Interviews & Features
Phil Collen interview
Def Jam: flexing his six string muscles
By Gary Graff
March 7, 2018
It’s accurate to call Phil Collen the guitar player for Def Leppard. But that’s also an understatement. The British-born Collen, who’s been playing since his youth, has certainly shown his chops via Def Leppard’s multi-platinum catalog, but he’s stretched well beyond that, too. He’s played grungy hard rock with Manraze, a continuing collaboration with Sex Pistols’ drummer Paul Cook, and he’s really flipped things in Delta Deep, a blues/R&B group that features singer Debbi Blackwell Cook and, initially, Stone Temple Pilots bassist Robert DeLeo.
Delta Deep has released a studio album and a live album/video, and it’s in the midst of making its sophomore set now. Collen has also produced the upcoming Tesla album, and this year he’s part of Joe Satriani’s G3 tour with Dream Theater’s John Petrucci, showing off playing that’s as muscular as the lean torso he flaunts during Def Leppard shows. There’s plenty going on in Def Leppard’s world these days, too, so these days Collen is moving faster than one of his trademark, pyromaniacal solos…
FGPO: Between Delta Deep and, this year, the G3 tour, you’re really getting to put yourself out there as a guitarist, which is something that maybe isn’t appreciated as much as it should be.
Collen: It’s very different, even the fact that I’m actually putting more emphasis on the guitar playing. Usually there’s so many vocals at a Def Leppard show; that’s really the emphasis. We really have to warm up and take care of our throats. With the others, I’m doing it purely as a guitar player. On G3, trying to keep up with those two guys who are amazing, I’m playing more guitar than I usually do and it’s really fun.
FGPO: Is there a clause in your G3 contract that requires you to keep your shirt on so you don’t show up the other guys?
Collen: [laughs] No, no. ‘Cause we’re in the middle of winter and we’re indoors, it forces me to wear a shirt. A lot of the time with the Def Leppard stuff we’re outdoors and it’s almost a kind of Olympic event. We’re out there in the summer and it just gets so hot, so it’s kind of cool to run around with your shirt off.
FGPO: Growing up and starting out, did you have virtuoso playing ambitions?
Collen: I never really thought about it like that. I was always just inspired by the guys around me. The Hendrix thing was amazing, but also everyone from Brian May of Queen, Jimmy Page. Their thing was more than just virtuosity or whatever you want to call it. There was a creative force at play, and that was something I really wanted to tap into.
FGPO: So using guitar as part of the total presentation, not just to show off your riffs and licks?
Collen: Exactly. Obviously, I can play — actually I can play guitar way beyond my wildest dreams I had when I was a kid, and that’s pretty cool. So I’m pretty thrilled about that. But I think the creativity part, and expressing yourself artistically, was the real tool I got out of the guitar. Very early on I realized that’s really what it was about for me. It was a form of expression.
FGPO: How do you get better? Through practice?
Collen: I’m not a practice guy, but something I’ve learned to do on [the G3] tour with Joe Satriani is he actually warms up, and that’s very different than practicing, just like there’s a huge difference between working out and training. But I’m constantly learning stuff. I love the learning curve. I play a lot — in fact, I’m playing all the time. If I’m not writing, then there’s something going on, but I don’t sit down, per se, and practice scales or stuff like that.
FGPO: What does Delta Deep and its more blues/R&B approach bring out of you that’s different from Def Leppard?
Collen: It’s actually more expressive. Certainly with Def Leppard, there’s a routine and a technique to it; you can’t just jam off and do stuff like that. You’re part of a very specific team where everyone has to do their bit, the same as every band, but I think with Def Leppard it’s a lot more planned-out. So [Delta Deep] is way more expressive and it’s more of a performance. It’s got a soul like going back to Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin and James Brown and stuff like that. There’s a performance thing they have that we tap into for this band.
FGPO: How does that come out in your guitar playing?
Collen: Well, it goes more in that direction than it would with Def Leppard, or even Manraze, when I did that. It’s a different thing completely. I’m still singing a lot but I can concentrate on my guitar playing a bit more. And that’s not working within a definite slot or restriction; I can just blast away and have fun and that’s a totally different thing. With everything else, I have to think about it a little bit, but with this I don’t at all. It’s pure expression. Jimi Hendrix used to do this channeling thing, almost like he wasn’t steering the ship — someone else was, and he had nothing to do with it. He was a conduit. So it kinda feels like that. That’s the great thing about it.
FGPO: Do you feel a kinship with a lot of the blues gunslingers who are around today?
Collen: That’s the thing; to me, what was missing, certainly from modern day blues, is a lot of the new artists just don’t get it. They don’t really understand what that expression was about. Blues came from pain and suffering and slavery, initially. It was just a release. I listen to some contemporary blues, and there’s none of that in there at all. It’s just someone trying to play a style or performing in a style. I think oozing out and expressing yourself is a different thing. That’s what we’ve hit on and what inspires us.
FGPO: Def Leppard’s catalog is finally available on streaming services now. What took so long?
Collen: We didn’t want to get ripped off. The industry expected us to just roll over and put it out basically for free, or a small amount. We weren’t going to budge, but we agreed on something and it sounded great and we shook hands and there you go. We basically have 12 albums to promote — again. It’s totally exciting, the fact we can finally bring that to people in a different format.”
FGPO: What’s up with a new Def Leppard album?
Collen: When people say: “Any new Def Leppard stuff?” Yeah, we’ve got some new stuff, but it has to be on the back burner, ’cause we’re kind of promoting the whole catalog now. I work on stuff all the time, and so do the other guys. It’s a constant flow, and then it’s just a matter of actually recording them. I like to do things in bits and pieces, the way we approached the Def Leppard album or the Sparkle Lounge album; you’re not working at this big glut where you have to finish all this music, it’s just ongoing and constantly inspired. Then the album is a jigsaw puzzle; you’ve got this song and the pieces just present themselves and fit together, and it’s very interesting.
FGPO: It’s 35 years this year for Pyromania, which was the big breakthrough. What’s your 2018 recall of that album.
Collen: That it went really fast. It went really, really quickly. I remember sitting in the studio recording that stuff — what guitar I used, what amp — and I wasn’t even in the band. I was just kind of helping out, initially, playing lead guitar and stuff. And then, before you know it, it was a whirlwind and we were on tour and at the Omni in Atlanta opening up for Billy Squier, and it’s sold out and it was on fire from that point onward. It was insane. But we were the right band at the right time; MTV was in its infancy and it really helped break the band. We had more in line with, say, Duran Duran than Judas Priest. It was really exciting, that era.
FGPO: It’s been pretty exciting for Def Leppard all the way around. Do you ever let yourself sit back and look at it all and go: “Wow!”
Collen: Not all the time. When you’re in the moment, you’re in the middle of it all, sometimes you just think: “This is the song and people like this, and that’s cool.” But recently, because of this digital [catalog] release, it becomes apparent. When you’re actually confronted with the whole catalog and people going: “Wow, the deep cuts” and this and that then, yeah, it’s different because it’s not something you think about all the time. It’s something that only comes up when someone actually brings it to you in its totality and you look at it from that vantage point.