Phil Collen of Delta Deep / Def Leppard – “Performing in Clubs Doesn’t Feel Strange”
Interview by Robert Cavuoto
Phil Collen, lead guitarist of Def Leppard, will be touring the East Coast this spring with his new blues based music project, Delta Deep. The band released a fuel injected blues CD last June and will have a live CD out this summer.
Delta Deep recorded originals and hand-picked cover tracks with fellow bandmates Debbi Blackwell-Cook on vocals, Forrest Robinson on drum, and Robert DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots on bass. The CD also features special guest appearances by Def Leppard vocalist Joe Elliott and Whitesnake’s David Coverdale.
Delta Deep is all about self-expression and making the listener feel something special. Designed to inspire and drive people to take notice! Their original songs are raw and filled with pulsing sexual energy.
I was able to catch up with Phil to share some insight into his blues roots, how it feels to play clubs, and the new approach Def Leppard took when writing and recording their latest CD.
You’re in one of the biggest bands in the world selling millions of records and touring the world to sold out venues, tell me about your love and passion for the blues that drove you to put together a solo band?
If you talk with anyone one in a major band like Guns, AC/DC or Queen you find that they are stuck on a trajectory. You can only write certain songs and you are only accepted in a certain way. Def Leppard did a CD back in the 90’s called Slang, We thought it was great but everyone hated it. You really can’t do whatever it is that you want and still stay faithful to this thing you created. I have always been a huge fan of the blues, soul, and funk. I didn’t have to change anything; I just carried on and did the same thing I always do when writing songs. The titles, structure, and what the songs are about change and the songs have a different groove. We couldn’t do these types of songs in Def Leppard; it would be so far away from what we do and what our fans expect from us.
When you are writing riffs, at what point do you say this is for Def Leppard, Manraze or Delta Deep?
That’s a really interesting thing. Normally it’s pretty obvious to me. There are instances like on “Sea of Love” which is on the Def Leppard’s new CD; I originally wrote it for Delta Deep! When Sav [Rick Savage] and Joe Elliot heard the demo, they thought it was great wanted it for Def Leppard! For the most part you know where they are going to end up but on songs like “Sea of Love” it takes a turn and went to the other side [laughing]. As an artist, these types of change-ups can give you a little surprise.
Def Leppard has a tremendous visual aspect live and Delta Deep is working the blues in the clubs without videos screens, spectacle lighting, and pyro – tell me about what it’s like going from one setting to the other?
Something really interesting happened to me in December when we were on our arena tour with Def Leppard in England. It was us and Whitesnake and the shows were selling out. The last two gigs were at Wembley and Sheffield arenas which hold like 12,000 people. The next night Debbi and I played a little club in London to 150 people. What I thought strange about it was that it didn’t feel strange at all! I went from the lights, the visuals, and 12,000 screaming people to the club. It was great. I used the same guitar which was another strange thing. It all still worked as an expression of me and I really enjoyed that process. So that is why it didn’t seem weird and really enjoyable.
I speak with many artists like yourself and always have to ask if it is more frightening to step out on stage at a monster outdoor festival to 100,000 people or play an intimate club?
For me it’s not scary at all. As soon as I walk on stage I get this amazing confidence. It’s almost like another person. You hear Alice Cooper talking about Alice in the third person, it’s almost like that. Being in the club is a lot more personal. People can see you more directly. At these festivals and venues they are looking at the spectacle rather than you. The focus changes compared to when you are in a club, when you are listening to the music. When you’re seeing a big show you are actually becoming part of the show. It’s a big difference, and I can see why people get a bit nervous as the focus is on the show vs the performers.
When you come out to the East Coast with Delta Deep, do you have a lot of flexibility with the set list night after night?
We have a real problem in getting time to rehearse and play. I think we are going to play what we did on the West Coast. The one difference is that we will jam on different songs. The songs will probably be a different length each night. It’s not structured, its more open. There are a few songs that we would like to add into the set, we may throw a working Manraze song in or a Def Leppard song or an STP song for shits and giggles if we can remember the words. [laughing]
I think that’s the charm and energy of playing clubs, its sounds like fun and I’m looking forward to seeing the show!
It is fun. I like that kind of dynamic. We just did the Cruise with Def Lepard and it turned out to be fairly difficult as Jimmy Bain passed away on the boat and Joe lost his voice. We all had to fill in for him. Vivian and I had to take turns handling vocals. He took “Hysteria” and I sang “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Although we’ve heard these songs every night for like 30 years, it’s really had to switch. We did versions of them and it was so much fun. Delta Deep is like that.
I read Delta Deep is coming out with a live CD; will any of it be recorded during the East Coast tour?
We actually recorded a few of the shows on the West Coast and it sounded great. We got the entire CD mixed. It’s an hour worth of material that we think is killer. I’m sure we are going to be recording some of East Coast shows as well. We try to record as much as we can on a mobile ProTools. Unless we hit something spectacular from the East Coast then we can add it but then run into time constraints. It will be out mid to late-summer.
Any plans to add a DVD with the live CD?
At the moment it’s just audio but again a DVD would be really great if we get the option on the East Coast. We are going to call the CD, West Coast Live so maybe we can call the DVD; East Coast Live [laughing].
You’re a fantastic guitar player are there still things that you can honestly say you struggle to play and haven’t quite nailed it?
Absolutely, like picking on jangly guitar parts I’m really sloppy with it and always get other people to do for me. In Def Leppard, Sav is really good at those jangly parts. It doesn’t matter who does what part, we even had Joe Elliot play bass on song parts.
As an artist you sometimes start worrying about being a musician, and there is a difference in my opinion. You can be an artist and a musician and you can’t necessarily can be a musician and an artist. I would rather be the artist who trys, fucks-up, and it doesn’t really matter. The idea that you are getting over something is the most important thing.
I don’t worry if I make mistakes; I’m actually cool with it on stage. I know a lot of people that aren’t ok with that. I rather try and fuck it up than not try at all. A lot of other guitar players will never have that experience because they’re trying too hard to get things so perfect. Same with the vocals, I really don’t care if my voice cracks, if I attempt something cool as I think that’s the trick. It’s a bit of an adventure.
That goes back to the courage your spoke of earlier.
Absolutely, if I was a guitar player in someone’s band, I think I would be more nervous about fucking up their song. When I’m trying to express myself as an artist, I don’t worry about it too much. I feel you get more out of it. Case in point, Jimi Hendrix was really sloppy but the most genius guitar playing you ever heard in your life, especially back then. I’m not saying that you can go out there and be sloppy, I try to attempt new things and it’s ok not to be hard on yourself if you fuck things up sometimes.
The other great thing is that it goes by so quick. I sing wrong words every single night. [laughing] At the first Manraze gig I had cheat sheets all over the floor and I still fucked it up. Paul Cook was just laughing at me, going “How are we even going to do this?” I was singing the second verse as the first verse and got it all mixed up. I’m a little better now [laughing]. Most people in the audience really didn’t notice, they were listing to the groove of the band. It doesn’t matter if you sing something a bit wrong. It’s the overall vibe.
Everybody had a rough go on the Cruise; do you think the band will do another one?
It wasn’t a great experience. We had a great time in Miami and I think the people did too. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. We were warned about it. I don’t think we will do this again to be honest. It was my first cruise, and I soon realized that you just couldn’t hang out at dinner, so you were confided to your quarters and that wasn’t fun.
From your book, I know that David Bowie was a huge influence on you, what was it like to hear about his passing?
When my parents died they were both way to young. My Mom was 72 and my Dad was a young 81 and he was just starting to come into his own. I know it sounds a bit weird being 81 and developing his own identity but he was getting to be more artistic and was starting to understand things a lot better. He easily had another 16 years left but he died of cancer. I was obviously devastated that my parents died, devastated that they still had more life in them. That’s the same feeling that hit me when I heard about Bowie. He was so young and such a driving artistic force. That’s what seems so unjust to me, that he was not done here. Same with my parents, they weren’t really done here.
The new Def Leppard CD has been out for a while, which song would you say has your biggest imprint on it?
I would have to say “Dangerous.” I didn’t have to think about that one as I wrote it a few years ago. I had the demo floating around and gave it to Joe. One day he says, “I have the lyrics” and it was “Dangerous!” It worked that fast. There are a few more; like “Energized” it’s a pop song and I like the fact that we can go in other directions and it still works. I’m so proud of the whole CD, also the way we approached it and all interacted on it. It was such joy.
Has the way that you and Joe worked together during the creative process changed over the years?
Yeah, we are disciples of Mutt Lange. When you are in the studio with him it’s inspiring as he is such a genius. Most people thought he must be a slave driver. Yeah, he wants it to be a certain way but you get so much joy and learn from it. The band in general didn’t have that inspiration when we tried to make records. We were missing that X Factor which was Mutt and it didn’t really work so well. On this CD it was a lot more open and loose. Joe and I probably had the best writing experience. We wrote the quickest song we had ever done; “Broken ‘n’ Brokenhearted” which we wrote in about 10 minutes. We actually have a new vibe to writing and recording for Def Leppard. I’ll be producing the new Tesla CD and will take the same approach.
Do you want to be remembered as a great songwriter or guitarist?
A great guitarist, there are millions of songwriters. But guitar players are a different thing. I’d want to be in that category with Jeff Beck, Richie Blackmore, and Stevie Ray Vaughn as I think its cooler.