Phil Collen of Def Leppard & Manraze Shares All

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With the hustle and bustle of Christmas now a few days past, and gift cards in hand, it’s a perfect time to grab some music you may have missed during the two-holiday season. Right before Thanksgiving, Def Leppard’s Phil Collen unleashed a three song EP with his band Manraze. Their first single, “I Surrender,” has just enough Leppard undertones to hook you right in. With Collen not only playing guitar but handling all the main vocals with his raspy almost-whisper, the band has been gaining a steady following since its inception in 2004 with Collen’s former Girl bandmate Simon Laffy and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook. Being a part of a new trio has given Collen a breath of fresh air musically, as he told me in 2012 following the release of the band’s FunkPunkRootsRock: “The great thing with Manraze is we don’t have any restrictions on where the music or where the songs go,” he said with obvious excitement in his voice. “It was almost a magical thing,” Collen continued about the recording of that album. “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.”

A year later, after touring with his Leppard bandmates as well as doing a full-blown residency in Vegas, which looks to be happening again in the coming year, Collen and Manraze have released three new songs to whet our appetites: “I Surrender,” a re-recording of “All I Wanna Do” and the live “Connected.” If the band could find the time to get out there and tour more, it would surely grow by leaps and bounds. There is enough fun, rocking guitars and melodic hooks to win a lot of new fans outside of the Leppard camp. Last month I talked with Collen about the new songs, the injury to his hand, his days in Girl with Phil Lewis and an exciting new project he has coming up called Delta Deep.

What are you up to today?

I’ve actually got to go to the doctor later on. I had a finger surgery. A tendon slid off the bone, actually, and I had to have it stitched back on to the finger. I can’t play guitar properly but I can play slide guitar. My wrist is really weak and my fingers are really weird and it kind of hurts. I can’t clinch my fist so it’s a lot of weird stuff going on. I’ve just got to be kind of careful with it and do some physical therapy. But other than that, it’s great out here today and I may go out to the beach as well.

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You’re always at the beach. You were at the beach the last time I talked to you.

Was I? (laughs) Yeah, I do that thing where I go, ok, I’ve got a two hour break and I can go and hit the beach. It’s great.

For the one or two people who don’t know what happened, how did you actually injure your finger?

You know when you use your hand to help you get up or lean against something to just stand up? I done that. I just used my knuckle and it just squelched. It was literally at the wrong angle but I was just correcting my balance, just put my fist under, and I’ve done it a million times before, and it kind of squelched. And then it felt like my finger went double-jointed, it started popping. And it didn’t hurt and I thought, wow, this is really bizarre. I had it checked out and found out that there’s this thing that holds the tendon on the bone and it just knocked it off, just slipped in between the two knuckles. So I played guitar on the summer tour and the first few shows I was the worst guitarist in the world. It’s actually really quite funny. You know, I’d be playing and my finger would slip off the fretboard or bend the string and the second finger would go the other way, pop the other way. It was really strange. I got round it but the human body is fascinating. Towards the end of the tour I was actually doing certain things I couldn’t do before. So that was it. But now I’ve had the surgery.

Were you nervous after it happened?

No, not at any point was I nervous. I knew I’d get round it one way or another. I’m actually learning how to play slide guitar because I never really did that before. So I can do that, cause I don’t have to bend my fingers. I can literally put on a slide and use some of the other ones, the one that’s not working to block the strings. So it’s perfect, actually, the perfect hand to play slide with (laughs)

What was worse: Your hand or getting hit in the eye?

I think probably getting hit in the eye was probably worse, I think, yeah. That kind of crept up. I didn’t realize that was happening. You get a cataract and you’re not supposed to get them till you’re in your sixties. I was like in my late twenties when I got that, got whacked in the eye. [Collen was hit in the eye when someone threw a high-heeled shoe at the stage]

Your wife Helen is a big part of your life, obviously. What is she up to?

Oh she’s great. She’s in New York at the moment cause you know she does costume design and she’s been the resident costume designer for seventeen years at the Billie Holiday Theater in Brooklyn. She does that about two or three times a year. So, yeah, it’s really cool.

You have had an incredibly busy, busy year yourself. Do you ever stop?

No, I like it. I think it’s really cool, the fact that we can be thirty years into Def Leppard and still be that busy. And the fact that we’ve released the song that was going to be the eighth single off Hysteria and it finally comes out as a live track on Viva Hysteria, it’s great and I’m really pleased about that. It’s kind of like a nice payoff.

Manraze has the new EP. Tell us about “I Surrender,” the first single.

Well, the Manraze stuff is such great fun. We wrote this song eight years ago, in this little rehearsal room you could record in in London and we recorded this track and it was really magical but we couldn’t really get a title for it. Simon had written some lyrics, had some great chord structures, and Paul played this really beautiful drum pattern that sounded like “Albatross” by Fleetwood Mac and we thought it was great. But couldn’t get a chorus for it. Every time we went to do a chorus, it sucked. I mean, it would have been on the first album. So last year, I’m on tour with Def Leppard, sitting in the swimming pool outside somewhere, it’s really hot, and I start singing these lyrics and I thought, that’s that song. It fit perfectly and all of a sudden, the other lyrics started making sense. You know, “I Surrender” is actually about confronting yourself and not being in denial about stuff. It’s actually about growing up and being big about stuff. And you can apply it to anything. You can apply it to your relationships, spiritually, or whatever they want to.

So I got home, I redone all the guitars in my living room on my Mac, my laptop, done all the vocals there as well, and then I got Debbie Blackwell-Cook, who looks after the house when we’re not there, and she’s got this amazing gospel voice, sounds like Chaka Khan, so I got her to do all this stuff at the end. And Simon played new bass on it. We kept Paul’s original drums, sent it to Ger McDonnell, who produced both our Manraze albums, and remixed it, chopped up Paul’s drums, put some new stuff in there. When we got it back, it blew us away. It’s the first song we ever got a mix back and haven’t changed anything. And he put Debbie’s stuff in the end there. We’re probably going to do a remix, actually, with probably about a long minute or two version with Debbie just singing so it’s more focused on that part. At the moment, we were so thrilled with it, the mix, we just went ahead and mastered it straightaway. The reaction has been fantastic. Everyone is freaking out. They go, it’s like a classic Def Leppard song or a classic Pink Floyd. So again, we’re really pleased with that.

Why did you re-record “All I Wanna Do?” There was nothing wrong with the other version.

No, I loved the other version but here’s the thing. I’m also doing a blues album called Delta Deep and it’s with Debbie. We’re doing duet vocals, just nasty, really nasty ass blues. We’ve actually been doing songs acoustically. You know, we’ve been in a couple of neighbors’ kitchens and front rooms when they had a guitar and they said, “Can you do a song?” and we did like Motown stuff. I played this a few months ago with the drummer from Bill Withers, it’s definitely soul stuff. So we’ve been doing this song, a different version, so I thought, wouldn’t it be great to just re-record that as well, just for the fun of it. I put percussion in it and me and Debbie did the vocals, Simon did a fretless bass on it. Just to keep it fun, like this other version that we do. So that’s really why that came about cause everyone said, “Oh, this is great.” I said it’s on the Manraze album and they go, “We haven’t heard it.” So we thought we’d give an alternative version as well.

It seems to have a little bit of a Caribbean vibe to it this time around.

Totally, definitely. It has a lot of different things in it. It’s really got kind of a seventies retro feel about it, even the guitar. I used a 1954 Gibson 175 and some acoustics and I had a blast doing it, just enjoyed doing it. It was just fun, you know.

You mentioned the blues album. When will that be around?

We finished about three songs already and I actually done a few more cause I played as much guitar just before the operation. I was just playing this crazy blues stuff, you know. Paul Cook played on one of the songs, which is great, and then I’m going to get Simon to play. So it’s different people on some of the stuff. Some of it’s going to be Manraze with Debbie Cook, playing blues, and it sounds brilliant and we’re loving it.

We know that Paul Cook was the drummer for the Sex Pistols but tell us a little bit more about Simon.

Simon was in the band I was in before Def Leppard, Girl. He was the bass player in that. He’s really eclectic, his musical tastes, like me, but even more different. He’ll do dance remixes, he’s done deejaying, he’s done all this other stuff as well as playing great bass. He can get jazzy when he plays bass, a great technique, so he has this different flair and this different flavor. So when the three of us get together, it’s really cool, the blend is just phenomenal, there is so much going on there. That’s why a Manraze album is not just in one kind of genre. We kind of don’t allow ourselves to be boxed in. And we love that, we love that about it. What’s really frustrating in Def Leppard, and we’ve all said this, especially when we had like really big hits, it’s very hard to write songs that were a bit different. You want to be a little bit experimental, try new things. We really struggle in Def Leppard because the fans won’t really allow us to do that. They’ll go, “We want hear this, we don’t want to hear that,” or “This sounds too weird or this is too experimental.” Like the Slang album, a lot of people didn’t like it, which it was great, so you have to be careful. But with Manraze, it’s a totally different thing. You can just open up and do anything you want.

Have you always kept in touch with Simon since the Girl days or did you get back in touch with him to do another project?

I’ve always been in touch with him and always been friends but we hadn’t done anything musical. Then an old friend of mine, my old girlfriend, she said, “You should hang out with Simon. He’s doing some really cool musical stuff these days.” It was my old girlfriend Liz, who I’ve known for thirty-five years. We used to hang out in London. I hooked up with Simon and he had some really cool stuff and when my dad passed away, you know, I was with my dad for the last two months of his life. I’d just hang and look after him and had a great time with him, actually. But during this time, Simon would come over and we would start writing songs, which we hadn’t done before. Really, how this all came about, and this is the weirdest thing, we got a couple of songs together and I said, “If Paul Cook could be the drummer on this, this would sound brilliant.” I went to the hospital to get my dad and who did I see in the street? Paul Cook. I said, “Wow, your ears must be burning.” I said we got this new idea going if you want to come down and rehearse and he did and it clicked and it was great. So that’s really how that came about.

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I was listening to Girl this morning and you had Phil Lewis singing, you had songs that charted, you had you playing guitar. It was a pretty cool band. So what happened, why it didn’t make it?

It’s real interesting. There was this thing in England, the new wave of British Heavy Metal. It was Iron Maiden and Saxon and all these really heavy metal bands. And Def Leppard came out as well and they wanted nothing to do with it. Nor was Girl but we all got lumped in with it. Girl was a glam band, kind of like the New York Dolls meets Aerosmith or something like that. You can slightly imagine that. There were so many women around, girls would turn up to see us play, you know (laughs). It was interesting, way more than when I joined Def Leppard; it was just a different type of girl would come in, you know, nasty girls, punk, post-punk and all of this kind of really weird stuff that I hadn’t experienced before. It was a little bit more debauched. It wasn’t like, say, the LA scene. It was very different from that because we were in London.

But it was post-punk, pre-classic hard rock metal, or whatever you want to call it. But I think what really would have happened if we’d have had a great producer who came in and kind of molded us a little bit, especially Phil our singer, they would have made him into an absolute star, because I always thought he was like a big superstar waiting to happen. He had these crazy girlfriends, he had Britt Ekland he was going out with and she had actually just broke up with Rod Stewart, and we’re just playing clubs. We actually got a tour and we drove in a Rolls Royce. It was really weird for doing a club tour. So we had all this stuff going for it and the songs are almost there. There were some really cool songs and like I said, if there had been a bit of nurturing with perhaps management and/or some special producer, I think it would have gone on to something else. But it didn’t quite get there, unfortunately.

Why did you leave?

It kind of wound down. It all kind of started coming to an end and everyone was losing interest, the label dropped us, all of this. It was just coming to a natural conclusion, really, and it was a shame. I knew the guys in Def Leppard. They’d come down to see us and they just asked me if I’d play some stuff on their new record and it ended up being Pyromania. I ended up playing all these solos and singing and doing all the fun stuff (laughs) that you do on an album if you’re a guitarist without all the real kind of hard work, you know, like writing songs and rhythm guitar and I just came in and played lead guitar, which was great.

What surprised you the most about doing the residency in Vegas?

How good we were. I think that was the thing, and we had fans, we had family, everyone came out to see us there. It was very different. A lot of the other guys thought it was great not traveling. I’m fine traveling as long as it’s not on a plane. Get off stage, take a shower, jump on a bus, go to sleep and wake up in a new town. For me, that works great. But with that, I think the band really dialed it in. I think, honestly, it’s the best we’ve ever been. The live recordings are our best live recordings easily. The band has never been that good. I was really pleased about that. That was something that was really exciting. I think the production was good. It was almost more theatrical, almost like being in a play or Broadway or something because you took on a different persona. You think after all these years of doing it, it’s kind of weird and rare that something could surprise you and inspire you. But it really did and that’s really what it was.

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Vivian Campbell had told me that you guys were hoping to work on some new songs at the time since you were all sitting down in one place. Did that happen?

We did. We were filming everything, we filmed a documentary as well, but we actually started writing a song while they were filming and that was kind of difficult. You talk but you’re very aware that everyone is filming and you go, “No, let’s try this, let’s try that.” We’re going to actually go to Dublin and start writing some new songs in the new year. I don’t know that there will be a new album, hopefully there will be a new album, but we may just get a few songs finished. We’ll see but that’s the idea. We haven’t had new music out in ages so that would be kind of nice to do that.

Why only three songs for the Manraze EP?

It’s a time thing, really. It’s like, with an EP, if you do more songs it’s a little bit wasteful and it wouldn’t get out in time and you have time constraints and all that. So we’re just more excited about this one song but we didn’t want to just put it out as just one song, we wanted to do an EP. We’ve never had a live song out before so we recorded [“Connected”] live in London, mixed it and again it’s a different perk for Manraze. We’ve got the live song and “I Surrender,” which, again, is just fun. Like I said, we do it in typical Manraze fashion, not just put one thing, we wanted to give it a bit of color. So it’s the extreme. You’ve got this live rock song that is kind of seventies retro thing and you got the new single.

Are you a little disappointed that you’re not going to be able to get out on a stage and perform this? I guess you could sing and always have one of your friends play guitar.

I’ve actually thought that. Already in the wings, and I haven’t asked him, but I’ve got two friends who play great guitar and if we do any TV shows, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to get them to play some of the parts, cause there are a lot of guitar parts on that song. It’s almost a little bit like a Def Leppard song where you overdub and stuff. So absolutely, I’ve got two guys I’d phone up and say, “Guys, can you help?” and get Debbie to sing. Actually, I hope something does come up because that would really be interesting with me just singing and sitting back for a while.

Are you more comfortable now singing up front?

The problem I always had was remembering the words. That, to me, is the worst part. When I’m playing guitar, it’s even harder for me to remember the words cause I get distracted. I get off playing guitar. Some odd years doing backing vocals and mainly focusing on the guitar. But when you do Manraze, you focus on the singing and the guitar becomes secondary. Doing something like that would be, and again it’s something I’ve never done before, so it’d be a lot of fun being a singer for a while.

Def Leppard is huge, no denying that. Playing to so many people in one place, how do you connect with them all?

You know, one person is the sum of everything. Yeah, you can have eye contact with certain people but if you’re playing a stadium or someplace huge and you can’t really see, you just get the energy off of it and you just react to the energy and it’s coming back at you. I think it’s a great exchange, if you like. It’s a wonderful exchange, all energy. The more you put out, people react to it, even if they’re a mile away, you can still sense it. This summer we played in Quebec and there was 85,000 people there and you can’t really see the people at the back cause it’s just like a blur, but you could feel them and you could hear them. They were actually singing louder than we were, which was phenomenal. It was probably one of the best five gigs we’ve ever done. So I think that’s it, really. You react. Yeah, you do see people in the audience and you see out as far as you can but you totally react to the audience as a general kind of mass. It’s actually really cool, really nice seeing it. You don’t really get that so much in a club. When it’s a large place, that’s exactly how you have to approach it.

What still excites you about playing music after all these years?

When you’re an artist, and this goes for every kind of artist, you want someone to see your finished work. And I don’t care what anyone says, especially if you’re really good and you’re a master painter and you’re painting this stuff, to make the circle complete, someone has to see it. The ego, you must get some kind of reaction back. So for me, even as I was talking about this Manraze thing, I love the fact that we’re getting reaction back, and that it’s favorable and everyone is loving it. So that makes it great. And without going on about ego too much, obviously if you’re in a band in the first place there’s a slight amount of ego there, not in a bad way but you need fulfillment from someone to complete that circle. I love the fact that I can be totally fulfilled doing what I love doing. And still learning new things. Like I said, the Vegas residency was a new experience for me and like you said, if you end up being a singer, then how cool would that be.

 

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