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Guitarist Phil Collen on making music with Def Leppard, Manraze and Delta Deep

Copyright: Helen L. Collen

Understatement: Phil Collen had quite a year in 2013. Def Leppard’s successful Las Vegas residency yielded the live Viva! Hysteria, a two-CD + DVD deluxe edition featuring the band performing their multi-platinum Hysteria album in its entirety for the first time. Additionally, there were international movie screenings of the film. After that came the release of a three-song EP, I Surrender, with his trio, Manraze, which includes Paul Cook and Simon Laffy. Collen also began work on an album with Delta Deep, his blues project with vocalist Debbi Blackwell-Cook, who appears on the Manraze disc.

Outside of his music projects, he began writing his autobiography, was awarded Vegan of the Year at Last Chance for Animals’ benefit gala, and then ended things on a bad note: surgical repair of a tendon on one finger, which meant no guitar playing. Undeterred, he took up slide guitar as a means of adding a skill and finding a way to fulfill his musical passion while taking a break from playing rock and blues.

In this interview, Phil Collen discusses Def Leppard, Manraze and upcoming projects, and offers some insight into how fitness and being vegan factor into the discipline of touring.

The Manraze tracks include a newly recorded version of “All I Wanna Do,” an unreleased live studio track from a podcast, and an 8-year-old song that you rediscovered. Did you specifically choose those three tracks, or were those the tracks that you happened to have?

It’s a bit like an album. An album is always like a jigsaw puzzle. You usually get your first two songs, you’re very inspired by them, they turn out a certain way, and then you have to find songs that connect and work with those songs. That’s really what this was. Manraze has always been about diversity. That’s why the album was called punkfunkrockroots, because we go into all the genres and influences, and we love that. We had the one song. I’ve been playing “All I Wanna Do” with Debbi Blackwell-Cook, who is an amazing soul singer. We were just going around doing the odd version of that and we thought we should record it like that. We got down to it and it’s almost like a ’70s-style soul version of that song. Simon put some bass on it, we put percussion, and we thought that to round it off it would be great to have a live track. We’d never really had any live Manraze stuff out there, not officially, so it was the obvious way to go. A lot of people love that the three songs are very different from each other.

You sort of do this band in bursts. It’s been going on for almost 10 years, with an EP in 2005, an album in 2008, an album in 2011, and an EP in 2013. You’re full time with Def Leppard, and now you have Delta Deep. How do these projects reflect the different sides of your playing? Are they all connected or are they completely diverse?

They’re all connected. Def Leppard is one part of my life. I grew up listening to such a diverse bunch of music. It would be Stanley Clarke one minute and then Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin the next, and then punk or Sly and the Family Stone or dub reggae from the late ’60s, so all of that went in. I find it wonderful to put it all out, release it all, because a lot of people stay in a box and it’s very narrow-minded. I always thought that life should be wide and open, so it’s important to me and I think they’re all connected. It’s just a version of me. The blues thing, obviously there’s no shredding on there, but it’s some of the greatest guitar work I’ve ever done. It’s a lot more aggressive and very different and I’m really digging it.

Will that be an album or an EP?

It started out as an EP, but we’ve got five songs already, so I think we’re going to turn that one into an album for 2014.

What is going on with the book?

I think that will be out in 2014 as well. It’s my story, everything from growing up, the Girl stuff, Def Leppard and all the other stuff that’s going on. I was asked to write it. I didn’t go, “Oh, I need to write a book.” It’s fascinating and there’s so much stuff there. There’s two books worth, so it’s an interesting concept.

People traveled great distances to see Def Leppard play in Las Vegas. You are that much to so many — that’s amazing. Most of us can’t afford a concert ticket, so to travel across the world to see one band …

It is amazing. And this is not me blowing my own trumpet, but that’s why we’re so good. That’s why we never fake our vocals. That’s why we play our asses off. That’s why we rehearse so much. We’re so proud with the vocal thing, just let alone that, and we really think, honestly, that if someone’s going to do that, then they’re going to see us the best that they can, because otherwise it’s totally lame. So we put that effort in there and for exactly that reason.

I go back to when I would see bands as a kid. I’d be so bummed if someone got up there and didn’t give a s--t. That is the most elitist, rock star bulls--t, so I always promised myself that I would never, ever do that, and luckily I’m in a band that feels the same way I do. That’s really why we’re going still — because we all have the same mentality. We’ve actually been at gigs, I’ve been with everyone at different points, when someone’s done a number like that, and gone, “This is so bulls--t. This is so lame. If I ever do this, punch me.” We’ve all said that to each other. I think it’s very important that you try, because you know that the people are forking out money, and you don’t want them to say, “These guys suck.” You want them to say that it was really cool.

Were there familiar faces in the crowd every night?

Absolutely, especially in the meet-and-greet thing, which we’d never done like that before. Some of them came every single night. It was amazing, really amazing. This was such a different experience for us and that really keeps it exciting. Some bands get jaded and never get to experience that. I feel fortunate that we actually get to experience something new and refreshing while doing something 26 years old and older. It’s amazing. Honestly, we don’t take it for granted. We really appreciate the whole thing. If someone had said to me when I was 16, starting to play guitar, “You’re going to be 55 and people are going to be having this reaction,” I would never have believed it. It sounds really far-fetched. It’s a wonderful thing that we’re still doing what we do. It’s great.

People think of you first and foremost as a guitarist, and of course with Manraze they know your voice, but you’re also a prolific songwriter and you expand that talent into other genres. How does that challenge you as a writer and as a musician?

For me, it’s the opposite of being challenged. What I think is more challenging is if you do the same thing all the time. It’s harder to write a Def Leppard song because you have guidelines and you have to think in certain boundaries. Some mornings I’ll wake up and I have a reggae song in my head, or something jazzy, and I have to pull it back and make it go into more of a funk thing, where it’s a little more palatable with grooves and stuff like that, or full-on metal or punk, which happens to me all the time.

My whole life is diverse. I did an interview once with a rock radio station and they said, “Liquor or beer?” I said, “I don’t drink. I haven’t drank for 20-odd years.” “Soft pack or hard pack?” I said, “What are you talking about?” “Cigarettes.” “I’ve never smoked a cigarette.” “White meat or red meat?” “I’m a vegan.” “Blonde or brunette?” “My wife’s a black woman.” Every single stereotype that this radio station threw at me, I was different to every single one, and not for the sake of being different, but because I’ve always done what I felt was right for me. It’s great being like that. I meet people who are stuck in a box and they become insecure about themselves and other things. I’ve never had that. I read five books at a time and they’re varied. They can be a socio-political book or a novel or a biography or whatever. Like an iPod, you shuffle it. I feel like listening to Erykah Badu one day, and the next day I listen to the Sex Pistols. I try to treat everything like that. I think it’s more inspiring because you have more things to be inspired by. I’m really getting into art and appreciating painting. I never did as a kid, and now it’s wonderful to be able to do that. The more you can bring into yourself, the more you have to express and put out there and there are no restrictions. It’s brilliant. The fulfillment of working and expressing yourself musically or otherwise is just fantastic. I sleep really well at night knowing that I can be inspired the next day. It’s really cool.

Girl was a glam band. Decades later, there’s active interest in that era and younger fans are discovering the music. Any theories as to why?

It’s because that doesn’t exist anymore. The motivation to be an artist or a singer is to be famous. That’s all people want to be, so they go on these karaoke shows and that’s all they want. They want to be noticed and have people pay attention to them. Back in the day, people wanted to share their art. It was an art form. The Beatles, the Stones, they wanted to express themselves and share that kind of experience, so it was real. You don’t get that anymore. They just want to be famous. That whole integrity, if you like, it was everywhere. You listen to the Beach Boys, when they talk about recording and the passion and the pain, all of that. Little Richard, it was about a different era. That doesn’t exist now. The artistic thing doesn’t exist. I think people recognize and they can see pretty clearly that what’s coming out now is based on bulls--t and “Please pay attention to me.” It’s like, “F--k off.” So you go back to Dylan, Hendrix, Zeppelin, killer stuff. People see the mystique of it, which MTV destroyed, but at the same time had a massive part in breaking my band. We got on early there. We were able to share our stuff and be seen. We were right time, right place, and it helped us, where it killed a lot of artists and it was the final nail in their coffin. It killed the mystique, but in our case it made us famous. So I can see why all these things happen and I love the journey, which I’m still on. It’s not anywhere near over. It’s just starting, the way I look at it.

MTV didn’t kill the mystique as much as social media.

Absolutely. You’re totally right. Everything begat something else. Napster kills one thing, then something kills that, and it will continue happening. It’s fascinating. I don’t look at it as bitter or negative. I look at it as taking all this experience and making me better.

You train heavily. How do the discipline and mind-muscle connection factor into your musical training and life on the road?

It makes it so much easier. I know guys I went to school with, even guys 10 or 15 years younger [Collen is 56], who are hobbling around, limping, lower back problems. I don’t have any of that because I eat a certain way and I train. I think if you’re constantly active — and I don’t mean you have to bench-press 380 pounds — just do something, even if you go for a walk, and you don’t load your body up with poison, it really is that simple. When I’m on tour, I work out three times a day, but you don’t have to do that as long as you’re eating the right things. Poison stops you being healthy. I know people who are fit but really unhealthy. They eat too much protein. You don’t need that much protein unless you’re weight training. That’s the other big myth. I’m hardly having any protein. My stuff is mainly a raw vegan diet. It’s fresh organic vegetables and I change it for different things. If I’m weight training, my protein goes up a bit, and my extra protein comes from powders. It really is being active, eating right and taking poisons out of your system. It’s honestly as simple as that.

Absolutely it works emotionally and physically. It relieves stress and you sleep better. We’re designed to be active. It’s up to you how far you want to take it. All of these things that sound like bulls--t are true. They all make a difference. They will affect every aspect of your life. People find out you’re a vegan, and then the age thing, they don’t believe you can do it. Yeah, you can. I surround myself with open-minded people. If someone doesn’t have the whole picture, if they’re not going to train you because of your lifestyle, then they weren’t the right trainer for you because they don’t know the full story. I’ve gone into pro boxing gyms and MMA gyms and people go, “Oh my god, how did you do that?” They find out your age, they find out the diet, and they go, “Really? You can do that?” “Yeah, of course.” You just have to find the right people.

You participated in a benefit for Last Chance For Animals, where you were nominated Vegan of the Year. This is not your only cause. You auctioned a guitar for the Gerson Institute, and you’ve been involved with other fundraisers and benefits. When did you gain the awareness that what you do is not all about you?

I’ve never based it on a cliquey thing. I’ve never been part of an organization. I’ve just done what felt right for me, and a lot of the time people would ask me to do something based on that. I felt very honored about Last Chance For Animals. It was really cool. When something gels and it’s totally right, that’s what you do. It’s part of the whole setup, really. So to be honored as Vegan of the Year, I resonate with it. It’s great. I have no idea how it happened. I was surprised. I think if you can do stuff like that by just promoting what you naturally do, it carries a lot more weight. People say, “You’re a vegan. How come you look like that?” You dig deeper and tell them what you do, and that’s a wonderful way to influence people. With Vegan of the Year, they saw what I did and it inspired someone else. I’m glad I can do that without standing on a soapbox. I think you lead by example.

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