Between shows on a busy tour schedule promoting Def Leppard’s latest and showcasing their hard rock classics that I know you know and love, it’s a wonder guitarist Phil Collen has time for much else. Never a musician (or band) to settle for good enough, Collen is also busy producing the forthcoming release for fellow tourmates, and working with his Delta Deep and Manraze acts. Collen and I spoke briefly about the band’s 2016 tour, its history, motivation, and pure approach to keeping the Def Leppard machine up and running.
You’re on the road with Tesla and REO Speedwagon. I’d imagine, with that lineup, the shows must be incredible. How’s everything going so far?
Amazing. We did a few shows about a month ago, makeup shows, but it’s been great. I’m actually producing the new Tesla album so, backstage, in between everything else we do some recording. I just spent a week doing drums so we have a lot of songs on-the-go for this new Tesla album. In between that, I’ve got Def Leppard stuff as well so I’m promoting our new album, Def Leppard. This is the first time we’ve been out and played these areas for the new record. So, super super busy but all great stuff.
Can you comment on the Tesla album a bit more?
It’s amazing. Everyone who’s heard it, including the band, they’re freaked out. It just sounds like a bunch of 20-year-olds. It has a real kind of energy and vicious excitement. The stuff I learned from our Mutt Lange years was that a song has to have great melody and groove. That’s really it. You have to work hard on songwriting. I think it’s very easy to get off track; every artist or band does that but you have to check yourself and instead of copying anything, use your strengths and find inspiration to work a lot harder. You’d be amazed by what comes of that. Inspiration inspires inspiration.
I enjoyed the video for “Man Enough” and wondered how producing a video now is different from making one in the ‘80s or ‘90s. There probably really is no comparison, is there?
Oh, yeah, it doesn’t cost 400 grand a pop! You don’t have to borrow all of this money from a record company (laughs). You know what I mean? So you’re doing it for yourself and you haven’t got a director coming in saying, usually misguided, “Oh, I hear it this way and I see it this way.” There’s a lot more control for the artist these days. You know it’s not going to benefit that much, but you want to represent yourself. It’s a totally different motivation for doing it instead of, back in the day, the record label would say you needed a video to get on MTV, well that doesn’t exist anymore or at least not in that context or the way that it used to. So you’re doing it for the right reasons, for the same reason as putting an album out. We don’t have to, but we want to. We feel it’s important to do that, for us, and not as the brand Def Leppard, but as the artists. That seems to last for us. There’s integrity to that. We’ve never split up or re-formed or done one of those re-formation tours. We’ve stuck to our guns and there’s a truth to that and the integrity is what keeps bringing people out.
I get the impression that Def Leppard is a band that always stays busy, and the same applies to you as an individual. Where do you think that drive and stamina comes from?
You’ve got to keep inspired. I’ve got another band, Delta Deep, that’s kind of a blues/funk/soul/hard rock band and we played Chattanooga Riverbend Fest. We’ve also got the other band, Manraze, and we’re going to be releasing an album probably at the end of the year or the beginning of next year that’ll be like a Best Of. So I think if you stay inspired and healthy, then all of this other stuff happens. I don’t have any problems with injuries or getting sick or anything because I’m always eating right. It really makes a huge difference, especially if you’re traveling a lot and on tour.
I think just keeping inspired and, by doing that, there’s so much weird and negative stuff in the world that inspiration kind of acts as a counter to all of that. All those really inspirational people doing things, whether it’s musically or socially or whatever, you can pick up on that. If you just sit there and you’re despondent and depressed, then that’s how you’ll remain and your output will be the same, without sounding like a motivational speaker or anything.
Continuing the inspiration theme, Def Leppard formed in ’77 and has certainly inspired many other bands and artists. I always wonder what a band with such a long career might say to the younger version of themselves.
We’d say, “Everything’s changed. There’s no more record stores or book stores. It’s incredible.” The whole industry’s changed. People don’t really buy music anymore; they listen to it on WiFi or stream it. All of these things make a huge difference but you gather your strengths. We’re a killer live band and we still write great songs. We go about it the right way. People say, “Well, you can’t make any money on an album.” But we don’t care. We got into this because we wanted to write songs and create, and we still do that. The minute you start to do things for monetary gain and fame, it just isn’t going to happen. It’s pure. We do it for the right reasons because we love creating and making music. It’s a challenge and we keep raising the bar. Like with the live stuff, we got better and better and better as it went on. That’s very exciting.
If I had to advise in 2016, I’d say we’re at the most amazing place we could be in our career, at this moment in time. All of these other bands have fallen by the wayside and we’ve survived as one of the fittest and the strongest, but we know that anyway because of what happened to Steve and Rick and other things. You just carry that on and that momentum has gotten us through. Trust your gut, that’s also what I’d say to the guys in ’77. Work hard and keep that theme going. That seems to always work for us.
I remember when Steve died. How horrible, tragic.
Awful! He was my best friend. I still think about him all the time and have dreams about him. Awful, awful. He was my best friend and it was truly awful when he died, but that’s life. You’re born and you also die. It’s part of life.
Is there talk of doing something to mark the band’s 40th anniversary?
I’m sure, but nothing as yet. Honestly, it’s really a celebration every day. Getting out there with the tours and the albums, an anniversary yeah, it’s alright and everything, but nothing as of yet.
It sounds like you’ve started from the right place and have always approached your career in the same way. You can’t go wrong with that.
I think so! All those bands in the ‘60s, from The Beatles to Miles Davis, they always did exactly what they wanted. Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder. They all did exactly what they wanted to do and not what someone told them. Prince. He’s another one. That always pays off in the right way. It’s about artistry and your expression as an artist. And that, that’s the reward. If you go in there just expressing money or fame, you’re probably going to be sorely disappointed. That’s not really what it’s about.
Def Leppard will be touring with REO Speedwagon and Tesla this summer, stopping by locally at Nikon At Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, NY on July 11, and the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ on July 13. For more, visit defleppard.com, or philcollenpc1.com.