Interview with Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen

Date: February 17, 2023
Interviewer: Marcelo Vieira 
Photos: Joe Schaeffer Photography (first and fifth photos), Christopher Lee Helton (second, third and fourth photos)

Sleaze Roxx: How does it feel to play live after the pandemic, and now touring with Mötley Crüe?

Phil Collen: It’s uh… You know, we started playing in a band cause we wanted to play live so the two years off was kinda weird. I wasn’t sure whether [we] would pick up again. You know, we weren’t sure if the people would go, wanted to stay in and to watch TV or something. So hmmm… now it’s amazing! Once we got out on tour, it was incredible. I think the last, the US [Stadium] Tour was probably the best tour we’ve ever done… ever in our careers. I think the playing got better, the singing got better and the energy because we had two years off. And then we were there with our buddies Mötley Crüe, which is great cause we’ve known them… I’ve known Nikki [Sixx] and Tommy [Lee] since I was — we have been friends — since 1983. So it’s just really nice to be out as a big family, you know?

Sleaze Roxx: This tour aims to promote ‘Diamond Star Halos‘. How would you describe the sound and musical direction of the album in relation to previous Def Leppard albums?

Phil Collen: Hmmm, with this one, we didn’t have to try, cause we didn’t know we were doing an album. We originally were gonna record like one or two songs and then the pandemic hits, so me and Joe Elliott would just, send in ideas together. They sounded different. They sounded like the stuff that got us in the music, like listening to early David Bowie, T-Rex, even stuff like some Pink Floyd things. Some Angel and uhhh… there’s another one actually. It reminds me of Pink Floyd so all the stuff, when we got into music it kinda, for some reason, came out. We kinda celebrate it and we’ve never really done that before. We’ve always had an idea of what the album’s gonna sound like. So we just followed it, followed our heart if you like, so it’s quite different.

Def Leppard‘s “Fire It Up” video (from Diamond Star Halos album):

Sleaze Roxx: Did the pandemic affect or inspire the making of the album or reflect somehow in the songs?

Phil Collen: Yeah, I mean, they did. It was more of a positive inspiration like, we’ve done it at home, I literally was at a table downstairs here. I’ve done all of my guitars, all my vocals… my vocals, actually I’ll show you where I did my vocals cause uhhh… in here!

Sleaze Roxx: Nice!

Phil Collen: All of my backing vocals in there. All of the guitars downstairs so that was inspiring. The fact that because of the pandemic there was a lot down, you couldn’t really go out, but my two year old son, who’s four now, we’d go to the beach, go to the park. There would be no one around. And then I’d come play with him and I’d come home and it inspired me to do more? To get messages from Joe, cause he was in Dublin, I’m in California, and in the morning, I’d wake up and there’s an idea and I’d send him an idea, and we kept doing that! And before we knew it, we had like five songs that we’ve written together and a bunch of other stuff that we had on the go. So it was very inspiring and the sound of it was inspired. I think by the pandemic but lyrically not so much, it was, there was different things, you know like the song “This Guitar”. I wrote that kinda off like 18 years ago with my friend Cj Versntein and that was about the feeling you have when you have this instrument that never leaves you? It’s like, it’s always there, you can just pick it up and it never leaves you. It’s like a faithful friend. So uhhh, that one, the lyrics — those are dreadful things. So lyrically, not so much about the pandemic, but certainly inspirationally, sure.

Sleaze Roxx: This year marks the 40th anniversary of ‘Pyromania‘. How do you feel about the fact that the album is still much-loved and influential in hard rock music, 40 years after its release?

Phil Collen: When we first did… I just joined the band, and I didn’t even know I joined the band. I was just helping my friends out. Joe said “You will play some solos on this new album. Do it.” and I said “Yeah”, and then I went down and met Mutt Lange and he said “Oh, you’re gonna sing, you can sing backing vocals to” and then more guitars, more guitars, more solos. We release the album and it exploded. So we didn’t know that would happen, so that was really exciting, obviously, and MTV was promoting it. The fact that 40 years went by so quickly, was incredible. That was the most exciting period, I think, of our career. Cause you’re a kid playing a club or an empty theatre, half empty theatre and then, all of the sudden you’re like “bang” and you’re playing arenas and you’re on TV all of the time, is really weird, but great, obviously, so I have big love for that album, obviously.

Def Leppard‘s “Rock of Ages” video (from Pyromania album):

Sleaze Roxx: What do you think makes ‘Pyromania’ so special and enduring compared to other albums released at the time?

Phil Collen: I have to give all the credit to Mutt Lange, the producer, because he said “We don’t wanna sound like everyone else”. And he was made a hybrid between pop and rock, we’ve keeping uhhh… lots of bands, they are rocking and got this sweet melody. We don’t! We kinda shout, you know? It’s like “Rock of Ages”, it’s kinda of a spirit to it, and that we wanted to combine with the melodic thing, so that was, no one had really done that. It was like, kinda like the Sex Pistols singing in tune and big backing vocals and the guitars and solos that meant something? The first one I did was “Stagefright” and “Photograph” and I thought “What is the melody and the vocal doing” and I wanted to make that, I wanted to enhance that, so you make the song. So there’s all these different things, and then obviously when ‘Hysteria‘ came about, he said “We can’t do ‘Pyromania’ Part 2” because everyone else is making that. So, again, we had to have influences as well, so that was hybrid, I think.

Sleaze Roxx: Are there any songs in particular from the ‘Pyromania’ album that you feel have had a lasting impact on Def Leppard’s history?

Phil Collen: Yeah, there’s a few… I mean, I love it when we play “Billy’s Got A Gun”. It’s not a very known song and “Die Hard The Hunter” — some of these songs kinda stayed in the background but when we played the Vegas Residency, we brought them all out. And it was amazing, and people’s reaction to it was incredible. So I think that’s the thing. It’s harder to do that on a tour, because this one, we only have 90 minutes when we’re promoting the new album, but you have to play “Hysteria”, “Pour Some Sugar On Me”, “Photograph”, “Love Bites”, those songs you just have to do it, so you limit. It’s very tight. We can go into this song, go into this song, we have time limits that are really precise. When you do Vegas, you can play for two and a half hours, so it’s ok.

Sleaze Roxx: What can the fans expect from the band in regards to the 40th anniversary celebrations of ‘Pyromania’?

Phil Collen: All of the anniversaries kinda sneak up on us. So before we know, someone goes “Oh, you know, it’s ‘Pyromania’’s 40th…” and we’ll be like “Oh, ok.” We celebrate it all the time. We absolutely would play “Foolin’ “, “Rock Of Ages”, “Photograph” — we always do that. But it has to be in the context of the tour. If we were going to do like a show where we just played one album, that would be a different thing. On this one, we haven’t really got the time, so we’ve got to incorporate into other stuff.

Def Leppard‘s “Foolin'” video (from Pyromania album):

Sleaze Roxx: Def Leppard’s first time in Brazil was in 1997. What do you remember from those concerts promoting the album ‘Slang’?

Phil Collen: It was a weird time for us, because people weren’t really showing up at the shows, and I love that album but it kinda disappeared. It went under the radar, so it was a very different album for us and it was just a weird time. Steve [Clark] had died during ‘Adrenalize‘, during the recording of that, so it was a very strange time period and figuring that just doing so… We tried to find a way, if you like, again. So everything that we did was kind of experimental, and just a very different time period. And now, it’s gone kinda like full circle, all back to where it should be. But it was great, I wouldn’t miss that for the world. I thought it was a great album, and a great tour, but not many people showed up.

Sleaze Roxx: For you, what was the reason for the controversial reception of the ‘Slang’ album by fans and critics?

Phil Collen: You can’t please everyone all the time. You have to please yourself. And that’s something we’ve always done. You don’t make music just to please other people. You have to please yourself, you have to “OK, I’ve gotta get this, I’ve got this idea, I’ve got this song, I’ve gotta get it out.” You don’t go “Well I’m gonna change it, gonna do something else because that’s what they want us to do”. It was a thing. We didn’t spend as much time on the songwriting or the harmonies, or all that stuff. We’ve done it… and the backing tracks were like live and we never do that. ‘Hysteria’, ‘Pyromania’ — everything was done separately, and ‘Adrenalize’, then we get to ‘Slang’, and we are playing live as band in the studio. You’d think that people would like that, but not so much. So yeah, I love that album, like I said. I think is really important, but you have phases in your career and artistically, like I said, love it, love the sounds, love all the stuff about it. Some of my favorite stuff on that “Pearl of Euphoria” — amazing. So yeah, and then the strings, the stuff, it was ahead of its time, I think, so yeah, very cool.

Sleaze Roxx: Do you think the reaction to the ‘Slang’ album by the media and fans had any impact on the band’s career or your approach to music in the years to come?

Phil Collen: I think that a lot of bands get this way when someone gets slammed for an album. People don’t buy it, they kinda start losing interest. It did the opposite to us. I mean, I don’t know if you saw… the opposite got the World Cup this last year and I was amazed when Argentina and France… Argentina was killing France and then, all of a sudden, Mbappe gets a penalty then he scores another goal, and it was like “woah” and that’s what you’re supposed to do. I like… I know France didn’t win, but there was a spirit that took… it came on them, they took over, got more focused and the playing was incredible, and I was like “woah”. So we compared that to that. You have to be kinda like that French team. We’re gonna get up and give it to you. So that’s really what ‘Slang’ was like in that time period. It made us more ferocious and more dangerous and more focused, yeah.

Def Leppard‘s “Slang” video (from Slang album):

Sleaze Roxx: It would take 20 years for Def Leppard to return to Brazil, when you played at Rock in Rio. Were we able to undo the bad impression of 1997?

Phil Collen: Yeah, I don’t think it was a bad impression. I think it was just being invited down. The promoters have to… they go “Oh, well perhaps we won’t do that because I mean, it’s so many different things but… it’s never about the fans or anything. It’s always, it’s something else it’s like… you have to be invited, you have to be promoted and the business aspect of it has to kinda invite you down so… No, we love it down there! It’s just like, incredible so yeah, looking forward to every time.

Sleaze Roxx: A lot of people swear up and down that Def Leppard was a confirmed attraction at the first Rock in Rio, in 1985. Is it true that the band would come to Brazil on that occasion and didn’t come because of the accident with drummer Rick Allen?

Phil Collen: No, we were in the studio. I mean, obviously that was around the same time. But we were in the studio from ’84 to ’86 doing the ‘Hysteria’ album. So we couldn’t have gone away.

Sleaze Roxx: Is there anything special that you and the band plan to do in terms of performance or setlist for the forthcoming dates in Brazil?

Phil Collen: Yeah, we constantly change the setlist. Like, just a little bit cause, like I said, you have to play songs that people wanna hear. And then you have to kinda… fit in new songs around that. So that they don’t sound weird. And everyone believes and goes to buy a beer or something. So yeah, you constantly have to keep changing it. Just keep it exciting. The whole show, you know, we’ve got lasers and the screens and everything. That is just… every year it just gets better, and better, and better. But also, the playing gets better, you know. Guitar playing, better now than it was last year, you know. Singing, it gets better, we constantly do that, and I think that, people notice that.

Sleaze Roxx: And when the touring is done, what can we expect from you? Musically speaking.

Phil Collen: We’re always… I’m writing all the time and constantly, I’ve been, you know, writing with other people, writing with Joe… We’ve got a bunch of songs that didn’t make it on the album because we didn’t quite finish it off. It was like “Oh we’ve gotta put a record out”. This makes it to the next one, so we are all good to go. I said non-stop kinda of, just ideas and inspiration, so that’s cool. I’ve got some other stuff on the go as well, so I’ll let you know about that near to the time when it comes out, as well.

Sleaze Roxx; Do you have a message for the Brazilian fans who are looking forward to seeing the band live soon?

Phil Collen: Absolutely, yeah! Be yourself, be Brazil. We’re looking forward to it. We can’t wait to get down there, so it’s like… and even just, I know we’re in São Paulo this time, but I was just mentioning earlier as well, and you met Elena. I wanna go there if I got a bit of time to check out. It’s been years since I was there last, so yeah, really looking forward to that. And just look forward to the passion and stuff of the Brazilian fans, so yeah.

Def Leppard‘s “Take What You Want” lyric video (from Diamond Star Halos album):

The original interview first appeared at Marcelo Vieira Music in Portuguese and was translated from Portuguese to English by Marcelo Vieira.