Guitarist/songwriter Phil Collen joined the English rock group Def Leppard in 1982, and the band’s next two albums, Pyromania (1983) and Hysteria (1987), ruled the rest of the decade, selling over ten million copies each in the U.S. alone. Since then, Def Leppard has cemented its reputation as one of the world’s most popular live acts, exemplified by their new album Mirror Ball: Live and More, a CD/DVD package that documents their previous world tour and sports three solid new studio tracks. The band is currently on tour with multi-platinum American rockers Heart, which continues tonight (July 27) at Cincinnati’s Riverbend Music Center. I spoke with Collen during a break from the road in this exclusive interview.
Def Leppard has doubtlessly had the chance to do a live album for a long time. Why now?
We actually didn’t get a chance before. We’ve always been in the cycle of album/tour/album/tour, you know? I think we took our first year off in 30 years, so that was really the only time that we were actually thinking about it, because we were a lot more serious about our studio albums and tours, so we never really had the time. That’s it in a nutshell.
Many of your contemporaries have put out scores of live albums at this point.
There’s a little bit about that—us doing it proper. We felt we really nailed it. Most live albums aren’t really live.
The new album is also on iTunes, a Leppard first. Are there plans to release any of your back catalog on there at some point?
If the record company’s not so greedy, I’m sure. Absolutely. That’s the reason why [it’s not] on iTunes.
The band’s deluxe reissues of the Pyromania, Hysteria and Adrenalize albums released over the last few years were excellent.
We actually worked with [our former] label [Mercury Records/Island Def Jam] on all the material, the bonus material, tapes and stuff that we didn’t actually use…it was actually fun getting the stuff together because we had to dig around in the archives.
Even though the band’s with a new label now, are there any plans to play catch-up with the rest of the catalog?
Again, we’d love to help them with that…basically, as it’s always been with most artists, the label would get a rate, and the artist takes 15 percent and then the record label would take [more], actually 90 percent in some cases. We had a bad deal with that, with our earlier relationship with our record company. It was too imbalanced, and [when people are illegally] downloading, they don’t really put that much effort into it. They don’t do promotion anymore, so it was too much based on an old deal. So there won’t be a new [deal]…they weren’t prepared to do it.
Pyromania and Hysteria are among the best-selling rock albums of the 1980s. Why did it take so long to get remastered versions of these albums out?
I have no idea at all.
It’s great to have them; they sound incredible.
Definitely. Whatever time we’re doing an album, the technology changes and then you just have to switch up…they get a lot better every few years.
How do you think being at a new label will influence the recording of Def Leppard’s next album?
Well, we’re not really with a new label. We’re doing a licensing thing with another label [Mailboat Records in the U.S.], so the A&R people will be working on that.
Since you’re recording new music, Is this a big priority with the band to lock in with another major label, or do you prefer the independent route?
I think it’s great to be independent, to be quite honest. It’s working really well…certainly, with a label, unless someone tells you, you don’t have any idea whatsoever what’s going on in the relationship. When it’s time, you just let it go.
What are the chances the band will ever do a full album with producer Mutt Lange again?
Pretty remote, I’d say. We’d probably work with Mutt, but a whole album would take at least a year, four years or something like that—no one’s got the time anymore. I’d love to, but…when we work with Mutt, he actually goes wholehearted into it, just 100 percent, he just takes a lot longer.
As a musician, what would you say is the most valuable thing you learned from him?
Everything. I learned how to play guitar, what’s cool, what’s not, what rhythm is. So many different things, not just the musical stuff. He’s a very experienced person. He works great, and as a band, we just learned everything from him; it was amazing. I think the biggest thing was to be open-minded.
Do you have a wish list of producers you’d personally like to work with?
No. We do produce our own stuff, and everyone comes up with so many great ideas.
Def Leppard originally worked with Jim Steinman as Hysteria’s producer. Is it true he was rejected because he thought everything the band was recording at the time sounded good?
Yeah. We originally got in touch with him because of his reputation as a vocal guy. We expected him to bring something to us, to learn stuff [from], not just because we wanted to do a recording, but because we wanted the songs to sound timeless, so Mutt came back in. [Steinman] wasn’t the right choice; we made a mistake with that and it didn’t work out at all.
Did any recordings survive from the Steinman sessions?
I think there’s probably some demos floating around; they’re definitely on a cassette somewhere.
How long did you work with Steinman in the studio?
Probably about six months, I would think.
That’s definitely long enough to know whether it’s a good fit or not.
Yeah. Well, we went in there trying to get the sound. Actually, it was less than that, since it was a while ago, like 26 years ago. It was probably just three months, since we would have known straightaway. Just working on the songs, and actually trying to get some new songs, as well. We actually had finished all the songs for the record, so we trying to come up with some new stuff. Even as a songwriter, [with Steinman] it was just the wrong fit. The chemistry wasn’t there.
As a songwriter, which Def Leppard songs are you most proud of?
I think “Pour Some Sugar on Me” is right up there; I think it’s great. Some of the ballads are amazing, [but] I like playing loud sort of rock songs. With “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” we’d been listening to many different albums…we’d been listening to some early rap stuff, Run-D.M.C. and stuff like that, and that’s really where the vocals came [from]. Mutt Lange had it as a country thing, originally, but I changed it to make it more rock. So that song right there has such an appeal, and I’m pretty proud of that one.
My favorite song to play is “Rocket.” I think that kind of represents Def Leppard in one sentence, you know? Big guitars, big drums, a tribal song, actually. It’s what the song is about, our heroes and the whole thing. So all of that, the melody and rhythm and everything working toward the solo, those two right there. And “Hysteria,” great song, yeah?
That’s an amazing song. You also wrote the lion’s share of material for 1996’s Slang album, although that one wasn’t as well-received as what came before it. Did that happen to influence the way you wrote songs after that?
With every album you do, there’s also going to be a reaction to what you’ve just done. The great thing with Slang, we should have put out an album that sounded like that after Hysteria. But we didn’t, we’d done Adrenalize. And actually, in hindsight looking back, there’s great stuff on Adrenalize, but I think we were playing with a bit more of a raw sound, yeah. We actually did go and [play] a lot of that stuff live as a band…it was a fun thing, and every song you write, you learn just a little bit more each time, so the next time you come up with something with a slightly different approach to it.
I know this was before your time in the band, but would you happen to know what the meaning of the instrumental title “Switch 625” is?
I used to know what it was, but [late Def Leppard guitarist Steve Clark, who wrote the song] was in room 625 or something like that. Not what you’d think, but I forget exactly what it was, or he finished writing it in six minutes, 25 seconds. That was the point to it, something like that.
In the 1980s you quit drinking and began a vegetarian, now vegan, lifestyle. Did one choice have any impact on the other?
I don’t think so. The interesting this was, I became a vegetarian at the end of the Pyromania tour [in 1984]. I wanted to do it for ethical reasons…I didn’t like the idea of eating slaughtered, tortured animals. The vegan thing was more of a health thing, getting clogged-up dairy stuff. Most cows who are still alive, and some of them have an okay life and are [milked] properly, they’re tortured as well—just slammed into these pens in these pretty nasty things.
The drinking thing, again, was very separate. The drinking was a concern. I didn’t like waking up having problems remembering stuff and doing really stupid things. So yeah, they were totally separate kind of entities.
Were you ever tested to stick to that on the road, especially during Leppard’s pop peak?
Before we came out on the Hysteria tour, I just stopped drinking, so I thought that was going to work. I tried doing social drinking and all that kind of stuff, but it didn’t really work out, so I cut out that stuff completely. And what I did, I noticed that I had all this extra time that would have been recovering from hangovers, with people going, “Oh, gee, what did you do last night?” All of that stuff. So that was pretty cool, very refreshing. And when the whole physical thing just started, it was life-changing—getting stronger and fitter and all that stuff. Working out, caused by the fact that I stopped drinking, I had all of this extra energy to get rid of. So I think that’s where that came from. I wasn’t even slightly tempted to get back on that wagon.
Was there any peer pressure back then?
For me, personally, I’m the absolute wrong person to get involved in that. Not I’d do anything to be opposite, but if I want to do something, I [do it]. I have the same thing about having short hair or having a black girlfriend, and later I have a black wife. It’s like, you go through people who say you should be with a white girl and it’s, “Oh really? You racist pig!” (laughs), you know what I mean?
So I pretty much take offense to that, and I don’t really care what other people do; I definitely don’t care about peer pressure on any level, so if anything, it’s the complete opposite. I’m actually pretty proud of my own decisions and the fact that I’m able to make them [and] that I don’t get scared of what other people think. I guess that’s something I’ve learned over the years, and I’ve become stronger at as I’ve gotten older.
Last year when you married your wife Helen, you said, “We’ve been looking for each other our entire lifetime” and “it could only be us for each other.” How has finding this kind of love changed you?
You stop worrying, you know? I didn’t think I was even searching, but a calm came over me. Not that I was stressed or anything, but it was a different vibe that I got, way more chill. I really can’t describe it (laughs). It’s kind of weird, but I didn’t even notice it coming—all of a sudden I just felt a different way, really bizarre, very interesting. I tried to analyze it and intellectually figure it out, but I still can’t figure it out, man (laughs).
What is it about her that gives you those chills?
Without sounding like a narcissist, it’s the same person (laughs)—she’s the same as I am. There’s an intellectual rhythm, that’s the other thing. We pretty much think the same kind of things at the same time. It’s almost like you can just read each other’s thoughts because we just feel the same way about pretty much everything. So that was really interesting, actually—to stumble upon somebody who feels that way, the same as yourself, is pretty weird…we just had our one-year anniversary, and it’s an amazing thing.
Finally, what’s the funniest “Phil Collen/Phil Collins” mix-up you’ve ever encountered?
The best one was, I went to see Phil Collins at a show in Holland when we were first recording Hysteria. [Def Leppard drummer] Rick Allen had just had his accident, and me and Joe [Elliott, vocals] went, and we really wanted to see Phil Collins, because he was a drummer who played with Chester Thompson [the touring drummer for Genesis]. And he was a singer, but he was a drummer and they had two drummers. So we just wanted to talk to him about stuff and meet him, because he was a cool guy.
So we went to the stadium, and the [security] guy said, “What’s your name on the guest list?” and I said, “Phil Collen.” “Yes, this is Phil Collins.” So I said, “No, I’m on the guest list”—and they’re Dutch, as well, so there’s a slight language thing, although they speak great English in Holland, there was still enough for it to be a bit of confusion—and I don’t remember how many times I went over this: “I’m on the guest list, but I’m not Phil Collins, I’m Phil Collen and I’m with another band.” It was a real chore, and that was the funniest one, I think. And obviously, when you spell it at an airport or something like that, they still say “Phil Collins.” It’s nonstop.
Another really fun one was, [I] was doing a live radio thing, and the DJ thought he was being funny; he said, “Well, when’s Genesis going to tour again, mate?” Automatically, I said, “We’ll, we’ve got to get in touch with Peter Gabriel,” and I went into this whole thing, just talking about stuff I know about Genesis. And for a second, he realized he actually made a mistake and actually got the wrong guy! That was pretty cool, as well.
Mirror Ball: Live & More is available now. Def Leppard is touring the U.S. through September 24. For more information, go to www.defleppard.com/tours. Visit Phil online at www.philcollenpc1.com.
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