Phil Collen of Def Leppard

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“I’m sitting on the beach and it’s fantastic,” says Phil Collen  feeling like a kid again via a new album he has out with his trio Manraze, featuring Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and Collen’s former Girl bandmate Simon Laffy. Called FunkPunkRootsRock, the CD features such rocking songs as the first single “Over My Dead Body”, “All I Want To Do”, “Bittersweet” and “Closer To Me”.

Collen and Manraze also have a new song called “Take On The World” featured in the I, Superbiker sequel The Showdown about British Superbike champion Tommy Hill. So yeah, life is definitely good for Collen right now.

Before we talk about your earliest days in music, why don’t you tell us about this new CD you have out with your band Manraze. You must be really excited.

I am really excited. Everything about it, the writing of the songs, we recorded it in two weeks and it came out beyond our expectations. It really was cool. The great thing with Manraze is we don’t have any restrictions on where the music or where the songs go. That’s why we called it FunkPunkRootsRock, because it definitely touches on some of those elements. It was so exciting to do it and we just love it so it’s a pleasure to get out there and promote it, to talk about it, really.

How did you do it in two weeks? That’s almost unheard of nowadays.

It really is unheard of. It kind of blew me away cause normally having being in Def Leppard taking like three years, three and a half years, it was really good. It was almost a magical thing, like we were being channeled or something. I mean, it was like one or two takes, everything, vocals, drums, guitars. It just flowed like that and that’s never happened to me before, not like that. It was a really unique experience and I loved it. Usually as you get older, there’s a lack of inspiration but this was the complete opposite. We were just so inspired and thrilled by it. We loved it.

So it felt good not being in the studio so long.

Absolutely. Normally it’s the least favorite part and a bit frustrating but this was an absolute blast. It’s the reason you get into music. Beautiful, beautiful stuff. Like going off on tangents and it all working, which is great.

It has a really good vibe to it, doesn’t sound over-processed. Tell me about the song “Closer To Me”.

“Closer To Me” is a lot of people’s favorite. We’ve had that song kicking around for a few years. I mean, I wrote it like eight years ago and we could never quite get it to have it’s own groove. Then all of a sudden, playing it live in the studio, which we’d never really done, we’d always over thought it and over talked it. Then we started playing it and all of a sudden it had a magical thing about it and it really turned out well. We’ve got Holly Cook, who is Paul Cook’s daughter, doing some harmony vocals on it. She’s a reggae artist in England and she just happened to be in the studio and was singing the harmony and we said, “Oh that sounds great, get in there and do it on the record” (laughs)

How would you describe your sound – or does the CD title say everything right there?

Paul was actually describing to my wife what it was cause she was doing an interview with him. Paul said, “It’s a bit funky, it’s a bit punky” and I said, “funk punk roots rock”. So that is how that came about but I do think that is what it is. The music is a bit of everything. It’s rock obviously but it’s not restricted by limitations. I know some bands get pressured about their genres and we certainly don’t, you know. You got to feel real about it. Even when the band started, like seven years ago, I was in London looking after my dad. He was real ill just before he passed away but we had a great time hanging out, me and my dad. But Simon, who I’ve known for years, he was in my old band Girl before I joined Def Leppard, he came over and we started writing some songs together. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get Paul Cook as the drummer?” We both knew Paul because we were all from London and literally two days later I saw Paul in the street, which was bizarre. I said, this is weird, your ears must be burning but we got this idea for a new band and you ought to come down. And he said, yeah, and that was it really, it went on from there.

Being a trio, did other famous rock trios influence you?

The Hendrix Experience, The Police, Nirvana; we took a lot of cues from them guys and it really worked. We’ve all been fans of lots of different types of stuff and we didn’t want to kind of restrict it, cause we’ve obviously been in Def Leppard and the Sex Pistols. One of the problems you run into being in a really popular band, sometimes you can’t be totally artistic and go off on a tangent that you want to do because your audience won’t really let you. Both bands have actually experienced a bit of that so it was really refreshing and fun to just not have a limit and not have someone saying you can’t do that. That was a great thing about it.

This must almost feel like a brand new band to you. You’ve been in Def Leppard for all these years and now here you have Manraze, which has actually been together for seven years.

It is really exciting. Like I said, a lot of musicians they get older and they get less enthused; all of these things they’re playing and singing and songwriting, it isn’t what it used to be cause you’re in a different part of your life. With this it was a complete opposite. Honestly, it was like being a seventeen year old again and starting your first band but we had the experience of guys who were fifty years old, which is bizarre. So you’ve got the best of both worlds.

How does it feel to be the lead singer? Because you’re usually the guitar player getting all the attention and now it’s your vocals out there up front.

That was a little strange, just making the transition cause before, yeah, I was the guitar player and would sing backing vocals, and I still am when I’m doing Def Leppard stuff, but yeah, I had to relearn to put the focus on the singing and the guitar playing became a little bit secondary, except when I’m playing solos; so it was a very different dynamic. But I’d never really experienced anything like that before and again all these new things happening. I just had a birthday, I was fifty-four, and having brand new experiences with music, I wasn’t expecting that, none of us were.

Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols is your drummer. When you were a kid and you heard the Sex Pistols for the first time, what did you think?

It was like a breath of fresh air, like the most amazing thing I’d heard. It was freedom and so raw and everything they were singing about, with Johnny Rotten’s lyrics as tongue in cheek as they were, they hit a nerve. Britain was going through a strike and the music industry was in a very sour state, like not really happening. And this band comes along with this amazing energy that I’d actually never heard before so I was a huge fan. I was one of those rare people who can actually like the Sex Pistols and Pink Floyd at the same time. I really loved it for what it was and Paul had always been one of my favorite drummers. He plays with his sticks upside down and hits extra hard. He just had a feeling, like rebellion or youth or whatever, and it sounded great, very liberating and very expressive. That’s what it was for me, like the ultimate expression. When I got to play with him it was a dream actually. It was really cool.

Are you going to be able to play more dates with Manraze this year?

I hope so. We’re doing a Def Leppard tour this summer. They’ve just made a movie of Rock Of Ages and it comes out in June with Tom Cruise and we’re actually going to be out on tour. We’ve got three songs in the movie and during the breaks we want to do some Manraze stuff.

What about trying what Nikki Sixx did a few years back with having his Sixx:AM open for Motley Crue? Manraze could open some Def Leppard shows?

We were going to do it. There was a leg of the tour where it was going to be Def Leppard, Cheap Trick and then Manraze was going to open the show but the leg got canceled so we never ended up doing it. But it was in the works.

You can keep bugging them about it, you do have some pull.

I know, really. I’m the guitarist (laughs)

Can you tell us where you grew up? 

I grew up in London, East London, and we were just there last week. We’d done an English tour, Def Leppard did, and then me and my wife stayed on and just hung in London for Christmas and New Year’s. But we did go over to where I grew up, where I was as a kid. It’s the area where they just built the Olympic Stadium. That’s where I learned to ride a bike and it used to be called Hackney Marshes and they just knocked it all down and put this huge stadium up. So it was a bit weird because I hadn’t been back there in years but it was actually really nice. My wife came to see it and she’s from Brooklyn, New York, and not too different from where she grew up. It’s like parts of London mirror a lot of New York and certainly the boroughs, not Manhattan, but when you get out in Brooklyn and Queens. It was really cool and she loved it, seeing where I was from.

What were you like as a kid?

I was pretty good. It was a very rough neighborhood but when you’re growing up you don’t realize that. It was actually home and nice and it was very weird seeing my old house, which looked very tiny and fragile. As you’re growing up as a kid it is the center of your universe. It was very strange after being all around the world and then coming back to this tiny little house and it looked to be sad and very delicate and fragile. But my dad was a truck driver, my mum was a housewife, I was an only child. My grandmother lived with us and that was it really. I got my first guitar at sixteen, saw my first show at fourteen, and pestered my mum and dad and took it from there really. I was just a huge music fan. Again, all sorts of stuff – the rock stuff like the Stones and the Beatles and The Who; but then all the Motown stuff as well – Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Just everything that was around. It could be the Beach Boys one minute, it could be The Move or The Kinks or something the next.

London was a very big hot spot for reggae. There are a lot of West Indians and Jamaicans that actually live in London, so just as a kid you’re exposed to a lot of different stuff. London is a huge melting pot and unlike New York where there’s restrictions between races and stuff, you have Chinatown and Little Italy. In London it all kind of merges in together. Musically, I believe it does that as well. Certainly for me and Paul and Simon, it was kind of wide open and very open-minded and the stuff we’d like, I still like it. I listen to kind of electronica music, I listen to hip hop, hard rock, pop music, all over the place. Again, I find it really inspiring. Same with reading, I read all kinds of books, whether political or travel or novels or whatever, and I have three on the go at the same time. I like it, I think it’s a very refreshing outlook. It’s something I’ve learned to do, I wasn’t brought up that way. I think by the gift of traveling, you get exposed to so many interesting things and interesting people that ultimately it shapes you and turns you in a different way. It’s really cool and I’m still learning. I’m a work in progress.

What was your first concert?

The first show I ever saw, I was fourteen and my cousin took me to see Deep Purple. We were front row, Ritchie Blackmore the guitar player was smashing his Fender Stratocaster, and it was the most crazy, exciting thing I had ever seen. It changed everything. All I ever wanted to do was play guitar. I wanted a guitar and I pestered them and two years later I got a guitar for my sixteenth birthday. Then that was it really. I was a pretty late starter but was very involved in it and dove straight into it.

How easy was it for you to learn to play guitar?
It was really cool and I think it was fairly easy but one of the things I realized it was a tool and I’m an artist and I think there’s a big difference being a musician. I think if you want to be a musician, you hone in your trade and learn all your skills. If you want to express yourself and get something out, it doesn’t really matter what the tool is. For me, my choice was the guitar because I love the way they sounded. I was able to get stuff out immediately so it didn’t really bother me that I couldn’t read music or didn’t know what the chords were and I couldn’t play all these songs. I was just actually getting something out of my system. As I did become more experienced and played more, I obviously got better as a player and ultimately I caught up with the enthusiasm. I actually do think that was a great lesson I actually try and tell people. It’s very important to me to have something to actually express myself with and that was a guitar. And it could be anything. Some people write poetry or sing or whatever it is, but I think something artistic, if you paint or something, it’s very important and does you a world of good, especially when you’re a kid and you’re not necessarily able to express yourself in certain areas, but being an artist one way or another is just an amazing thing to have done. I never really had any teenage angst because I had an outlet and I think it was as simple as that really.

Do you remember the first time you got on stage and played guitar?

I do. We played a nurses home in East London at Mile End. I was seventeen and I was so petrified I would make a mistake. You know, I make mistakes all the time now and I don’t even worry about it.

When did you start writing songs?

I started writing songs before I could actually play guitar and they were pretty awful. But you still try and get the stuff out, try to get these melodies out and a good word here and there and a riff or something and ultimately it turns into something else if you keep doing it. You start picking up great pointers from other people. Again, I’ve been lucky to have been exposed to some really talented musicians and songwriters and stuff like that and you pick up stuff as you go along that kind of shapes you. It’s great and you got to be open minded and that just helps tremendously.

Does it feel like you’re exposing too much of yourself when you’re up there singing a song that you have written?

No, I think there is something about an artist’s ego that really needs someone to complete the full circle. Even if you’re an artist, and I’ve seen this before, people go, I’m just painting this and I don’t care if anyone sees it. I don’t believe that for an instant. I think the most important thing is getting it out but you do want someone, you’re dying for someone, to react to it. Whether it’s favorable or they hate it, you’re still dying to see what they actually think of it. You hope that someone can appreciate it. Yeah, you may be nervous in one respect but I stopped being nervous years ago. I got such hard skin and all the guys in Def Leppard and certainly Manraze with Paul being in the Sex Pistols and they used to get people throwing things at them and chasing them, trying to throw knives at them, just because they were the Sex Pistols. It’s an interesting thing that whole thing. But yeah, you do want people to at least hear it.

Speaking of skin, I read where you once got hit in the eye by a high heel?

I did. It was 1983 and it gave me a cataract. You’re not really supposed to get them till you’re in like your sixties and I got it in my mid-twenties. I went to the doctors and they said, “Oh you need prescription” but I didn’t really go along with that and I saw another guy five years later and he said, “Wow, you’ve got a cataract. Have you had any trauma or someone hit you in the eye?” And I said, “Funny enough, I got clocked in the eyeball by a shoe” (laughs). I even remember it was Portland, Oregon, and we were on the Pyromania tour and this thing hit me in the eye, black eye, and then it was a bit blurry after that and the next day it was filming over and that was a cataract. So I had to have surgery when I was like in my mid-thirties. But I’m actually ok now. The worst part was when they stuck a needle in my eye. It’s like one of the worst things you can imagine. It was like, whoa (laughs). But it’s all fine now.

So did you like running around naked when you were a kid? Because you sure don’t like to wear a shirt.

(laughs) I don’t. I think I was a bit like that. You know, we’re from England and it’s freezing and they were a little bit uptight back then. But I think as soon as I got a little bit older, I was like, you know, I can do this and run around half-naked all the time, it’s actually ok. Yeah, absolutely, it’s that liberating thing again (laughs)

When you decided to become a vegetarian and be completely healthy, what was it that finally made you say you’re going to do this and you’re going to stick with this and here you are years later and you’re still doing it?

It was a sequence of events, really. The first thing, I was always a little bit of a closet vegetarian. I didn’t like the idea of eating a dead body. I’ve been a vegetarian for like thirty years now. Stuff was bleeding, had veins in it, all of that stuff, and it made me feel really, really disgusted. How am I going to put this in me? The more I got into it, people would be like try this and it actually made me feel nauseous and I didn’t want to. You know they torture these animals and they slaughter them, it’s a pretty nasty thing. So I felt really good when I actually stopped doing that.

The health thing was something completely different. I gave up alcohol about twenty-three years ago, only because I was getting messed up and it couldn’t be a social thing and I decided to completely quit cold turkey and find other things to do. I used to go jogging and it just went on from there and it was weight training, it was martial arts and it was all different martial arts, karate and kickboxing and now muay tai and then I just combined everything. The great thing was I started feeling amazing, the endorphins kicking in and feeling better in my fifties than I did in my twenties. So obviously something is working here and that was it really. It just kind of continued from there. I just had Christmas and me and my wife were sitting on the couch in London and we were being pretty naughty just eating and everything but you still have a cut-off switch and you get back in the saddle. Yeah, it doesn’t last too long. I prefer feeling the way I do now say when I was sitting on that couch (laughs)

Who would you say has been your biggest influence as a musician and why them?

As a musician, probably Mutt Lange, who produced Pyromania, Hysteria, Adrenalize and High N Dry. I’ve just learned so much from him and he was very open-minded in his songwriting and his approach to everything, guitar playing, singing. He’d go, “Try and play this” and you’d go, “I can’t play this” and he’d go, “Yeah, just try it and give it a shot”. It’s that kind of mentality that was like, wow, this is really good and you’d push your own limits and liberate you, break out of a cage and be like I can do anything I feel like, no one can actually stop me. He was very responsible for that.

When was the moment you realized you were famous?

There was a definite incident and this was after Pyromania and Hysteria and everything. We had a thing called, I believe, the Diamond Award and you’d get it for going ten times platinum. At the first Diamond Award ceremony in New York, probably 1999, we had two albums that had gone ten times platinum, Pyromania and Hysteria. There was us, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Billy Joel, Metallica, Michael Jackson, The Eagles, Van Halen. It was a really amazing bunch of people and they all went to this party, if you like. You looked around and there was Kenny G in the corner and everyone is in the same room and the guys from ZZ Top and Boyz II Men and everyone is like talking to each other. It was like a very strange thing. I kind of realized then that it actually meant something to a lot of people. So I think that was the event that really hit home for me.

When you look at something like the book Ross Halfin just published on Def Leppard, does it hit you that you have actually been in this business for so long and so successful for so long?

It does and I think that the big thing is the thirty year thing. It’s gone so fast and you really don’t realize it until you actually look back at something like that. When presented with a bunch of pictures in chronological order, it kind of hits home. You remember where the photo was taken, you remember a lot of stuff about it and it’s only then you go, whoa, it’s been thirty years (laughs). It’s weird, my son just turned twenty-two today as well, which is another weird thing. I can remember him coming home from the hospital and it’s like it just went so quick. It just seems like it was maybe eight years ago but it’s twenty-two. It’s crazy.

Do you remember the first real rock star that you ever met?

I’ve bumped into a lot of people in elevators. I saw Stevie Wonder in an elevator, I saw Rod Stewart in an elevator. And you go, whoa, that’s kind of weird (laughs). Kind of throws you for a loop. I think probably when I was in Girl, Ritchie Blackmore for example, he’s the reason I started playing guitar, he actually came and played with us on stage. That was like thirty-four years ago or something like that. It was really cool. So over the years it’s been other people like Prince or Sting and you have a conversation with them. I never really wanted to meet people I really liked because you think, this guy is going to be a dickhead cause you’ve heard so many stories, but they were absolute gentlemen, both of those guys. I had a really good talk with them. It was cool.

And what would you say is your all-time favorite album and what makes it so special to you?

Well, my favorite band is The Police and I really like the Ghost In The Machine album. And Synchronicity. Those are my two favorite albums but then there’s loads of them, so many different albums. There’s Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie, there’s Purple Rain by Prince, all sorts of stuff. I couldn’t really put it down to one album.

How many guitars do you actually own?

I had 150 and then I kind of lost track (laughs) but they’re all over the place, spread all over the world. I’ve got some in England and I’ve got some here in California, some of the stuff is on tour, I think I’ve got a couple of guitars at Joe’s house. They’re kind of all over the place.

Any last thing you’d like to say about Manraze?

Yeah, we’re going to put a new song out. It’s called “Take On The World” and it’s actually going to be in a movie, a documentary movie about superbike racing. We’d actually done one before called I, Superbike and this second movie is actually about very specifically this guy that wins the race and that’s what I wrote the song about. It’s just about courage and how they go absolutely crazy, flying around at like two hundred miles an hour and having these accidents and it’s very deep and what they do is very exciting. The song is kind of like electronic dance music meets rock with a touch of gospel singing (laughs). It’s really over the top with every different kind of format or something which I’m really excited about.

Next week we’ll visit with the always interesting Hank3, also known as Hank Williams III, and hear about how he didn’t grow up on a tour bus despite his legendary lineage and how country music often times takes a backseat to his love for playing metal.

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