On the Road with Def Leppard’s Phil Collen 

By Jeff Owens

August 13, 2009

Written By Chrissy Mauck

Despite the music industry’s ever-changing landscape, Def Leppard remains a rock n’ roll institution, even after more than 30 years.

This summer, Collen has about eight guitars out on
the road with him, including Dread (shown above).

“Dread is a PC1, but it’s different from all of the other
PC1s. It’s totally over the top. It’s got like a 50-hour
paint job, which is just amazing. It has kind of a monster
with all of these dreadlocks just all over and it glows in
the dark. So it’s green and when the lights go off, it just
lights up. It’s incredible because despite all of the paint, it
still sounds amazing. It’s mahogany and maple and it’s got
a titanium bridge and titanium block, which really helps the
sound. It’s just an amazing guitar.”

Photo credit: Ash Newell Photography

One of only five rock groups that can claim two separate original 10-million-plus selling albums—Pyromania (1983) and Hysteria (1987)—Def Leppard watched their most recent studio album, Songs from the Sparkle Lounge, debut last year at number five on the Billboard Top 200, proving that some bands are timeless.

In mid-June, a manic sold-out crowd of 80,000 showed up at Donington Park in Leicestershire, England, for the Download Festival, headlined by Def Leppard. The band then immediately traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to perform at the CMT Music Awards with Taylor Swift, before kicking off a summer tour with Poison and Cheap Trick.

Just over halfway through the tour, Phil Collen is leaving a Starbucks in Raleigh, N.C., when Jackson News hooks up with the esteemed lead guitarist for a phone interview.

“It’s a bit noisy in there, so I’m just leaving, actually. But yeah, in North Carolina on tour and so I got a red eye, which is a grande coffee with a shot of espresso in it,” he says of his mid-morning energizer.

Not that he needs much of one. At 51, the vegan and martial arts enthusiast is in excellent shape, his ripped physique apparent to all given his famously shirtless onstage performances.

Thousands have witnessed such this summer, as the two-night stint in North Carolina is part of a 40-city North American tour that kicked off in Camden, N.J., on June 23.

Considered one of the leaders of the ‘80s British heavy metal renaissance, Def Leppard has toured consistently since 1978, playing more than 1,700 shows in that time.

“It’s really cool to be out touring again, but it is a lot different now than it was back in the 80s,” the Jackson signature artist says. “The thing is, you tour to support an album. That’s what you used to do when the industry was a record industry. Now you put an album out to support a tour. It’s less important, being a traveling rock band, to actually have albums out. I do think it’s still essential that you put new music out to keep your growth going, but it’s totally changed from what it used to be.”

Unchanged is the fact that Def Leppard can still draw and please the masses, as they’ve done so far this summer, performing their classic cuts with “big riffs and big showmanship.”

“We just played Detroit and Chicago and they were sold out,” says Collen. “It’s really cool. It’s great to be this far into our career and still have that kind of thing going—it’s amazing really.”

Collen attributes the band’s longevity to a variety of factors.

“Actually, (I think it’s) the songs and everything,” he says. “We’ve done these amazing albums that were huge hits, and then, I think it’s the fact that the whole retro thing is going right now. A lot of people are interested in ‘70s and ‘80s rock music again because there were some great bands, great records and all of that stuff. I think it really helps us that there’s a lot of focus, and energy on those things. Also, we’ve branched out. We are still valid, we’re still relevant, we’re still touring, we’re still putting records out, and that’s the reason I’d say.“

In conjunction with the summer tour, Def Leppard released deluxe editions of Pyromania (1983) and Adrenalize (1992), both of which Collen had a heavy stake in.

Pyromania, Def Leppard’s third studio album, led to his 1982 arrival in the band.

“I came in initially just to be play a few solos––‘Stagefright’ solo, solos in ‘Rock of Ages,’ ‘Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop),’ ‘Foolin’,’ and then it was singing it, and literally finishing the record up,” he recalls. “They tricked me!”

The album’s marriage of glam rock with heavy metal and catchy hooks proved to be massively popular, becoming a blockbuster with more than 10 million copies sold in the United States where it reached number two on the charts.

It also permanently sealed Collen’s place in the band, and together with guitarist Steve Clark, they created the Def Leppard’s trademark dual-guitar sound. Nicknamed “The Terror Twins,” Clark and Collen had already written and recorded demos for highly anticipated fifth studio album Adrenalize when Clark died in 1991.

“It was actually strange, looking back on it,” Collen says of having to provide both guitar parts in the recording studio. “I listened to all of these guitar parts that we’d recorded together in a studio and it was like listening to a ghost—it was actually really weird. Steve was my best friend, so it was even weirder at the time. But it was cool. When I look back at it, it was a really nice tribute to Steve and it was cool. Literally I had to learn exactly how he played the stuff and then do that as well. Me on one side and him on the other. It was a bizarre experience.”

Albeit bizarre, Collen dispelled rumors as to its difficulty. (It’s been written that the technical and precise Collen struggled to achieve Clark’s melodic and rhythmic style.)

Photo credit: Ash Newell Photography

“It was easy actually,” he says. “You can do anything. These technical things, I don’t know where they get that from. I’m pretty sloppy actually. They tell me, ‘Oh, you are technical,’ and I’m always like, ‘I don’t think so.’ I don’t even know what any of these tools are. I just kind of make stuff up. So I don’t know where it comes from, but thank you whoever it was. I’ve heard that a lot actually, (but) not true.”

By the time the band took the road to promote the album (which debuted at number one on both the U.S. and U.K. charts), Def Leppard had hired Irish guitarist Vivian Campbell to replace Clark.

“Playing with Viv is very different to Steve,” Collen says. “We do newer songs, but we have to play a ton of stuff off Hysteria, a ton of stuff off Pyromania, and that was all me and Steve. When Steve and I were getting stuff together, it was experimenting and we came up with a specific sound.  So with Viv, obviously, we have to stick to the format because it’s still those songs. Viv and I do play very different, but again, me and Steve played very different as well.”

Collen also switches gears when he performs with Man Raze, a three-piece alternative rock band that features bassist Simon Laffy and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook.

“I don’t have a lot of guitars at all with Man Raze,” says Collen. “We go off on tangents, jam, and some of our songs are never the same twice, and have never been. With Def Leppard, we have all of these backing vocals, you see a chord come up, or a bridge section coming up that you have to sing, and they are all pretty much dialed in. With Man Raze, it’s a very different thing, more in the line with what Hendrix was about, or the Police even. They go off on kind of a tangent, and that ‘s really cool. It’s very nice to have both of them.”

Even though he’s in the middle of a hectic tour schedule, Collen has made time for both. During a recent break in Def Leppard’s tour schedule, Collen returned to London for a surprise show with Man Raze at the Borderline on July 29.

“Actually, I could have done with a break, but I wanted to fit everything in, and the show was great fun,” he says.

While on the road, Collen has been collaborating with film composer C.J. Vanston on some new material for Man Raze, which released its debut album, Surreal, in 2008.

“I’ve been doing vocals in my hotel room and sending it over to him in Los Angeles,” shares Collen. “You just have to keep it flowing really, and it’s (songwriting) inspirational if you keep doing that.”

Despite providing contributions to Def Leppard for nearly 30 years, Collen claims that songwriting still remains a challenge.

“You think this far into it, it would get a lot easier. It doesn’t,” he admits. “If you follow it like a hack songwriter, then it does get easier. There are certain guidelines and you do this and that. But if you are an artist and you are just writing from a totally different area, like you’re God and you are trying to express yourself, it doesn’t really get any easier. I still struggle with writing lyrics for the second verse of whatever song I’m doing. I still struggle with getting the right hook for a lyric on a chord. A lot of the other stuff kind of flows in, musically and melodically, that’s easy for me. But I still struggle with the same old things really and as much as I grow as a songwriter and get other interests, there are still things that remain the same. It’s an interesting thing.”

Given Def Leppard’s lengthy resume of hit songs, such as their generally regarded signature song, “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” Collen was asked to weigh in on what makes a great song.

“It could be anything,” he says. “It depends on what it is. The first time I heard Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl,’ I was like, wow she’s great. Or Lady Gaga––great songs, great record, great production. So it can be just a different thing ––it’s whatever grabs you really. With the whole hack version of songwriting––you’ve got to rhyme this with that, the melody should be good and all of that stuff. But some of it is just a groove, sometimes it’s just ‘Boom, Boom, Pow’ (referencing the Black Eyed Peas catchy chorus), which is great actually just as it is. It can be a lot of different things.”

And that’s likely what Def Leppard’s following should expect out of the band’s next studio album. Collen reveals that the band is using a similar process to the one used to create Songs From the Sparkle Lounge, an album often referred to as a brand new chapter in the band’s history given its variety of tracks.

“What we did on the Sparkle album, everyone came in with two or three songs each, and we just recorded literally that, and that seemed to work for us,” he says. “With this record, I think we are going to do the same thing.”

In the meantime, fans can relive the band’s classics by checking out a live show or picking up the Pyromania and Adrenalize deluxe editions. As well as nine top 10 singles, the sets feature never-before-released B-sides and live recordings. The deluxe editions also feature deluxe digipak gatefold packaging with expanded booklets containing rare and previously unseen photographs, comprehensive sleeve-notes telling the story behind each album and include images of rare single covers and memorabilia from the period. Liner notes come from Rolling Stone’s David Fricke.