it’s one of the things that have kept Def Leppard going for all these years. The fact that through the ups and downs – especially the downs, when you’re sitting in a room together asking yourselves, “Why are we doing this again?” – you quickly come to the conclusion that, “Well, we enjoy hanging out with each other, and we’re friends, so let’s get through whatever it is together, and keep doing what we do.”
Q: When looking at the quality and mass appeal of your artistic work, what leaves the biggest impression on me is that you’ve been a public figure for the entirety of the time you’ve been an artist, but only started showing and sharing your work a few years ago.
A: I was actually a bit afraid to show it, until my wife encouraged me to. I guess it was a matter of getting over the fear of rejection, and possibly hearing people say, “A drummer? Trying to be an artist?” But when I saw some of the other artists that had been involved with Wentworth, I said, “Why not? I should do this.”
Q: Some of the artists you speak of are your musical contemporaries, like Paul Stanley of Kiss.
A: Exactly. Paul and I actually had the chance to talk about it when when we toured with them a few years back. I figured, if some of these people are out there showing other creative sides of themselves, then why can’t I?
Q: That attitude was rewarded in a big way, because there were over 300 pieces in your first collection, and you sold them all.
A: That collection was using light art, and it went really well. Then I got into painting again, after not having done so for many years. I painted as a kid, but I probably got more paint on me than the paper or the canvas. But sometime after my daughter was born we started painting together, and it reignited my passion for doing it. When I paint, I go to that same mindless place I do when I’m playing drums. Just being in the moment.
Q: Your drumming is notable for its big sound, making your nickname “The Thunder God” — an apropos description. If I can ask you to cast all modesty aside for a moment, I’d like to know how you characterize or define Rick Allen’s artwork?
A: That’s a really good question. I think because I’m not trained, it’s a little bit childlike, but for me I think the childlike quality works in a very positive way. If I’m using patriotic images of English or American flags, I try to bring a lighthearted note to them, like a peace sign or a heart or a handprint. I think that bringing a lighthearted note to something as potentially serious as a flag is nice because it helps create unity, instead of a divide. And that’s the entire premise behind the art — it gives us something positive to talk about.
Q: You use the Union Jack and American flags, primarily. Are you a British citizen, or American?
A: I’m still a British citizen, but my wife is American, and we live in California. We figure if everything were to go belly up, we’d always have somewhere else to go. [laughs]
Q: One of the realities of playing in a multi-platinum band is that you have numerous hits that fans expect you to play every night. On some tours, those songs make up virtually the entirety of your set. In art, you have the freedom to experiment and create anything you want. Is that one of its appeals for you?
A: That’s absolutely right, it is a big appeal for me. One part about creating new things, though, is that I tend to want to keep them once I finish them! [laughs] I understand that I can’t. I know they have to go.
Q: Def Leppard songs are the exact opposite. You can’t be rid of them, even if you wanted to.
A: That’s true, but what’s interesting is that, sure, in a rehearsal room, you’ll sometimes feel like, “Oh man, we’re doing this song again?” But then a strange thing happens when you play it in front of an audience. It takes on a whole different personality. All of that combined energy that people have towards the song — whether it was the soundtrack of their life or the first time they smoked pot or the first time they had sex or whatever — all of those things suddenly come into play, and it lights up an audience. I know I certainly don’t have to tell you, Robert. You know how these things happen with live music.
Q: In this conversation you’ve now spoken enthusiastically about both music and art. At this point of your life, if a stranger sat down next to you in a pub and started up a conversation, which would you prefer that discussion be about?
A: At this point in my life, I’d be very happy to discuss anything, because I’ve had a very interesting life, and I’m worldly because I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve also made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve made a lot of really good decisions in my life as well, and I’m very comfortable in my own skin. So I’m happy to talk about anything because I’m at a great place in my life, and it’s easier to just accept all of it. The Rick Allen Experience, you know? [laughs]
Q: A big part of the Rick Allen Experience is charitable works. You’ve won a humanitarian award from Maria Shriver’s Best Buddies, a Martin Luther King award for non-violent social change, and a Wounded Warrior Project award for your work with seriously injured vets. You also have a significant part of your website set aside solely for the promotion of these and other causes. Has this always been a part of your makeup, Rick, or was there a point in your life where something changed, and you decided to go all in, assisting others?
A: That’s a very interesting question. Many years ago, after my accident, I never really experienced any kind of therapy. I threw myself headlong back into my work, which, in many ways, was great. But on another level, I probably should have taken better care of myself, because I realized at a certain point that I had PTSD, which is one of the reasons I work with the Wounded Warriors. I threw myself into alternative therapies, meditation, breathing, working with horses and the like, and I realized that if I could share some of that with our warriors, it would help them. I also learn a lot from them, of course, so it becomes a two-way street. These days, all I have to do is show up and tell my life experience, and far more often than not, I get a very positive reaction from people. It’s wonderful to realize that even though some among us have been more traumatized than others, we all have been traumatized in one way, shape or form. Whether that means an alcoholic background, or an abusive relationship, or a car accident or combat. It all plays to the same place. The mind doesn’t know how the trauma was caused. All it knows was that it’s trauma. I thought it was a good thing for me to share my experience, and at the same time hear from other people, and see how they cope.
Q: Having followed you from a distance for so long, I sense that you’ve gradually become more of an extrovert over the years.
A: I think I have. For awhile after my accident, I didn’t want to see much of anybody outside of the guys in the band, my family and friends. But that changed with time and I was really pleased and blessed to make that shift, and be able to share myself. I’m shy in many ways. I don’t like to talk about myself that much, but when I do these types of things, and I show up to be of service, I have to talk about myself. I think that’s a great thing.
Q: You’re involved in so many things artistically, charitably and otherwise, but you were a musician first. A few years ago Lars Ulrich from Metallica said that he almost never practices his drums when he’s off tour. How about you? Do you still play or practice at home?
A: Actually, right now I have a project that I’m working on with my wife (Lauren Monroe) where we’re playing the Troubadour in Santa Monica in a few days. So that gives me a good reason to practice. I don’t want to look foolish in front of an audience. I have a certain reputation to withhold! [laughs] It’s good to just continue playing. Music and Def Leppard are what launched everything. Without that, everything else you and I are talking about would just fall by the wayside and not be seen or heard by anyone. So I keep myself going in music, and keep that edge as best I can.
Q: Little known fact: Nearly every person in history who has attempted to become a famous drummer has done so with the benefit of two arms [Rick laughs]. 99.99 percent of them don’t make it to the mountaintop. You did, and it’s a difficult feat, even when playing conventionally. Then your accident forced you to achieve your dream all over again, in an incredibly challenging way. Which breakthrough was more difficult – getting there at first, or making your way back?
A: I think the thing that was more difficult was coming back, because of this one reason: I was trying to be exactly the same drummer I was before I lost my arm. The thing that really helped me was to stop comparing myself to others, stop comparing myself to who I was before the accident, and start celebrating how unique it was for me to play the drums in this way. As soon as I made that shift in my mind, I stopped putting pressure on myself and it stopped being difficult. I acknowledged the fact that I couldn’t play drums the same way I was used to, but I was different and unique and not many other people could play the way that I do.
Q: That’s putting it mildly. [both laugh]
A: It was just a matter of me embracing that.
Q: Have you encountered other drummers who have one arm, and if so, have you encouraged or mentored any?
A: I have, actually. To this day, I still keep in touch with a few. There’s one guy in Holland, a drummer who lost his arm through some sort of bone cancer. When I saw him on social media I said, “I have to get in touch with this guy.” And did. Doing those kinds of things is great, because once they feel that encouragement, they just seem to go all out. I love being able to do that.
Q: It’s a very small club and you’re the pioneer, so it has to be incredible for them to hear from you. If I was an aspiring drummer I might tie my arm behind my back if I knew Rick Allen would call me up at home and give me advice. [Rick laughs]
A: That is very funny because there actually is a Def Leppard cover band out there where the drummer puts his arm behind his back. I talked to the guy about it and said, “Listen, as long as you don’t go whole hog and really get rid of the thing, then we’re cool.” [Robert laughs]
Q: Def Leppard is played on commercial radio nearly everywhere in the world, every day. When you and your family are out shopping and you hear “Pour Some Sugar on Me” or “Hysteria” or “Photograph,” do you think, “Hey, that’s me?” or has the novelty worn off long ago?
A: I don’t think the novelty will ever wear off. Any time the band is celebrated by fans or writers like yourself — or anyone, for that matter — it’s a gift. That’s the blessing, and the reason I do this. It’s the same thing as if I was out shopping, and nobody was to recognize me. That would be disappointing for me. I love when people come up to me and ask me for a selfie or a photograph or an autograph. When people stop doing that … that would be the problem.
Q: Your welcoming attitude towards fans is not only refreshing, but almost necessary, because you can’t hide in plain sight. I’ve heard artists say that someone will come up to them in the mall and say, “Excuse me, are you so and so?” and they’ll reply “No,” and move along. [both laugh] You don’t have the benefit of plausible deniability, do you?
A: No, I certainly do not. My attempt at feeble humor is that when someone approaches me while I’m with my family and says, “Are you Rick Allen from Def Leppard?”, I’ll say, “Not today.” [both laugh]. I’m just kidding them, of course. I say it with a dry smile, and they usually get a kick out of it.
Q: Def Leppard’s musical influences, as much as any band I can think of, are fairly well known. How about artistic influences? Do you have any any?
A: When I see how Peter Max uses his colors, it’s just, “wow.” They are so vivid. And years ago, I started getting interested in Salvador Dali and more of the abstract side of art. Those two artists, for me, are very influential. They are obviously the greats, but I love seeing all types of artists and photographers. I love to see other people’s creativity.
Q: So what is your own favorite piece of creativity that you’ll be sharing with us in this upcoming collection ?
A: I just started a new side project for my Drums for Peace series. It’s a project that isn’t really known at the moment, called Legends. The subject for my first piece for it was Steve Clark (the former Def Leppard guitarist who passed away in 1991 at the age of 30).
Q: Yes, the portrait of his face. Even in photos, that piece really stands out to me.
A: As you know, over the last few years we have lost a lot of musicians. I just thought what better way to pay homage to those that have left us, than to put them down on canvas. This will be my first of many. I’m also working on a Jimi Hendrix piece and a John Lennon piece. I didn’t select these artists in any particular order, it’s just that there are unfortunately so many to choose from.
Q: I’d have to imagine that beginning with Steve wasn’t arbitrary for you, though.
A: It wasn’t. I thought it would be a great way to start that collection — to paint somebody that I loved dearly.
Q: You mention working on him, Hendrix and Lennon. When you were creating Steve’s piece, did you feel anything different than you did with the others, because this was a friend looking back you?
A: Absolutely. It was so important for me to capture the essence of Steve, and I didn’t want to mess that up, because I will always remember his face in a certain way. I work with photographs and I changed the contrast so that I could capture his essence. My work is very posterized because of the way that I paint. I can’t really do realism. But when I posterize things, I can really capture something. It was a great learning tool in trying to capture Steve’s face and to get it right. I do feel that the end result was fantastic.
Q: Has the band or anyone else close to Steve weighed in on it?
A: I actually took a snapshot of Steve’s piece and sent it to my mother. She still keeps in touch with Steve’s family and took the picture up there to show it to his mom and dad. She said his mom had tears rolling down her cheeks. It wasn’t that I wanted to make her sad or anything, it was more me paying homage to her son, one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever known.
Q: Based on the physical demands of being a drummer, is it safe to say that art is something you’ll be doing long after Def Leppard?
A: That is one of the many things that I do love about engaging in art. It’s nowhere near as physical as playing drums, that’s for sure, and it’s something I can keep getting better at until my later years. It’s nice to know that I’ll continue to be creative, but in a different way. The art does pays homage to the music as well.
Q: And that could go on forever. When you’re age 85 and missing the good ol’ days onstage, you can just paint a picture of yourself playing drums. [Rick laughs]
A: Ya know, Robert, that’s a piece I’m going to work on one day. I just thought it might be a bit pretentious for me to paint myself now, and call it Legend. [both laugh] That’s for other people to say about me one day, if they’d like.
This interview originally appeared on Robert Ferraro’s website, ofpersonalinterest.com.