He’s been leading Britain’s most successful rock band for more than three decades but Joe Elliott’s decision to take a well-earned break from Def Leppard duties is reaping rewards.

Sunday sees his Mott The Hoople tribute band Down N Outz play the High Voltage Festival main stage followed by a slot with the man himself – Ian Hunter.

In the latest of our festival previews we caught up with Sheffield’s finest – look out for another High Voltage Exclusive tomorrow!

rushonrock: Down N Outz was never meant to be more than a group of mates playing a one-off tribute show – did you ever imagine it would take on a life of its own?

Joe Elliott: The whole thing’s just been stunning really. And I’ll be honest, I never expected it to be such a success. Of course I’m glad it has been and I just hope it gets even bigger. We never set out to turn this thing into a second career but we always intended to do justice to the songs. Right now we appear to be heading towards some kind of Travelling Wilburys-style band. And the one upside to the way the music business is these days is that there’s no record label and therefore no pressure to do things to a certain timetable. We’ll just do stuff when we can and when we feel like it. And as long as we allow people to find out that Down N Outz exists it’ll take on its own life.

rushonrock: Why has the band become so much more than a one-off support act?

JE: Well first and foremost we did our homework for that first 45-minute gig. The lads from Quireboys were playing the songs during their soundchecks all over Europe and I was sitting in the back of the Def Leppard tour bus in America playing along to the tracks we were putting into the setlist. We knew we had to get more than familiar with these tracks in order to do the best job possible. We all felt we knew the songs as such – the trick was learning them off by heart and playing them with a modern twist. We did all that work separately and then came together for three days of practice before the London show opening for Mott. Then we did that show and looked at each other and thought ‘is that it?’. We thought it would be nice to preserve what we’ve done and we decided to record the songs. Since then it’s been like a snowball. I’ve just come back from the States where I’ve packed in a load of promotion work and right now the song England Rocks is up to number 11 on the US Classic Rock chart. That’s just crazy.

rushonrock: You seem genuinely shocked…

JE: It is difficult taking it all in. In LA they were loving Down N Outz. The music has been so well received over there – they’ve welcomed it with open arms. People were asking me why I’d done it and -apart from reminding them I’d been Mott The Hoople’s unofficial ambassador for the best part of 30 years – I just replied it’s been nice to metaphorically slap a few faces and remind people there is more to classic rock that Freebird and Stairway To Heaven.

rushonrock: Are Down N Outz destined to be a covers band or is there the temptation to write some original material?

JE: For the first couple of records, maybe three, we’ll be doing covers. The Quireboys guys and me do have day jobs to do and we go back to those bands we write a certain type of music. As a songwriter you’re supposed to write songs which fit with your band. But once we’ve done that again we’ll set about writing a fourth Down N Outz record with original songs. Now those songs won’t be the kind of stuff you find on a Def Leppard or a Quireboys record – they’ll be songs written in the spirit of the artists and the era we’re covering. If this all comes together we’re talking about something which will take five years and we’ll be very lucky people if we’re still doing this then. We all have very heavy schedules too but it would be nice if it happens and the intention is there. We can go in and do two or three songs at a time when we can get together and we know that whatever happens we’ll be in control.

rushonrock: How much have you enjoyed working with the Quireboys?

JE: Working with anyone new can always seem like a breath of fresh air. Me and the rest of the Leppard guys have been together for either 32 or 18 years and it’s all I’ve known. Working with the Down N Outz there’s a totally different energy but of course we’re still in our honeymoon period as a band. There’s not been any arguments yet but then I don’t foresee any. Most arguments within bands are about songs – someone will say a chorus isn’t strong enough and the guy who wrote it will stand up and defend it and then people start to get a bit precious. But right now the songs we play have already been written so those kind of arguments just won’t happen. And I think everyone’s enjoying a new way of working.

rushonrock: So how do you work as a band?

JE: It started out with the various band members sending tapes to me and I’d polish them up a bit. I was sending them back and they were all saying they couldn’t believe how good the songs were sounding.  The Quireboys recorded their parts at their studio in Bedfordshire and then the tracks would swap over to my studio in Ireland and I’d go to work. It isn’t supposed to sound like a Leppard production but I did want to take advantage of the studio wizardry available now to make these old songs sound new again. The rest of the band trusted me to do that from day one – I’ve produced a couple of Ricky Warwick albums and played a big part in the production side of the last few Leppard records so I do know what I’m doing. The rest of the band enjoy the fact that I’m in a position to help with that side of things and I’ve got to say it’s been a pleasure working with the guys.

rushonrock: How much of a thrill will it be performing on the main stage at High Voltage alongside Ian Hunter?

JE: Obviously it’s always a thrill to perform alongside one of your heroes but it’s not new territory for either of us. It’s not like there’ll be any nerves or anything like that so it’ll be a treat for the fans. I must have been on stage with Ian 50 times or more over the years and I went up with him for four of the five Hammersmith shows Mott played last year. I’ve played with him at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, at Rock N Roll Heaven in Toronto and I was in the wings when he played All The Young Dudes at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert all those years ago. And Ian’s been on stage with Leppard a number of times. We played with him in New York and he actually used the version of …Dudes that he played with us on his Once Bitten…Twice Shy compilation. Of course High Voltage will be different though. It’s a huge event, we’re doing a full set together and my job will be to sink into the background!

rushonrock: Is this time off from the day job going to benefit Leppard in the long run or is there a danger you’ll take your eye off the ball?

JE: I think if nothing else the fact that I’m doing Down N Outz, Phil is doing Man Raze and Vivian’s joined Thin Lizzy shows we were craving the chance to do something other than the norm. Leppard has been non-stop for 32 years and that’s an incredible situation to be in. The Beatles were around for eight years, Zeppelin for 10 and even Mott did everything within the space of five years. In a sense it’s crazy that we’ve been able to work as one band for so long and we’ve been truly blessed to be in that position. But after such a long time it stands to reason that things will become mundane for a while and that’s why we had to take a break.

rushonrock: So was it a comfortable parting of the ways?

JE: After five years of non-stop work with Leppard I think we all secretly knew there was a need to cool off. We needed a break from the business and the way that it’s been for so long. Personally I needed a break from the routine – I’ve lived in my house near Dublin for 20 years now and never seen the garden in July! Every summer we’ve been touring the US or parts of far flung Europe. I was the first to stick my head above the parapet and say I’m not doing that this year. It just so happens Phil and Viv agreed. Of course the change will recharge out batteries and that’s got to be a good thing. But it’s not like we’re not doing any Leppard work this year – we’re just doing it behind the scenes and at a different pace.