Def Leppard

Photo Credit: Def Leppard

The members of Def Leppard took an unprecedented approach when it came down to the formation of their upcoming album: disregard what everyone else wants to hear from the band, and make an album for yourselves.

Def Leppard’s forthcoming effort was also the product of complete creative freedom, seeing as what initially began as studio sessions for a new single quickly became twelve promising segments of their eleventh studio album.

It’s these same liberties that guitarist Phil Collen similarly explores on the self-titled debut from Delta Deep, which features guest appearances from such names as Whitesnake mainman David Coverdale and Def Leppard lead vocalist Joe Elliott, as well as Collen’s first ever work on slide guitar.

The new Delta Deep album is due for release on June 23, which lands just before the launch of Def Leppard’s summer tour of North America alongside Tesla and Styx. For those dedicated listeners who are patiently awaiting the fall release of the new Def Leppard record, Collen’s work with Delta Deep should satiate your appetite until then as it features some of his most extensive guitar work to date.

Music Enthusiast recently had the opportunity to sit down with Phil Collen to discuss the primary influences he channels on the debut Delta Deep album, the making of Def Leppard’s upcoming installment, his passion for performing deep tracks and the possibility of another Manraze record arriving in the near future.

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Music Enthusiast: So the new Def Leppard album is already finished, as I understand it?

More or less. Actually we were doing some the other day in Montreal, just some finishing touches and stuff. It’s got to be mixed and mastered and all that stuff, so it’ll probably come out when we finish the U.S. tour. It’s such a long tour anyway, so it’ll come out while we’re on tour somewhere.

From what I’ve heard, the entire writing and recording process behind the new Def Leppard record is unlike anything the band has previously attempted. What do you recall about those sessions?

Well, we went in to do a single at Joe’s house in Dublin. That’s kind of our base, if you’d like. He’s had a really nice studio there for twenty-odd years. We go and we stay there, all of that. It’s really nice but we wanted to do a single. In this day and age albums, and really rock albums, they don’t really sell. It’s not the financially viable thing to do these days.

Delta Deep

Delta Deep

We just went in there to do a song but we got twelve songs written and started recording them, which for us was like unheard of, you know? We’ve done…it usually takes a lot longer than that when we’re trying so hard, and I think what it really comes down to in a nutshell is that we had no pressure.

We had no executives or label telling us, “You need to do an album.” It was just like the Stones when they did “Brown Sugar,” and they wrote the songs and Jagger was still writing the lyrics to “Brown Sugar” while the band was recording. It was like that.

There’s an excitement and there something with integrity and real about doing that. I think that’s what happened with the Def Leppard album, and nothing’s ever happened like that in thirty-something years.

I absolutely put it down to that, the fact that there was no pressure and it was done for the right reasons. It was done for the reason that you’ve got some songs and you just want to get them out there. We just said, “We have an album’s worth of stuff here. Let’s just finish that off.” So there was no pressure in that respect and it allowed us to be music fans and musicians, which is really what is should have been all along.

William: Just going into the studio and firing from the hip, do you think that’s the same way that each member of Def Leppard ended up singing lead vocals on the album?

Phil: It’s actually just on one song, we take a verse each. We have a couple lines and a verse each. It was actually Joe’s idea. He said, “Everyone sings in the band, it would be great if we tried this.” So we tried it and it actually sounds great, but there wasn’t some big deal. It was just an idea Joe had and we tried it, just like everything we’ve done on this record. We’ve tried this and it’s worked. There hasn’t been any pressure or people going, “Oh, you should have done this” or anything like that. It’s all been very free flowing, including listening, as well.

Def Leppard had been exploring a rather broad variety of styles on the studio albums from ‘Slang’ to ‘Songs From the Sparkle Lounge,’ ranging from grunge to glam metal to pop rock to alternative metal. How has your mindset changed since those albums?

Like I said, we really didn’t have to do an album so it was done for the right reasons. The stuff before, you know, it’s where you’re at every five minutes. Every year it’s something different as you experience things in life. You have divorces, fights, everything. You have these experiences and it changes things and you become a different person. It’s exactly the same thing with music. It’s just a mirror image of that. In Def Leppard or in a band or in a marriage, when you’ve been together that long you go through these ups and downs. A member of your family can pass away, you know? It’s just what happens. With that it is exactly the same thing. Musically, trends come and go. The industry has changed, the medium was records and then it was cassettes and then it was CDs and downloads, and now even that’s kind of changed to streaming. It’s been an amazing change and I think that you have to constantly change as a person the same way. You morph, and that’s kind of healthy.

Do you feel there was a pressure coming from the label or representatives to try and keep Def Leppard current? You talked about there wasn’t so much of a pressure this time around, but was there a pressure on the past couple albums to try and do different things and tap into that consistently changing industry?

Not really from anyone else, only ourselves. You want to change to keep from doing the same old. Die hard fans don’t want us to play the same old boring shit we’ve ever played. We wouldn’t grow as an artist, I think. One of the other things is I keep hearing is, “Did you make this new album for the fans?” And I said, “No, actually I couldn’t give a fuck what they thought about it. This was actually done for me. Me personally and the members that are with me in my band.” We all felt the same way. We didn’t feel the need to do it for anyone else other than ourselves and it was actually really quite refreshing, I’ve got to say.

 

Just having moved through such an assortment of styles with Def Leppard, what then gave you the motivation to set out with this entirely different blues rock project, Delta Deep?

I’ve always wanted to do stuff like that. It wasn’t really blues per say, it was more of an expression, you know? Like an artistic expression. There’s something that really irks me about blues. You’ve got these musicians and artists that play a style and blues wasn’t a style. It was born out of agony and pain and slavery. It came from people being stolen from Africa, put into a country, beaten, whipped, whopped any which way, killed or their family being killed, pain and just real heartbreak.

That was an expression from that and I don’t see a lot of that style anymore. I don’t see that kind of pain or hear that kind of stuff. You know, when I was growing up and I started playing guitar I heard that stuff. I heard it second hand in people like Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. Again, when you talk about black musicians – I’m married to a black woman and have three half-black children. I do understand that it’s very different and there’s a different set of rules for black people in this country.

I think that kind of music, you hear it all the time – or you used to hear it. I think everyone’s a lot more entitled, and certainly singers and stuff. The last real kind of black music that was a voice was rap and certain amounts of hip hop, and then it became so commercialized that even that disappeared. But you go back to the blues players, you know, like John Lee Hooker, that was born out of pain and just a lot of heartbreak. I think you would hear it – I certainly hear it in singers like Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. You know, Tina Turner, all of the stuff that she went through and her black husband beats the crap out of her on top of that. So she has to express and it came out that way, and that’s why I’ve always wanted to do an album where it’s something that expresses pain.

I know some people would think, “Oh Phil, you’re a privileged white guy. You’re a rock star. It’s all cool and everything.” Yeah it is and it’s not so much for me as it is for Debbi, who’s the singer [in Delta Deep] and went through a lot of shit that I didn’t have to deal with because of that privilege. On the other hand, I experienced teenage angst. I grew up in a really rough neighborhood in East London, and all my buddies were getting arrested and it was fights and it was bottles in the faces and God knows what.

And I had an outlet! All of that frustration, all the angst – it wasn’t so much pain, it was confusion and angst that I let come out with my guitar playing and later on with my singing. I always sung and it’s never something that I had to learn how to do. It was just something that I naturally did. So I’ve always wanted to do an album or make music like that, and it’s just finding the right people like when I met Debbi. She’s my wife Helen’s godmother, and Debbi’s been singing since she was like two in the church. She’s sung with Michael Buble, but nobody’s really got to hear her voice.

Phil Collen

Phil Collen

I got to hear it when we’d sit around and jam and play acoustic. It would just give me goosebumps. She sounded like my favorite female singers, like Tina or Chaka Khan or Aretha Franklin, and they used to give me goosebumps just sitting there and listening to the agony and pain and the sheer “Fuck off”-ness and the sexuality that was just flowing out of that.

I think that’s sorely missing in music, you know? We’ve been playing these tracks for various people with various races, colors, creeds and everything. They’ve been saying, “Oh my God. We haven’t heard these kind of tracks in years.” That kind of expression reminds them of soul music or that kind of early blues something. Like I said, I wouldn’t really call it blues but that’s where it comes from, if that makes sense.

Sure. There’s a wealth of vintage blues elements to be found on the self-titled debut album from Delta Deep, but there’s also a strong hard rock drive behind these tracks that conjures up references to bands like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. Was there anything you personally were trying to channel emotionally or stylistically with this album?

Yeah, I just let it go. I think with Def Leppard, you know, because I’m one of the main songwriters since I’ve joined, the art of Def Leppard is we were trying to write different types of songs. We learned everything from Mutt Lange, our producer. He was just amazing and you’d get all these great kinds of country music, hip hop, hard rock, metal and you’d combine them. That was Mutt’s whole thing. On top of that you’d have to be able to sing well, so he put us through all this stuff and you’d come out a way better singer.

So you’ve got all this experience as far as that goes, but if you just leave me playing guitar that’s what I sound like. I sound more like the Delta Deep stuff. The Def Leppard stuff’s more… it’s not preconceived, but we’ve set out. It’s not just improvised, to say. We actually go about it a different way, whereas with something like this – my idols were Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page and Hendrix, who’s my favorite guitarist of all time. Jimmy Page’s genius, not so much as a guitar player but what he was coming up with, he’d take a blues-based root and morph it into a monster. Zeppelin was a blues-based monster that really spoke to me, because it wasn’t just someone playing the same old shit over and over again. It’s sex and cultured and deep, it was spiritual.

So they’re the guitar players that really touched me, those three in particular. You also have people like Jeff Beck and then the players like B.B. King and Albert King, I couldn’t tell where it came from. Again, Keith Richards and the Stones. It wasn’t just… they did copy the blues initially, but when they kind of hit on a formula there was just this something that went another step. That to me was the magic of the Stones, you know, like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Brown Sugar” and “Satisfaction,” stuff like that. I prefer that to say ‘Exile on Main Street’ which is them being a blues band, which is fine and everything but I prefer them being creative and actually touching upon something a little deeper.

So that’s guitar wise, getting back to the original question. It was absolutely those guys. That’s who I learned from, you know? I used to jam along with those and then it was jazz rock bands and that sort of thing, but first it was Blackmore, the first guitar player I’d ever seen. It was second hand blues-oriented rock, so I am referring back to that but also being natural with it. That’s really how I sound like when I play guitar.

 

The slide guitar playing on the opening track “Bang the Lid” is just exceptional, and it does remind me a little bit of Blackmore’s playing on Deep Purple’s ‘In Rock.’ It’s also unlike anything that’s been featured on your work with Def Leppard thus far. Did you enjoy being able to express yourself more freely as a guitar player on this album?

Absolutely. Thank you, that’s great. The interesting thing about that is I’ve never played slide guitar before. I’ve always loved players like Dwayne Allman and Joe Walsh, who do great slide guitar playing, but I could never play. Then I had an injury and my tendon slid off the bone last year – it was actually the year before, sorry, and I had to have it sown it back on and I couldn’t play guitar for six weeks.

But when I got back to playing guitar I couldn’t actually hold the neck properly or play. My wrist was really weakened, limp and everything. So I went online and got a Joe Walsh tutorial, and he says [puts on southern accent], “OK, you hold the guitar like this! I learned it from Dwayne Allman! You do this, and then you do this!” It was like a ten minute tutorial, I followed it and then the next week I played slide guitar for the first time.

That was the first time I’d ever played slide in my life, and the credit goes to Joe Walsh and that tutorial. Like I said, I was a fan of Dwayne Allman and Ry Cooder. I really dug that stuff, and of course Joe Walsh and Bonnie Raitt, I loved her slide playing. It was in my head and I knew what it should sound like. So I followed this tutorial and it worked. It was like, “Oh my god!” (laughs) It was so much fun.

When was the last time you sat down and tried to work on a different technique to the guitar?

That’s the first time that really happened. Also, after that I’ve sat and practiced scow, and that’s something I haven’t done since I was 16. That was kind of cool, you know? It was really just to get the action going in my wrist. I used gauge 10-46; I usually use 13-54 when I play, and for the Def Leppard stuff I use 14-56 gauge which feels great because I’ve got to dig in a bit more.

William Clark/ Music Enthusiast Magazine

William Clark/ Music Enthusiast Magazine

But that was the first time that’s really happened, where I’ve had an accident or somewhere where I couldn’t play guitar anymore but I still had all these ideas that had to come out. Like I said, as soon as I learned how to play slide it was all these ideas that have been floating around my head for years all of a sudden started flowing out. We wrote that song “Bang the Lid” with Debbi and my wife Helen in no time at all, it was like, “Wow.”

And that song is about killing the slave master. (laughs) That’s what the song is about, and it’s very fired up and energetic. Here I am like a virgin guitar player, just picking up the guitar only with all the technique and know-how from before. So that was very interesting, I thought.

I agree. The Delta Deep album does have some strong hard rock moments throughout, but this isn’t solely a rock album. Like “Whiskey” could almost pass as an outtake from ‘The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions.’ It has that similar gritty, bluesy ballad sound to it.

Right. You know, thank you. That’s been floating around since I was 17. This is really funny. I have this – I think it’s a Mickey Smith jazz guitar book, I got it when I was 17. It was my 17th birthday or something and I had been playing it for a year, and there were all these amazing jazz chords and I learned to play them. Ironically, I never got to use them ever with Def Leppard and all of the recordings I’d ever done. You’re doing versions or open chords or power chords, and rarely do you use jazz chords or even bar chords. “Love Bites” is probably the only song where I play a bar chord.

All of a sudden, there was a place for this to come out and then Debbi just started singing this thing over the top. I sang the first line and she just went. It was very natural and real, the way that happened. It is going back to that thing where it’s so refreshing to be able to express like that without being too starved about it. Just going, “OK, we’re going to write this type of song” and just letting it go. I think that’s why it ended up sounding like that on all of those songs.

A number of respected rock musicians find their onto the debut Delta Deep record, including David Coverdale and your Def Leppard band mate Joe Elliott. At what point did you begin turning towards these names to contribute on the album?

With David Coverdale, I really wanted him to do “Mistreated” with Debbi. How that really came about was I mentioned to David that I would be doing this album, and I asked him, “Would you be up to doing a ballad with Debbi on ‘Mistreated’?” He said, “Oh my God, I’d love to. But I’m recording some of these older Deep Purple songs so I can’t do that, but I’d love to be involved.” So I asked him, “What song would you be interested in doing?” And without hesitation he asked me, “Do you know ‘Private Number’ by William Bell?” He sent me the thing and I said, “That’s great.”

It ended up sounding almost Hendrix-y or like the Isley Brothers. So again, he ended up doing a duet with Debbi, and I’m singing on there as well so it sounded really cool, but he did say that it would be cool to hear Joe doing my part on “Mistreated.” I totally agreed, so he sung it with Debbi and they sounded great together. So that’s really how that came about. David just said he thought it’d be cool to hear Joe singing. (laughs) So he’s on there, as well.

Were you setting out with the intention of making an album with Delta Deep, or was that more the end result of just collaborating with the other band members?

Really how it came about was me and Debbi were just sitting around, goofing around playing Motown songs and Helen my wife said, “It’d be great to hear you play ‘Muddy Waters Blues’ by Paul Rodgers.” So we worked that out and it sounded killer. We’d done a charity thing in San Diego, we went on radio and TV and did some acoustic stuff, and we had people asking, “Where can we buy this?” And we said, “It’s just us goofing around.”

So we started writing songs, and we literally got the first song, which was “Miss Me” – we were in New Zealand, my wife and Debbi, and there was a Wilson Pickett song on the radio and after that we couldn’t stop writing. We didn’t have to think about it, it was just the style. Again, a lot of people go, “It sounds like Tina Turner and Rod Stewart dueting on stuff.” We thought that was an amazing compliment and a lot of songs did start sound like that, like Rod Stewart or Mick Jagger dueting with Tina Turner but with a bit more fire power on the guitar. So that really took it up a notch.

 

Just thinking back to songs like “Bang the Lid,” during the chorus where Debbi is singing lead vocals I believe you come in on backup and it creates an atmosphere that does draw some similarities to the Def Leppard sound. Do you think that even with your side projects it’s almost inevitable that some degree of the Def Leppard sound will come through?

Well it is. It’s really funny, and here’s an example. When people sing “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and they sing along to the chorus, that’s actually my voice that you can hear. That’s the main voice in that section. People know it, you know? People hear it and go, “Wow, you sound like Joe!” And I go, “Well no, that actually sounds like me because that’s me on the record.” You hear a lot of this Def Leppard stuff and it’s my voice. So whenever I do anything else, there’s the immediate association or link. They go, “That sounds familiar!” And I’ll say, “Yeah, that’s because you’ve heard it a million times before.” (laughs)

So that’s something I can’t really get away from. It’s just there, I guess, which is also kind of cool. It’s something I developed and Mutt Lange was very much responsible for getting that out and kind of heard, if you’d like. He got me singing and pushing harder than I’d normally done. I might have just been kind of an average singer but he just made me push it and don’t give up, sing it more aggressive, do this and it ended up changed how I sound like.

That reminds me of a while back when I picked up the bonus EP from the ‘Yeah!’ album that had you singing lead vocals on “Search and Destroy,” and you almost couldn’t even tell the difference between your voice and Joe’s.

Really? Yeah, that’s fun. The great thing about being in Def Leppard is everyone does sing and everyone sounds very different from each other. We all have a different style and vibe, but it’s good stuff.

Turning toward your summer plans, Def Leppard will soon hit the road alongside Styx and Tesla for a tour of North America. What are you looking forward to about the upcoming run?

We’ve just done all of Canada and it was phenomenal. We actually loved it. It was so much fun, and I just think Vivian being back, coming back from the cancer is just a powerful statement. We’ve just got this vibe again that we didn’t have before. It’s just fun. We were playing a few different songs – we’re not playing any new stuff, we’re going to wait until the album comes out because we don’t want to release anything until the record’s out. There’s a revived kind of energy, and I do put that down partly to Vivian dodging that cancer bullet. That was awful, and he went through this whole thing and he’s now he’s back and it’s like, “Wow.” And there seems to be a new firepower that we didn’t have before, so it’s kind of really cool.

You talked about recently heading back into the studio to put the finishing touches on a few tracks up in Toronto. Is there now a surge of energy to head back and work on more material?

Phil Collen

Phil Collen

I think so. I think the main thing is that you come away from it going, “Life is too short. Let’s just get on with it. Let’s not dilly-dally when we can jump in feet first and do what we’re supposed to be doing.”

So I think there’s that renewed thing. There’s definitely not a tolerance anymore for nit-picking like we used to. It’s something that we go forward with straight away and say, “Let’s get on with it.” I do think that is because of Viv’s situation.

While Vivian was undergoing a round of cancer treatment, Def Leppard went out on the road earlier this year with Steve Brown from Trixter. What was that experience like, having him briefly in the lineup?

You know, Viv’s in the band. It’s part of the thing and it came down to me. If I was going to play with someone, there’s only two guitar players that I would want to play with – Steve being one of them. He’s got such a great voice and he played his ass off, as well, and most people don’t even know that. I’ve played with him before and we’ve always had a good chemistry. And my other buddy Rudy Riviere, he’s from London. Same deal. We’ve been playing guitar together for many years and he’s a great singer, as well. Steve lives in the States so that worked out there. Vivian coached him on all the stuff, he came down to the soundchecks and we played him some the tapes and all that stuff. So that really worked out great. He stood in and did a fantastic job.

I agree, and it seemed to be the general consensus among the fans that if anybody was going to stand in Vivian’s place, Steve would be the best man for the job.

Absolutely. He looks great, he sings great and he got the blessing from Viv, as well, which is really cool. He said, “I can’t do this, so if you could stand in for a sec.”

Is there a chance we’ll see any deep tracks turn up during this summer tour with Def Leppard, or would that be more of a possibility during the tour in support of the new album?

We’re actually doing a couple. We’re doing one in particular, we’re playing “Paper Sun” which is off the ”Euphoria’ album. That is so not a normal track, it’s such an album track with the guitar solos and vocals and everything. It’s been goddamn great! You know, people seem to be surprised that we pull that one out instead of just doing another single or something like that. We’re doing that one, for sure. As we go on, I’m sure we will bring in a few more.

We’re at a point now where we’re starting to see some of the larger forces in rock and metal start packing it in for a farewell tour, namely Black Sabbath and Motley Crue. Is that something you think Def Leppard would participate in somewhere down the road, or do you think the band more closely resembles bands like AC/DC and KISS who keep persevering despite sizable lineup changes over the years?

I do think it’s more like that. The age thing usually gets people, but I still feel like I’m twenty years old. So me personally, no problem there. I think it’s been a different thing. You know, we only took one year off ever since I joined which was in ’82, so that’s thirty-something years. I think it’s important to do that, you know? We have an integrity that’s lasted and I don’t really see us doing a farewell tour unless something really drastic happens. I think there’s a British working class attitude that we still have that’s really important and is very much of a Def Leppard thing. I think we’ll be good for a while.

As far as your commitments outside of Def Leppard are concerned, would you like to continue making music with Manraze and Delta Deep in the future?

Yeah, definitely. Another thing, one of the songs on the Delta Deep album is actually Manraze, “Black Coffee.” Because we’re from London and that’s where Steve Marriott and the Humble Pie version originated, we kind of wanted to keep that real. We’ve got half of the second Delta Deep album written already because it’s so much fun writing new stuff, and the same thing with Manraze. There’s a lot of songs kicking around that we never quite finished or didn’t get to record, so at some point I think it’d be great. I think it’s very important to write and express and just get your stuff out there, otherwise you’d go nuts. Kind of blue ball situation (laughing) if you hold it all in.

Like I’ve said before, if you’re in a successful situation as a songwriter like with the Def Leppard thing, you kind of paint yourself into a color because you can’t really do anything you want and a lot of the time the fans just aren’t going to accept or understand it and stuff like that. With the new album, we didn’t give a shit. We went, “OK, this is about us. This is us expressing ourselves.” Just in general, you still have to walk kind of a line. Def Leppard couldn’t do a reggae album or they couldn’t do an album like Delta Deep or do R&B stuff. It just wouldn’t happen. Whenever we would try and go off a little bit like that, it kind of backfired. You have to be mindful of that, you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot. It is important to have these other outlets, as well.

Has there been any discussion as to whether we’ll see the members of Delta Deep head out on the road in support of the debut album?

Absolutely. We were trying to get some stuff together – we changed labels while it was going through. We were going to do an East Coast run this week but we’re actually going to kick off in California with local gigs and clubs and bars before kicking off a full blown tour at some point. We’re actually rehearsing tomorrow here in California, so that’s going to be fun. That’s going to be a blast, I’m really looking forward to that.