Def Leppard’s Phil Collen | Nine Lives, and Counting

prof def-leppard_75You try and explain albums to younger people and they’re like, “No, we don’t get that.” It’s really about a time and a place.


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As misunderstood as it is, hard rock music is all about the search and release of a moment so euphoric, it may not even exist. The best hard rock bands have always managed to capture this with a perfect combination of sound and fury, while making it look completely effortless to those of us who love them. It’s also no secret that the best bands come from places where the skies aren’t always blue and the future isn’t always so bright. Sheffield’s own Def Leppard were five young rock ’n’ roll upstarts, carefully ensconced between the blues rock of AC/DC and the melodic sensibilities of Queen. When legendary BBC Radio DJ John Peel started playing “Getcha Rocks Off” from the band’s self-released EP, what would happen next would be a surprise to everyone except Def Leppard themselves.

It’s hard to believe the band is now celebrating the 25th anniversary of their 1987 magnum opus Hysteria. Their current tour will be stopping in St. Louis, bringing along glam-rock stalwarts Poison and ex-Runaway Lita Ford. How’s the tour going so far? “It’s brilliant; we’re loving it,” says guitarist Phil Collen. “It’s a whole new production, with elevators that go up the back of the stage, and musically, the set list is very different than it has been on the past few tours. With the anniversary of Hysteria going, we’re doing quite a bit off of that album.”

Though most of the mass populace thinks of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” when they think of Def Leppard, there’s an entire body of work that stands up to anything in the relatively brief history of rock and pop music. One of only a handful of artists to achieve Diamond sales status with two of their albums (Pyromania and Hysteria), the band is still finding new ways to stretch the boundaries of not only how the fans perceive them, but how they perceive themselves.

From Collen’s past work with Hothouse Flowers to his recent collaborations with Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw, I ask if he ever worries what the hard rock fans will think of these forays off the beaten path. “You really just have to do what you want to do, and you can’t take too much notice of what other people expect,” he reasons. “I remember reading this thing about a Beatle fan saying The Beatles should have never left Liverpool.” He laughs. ”Can you imagine that, being deprived of all of those songs?

“But as far as our collaborations, they happened very naturally. In the case of Tim McGraw, I played him something I had been working on, and within a minute and a half we had the nucleus of what became the song ‘Nine Lives.’ It was just a very natural and organic way of working.”prof def-leppard_pc_300

Recently, the band went into the studio to re-record a lot of their classic songs for iTunes. Was it difficult recording the tracks without their longtime producer and mentor, the fastidious Robert John “Mutt” Lange? According to Collen, “We’ve spent 25 years doing most of those songs, so we knew the parts inside and out. So it wasn’t quite as difficult replicating that, as you might think.” There is also new music in the works, which is finding the band hunkered down on the bus and in hotel rooms, demoing material and throwing ideas around. While there isn’t a solid release date for an album, “There’s absolutely new music. We’re working on it now, and we’re thrilled so far,” he says. When I mention my particular fondness for the X album, Collen says “You know, that record really got lost in the shuffle. But on the current tour, we’re actually playing an acoustic version of the song ‘Now,’ which is going over wonderfully.”

As we talk about the re-recording process, the conversation veers toward how much the music industry has transformed in the past decade. Part of this change has been the digitizing and easy accessibility of music, the downside of which is illegal downloading. Collen says they have had to accept it as just part of the industry. “I do think, with iTunes, it certainly makes it easier to get albums legally. But you know, people do have computers, and they’re not always going to do that, and there’s nothing you can really do about it.” What bothers him more is the lack of artwork that came with vinyl releases. “Even with the CDs, you can’t really see as much. With the vinyl, and I’m dating myself here and sounding really old,” he continues, “I just loved the whole thing. You try and explain albums to younger people and they’re like, ‘No, we don’t get that.’ It’s really about a time and a place, and you truly just had to be there.”

Collen also has a side project called Man Raze, featuring Simon Lafty and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, which started in 2004. Are they going to do any touring in North America? “We were actually going to do some touring in England, but the new Def Leppard tour happened. We have two albums out, so we have plenty of material, but I’m not sure when the tour could take place. We would love to bring it to North America, though.”

As we wrap things up, I ask him when the last time was that they had a soccer match with the guys in Iron Maiden. He laughs and says, “Oh, man! We haven’t played against those guys in years, probably since the ’80s. We don’t find ourselves playing a whole lot of soccer these days.”

I follow up by asking him if he has any anecdotes from visiting St. Louis the past three decades. “One thing in particular,” he replies, “and it totally relates to the Tim McGraw thing. We played there in 2006; I had been wondering where I could get my hands on one of these clear guitars I had seen people play back in England, [the kind] that Dan Armstrong made. So all of a sudden there was one, in a backstage Ampeg shack outside the venue, which was Riverport, I believe. I bought it there, and ended up using it on the rhythm track on the song ‘Nine Lives.’” | Jim Ousley

Catch Phil Collen and the rest of Def Leppard playing much more than “Pour Some Sugar on Me” Saturday, August 25, 7 p.m., at Chaifetz Arena with openers Poison and Lita Ford.

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