Phil Collen of Def Leppard Goes Delta Deep (INTERVIEW)

When we last caught up with Def Leppard’s Phil Collen, he’d had surgery on his finger and was learning to play slide guitar, something he had never done before. He was also in the early stages of putting together what he called a blues album with singer Debbi Blackwell-Cook, a project they were calling Delta Deep. “We’re doing duet vocals,” Collen said at the time. “Really nasty ass blues.” With drummer Forrest Robinson and Stone Temple Pilot’s Robert DeLeo joining in to fill out the band, and the addition of special guests like Whitesnake’s David Coverdale, former Sex Pistol Paul Cook and Collen’s Leppard bandmate Joe Elliott, the eleven song debut, which hit shelves on June 23, is raw, bluesy and contagiously rocking, with Blackwell-Cook shining with the vivacity of a new diamond.

Featuring originals alongside covers of Deep Purple’s “Mistreated” and “Black Coffee,” which Humble Pie did so well, Collen has used the blues as a base, a foundation, on which to build his songs up from, adding in textures of R&B, soul and down & dirty rock & roll. It has allowed him to be the Phil Collen we are familiar with, wailing on the guitar, while providing him enough room to explore, paint new pictures with old brushes; give homage to Howlin’ Wolf while honoring his early love for Ritchie Blackmore. Throw Blackwell-Cook’s strikingly powerful vocals into the mix and most of the songs on Delta Deep hum.

Collen was able to play a few gigs recently in Los Angeles with Delta Deep, which garnered rave reviews. And in October he will publish his memoirs, Adrenalized: Life, Def Leppard & Beyond. “I never actually wanted to do a book,” he said in a follow-up to our original interview. “I was just asked because apparently I have had an interesting life so far.  It was completed over a two year period. Fans can expect to learn about my life as I lived it.” And an interesting life he has had: Joining Def Leppard in 1982 following his stint in Girl, he has had hit records, been on million dollar tours, fathered four children, created two side project bands (Manraze and Delta Deep), been hit in the eye by a stiletto, lost his best friend Steve Clark to substance abuse, saw another bandmate (Rick Allen) lose his arm in an accident yet overcome the tragedy to successfully resume his position as drummer, and turn his own life around by deleting alcohol from his daily agenda and acceding to a vegan lifestyle. “It’s gone so fast and you really don’t realize it until you actually look back at something like that,” Collen once told me in regards to the book photographer Ross Halfin published in 2011 on the history of the band. From his first time onstage – “We played a nurses home in East London at Mile End. I was seventeen and I was so petrified I would make a mistake.” – to his current state of excitement about creating new music in new outlets, Collen is raring to keep moving forward.

When Def Leppard embarked on a US summer several weeks ago, the news that Vivian Campbell’s cancer had returned was a shock for fans. When I spoke with Collen last month, he said that Campbell was in great spirits: “His voice is back, his health is back, he’s playing his ass off. It’s wonderful to be onstage with him. You know we just had a killer run in Canada with Def Leppard. It was our first tour since Vivian got the ole cancer all clear. And that was amazing, just an amazing tour. And then we had our first Delta Deep rehearsal. I literally got back one day and then we were rehearsing the next day. We’d only played together on the record so that was actually the first time we’d got together and played full electric and it was just phenomenal. It was great.”

[NOTE: Campbell posted on Monday, June 22, that, “I’ve dodged the bullet of radiation. I was due to start a course that would have sidelined me for most of the first leg of the US tour, but my brilliant doctors have steered me towards an alternative course of treatment that will enable me to rejoin the tour this Saturday night in Birmingham, Alabama.” He actually rejoined the band for the following show in Atlanta due to a travel setback. “The shows have been really great so far – so good to be back!” he posted on July 3.]

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Delta Deep came together quite organically, just you guys sitting around singing. Is that right?

Absolutely. We had auctioned off a guitar. I had a PC1 Jackson we auctioned off and raised some money for the Gerson Institute in San Diego. And we went down and done some acoustic stuff and it was kind of blues and Motown and they were like, “Where can we buy this?” Well, “It’s not an album, we haven’t done anything.” So we started writing songs. We literally – Me, Helen [Collen’s wife] and Debbi – were in New Zealand having a break and we were in a tea store and a Wilson Pickett song came on the radio and it just inspired something else, just the vibe of it. So we went back and wrote “Miss Me,” which was the first song we actually got together on. And all of a sudden we’ve got this sound and we started writing more.

Then I played it for Forrest Robinson, the drummer, who I hadn’t seen for a while. I hadn’t seen him for ten years. He used to play with India.Arie, TLC, Sade, done a lot of hip hop stuff but also Jazz stuff. He was in the Crusaders for a while, which is phenomenal. But he wants to play rock and that’s all he really ever wanted to do. So I played him this stuff and he said, “Oh my God, I’ve got to play on this.” Then Robert DeLeo – a friend of mine kind of introduced us and said, “You know, Robert is a huge fan of funk and blues and soul, gospel, rock and the whole deal.” Then we just clicked and then me, Helen and Debbi just kept writing songs. When those guys put their stuff on it, the cake was done, it was baked. And we’ve just been dying to get together and yesterday was almost a spiritual experience when we started playing live, cause it sounded like the record but it sounded like the first Van Halen album. It had that kind of feel and it reminded me of Zeppelin II a lot as well. But then Debbi’s vocals sound like somewhere between Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. So you’ve got all this stuff together and we’d slip off into James Brown grooves and it was like, shit, where is this coming from? (laughs). It was just amazing.

When you decided to put all this down onto a record, how long did that process take?

Well, the great thing about it is that we treated each song like it’s own project, if you like. I think that’s the best way of doing it. Back in the day, that’s how people used to record. They’d write a song, record it and then leave it at that. It wasn’t until the eighties when people started to ship units and have record executives going, “Okay, we need eight more tracks. We’ve got the single.” And it was a bunch of fillers and stuff like that. With this, we got away from that. This song needs this kind of treatment, and we’ve just done this on the Def Leppard album and we’d never done that before.

The Stones, you know, they wrote half of “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses,” went into Muscle Shoals Studio for two days, and while they were laying the backing track for “Brown Sugar,” Jagger is writing the lyrics on a piece of paper. He goes in five minutes later, sings it, and so you have this integrity that does the song justice. Not like, oh, we need another filler track, and I think this whole album was like that. Each song came at different times. Like I said, one was written in New Zealand in a tea shop getting a tea cup and Wilson Pickett on the radio. Another song, “Bang The Lid,” for example, was me learning slide because I’d had an operation on my hand and I couldn’t play guitar and I had never played slide before. I listened to a Joe Walsh tutorial on YouTube and that song came flooding out and I recorded it a week after I learned how to play slide.

So each song’s got a story like that and are very kind of unique. Then some of the songs later on, like “Treat Her Like Candy,” you know, me and Helen were sitting in a hotel room on the last Def Leppard tour, and we done it in a hotel room, demoed it, got off the tour, we played Monterey in Mexico, a festival, and the next day I am back in California and we go in the studio and cut that song. So each song has it’s own story and they have their own energy and almost like a spirit.

deltadeepThe last time we had talked, when Manraze came out with the EP in 2013, you had actually recorded a few of these songs you were telling me about before you had your finger surgery. Did you keep those versions of those songs or did you end up re-recording them when you got ready to put this together?

No, no, we did keep them. Some of the stuff, like obviously “Bang The Lid,” was done post-surgery cause it was slide. “Black Coffee,” the backing track, may have been in a hotel room in Sweden, doing some of the guitar licks, and that was when my hand was actually bad. I’d already had the accident but not had the surgery. But my playing got so much better cause I’d have to practice and it was almost like starting from scratch. So I kind of practiced a lot initially and then stuff like “Mistreated” and “Whiskey” and stuff like that I done around the same time as we were doing the Def Leppard album as well. Some of the stuff I’d done in London, I’d overdubbed stuff there, and it was just wherever we could actually get down and get some stuff done so it was really a very interesting project. The whole thing has been full of integrity and realism. There was no kind of faking it or anything. It was done for the right reasons and I think you can hear it.

With you and the slide, how did you take to that?

What’s interesting is that I never could do it before. And growing up, the three guys I listened to all the time, four actually, were Duane Allman, Ry Cooder, Joe Walsh and Bonnie Raitt. I loved their slide playing. It’d be great if I could play slide like that. So literally, I’m sitting there with this cast on and this Joe Walsh tutorial on YouTube, ten minutes long, and he says, “Duane Allman showed me how to play the slide and you tune the guitar like this,” and I literally copied the thing and I was able to play slide. I mean, I had forty years of listening to slide players and great playing and I knew how this stuff goes and I knew the feel of it and all these other things. So it was just a matter of putting a little bit of technique and a little bit of practice, which like I said, took just a few hours. Then I went on a forum and these guys said you need to put your finger behind the slide, little technique things, and straight off the bat I could more or less play it. It was great and the old blues guys, they didn’t really have much of a technique anyway. They were just expressing themselves. It really shocked me to be able to play like that straight off.

Which guitars did you primarily use? Did you go to your regular ones or did you pick up some different ones to get the different feel?

I did pick up other ones. I certainly used my Jackson PC1 on pretty much every track but I’ve got this beautiful red Fender Stratocaster with DiMarzios on it and it sounds really authentic. I used that on a lot of the solos and stuff. On “Whiskey,” I used an old 1954 Gibson 175 to get that Jazz sound, which is really worth trying to get. I overdubbed with a guitar I have in London, a Gibson 330, which is a 1963, but one of the pickups is broken so you can only play on the neck pickup, like a blues player. So those guitars, I really wanted to get them on record, and they sound different so on certain songs I’d play this other stuff. I played Telecaster a lot on some of the stuff and actually the slide was done on a Jackson PC Supreme, which I never would have expected be a great slide guitar but that’s what is on “Bang The Lid.” There’s also some overdubs on, what song is it, I think it’s “Black Coffee,” and I used that guitar for that. Again, different ones but always the old standards, like all the soloing and stuff on “Mistreated” was done on my Jackson PC1, like some of the shred solos are done on that. But yeah, I definitely did bring in some different colors and it was really nice to do that.


You call this a blues album but not all the songs are dyed in the wool authentic blues songs. You added blues rock, R&B, some Jazz tints. Why go that route and create all these original songs instead of pulling some old Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson traditionals and let Debbi’s great voice go to town?

I couldn’t do that. I’m an artist. It’s not really a blues album but it’s true expression and I think there’s something about being an artist that if it’s right for the song then you follow it and that’s me being an artist. If it feels like it wants to Jazz up a little, great, or if it wants to rock, you follow it. And I think by being too pure and sticking to a style you kind of squash creativity. And I think blues isn’t a style. I think Kurt Cobain is more of a blues artist than a lot of the guys you hear playing guitar these days. They’re not suffering. He suffered. Johnny Rotten, you know, the anguish, that stuff that came out in the Sex Pistols, “God Save The Queen,” the lyrics in that are just brilliant. And that’s more blues than a lot of these others. I think they missed the point.

The blues was born from agony, you know. It was people forced to endure slavery. They were beaten, they were killed, they were raped, they were all brutalized. It was awful. And I think the only way that they could live or accept life was to express themselves and get it out. That, to me, is true blues and I think when you’re an R&B artist and you hear Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, you still heard that pain and agony. And Debbi certainly has it. She’s had some awful things. Even just being a black woman in the United States is harder than say me being a middle-aged, white privileged male. It’s different. You know her son was shot dead two years ago. She was with me and Helen and we got this phone call and Debbi found out her son was shot. He was twenty-eight years old. So you know when she sung “Whiskey,” that’s about that whole thing, how she felt, and it’s pain and it’s agony. And that to me is true blues. You hear it with Tina Turner in her voice. She went through hell, that woman, as a young girl, and then she married a black guy and he beat the shit out of her. But she’s singing with him so it was non-stop and the only way she could actually express was that way. And it wasn’t necessarily blues, it came out as soul, funk, R&B, and we don’t have that music anymore. It got gobbled up by hip hop and then it turned into this really cheesy what they call R&B these days, which has nothing to do with R&B. It’s very much like new country has nothing to do with country & western. The real artist has been sacrificed and when we say blues it’s expression.

I think that we can touch on all of those certain kind of elements of it, of that expression. My favorite country artist, and he’s not really country, is Lyle Lovett. He goes into different areas. I love his voice and it sounds real. It’s got integrity and I think that’s the expression thing. And when we say blues, it’s really more that. I don’t think it’s a style. I hear a lot of new blues artists and they’ve never suffered a day in their lives and therefore the music can’t be that. You just copy something so you might as well go on The Voice or American Idol and be a contestant because you’re just going to do karaoke blues as opposed to actually bleeding and letting it out. At rehearsal, we were sweating up a storm, goosebumps going up, and it’s just expression. I think that’s really it. So it’s nice to be able to really kind of pay homage to that and actually express something and get it out ourselves. We’re loving it.

Do you remember your first exposure to the real blues music?

Yeah, I mean, I got it second-hand. I listened to Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page and the Stones and stuff like that and Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was a true blues player. He went through some shit in his life and I still don’t think anyone has ever come close to him as a guitar player. It was almost like being channeled. He invented the electric guitar and how it’s supposed to be. It was crazy, just pure expression. So my first thing was kind of those guys. Then I went back. For my sixteenth birthday I got this album called The Guitar and it had BB King doing “Sweet Sixteen” on it, Albert King, Freddie King, Duane Allman. It had some real blues players and that was it. But again, they learned it from Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and the acoustic thing and they just took it electric, Buddy Guy took it electric. The Chicago blues as opposed to the delta blues.

But the expression was the same, it was all borne out of pain and agony. It just all of a sudden had a different kind of, a louder kind of voice. All of a sudden Buddy Guy is out there playing the shit out of that. Jimi Hendrix, you know, you listen to some of the lead playing and it sounds kind of familiar. I don’t know who done it first but regardless it took on a new voice when it got electric and then Hendrix obviously took it to a different stratosphere. So I like the idea of that, expressing it in that kind of form cause I am an electric rock player and it allows me to do it, the technique from before, and it allows me to express myself even more, which is great. Like I said about the slide thing, I didn’t even know I could play it. It just came oozing out and it was exciting, like goosebump time for me cause it was again that expression thing. So like I said, like my blues thing, it started off as electric and then I understood where it came from but I always like loud electric guitar cause it’s a great way of getting my rocks off, you know.

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Did the mindset of blues and R&B help with the songwriting? Did it make you bolder or affect you in the way you were writing these songs?

I’ve been pretty bold anyway. Like even onstage, they go, wow, this is a different person than I was sitting down watching a movie with or having a coffee with. They go, who is this person? I think there is a confidence there. I don’t know, I get onstage and it’s like, whoa. Even songwriting, I don’t really care what people think, I don’t care about being judged about anything, so that’s really wonderful as an artist. I don’t have some of those restrictions. I meet lots of artists who are very insecure. I meet lots of musicians who are very scared and insecure and luckily I don’t have that. I think I use that to my advantage. If I’m writing a song and all of a sudden it kind of leans in one direction, I follow it. I follow the muse. I don’t restrict myself and I don’t really care how I’m going to be judged. And I think that’s the big difference. A true artist shouldn’t give a shit about that. And there is a difference between an artist and a musician, and I think I’m an artist first and the musician part comes second. As far as expression and songwriting goes, it’s really important. It’s actually a wonderful thing to be able to do and put it out in that kind of fashion.

Do you think you’re more inspired now than when you were in your early days?

Yeah, I do, actually. I really do. Again, when people say, “What’s your tip for up and coming musicians?” I say, well, don’t do it for the money. The reward comes in the artistic expression. And this is art in general. You can be a poet, you can be a writer, you can be a painter. The reward comes in achieving that. Obviously there is a certain amount of ego involved. Do you want to have an audience if you write a song? I certainly want someone to hear it and it’s important to me to see if there is any feedback or bounce back. I know a lot of painters are like that. I think it’d be terrible if you’ve done this beautiful painting and no one ever saw it. Or even if it was a crappy painting but you put everything into it, it deserves an audience. And I really think that about music and songwriting. It’s completing the circle. I know some of that is ego but I think that being an artist that kind of draws that into it anyway. I know there is a certain amount of ego for me to jump on a stage every night in front of people. But that’s not the real reason I’m out there. I like the expression part but it certainly coexists with it.

You did Deep Purple’s “Mistreated.” Did that have anything to do with that being the first concert you went to and that staying with you?

I think so. Ritchie Blackmore is the reason I started playing guitar. It’s such a blues type song. Initially I asked David Coverdale to sing it and he said, “I’m doing an album of Deep Purple songs so I can’t really do that. But I’d love to be involved.” And I said, “Well, suggest a song.” And he said, “Private Number” without hesitation. So we did that. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out but it’s kind of got an Isley Brothers, almost Hendrix/R&B feel about it. And I mean real R&B, Memphis type kind of R&B; not the stuff you hear nowadays. It was just exciting to get that thing rolling. When he said he couldn’t do that, he said, “I’d love to hear Joe sing that. That’d be great.” And I asked Joe and he said yeah and him and Debbi sound phenomenal on it together. So they erased my vocal, cause I’d done a lead vocal on it as well, and we erased that and put Joe on it and it’s killer.

Any plans for new Manraze music?

Well, you know “Black Coffee” actually is Manraze on the album. It’s Paul Cook playing drums and Simon Laffy on bass. Another reason I wanted that to be, and I know it’s a Tina and Ike song, but Humble Pie did a great version of it and we kind of wanted to do that. Humble Pie’s Steve Marriott was from the East End of London where I’m from and I felt it would be very fitting because the Small Faces are a very London band and Manraze are. We’re very much part of the whole London thing. So that’s really why that was one of the first, if not the first song, we actually recorded real drums on, was “Black Coffee.” That is Manraze and we’ve got a bunch of songs and it’s just a matter of getting the right time and we’ll start recording them whenever.

And Def Leppard is going to be touring for a while?

We are and then the new Def Leppard comes out in October, in the fall. We’ve pretty much finished the album and yeah, it’ll be out in the fall.

Is the creativity still easy for you guys in Def Leppard after all these years?

It’s harder because you have a certain demographic you have to please and you can’t stray too far. I mean, I couldn’t do one of these songs even though me and Joe are on “Mistreated,” it doesn’t sound anything like Def Leppard. Part of it sounds like the vocals and that sounds like Phil playing guitar BUT you become a little bit restricted. Up until this new album. I think it’s the free-est we’ve been and I think Vivian having a very close-to-death experience with cancer made everyone approach it differently. We went in to record a single or an EP and came out with twelve songs, which has never happened. And not once did anyone go, “No, I don’t think we should do that,” which usually happens. We usually have a problem with that. So it was wonderful and it was all real. Everything was positive. Like, “Yeah, let’s try that, let’s try this.” It was positive every step of the way and never, “Oh we shouldn’t try that” or “That sounds a bit too weird for us.” The album is very varied. It sounds like, I don’t know. It could be Top 40 one song and then the other is extreme rock & roll. It all sounds like Leppard but some of it is a brand new experience. We’re really psyched about that.

Do you think that freeing may be because you guys have side projects?

Partly but I think it’s more life experience than the side projects. It does affect how you do stuff for sure but this Delta Deep experience has been wonderful for me. It’s a brand new experience and we’ve all experienced things together. The fact that we’re still hanging together thirty years after the event is pretty cool. Most bands don’t usually get to experience that.

You’re singing lead again and you keep getting more comfortable and more out there. What do you think was the biggest hurdle to get over to be a lead singer?

Oh it’s that thing that I was talking about that I don’t have anymore. People are so scared of being judged or laughed at, especially musicians cause they’re such egomaniacs, usually. You’ve got to have a certain amount of ego to get on a stage. But you’re scared you’re going to make a mistake or it doesn’t sound cool. Mutt Lange is a huge influence on me, guitar-wise and vocal-wise. I’d go and try to sing something and he’d go, “Sing it harder, sing it higher.” And I’d say, “I can’t.” And he’d say, “Yes, you can.” And it’d push you and I’d want to please him. But in trying to please him and just letting go, he’d go, “Don’t even think. It doesn’t matter if you fuck it up, it’s totally cool.” By doing that, you achieve something. Then you listen back and go, oh my God, I didn’t know I could do that. So Mutt was very much a huge inspiration and a massive influence.

Once you overcome these little hurdles, and most of them are mental and not physical, they’re not like technique-wise or your limitation. The main limitation is the mental ones we put on ourselves. And I think if you get over that, you don’t care. I mean, I can sing in front of a million people, falsetto, on my own without a band, and it wouldn’t bother me. I wouldn’t have been able to do that and I think that that’s the comfort, you know. And I don’t care if I mess it up. It’s okay. I haven’t got to please anyone else except myself and obviously in the song you want to try and perform that particular song.

Again, we move into very dangerous territory on these TV shows where they want you to sing perfectly. It’s a very weird thing to put people in and yet this whole new thing of kids coming in, they think if they don’t do it perfectly, they’re going to be disposed or thrown away and that’s not the right thing. Again, going back to the blues, they don’t give a shit, they were going, I can’t even sing, you can’t even understand what he’s talking about (starts singing in a grumbling voice).

Howlin’ Wolf

Right, exactly, that was Howlin’ Wolf. See, you knew who it was straight away (laughs). Wow. See what I mean? Rather that than a contestant on American Idol who we don’t know who their name is. I just made a guttural noise and you knew who it was.

And some of the best records have mistakes on them

Absolutely, I agree, totally. Even on Def Leppard stuff, people go, “It’s so perfect,” but I can remember doing stuff and Mutt would go, “That’s fine, that’s totally fine.” And I’d go, “No, it’s terrible, that note.” Even on “Photograph” and shit like that, I’d go, “Can I do that again?” And Mutt would go, “It’s fine, it’s totally cool. Don’t worry, it sounds great.” And there you go.

What music did you turn your children onto first?

Well, my son heard stuff, you know. He’d hear “Let’s Get Rocked.” It’s like a kiddie song, really (singing). It’s so easy and it’s an anthem so he would repeat that when he was very little.

Is this Rory?

Yeah. He’s twenty-five now and funny enough he’s actually just started getting into creating electronic music and getting into loops and stuff. I talked to him on Skype the other day, running him through some stuff. He actually went onstage at Red Rocks when he was sixteen with a couple of the guys in Journey and our opening act. He had a really interesting time period. But now he’s getting into other stuff. He likes electronic music, he’s always liked that. He went through a period where he was into Korn and System Of A Down. And I’ve gotten him into Cream. Usually kids like singing, like Samantha, my daughter, you couldn’t sing “Umbrella” by Rihanna cause then she’d be singing it all day. So certain songs capture them and they either like it or they don’t.

What is there left for you to explore musically?

Everything. I’m only just getting started and I think just combining stuff. I love Indian Classical music. I love like African rhythms. I love soul music, I love pop music. I listen to pop music on a really crappy Top 40 station and I’ll go, this is the best melody I’ve ever heard. So I think just combining and making a hybrid is a wonderful thing to do.


Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough & Vera Harder

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4 Responses

  1. Man I love this guy!! He so honest and doesn’t hold back and there’s no bullshit!!! He and I would be awesome buds lol!!! Congrats to Phil and everyone involved!

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