An Interview with Phil Collen of Def Leppard
Phil Collen, co-lead guitarist of Def Leppard, answers a Skype greeting with his own cheerful reply and why not? At the age of 55, he’s in better physical shape than ever (a topic we address). He’s also in demand. There’s a new EP out, I Surrender by Man Raze, his longstanding three piece side act. And, as you’ll read, there are also several other projects in the works.
Of course, there’s also Def Leppard. As you read this, the group are currently on a 42 date tour of the States with Kiss. They’re also recording a new album and well…let Phil tell you.
During our nearly hour long interview, Collen might not have remembered our last encounter in India too well, but he was certainly chatty, friendly and a pleasure to talk to (even providing this writer with a Skype tour of his living room).
What follows are excerpts from our talk…
Scott Murphy: Greetings Phil. As we’re talking on Skype, a lot of musicians gripe about changing technology. But what are your thoughts?
Phil Collen: I think it’s the most liberating thing that’s ever happened to a musician. I’m not very techy. All the guitars on the Manraze, I recorded where I’m sitting on my Mac. I did it on my mic. I wish someone had done this years ago. It’s fascinating. I put ideas down on the phone and go straight to the computer and create anything…Indian drums, African drums…the world is your oyster.
What about in terms of selling albums today?
PC: It is a bother. There’s the fulfillment and the joy. But don’t expect to get paid. The joy and the fulfillment comes from self expression. When I learned to play guitar when I was 16, it was almost like I could fly. I loved any kind of art, whether it’s painting or whatever. I never had a teenage angst problem. I didn’t get into the trouble that a lot of my friends did, because I had this amazing thing. The upside is the fulfillment. That makes up for it.
How did Man Raze come about?
PC: It was 2004. I was over in London. My Dad had two months to live…terminal cancer. I had a great time with him. We were reminiscing, doing everything. During this time, I started writing songs with Simon Laffey (ex-Girl). We thought it was great and Paul Cook was the drummer. I picked up my Dad the next day and literally, there’s Paul getting in the car!
It just clicked. This three piece band with no restrictions. The sound did its own thing: punk, pop, classic rock, reggae, dub reggae and 70s funk music–and we’re heavily influenced by all the great three piece bands. You could relate to them. We kept going, writing songs.
Is it a hobby for you or just as important as your main act?
PC: I see it as being really important. As a muse, you should follow it. I would love it if we could find the opportunity to play more…that’s the thing.
Is this related to scheduling?
PC: Not really–it’s the opportunity. We don’t really get that many offers in. We’d have to take a crew. You can’t just turn up. We play places where people will really want to see us. We’re just waiting for an offer and we would be on a plane.
Talk about the new EP.
PC: It’s pushing that envelope a little more, though it doesn’t sound experimental.
The Def Leppard fans who have heard it think it’s amazing. It’s going to have some similarities. It’s called I Surrender and it’s about growing up and overcoming denial. “I Surrender”–we really liked the song. Musically, it’s got a great groove. We started it eight years ago. We loved what Paul Cook did. I started singing when I was on tour with Def Leppard. So I put the ideas on the Iphone and when I got home we started recording.
Joe McDonald, who produced the first two albums, mixed it. It’s a new direction and we were so happy that we finally finished this song up.
Does this free you up?
PC: With those boundaries, it makes it difficult. Actually, Hysteria was an experimental album. Mutt Lange said we had to do something different. Rap was becoming popular and “Pour Some Sugar On Me” was based on some rap. It’s very hard to be experimental to do what you want to do–with Man Raze we can just follow that experimentation. It’s a brilliant place to be as an artist. It’s great.
And as long as we’re talking about Def Leppard, how is Vivian doing (Campbell was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma)?
PC: He got the all clear…he’s in great spirits…everything is fine.
On that note, you’ve been profiled lately as being in great shape due to your bodybuilding. Are you surprised what the body is capable of?
PC: I am surprised. There’s a big thing. People take drugs when they get sick. The body atrophies not because we get old, but because we ignore it. I stopped drinking 25 years ago and I started working out. I see friends I went to school with and they have backaches, they can’t walk.
I try to have as little poison in my body as possible. All over America there are people on prescription drugs.
People say ‘how do you get your abs like that?’ You have to get to a certain point and then you maintain. I love the way I feel. It really is as easy as that. You can partially eat well and partially work out. It’s weightlifting, Muay Thai and pushups. You can do some of it.
My trainer doesn’t do the pushups for me. I could give classes. I could teach people how to work out. My trainer is a five time kickboxing coach and nutritional coach. Anyone can do it.
This year, I bench pressed 380 pounds and I weigh 157 pounds. I couldn’t even do 50 pounds in my 20s. I have to work at it, but I could never do that before. The consistency is important.
What do the doctors say?
PC: My doctor says ‘These numbers are wrong. they are someone who is 15 years younger. Just carry on doing it.
Why did you stop drinking?
PC: I started blacking out, like driving completely drunk, waking up with another earring. It kind of got dangerous. I just felt stupid and not very well. The first few weeks was hard. Steve Clark had a different problem of it. I stopped and could get three hours extra in the day. It was momentous, really.
How is Def Leppard doing?
PC: They’re great. We’re actually really excited about new music. We’re not necessarily doing a new album, but we will start this year. I have tons of Def Leppard songs ready to go. Joe has some and we’re good to go. We can start the process.
What do you think of some of these pairings of acts you’ve been touring with?
PC: I enjoyed the fact that you bring in someone else’s audience. It started 10 years ago with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. People thought it would be a catastrophe but they actually got double the reaction. That’s how it started. When we heard they wanted to pair us with Journey, we were like really? Our first show was in Camden, New Jersey. 23,000 people got in. 3,000 couldn’t even get in the building. We thought–this is insane! The landscape has changed with touring. This seemed like a fine option for an artist to play in front of a great audience.
What is your audience like today?
PC: There are some people from back in the day and some of their children. Def Leppard’s integrity remains intact. Even during the grunge era we soldiered on. We have these great songs. We have balls that some other bands don’t have . We really sing. You see Def Leeppard and Viv’s been in the band for 21 years. You hear the stuff on the radio all the time and it still sounds great.
It’s great. We’ve done this gig in Quebec and even with my hand it was rated as one of the top five shows Def Leppard has ever done. We actually couldn’t hear ourselves at time. The crowd was singing so loudly–85,000 people!
Usually in the states…they’ve been jampacked…it’s just amazing…
How was your residency in Las Vegas?
PC: We were there a month and it ended up being 11 shows. That was an amazing experience. It was a lot more work then I thought it would be. You can drive home from there in four hours, but I stayed there the whole time. We did the Hysteria album in its entirety.
We would be our own opening act and played deep b-sides that nobody even requested. Every night we had a different thing. The stage looked different. I would go on a 15 foot platform and come down and it would be great.
Luckily we were able to capture it on film, which was brilliant.
And how did that go?
PC: We were supposed to film something the previous year in Austin, Texas and It didn’t happen. We let it go and then we got a residency–and we thought why not record it?
There’s also a rumored documentary series called “Living With Def Leppard”. What’s the status of that?
PC: We have to approve it. There’s no word on that yet or where it’s going to air. We gave them access—let them into the dressing room, me working out, me and my wife going out for dinner. It’s really cool.
Because of the filming of Viva Hysteria, we thought we would document the band. They were great. The Burnham Murray people did it and it was really cool–very professional and very cool.
Do you plan to do another residency?
PC: You wait for the offer. Hard Rock have asked us to come back and do Viva Pyromania. I can’t do it until later….that will probably be a while from now—in the fall of this year.
While there, did you meet Mike Tyson?
PC: Yes and he was wonderful. He’s a vegan too. He says he wishes he had done it years ago. It’s the same reasons I became a vegetarian. He’d say ‘where did you get your protein from’? If you think I’m a wuss, say it to Mike over there. His boxing style is so underrated. He has so much grace and technique and power. I’ve never seen someone fight like that. It was like the Bruce Lee thing….
And what’s Joe up to?
PC: Joe’s doing a new album–a down and outs album. It’s something that he can’t do in the Def Leppard structure. I’m also doing an extreme blues album.
It sounds like Chaka Khan meets Tina Turner. I’ve actually heard blues like that. Debbie Blackwell Cook is the singer.
At this point in your life, what’s important?
PC: My wife and my family. My wife Helen looks after me. We’re together nearly all the time. We’ve got three kids. My son is in San Francisco and I have two daughters on the East Coast.
Self expression is important, too. I really value that way and being creative artistically. It’s a valve. You get inspired. It’s just amazing to me. I love that. I feel like I’m in a great place. I read everything. I have five books on the go at any one time.
What’s a great life lesson for you?
PC: I meet fascinating people all the time. We met a lady named Immaculae who was in Rwanda when the whole thing went down. She was in a bathroom for three months with seven people. It’s amazing. We often say–my wife and I–people have a third world problem and treat it with first world drama, like, my iphone doesn’t work….
We should pay attention to that–and on the same token–people can complain about problems but they can fix them themselves. You can eat a different way–and you can work out. People get upset with such trivial things and others deal with huge problems with such humility.
You have 24 hours to go anywhere, do anything, eat anything. Where are we off to?
PC: We’ve done the three continents in a day thing. I would do that. It would be really cool–hit a few places on a Saturday night. When we did the three continents it was great. I think it would be great to do Hong Kong, India and the Amazon in a few minutes. It would be wonderful.
PC: Thank you!