We jumped at the chance to catch up with Def Leppard and Girl guitar ace Phil Collen, to talk about his new book ‘ Adrenalized’ which is out on Bantam Press/TransWorld Books, courtesy of Penguin Random House in London. Hence the whole JLTT crew hopped a train to town to meet the genial musician. Collen fields every question with thought and enthusiasm, very much in keeping with the tone of his tome…
JLTT: Well thanks for your time. I was kind of hoping you’d put a book out because I’ve seen you and noticed you working in different situations and I suppose the corny word is ‘journeyman’. But you’ve done a few things haven’t you?
PC: (Laughs) Yeah!
Was music playing in your house? Your dad was what we would call a trucker wasn’t he?
Yeah. The same stuff – Radio London, Caroline and Luxembourg all that stuff that’s how I got into it because they would play all this amazing stuff. But it was special. It was different. I think we have so much of it here now and so much options. I loved it with The Stones, (Mick) Jagger and (Keith) Richards met on a railway platform.
‘You’ve got a nice record there mate’.
Absolutely. But disciples of it, they were so into it. That doesn’t really happen as much. I mean, people are excited and they’re fans but not like that. I think there was a time period when stuff happened that right now we’ve kind of gone out of.
We’re evangelists and all we try and do is write about every kind of music we like, which is pretty much everything and we try and connect people to stuff they might like. Inevitably, we have to reference other artists but we try and connect people to things they might not get to hear.
Right. Get that!
How do you get to hear stuff?
You search it out. If you really wanna hear it, you have to search it out like they did. Like Jagger, Richards. All of The (Rolling) Stones were like checking stuff out trying to find it out. This magical stuff. It’s out there if you’re so inclined to check it out.
I’ve got a few years on you, but I used to think people from Luxembourg talked quietly and then replied louder because the signal was so crackly.
That’s how I heard Slim Harpo on harmonica. Fifty years later I’m still playing this stuff. I played a gig on Wednesday with my band and I had a guest harmonica player I met in ’66 and he sat in. Once you’ve connected and played well you never lose it. Was your mum musical?
No. My dad tinkled the ivories, he wasn’t like a real piano player and he had an accordion. They liked music but it wasn’t like a main focus in the house.
Right. Quick technical question – I’ve always associated your sound, when I first heard you play. I think you were playing in Girl and you had this spiky sound but it had a kind of richness to it as well. I know it’s in the fingers, but what got you into that style of playing?
Who you played with at The Marquee…
Yes absolutely. That was great. But I think I like that aggression. I like that fire, that’s why I like Jimi Hendrix. There was a fire and a passion and that’s really what attracted me. Like even when you see The Who, Pete Townsend with that aggression and Daltrey’s voice. There was a f*** off-ness to it. That got me going. Even the blues players when I first started playing, that fire in the blues playing like B.B. King. There was something really cool and different and you don’t hear that all the time.
That struck me. I saw (Howlin) Wolf and Freddie King with people and what got me was, a lot of my contempories were playing from the head and they were playing from the heart.
Absolutely without a doubt. That’s it right there.
When I first heard you playing with Girl, I thought ‘We’ve kind of got our own New York Dolls here’. Is that unfair?
No that’s exactly it. Plus we could play a little bit better than the Dolls so it had a different energy to it. Again, a hybrid so a bit of this and a bit of that.
The thing about Girl was, I was playing Girl stuff to other people and they’d say ‘Pretty good. Doesn’t sound like glam. I said ‘I’ll tell you the reason why it sounds a bit different (and you can put me right here if I’m wrong) the bass player had a funk/soul element that he could play.
Our pal Glenn Hughes got that of course. What put Girl apart was the fact that your bass guy had obviously heard Chic, Kool and The Gang and Al Green.
Without a doubt.
I think the dynamic of Girl put you into staggered tempos.
Right. But you see, we wanted to be different but I think it was too different. Plus we didn’t get nurtured. We didn’t get a chance to get nurtured. In Def Leppard we had Mutt Lange and he pretty much taught us how to sing and how to write songs really just by being around him. He was amazing.
But he didn’t make you sound like AC/DC.
How did he approach Def Leppard?
He saw something and wanted to make something special. He wanted to make something different. When we had success with the ‘Pyromania’ album he said ‘Ok. Everyone else is making that album now so we can’t make Pyromania two. We’ve got to bring other elements in’. Other elements were
Michael Jackson, Prince, The Police, Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It was all different kinds of stuff and every other influence that wouldn’t be associated with a rock band that had just done ‘Pyromania’.
You see, Mutt always struck me as having a little bit of a touch of Jimmy Miller about him. Jimmy Miller had a slightly different mind-set when he was recording Traffic to The (Rolling) Stones.
You can hear it. Even the way Jimmy records acoustic guitars, it’s not quite the same. Which means the producer is actually magnifying what the band has inside it.
That’s what he’s supposed to do, yeah.
Whereas Phil Spector would say ‘you’re gonna play it like this’. So you think Mutt did you some good?
Oh we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be talking if he wasn’t around.
Ok. Can I throw a few names at you?
(David) Bowie and (Mick) Ronson.
Love them. Love them to death.
Big influence on you?
Did Ronson teach you to accompany a vocalist?
I didn’t realise that but absolutely because he’d actually step back. I think a lot of guitar players hog it and they f*** the song up! Brian May’s another one who’s amazing. He laid back and kind of was a team player. He had all this stuff going on but he didn’t get in the way of Freddie Mercury’s vocals. These great songs and being part of that team and I think that’s why those songs were so great. Same thing with Bowie and the Ronson period.
I can hear it when you play with another guitar player. I doubt if Steve in Def ever sat down and said ‘I’ll do this and you do that’.
No it just kind of went and did its thing. It was pretty obvious who was gonna do what. It naturally went there.
It puts some fire into the music and it makes you more watchable. We watch bands all the time and what I’m looking for is interplay.
You kind of auditioned for Def Leppard by mistake didn’t you?
Yeah I didn’t realise I was auditioning! That was the thing, I was just helping them out ‘cause I knew everyone. We’d played before and I went down to the studio to help them out because they’d got rid of their other guitar player.
Equally you might have ended up in UFO.
Right yeah. But I think with Def Leppard we were trying to discover something and it was a journey. We discovered this stuff as we were moving along and we still are which is the other inspiring part about it. We’ve just done this album and I’m amazed that we were so inspired. No one told us to do an album and we had no business agenda. We wanted to write a song and it came out as twelve songs which ended up being fourteen. It just kept flowing.
The thing is Phil, you’re at the stage now akin to America’s best act Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers where there’s such a dynamic energy that five or six guys combine into that everyone’s past the point of wanting to show off. Do you think that’s fair?
Right. Yeah absolutely. There’s no point in it. Going back to The Queen thing, you have a goal and it’s to sonically make something that’s different to what you’ve done before and that everyone’s gonna like. You wanna try and hit different genres of music, different age groups, and different genders. That’s the most appealing part and that never changes. We were out in Singapore the other day just playing, and we were going ‘Jeez, they’re so young!’ There’s always a new audience and if you can be better than you were before, than new ones will keep coming. That’s what we’re finding and it’s great.
I’m not saying you need to face death to appreciate life, but I think you make the best of your days once you’ve been through something like that. Now Walter (Trout) has written a bunch of quite dark songs because he nearly died needing a liver transplant.
Now he can step out and go ‘Oh’ and his next album won’t be as dark.
Weirdly, he sounds more like Billy F. Gibbons then he did before.
Yeah. You know that pitch harmonic thing?
He’s got that kind of thing. That wasn’t a great feature of his style beforehand but now it is. Can I just hop into another act – ManRaze.
I presume it was a pun on Man Ray the artist.
Yeah it was.
But that was Paul (Cook) wasn’t it?
Yeah Paul Cook and Simon Laffy
That actually did some live gigs didn’t it?
Two albums! Absolutely!
What did that give you that Def Leppard was a different chapter?
After ‘Adrenalize’ the whole grunge thing happened and music changed. We’d done this album which was a lot more raw called ‘Slang’ which was great. But no one liked it and we then realised that we couldn’t just do whatever we wanted to do because fans wouldn’t like it. So it kind of narrowed your field of what’s acceptable. Which is annoying as an artist and you go ‘S***! We’re being dictated to by not only the industry but by your fans!’ So with Man Raze, it was a pure hybrid. It was anything from The Sex Pistols to Bob Marley, with a bit of Nirvana and The Police. It was a really great release and it is currently. We recorded one song and I’ve got the Delta Deep album out.
This is the blues thing with your wife?
Yes. You like blues?
I’m the Mole Valley blues man! Originally, before the West Coast and Buffalo Springfield took my soul!
Delta Deep is another thing there. Some of the lyrics in Delta Deep, did your other half contribute to some of those?
Yeah that’s right,Helen
My wife and Debbi Blackwell-Cook’s her godmother and she’s the singer. She writes as well so the three of us… we’d never thought this would happen. We actually sit down together and all of a sudden we have this amazing song. Me and two women. It’s just killer.
Quite cathartic isn’t?
It is and it’s something we didn’t expect. Even some of the songs, ‘Down In the Delta’ is literally about slavery. Normally it’s a taboo subject but we just go there and musically it’s like that as well.
May I make a humble suggestion?
Why don’t you do ‘Blind Willie McTell’? The Dylan song.
I don’t know it!
There’s a great Mick Taylor version. It is about slavery. The lyrics are fantastic.
Of all the Dylan songs it’s the one. You could play the back off it. I’ll send it to you. Now….Cybernauts?
Oh wow! We are actually gonna do a proper album because we recorded some and it came out in dribs and drabs.
Who does that involve?
The Spiders From Mars – Trevor Boulder, Woody Woodmansey. I was doing the Mick Ronson stuff and Joe ( Elliott) was doing (David) Bowie. Then we had the late Dick Decent on keyboards who would do an amazing Mike Garson. But he passed away, he actually died a few years ago and it was just awful. Trevor (Boulder) passed away from cancer. But Woody’s recorded some drum tracks and we’re gonna do three more songs. We are gonna do a ten-track album and I think ‘Life On Mars’ will be on there.
Woody’s been out with Lisa Ronson on the road with Tony Visconti doing ‘The Man Who Sold the World’. A song which we heard Lulu play up at Cornbury Festival and she has a Bowie-esque band and female bass player.
Yeah Lulu’s current band is something else , Phil.
You would approve. She can do all the classics but she’s also got this new personal edgier song stuff. I think her brother is involved.
Check out the current Lulu stuff because it is very musical but also rather poky at times.
Let’s just go back to guitars for a minute; how do you select what hardware you take to a show? Is your Delta Deep equipment the same you use in Def Leppard?
It’s not. I mean, the guitars are the same.
What have you got now?
They’re all Jacksons. For almost thirty years I’ve been with Jackson and it’s my own model the PC 1 which is great. They’re all loaded with titanium and they sustain like crazy.
You get a nice tone out of them.
I’ve started using an Electro-Harmonic Freeze which holds the note as long as you want it to on a latch or just on foot control.
Hit a D and hold it. Then play a C or F all over it.
Instant Supernatural, if you’re a Peter Green fan.
Well I’ve got switches in the PC1 to assist….they’re cool.
Have you met Robert Fripp?
I haven’t met Robert Fripp.
I had it in my head that you might be an admirer.
He’s a little strange in his playing. I think when I say that, some of the stuff he’s involved in are not really songs that are commercial so I lose it. I lose concentration on it because I like simple basic songs or something that has a groove or melody. I always return to that. If it hasn’t got groove or melody, than I kind of get lost.
It’s funny because we lost a great mate of ours Andy Fraser and he said ‘Pete, I will find the groove’.
Whatever piece of music it was, usually within eight or ten bars. Of course, Andy what he didn’t play as much of what he did play.
A song like ‘Mr Big’ isn’t gonna work, duh-duh-duh.
Here’s a question I’ve always wondered, if you go out on tour, because you will be going more with Def Leppard won’t you?
We’re on tour! We’ve actually been out on the road for eight months and we’ve just done a gig two nights ago in Singapore.
Give us a couple of songs that you still get a real kick out of playing live?
All of them, because you put them in that context. If you’re like doing choreography and you’ve got lights which we’ve got a rehearsal of for the UK tour just for production, it’s like pulling teeth. You’ve played these songs a million times. As soon as you put an audience in, it can be a small audience but it changes the dynamic. It’s great. Then you perform it and you’re getting into in a different way as opposed to when it’s like work if you’re choreographing. I can’t imagine what people are like when they are playing stuff they don’t like. We love all this stuff. Stuff that I’ve written and we’ve written and it’s always great. It’s your baby and it’s always wonderful when there’s an audience.
In a Def Leppard set, how much latitude do you have?
You have a lot but you don’t want to f*** it up because these songs are so iconic. You can with solos as long as you stick to the melody. I’ve done this before, I’ll give you a great example; I heard this Deep Purple bootleg and (Ritchie) Blackmore’s doing ‘Highway Star’ and it’s got nothing to do with the thing on the record. I was a little bit disappointed. Even if it’s partly there and you use it as a bass otherwise it gets a bit too jazzy. You know what I mean? I like keeping the essence of it and mainly for the audience really, you can’t stray too far off when you’re playing this stuff.
The reason I like trio gigs is I can do what I like pretty much.
But four or five of you and a lead singer…
Backing vocals! You’re buggered! Every song, I sing on every song and at least the bridge or the chorus I have to get back to the mike.
I know exactly what you mean. Keeping the discipline and the king of playing solos but keeping the melody and context is Ernie Isley.
Great huh? We were talking about him earlier on.
You meet Ernie and he’s such a humble man. He always says ‘We can’t do a set that everybody likes because we made sixty odd albums. We can’t do everybody’s favourite . Did I play your favourites tonight?’ I said ‘You played ‘Voyage to Atlantis’ but the song I really love is ‘Live it Up’.
(Enthused) Love ‘Live It Up! Clavinet.
Well yeah it is Clavinet but it’s also the guitar using the Octavia. Roger Mayer made some of my guitar gear. I was telling somebody I wanted that ‘Live It Up’ sound and someone told me to go see Roger Mayer. Ernie never steps out of the song. He disciplines himself and he’ll bring every nuance, melody and riff out of the song. He won’t mess the band up. With a stadium band which is what you guys are. Do you ever do acoustic?
Yeah. I’m actually doing a little acoustic gig, Debbie from Delta Deep and I will be doing a little acoustic thing on Sunday 20th December at 229 Club in London and Monday 21st December at The Sebright Arms in Bethnal Green.
What do you use?
Well actually whatever I’ve got. I’ve got two acoustics; a Gibson Hummingbird which is lovely and a Martin Cutaway.
The Hummingbird cat to me is Johnny Cash.
Yeah it’s great. I’ll be playing that and whatever I’ve got lying around actually.
One thing where you and I would go separate ways as guitar players is that you were probably influenced by Gary Moore.
Oh I love Gary Moore!
I’ve had some bad experiences with Gary Moore.
He could be a bit nasty.
(Nods) I know that, actually.
He probably used heavier gauge strings than you.
See I played that Peter Green guitar and that actually started me off. He was using tens and I was using nines. I thought ‘Oh!’ but I’m up to thirteens now and then fourteens to fifty six on the album.
Are you E flat tuning?
Yeah but they feel like banjos so I have to get thicker. On this tour they are thirteen to fifty four.
After my accident, I had to build my strength back so I just dug out an acoustic twelve-string and kept playing that.
That will do it!
I usually play twelve strings to build up strength and move to 6 strings and then I find I’m dancing around then.
A twelve makes you work. You can’t play clichés. If you write a song, do you use keyboard or what?
Everything. Mainly the phone. I have ideas all the time. They could be vocals, a lyric, a bass part or a drum pattern. Always different.
Tell me about Melvin?
He’s actually taking a break at the moment. He’s had a pretty hard year. He’s our tour manager and he used to be Steve’s (DL) tech. When Steve died he became our tour manager.
He’s quite a vital member of the crew isn’t he?
He is absolutely. My guitar tech is this guy called Scott Yappelton who does Alex Lifeson, as well.
Right. Do you like Rush?
Yeah I do for what they are. You have to like that kind of stuff. I think they are good at what they do.
Your book’s very honest. Very blunt, a bit like Glenn Hughes’s. What makes you be like that?
Just how I am really.
What I mean is, to me as a reader it has not got the shadow of much self-editing.
‘ I’ll sound bad if I write this ‘.
No because I don’t care about that. I didn’t wanna be one of those guys and in those rock books they all say exactly the same thing.
Your story’s a bit unusual because you’ve been in various lineups and you know all kinds of people. Incidentally, Paul’s best drumming is on ManRaze.
I think so. I love that.
I thought you might quarrel with me, there..!
No – not at all ! It’s been a long time and it’s more refined but not in a bad way. I don’t mean he’s lost any energy and he still plays the sticks upside down. He’s got more experience and he’s not just in a punk band. It goes other places, a bit of this and a bit of that.
Who should be reading the book?
One thing I’ve found is that you can’t choose your audience. That’s the thing and a lot of people struggle with music and everything. We always end up wanting it to be a certain type but it never ends up being that.
Images by Kieran White at KW Media.
Phil Collen’s autobiography ‘Adrenalized: Life, Dep Leppard and Beyond’ is out now on Bantam Press/TransWorld Books. The hardback is priced at £18.99 and it is also available as an e-book.
Def Leppard are currently touring the UK with very special guests Whitesnake and Black Star Riders. For dates and details visit: http://www.defleppard.com/
In addition, Delta Deep will be playing two exclusive acoustic duet Christmas holiday club shows in London at the following venues:
Sunday 20th December 2015 – 229 Club, London, United Kingdom https://agmp.ticketabc.com/events/delta-deep/
Monday 21st December 2015 – Sebright Arms, London, United Kingdom http://www.livenation.co.uk/artist/delta-deep-tickets
For more information on Delta Deep visit: http://www.deltadeep.net/
(Thanks Glenn, Kieran, Ben and Phil)