Exploding onto the music scene with a ferocious sound blending primal riffs with a melodic smartness thanks to massive radio hits like “Photograph,” “Rock Of Ages,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” “Animal,” “Love Bites”, Def Leppard etched their permanent mark on hard rock music.
Masters in the recording studio, Def Leppard also continue to be dedicated road dogs hitting the road yearly delivering powerful performances to SRO crowds around the globe. On the cusp of a new U.S. tour pairing them with Poison and Tesla, we caught up with lead guitarist Phil Collen, who filled us in on their new concert DVD, And There Will Be A Next Time – Live From Detroit, and much more.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Growing up, what was the most memorable live concert you attended?
Phil Collen: Well, the very first show I saw was Deep Purple and that was back in ’72. That show really made me wanna play guitar. That was the profound moment that kind of kicked it all off for me. I lived in London when I grew up and saw so many great shows like David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, just name it. I was kind if spoiled in that respect. It was incredible but Deep Purple was the one that kicked it off for me so I’d have to pick that show as most memorable.
Def Leppard is a perennial on the live circuit. With decades of touring under the band’s collective belt, how do you manage to make it fulfilling and fresh?
Phil Collen: We keep raising the bar. The one thing that does happen is we get better as musicians and we get better as singers. I actually sing better this year and play guitar better than I did last year, for example. I think that’s just a constant thing because we’re doing it all the time.
I know some players and know of some players that don’t really play so much anymore. They say, “Well, I can’t get any better, I’m getting older” but it’s got nothing to do with that. If you’ve still got the passion and the fire and you’re doing it constantly, you get better, and then you have something else to share with your fans.
During our last tour, a lot fans were saying, “We’ve see you guys for the last 30 years and this is the best we’ve ever seen.” That’s why we recorded a show in Detroit and are putting it out on DVD (And There Will Be A Next Time – Live From Detroit). That came about because everyone was saying the same thing about how good the last tour was so we decided, “OK, then we’ll share it with you.” So it all comes down to our ambitious commitment and that keeps us going. It’s exciting.
We haven’t written our best song yet; we keep trying to do that. With more experience you get better as a songwriter and all the other things as well. It’s a joy to constantly roll out something that’s more exciting for you because it’s actually gonna be more exciting for other people as well.
If you could pull out one Def Leppard song from band’s vast catalog to perform live, either a track that you played on or one that was on the band’s early records, which would you choose and why?
Phil Collen: Oh I’d love to do “Turn To Dust” off the Slang album. We had all these Indian strings on it. That one would be really super cool to do especially if we could do it with an orchestra. Probably from the Slang album I’d also love to do “Pearl of Euphoria” and there’s a bunch of other songs that are really exciting that we’ve maybe played once, if at all, and it would be really cool to dig in and actually do some of these.
You joined Def Leppard 35 years ago, in 1982. Looking back, what were the greatest challenges you faced fitting into the band both live onstage and in the recording studio?
Phil Collen: I didn’t have any at all. Everyone really dug what I was doing from the first note I played. Mutt Lange gave me a tape to take home and said, “Come up with a solo for this song. It’s gotta be kind of fast and furious” and that was “Stagefright.” So the first solo I did in Def Leppard was for “Stagefright” and it was done in one take. Everyone was like, “Wow, this is great!” It just gave it a different energy for the band. I never really worried about it. From then on I saw it as an empty palette.
Your former band Girl covered KISS’s “Do You Love Me,” and decades later you found yourself on a double bill with Def Leppard and KISS. Making matters even more significant, you are one of only two rock stars (Joe Perry of Aerosmith is the other) to have jammed with KISS onstage. How did you pull that off and what was the experience like for you?
Phil Collen: Someone mentioned to me about getting onstage to pay with KISS and asked if I’d be up for doing it and I said, “Yeah, if everyone’s cool with it, absolutely!” Then it was, “Okay, what song do you want to do?” I could have chosen anything on their set list and I picked the song “Deuce.”
The hardest part was being able to walk around in those KISS boots (laughs). I had to walk around all day in them trying to get used to those boots. I out them on and went, “Oh my God, how do you do this?!” Gene let me put on his boots a couple of weeks before. You had to really careful because in those boots you could easily bust your ankle. So I jammed with KISS and I wound up wearing a set of Paul’s boots, which were like seven-inch heels. That was such fun.
As I was walking onstage, the production manager said, “Oh, by the way don’t step back past that line because the flames will get you.” I was like, “Oh My God!” So I’m trying to stay balanced wearing these seven-inch boot and remember the song, which was “Deuce,” and make sure not to go too far back or I’d get burned. But I have to say, it was such a thrill to play with KISS. I was honored.
We got on great with KISS. Touring with them was so much fun. They’re so professional. They’re so into the theater and the art part of it; it’s just amazing.
Your band mate Steve Clark passed away 26 years ago. When you think of Steve today, what are your fondest memories of him and how did he make you a better guitar player?
Phil Collen: I just miss him terribly as a person. This is weird; we could sit down and have an eight-hour conversation. He was my best friend. That’s kind of weird; I don’t know any other guys who I could sit down with and have a chat for eight hours and get into a deep philosophical conversation. Plus we were in the same band, so we were having all these same experiences.
As a musician, we developed this harmony duel guitar thing. It wasn’t just a regular rhythm, lead thing; it was about orchestrating the guitars. You’ve got two guitars players so why play the same thing? One could be playing a rhythmic groove line and the other could be playing these chords and you’d have to make sure they sonically weave together. That was the most amazing thing; we were still working on that actually even when he died. You really heard that on the Hysteria album and a little bit on Adrenalize although Steve wasn’t there but I learned his parts and played the stuff that we had worked out together.
Def Leppard, unlike many bands still performing, have established a camaraderie and brotherhood based on real friendship. Against the pressures of fame and working with each other 24-7, how has the band been able to maintain genuine friendships where other bands have fallen short?
Phil Collen: I don’t understand how the other bands do it. You’ve got this dream job and occupation. If someone said to me, “In your 60th year you’re gonna be running around half naked and people are gonna be going crazy while you’re playing these sold out shows and you’re gonna be able to play guitar and sing like you’ve never dreamed possible,” I’d say, “Really, that could happen?” and it does happen.
Def Leppard is a family. We’ve spent more time together than with any blood relative we’ve ever had; my parents included. You spend 16, 18 years with your folks, we’ve been doing this constantly for 30 something years so you get to know each other intimately. It’s the same thing as any kind of friendship or family thing. It changes and goes on.
I think if you respect that you’ve had all of these amazing experiences together, you’ve written these songs together and played all these show together. You’ve been through birth, death, marriages, divorces. You’ve been shoulders to cry on and you’ve needed shoulders to cry on and it’s all been within this structure. I don’t see how that could fail, personally, plus we were all raised by very working-class English families and we have that thing in common as well.
Mutt Lange was an integral part of the band’s success both as a producer and songwriting collaborator. What are the greatest lessons you take away from working with him?
Phil Collen: Well, I’m producing the new Tesla album and what I’ve applied 100% is that work ethic. Most rock bands don’t push the bar too much of they get success and they stop doing it. Mutt would go, “No, that’s just the starting point. You can be ordinary, you can be average. You need to go way beyond that. We’ve gotta make the song better, the melody’s gotta be better and the grooves gotta be better. The lyrics have to be better too, not necessarily profound but they’ve got be right for the song.”
So you could have a song like “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” which is a silly fun pop song. So just the idea of working a lot harder came from Mutt. So we apply that to everything we do and the Tesla album is no different. I’m making them work a lot harder.
Away from Def Leppard, you have a side project called Delta Deep.
Phil Collen: Delta Deep is my other band. It started off as a blues rock band but the best description I heard was Tina Turner in her prime singing over Led Zeppelin. It’s Debbi Blackwell Cook, who’s this wonderful sixty-three year old soul singer, Robert DeLeo from Stone Temple Pilot’s on bass and Forest Robinson, who used to play in the Crusaders, TLC, is on drums. I met him when he played with India Arie. He’s an incredible player.
He sounds like a cross between Billy Cobham and John Bonham, if you can imagine that. We’ve got a live album about to come out and we start work on our second album. We’re writing songs and we’re gonna record it in segments, three or four songs at a time. We’ve got at least eight songs now.