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Interview: Def Leppard Guitarist Phil Collen
Obi-Dan   |  

Phil Collen (Photo: Ash Newell)

After leaving the rock band Girl in the early 1980s guitarist Phil Collen got the break of his life when he was asked to join Def Leppard. For the past 30 years Collen has been one of the most talented, successful, and underrated axeslingers on the planet.

Recovering from a British tour and festive period, Collen is back in warmer climes chatting to me on the phone from his garden in an “unseasonably hot” California. The Def Leppard and Manraze guitarist had much to talk about including milestone anniversaries for ‘Lep, fantastic second Manraze album Punkfunkrootsrock and, erm, Tom Cruise. No Foolin’.

Geeks of Doom: First of all I want to say Happy New Year!

Phil Collen: Thank you, you too. Cheers!

Geeks of Doom: How was your Christmas and New Year?

Phil Collen: Actually really good. As soon as we finished the British tour, the Def Leppard one, I got really ill. It’s a normal thing I think it’s called soldier syndrome. It’s like soldiers out in war situations, business men, and rock bands get it as well when they’ve been on tour for a while. You kind of try and keep your resistance up then right at the last minute you finish the last show and you get deathly ill! So I was kind of battling that, but I stayed in London for the first time in years actually for Christmas and new year. It was great: me and my wife were just lazing around doing the couch thing. It was actually pretty cool.

Geeks of Doom: Cool. Like you said at the end of last year Def Leppard toured the UK with Motley Crue and Steel Panther. How was that tour for you?

Phil Collen: I loved it, apart from the weather. I think it was a really good package. Steel Panther are amazing, they’re just incredible musicians. They obviously take the piss out of everything which is great and then Motley Crue was obviously very dark in comparison to us. And then we go and do our thing. So actually just looking at all three bands I thought it was an amazing package and everyone I spoke to really had a good time.

Geeks of Doom: Yeah I saw you in Birmingham, it was fantastic. Did you get to see Tommy Lee’s drum rollercoaster?

Phil Collen: I did. I was actually going to go in it, he said, “You wanna come for a ride?” I said, “Yeah, yeah!” It just never happened because they have people that specifically have to go in it, you know. You can’t just kind of run up there, so yeah I got bumped.

Geeks of Doom: Well I suppose they wouldn’t want to cause injury to you of all people!

Phil Collen: [laughs] Yeah. It would have been cool though, I was looking forward to it.

Geeks of Doom: It was your birthday on one of the dates wasn’t it?

Phil Collen: It was, it was Nottingham (on December 8). I got the old 8 thousand, 9 thousand people singing happy birthday which is always nice. Yeah that’s pretty cool.

Geeks of Doom: Def Leppard was actually my first concert ever.

Phil Collen: Really? Whereabouts?

Geeks of Doom: It was at the Birmingham NEC (UK) in 1996, on the Slang tour, when Terrorvision were the support.

Phil Collen: Oh right, yeah, god I remember it well actually.

Geeks of Doom: Do you?!

Phil Collen: I do, yeah. Because being sober for 23 years that’s one of the benefits of it; you actually have a lot more clarity in remembering stuff like that. I can remember just being backstage, the guys from Terrorvision and everything. It was really cool. Great stuff.

Geeks of Doom: I wanted to talk to you about being sober, I’ll come to that in a minute. But also last year was the second Manraze album, PUNKFUNKROOTSROCK. What’s the reaction been like to the album?

Phil Collen: Well anyone who’s heard it actually loves it…it’s a cross between a lot of different things, not just stuck in one box and that’s how we feel in the band. It’s such freedom to do whatever you want to do and it’s great. We’re just loving it and love the way the record came out. It took us about two weeks to record. We done it in London actually at three different studios and it was one of them magical experiences that doesn’t really happen much. Usually you get in the studio and it’s a lot of hard work, and this was, but it was also just so much fun. It just kind of flowed so we just loved it.

Geeks of Doom: You can tell, there’s a lot of different influences. You’ve got the heavy rock tracks but you’ve also got kind of a ska feel to some of the tracks as well.

Phil Collen: Absolutely yeah. I always say, “What does it remind you of?” and [people] say, “Well, a bit like the Clash, a bit like the Foo Fighters.” It’s great because that’s what you want, it’s like when you listen to your iPod; a lot of the time you don’t just listen to one style of music…that’s really how we wanted the band to be. It’s great, like I said it’s liberating to be able to do that. Really cool.

Geeks of Doom: Absolutely. How did Manraze come about?

Phil Collen: I was in London, I was looking after my dad who was terminally ill, this was like 2004. Me and [Girl bassist] Simon Laffy we’ve been friends for many years and we just actually started writing some songs together. I said, “Paul Cook [Sex Pistols drummer] would be great if he was the drummer on these songs” and I literally bumped into him two days later in the street. I took [my dad] to the hospital and I was just coming back out and there he was, Paul…and it really went on from there. We got over the initial playing and certain things and we really started to develop our own sound so it wasn’t just like a project or a side project or anything like that, it was a real band with really deep vibes. We’re all from London in different parts and we all had very similar influences, although, you know, we ended up playing in very different bands. It was just great to get in there and do that whole thing so, yes, it’s been progressing… the second album is more like how we really sound. Just a really cool experience I got to say.

Geeks of Doom: What’s the reaction been like to the Manraze live shows?

Phil Collen: Again, you know, it’s great but we’re only playing tiny little clubs so you’re kind of preaching to the converted. We done an Alice Cooper tour which was fun. It was a little strange because, you know, Alice’s audience is very specific. They…dress up like him a bit like Rocky Horror [Picture Show] and stuff, that was fun for us. Everyone who actually sees us, they love it and they go, “Wow! This is so much music coming out of just three people!” So we’re digging that. It’s just a matter of getting ourselves together and doing a tour but we obviously have to be offered that so hopefully this summer during the Def Leppard breaks we can actually get some serious dates in.

Geeks of Doom: You said you play smaller sort of club venues – was that nice for you to go back to that sort of setting? Because with Def Leppard you mostly play arena shows.

Phil Collen: Yeah. I mean I love playing big places, you know, for me personally the bigger the better. It’s great just doing everything really. I mean just over the years we’ve played everywhere from massive stadiums to the back of a van actually which we did do! Me, Vivian Campbell, and Joe Elliott played an acoustic set in a radio station van, which sounds ridiculous but it actually sounded great on the radio! One microphone and we were just blasting away. In Manraze as well, you know, you play all these different kind of venues so wherever [we play] is good. Just an outlet, I think that’s the most important thing.

Geeks of Doom: You just enjoy being onstage?

Phil Collen: Yeah absolutely. To be quite honest that’s the reason most people get in a band, they imagine themselves on stage. Certainly was with me, I always imagined all these crowds and I’d be playing live on stage. That’s really why I wanted to be in a band.

Phil Collen (Photo: Helen Collen)

Geeks of Doom: Cool. Is there any friendly rivalry between Manraze and Joe Elliott’s Down N Outz band?

Phil Collen: No, not really. I mean it’s different types of music, you know. Because the Def Leppard machine obviously takes its cycle, we tour a lot and you need a little bit of a break. We’ve actually got it down now I think. We’re actually going to be doing some recording, not saying an album, but certainly a new song or two for this year.

The reason really we ended up doing bands like Down N Outz and Manraze is because you can’t always do that kind of stuff [experiment with different styles] in the Def Leppard format. Me and Joe were like, “It would be great to be able to do that” but we put an album out, Slang, a few years ago and obviously you know, you went to the tour, and it wasn’t really received very well. So you can’t really do the experimenting that most artists like to do. So you need to scratch that itch and certainly Manraze and Down N Outz is a way for us to do that.

Geeks of Doom: So do you feel refreshed when you go back to Def Leppard after experimenting with different bands and sounds?

Phil Collen: I do. Obviously the Manraze thing is more aggressive and is a bit more kind of edgy, so when I come back into Def Leppard it kind of carries some of that over and I like that. If we just done that thing [playing in Def Leppard] it would start sounding a bit safe and the same. So I do like the two actually.

Geeks of Doom: You can see on stage that there’s still a lot of energy from all of you in Def Leppard. It’s not like a machine and it doesn’t have an over-rehearsed sheen on it, it’s still like you’re trying to put on the best show that you can.

Phil Collen: Absolutely. I think we have done that before. I think we rehearsed for three months or something ridiculous before the Adrenalize tour and you can really over do it, certainly (with) my playing and singing, you get all this practise in before you go on stage, which I don’t do anymore. I think it’s better for it… I think it’s really important to just get it out there and enjoy it.

Geeks of Doom: Absolutely. And just going back to Manraze again quickly, the track “Take On The World” is going to be on the I, Superbiker 2 – The Showdown film about British superbike racer Tommy Hill. How did that come about?

Phil Collen: Mark Sloper who actually directed the movie and directed the first movie as well which we done a song [for called] “I, Superbiker,” he’s actually done all of our videos for Manraze. He’s a champion for the band I got to say. He’s actually been really instrumental in getting us hooked up with certain things and certain people and getting the name out there so [we] love Mark. He said he wanted this new song for I, Superbiker 2, which obviously is about Tommy Hill, so I got this idea together…talk about different styles! It’s kind of techno electronic dance music mixed with rock. A friend of ours is doing some vocals on it with us, Debbie Blackwell Cook, she’s got this amazing gospel voice. We’re doing our guitar duels, really over the top, it’s great. The song itself is about Tommy and all the courage and all the effort and everything he has to put into [superbike racing]. It’s going to be released the first week of February and then the movie comes out the 21st February in I think 130 cinemas in the UK…I’m very excited about that.

And the movie’s great. If you like seeing people crash at 200mph on a motorbike this is the movie for you! These guys are crazy! I went down to Brands Hatch [motor racing circuit] to shoot the video and met up with Tommy he was there and, god, these guys they do so much and so dangerous so big respect for exactly what they do.

I used to be a dispatch rider years ago in London, I did it for like three years. You’d be fearless, I’d be riding around in ice and crappy weather and everything. When I get on a bike now I get really scared, it’s like you just feel really kind of fragile because you’re so open to someone else’s mistakes or the elements…every time I’ve been on a bike in my adult years I’ve gone, ‘nah, I can’t do this anymore.’

Geeks of Doom: On the subject of Def Leppard again there are some prominent anniversaries for the band this year. In a couple of days on the 8th January it will be 21 years since guitarist Steve Clark died. What are your memories of him?

Phil Collen: He was my best friend so I miss him every day, always. Ever since that really and even before because he was going through a few problems before that so we wouldn’t really hang out as much. It was just tragic. Especially as Steve knew what was going on. I saw Steve’s mum and brother just recently [when] we played Sheffield and they come down, it was lovely to see them really, really cool. But every time I see them it makes me sad. I’ve got brilliant memories of Steve, we had such a laugh, and obviously musically the stuff that we actually created together with [producer] Mutt Lange as well. Guitar-wise he was really quite special. Yeah, just miss everything about him.

Geeks of Doom: The biggest impact that you and Steve had on music was the album Hysteria, which is 25 years old this year.

Phil Collen: Which again is really scary, it just goes so fast. It was my son’s birthday the other day, he just turned 22, and I remember Steve just a year before he died he would see this little kid. He was just a year and four days old when Steve passed away. So yeah that reminds you as well [of] a lot of different stuff, all these anniversaries and everything. The Hysteria thing coming up which is great…that’s my favorite Def Leppard album, we put so much work into it. It was very special, amazing.

Geeks of Doom: Do you have anything planned for the anniversary of it?

Phil Collen: Well there’s going to be this movie coming out, the Rock of Ages movie with Tom Cruise. It’s based on the Broadway play, obviously the title of one of our songs, and Tom Cruise is actually going to be singing “Pour Some Sugar On Me” on the movie…he’s singing it and he actually did all the vocals on it. He’s doing backing vocals and lead vocals, doing all my parts as well!

Geeks of Doom: Wow!

Phil Collen: Yeah, very impressed actually, got to say. He actually learned how to sing and went in there and done it so hat’s off to him. So yeah that comes out this summer, I’m sure we’re going to be doing certain things because it hit 25 years, but not quite sure yet exactly what.

Manraze - Phil Collen front centre

Geeks of Doom: Ok. Also this year is the 20th anniversary of Adrenalize

Phil Collen: Is it really? I didn’t know that! 20 years, oh my god. Wow. I didn’t know that, wow, that’s incredible.

Geeks of Doom: It was a notoriously difficult album to record.

Phil Collen: It was, it was very difficult that one with going through that and Steve’s whole thing and all the demos we did and I had to learn all of Steve’s parts and everything. Yeah bit of a weird one that.

Geeks of Doom: So you don’t have anything planned for that?

Phil Collen: I didn’t even know so definitely not as yet. But now you’ve said that perhaps we will. That’s incredible.

Geeks of Doom: Also isn’t it 30 years since you actually joined Def Leppard?

Phil Collen: You know what, it is as well! Wow, yeah. God, that’s crazy.

Geeks of Doom: You wouldn’t know you’ve been in the band for 30 years because you’re in much better shape than most of the fans that were watching you! Is it true you train 3 times a day?

Phil Collen: When I’m on tour I do and just building up to a tour. I’m actually just back down to one a day now…but when we get on tour I kind of break it up, I do a weight workout, I do one body part, I do some pad work, Muay Thai kickboxing, and then more weights…I couldn’t be doing it every day right this second so you take a break and you plateau, have a bit of time off, then you get back into it. But what I find is really interesting is every year I get back and start building that back up again [and] I can lift more weight than I did before and my cardio gets better.

I’m 54 now and everyone goes, “Oh you should be slowing down.” It’s the opposite [for me].

Geeks of Doom: Like you said right at the beginning you’ve been sober for a long time. When you stopped drinking and started to get sober did you notice a change in your guitar playing?

Phil Collen: I did actually. At first I thought it was a bit weird because I felt really nervous, not nervous, but uncomfortable being on stage. Because I was used to being tanked up a little bit and I don’t mean just before I went on stage, just in general. The playing got way better, the singing got better and I think the confidence and the swagger got better. But that took a little bit of getting used to. I think you just consistently keep doing it and then you really do start noticing the difference. The playing went off the hook it was way, way better and I can sing stuff that I could never do before. It all goes hand in hand I think. Then obviously the confidence level goes up because you can do these other things. Even physically you start doing stuff that you couldn’t do when you were in your twenties and the confidence gets boosts a little bit so the ego gets a bit of a shove and before you know it you’ve got a bit more of a swagger going on. It started with me anyway from actually just stopping drinking. Obviously alcohol is a depressant and if someone’s just drinking regular and stuff, it’s not so bad. But I think for a lot of people who are really drinking a lot it makes them very depressed and they don’t even realize it. So, yeah, it was the best thing I ever did.

Geeks of Doom: Phil, thank you so much for your time.

Phil Collen: No worries, thank you.

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