Def Leppard's Phil Collen on Heart, hair metal posers & vegetarianism
As if the State Fair wasn't already crawling with interesting creatures from all corners of the state, today's sure to provide even better people watching as Def Leppard take the stage at the Grandstand (with rock-n-roll sisters, Heart). Time to bring out your tightest pants, Aquanet hairspray and ratty rock tees!
We caught up with longtime lead guitarist Phil Collen recently and talked to him about the hair metal era, who rocked, who were posers, and how he came out of it a happy, healthy Californian.
Here's our extended interview (a shortened version ran in print this week).
Phil Collen, then and now
How has the tour been so far with Heart? Did you guys have a previous friendship with that band?
It's going great. We started in the UK at the Download Festival, which was cool because we hadn't played for a year and a half. We had to up our game so the production is just crazy. Big screens, big lights, it's awesome. As far as Heart goes, I've met them before, in fact, Nancy pointed out that we were all in the photo together at the LA Forum in 1992 with our parents! And I remembered this and found the picture at my mum's house. We'd never played with them before. Once they start playing you go, 'Wow, I forgot how many hits they had.' They kill it, they're amazing -- Ann's voice is superb, and Nancy rocks on guitar. People are really going to love the show, I think.
What is your favorite Leppard song to play? Any song, any era, and why.
It's always been "Rocket." We're doing the long version at the moment. We've got this thing where we do a guitar wars type of thing that's the production highlight of the set. It goes on probably 12 minutes but it's not overindulgent, it's mesmerizing if anything. The song really sums up Def Leppard in a nutshell. Even the drum part, we based the it off a tribal drum pattern and we put huge guitars and a big chorus on it. If you ever see the video it has Mic Jagger and David Bowie and all the football stuff we grew up with. It's a bit tongue and cheek but it rocks. It's everything we wanted to become.
Have you ever heard any silly rumors about the band?
Oh, there's tons. We've been dead, we're this, we're that. You get that, but you know how it works. There's a lot of stuff out of context. It's par for the course, really.
The hair metal era in the '80s is fascinating to just about everyone. Did you ever have big hair? What did you think of the other bands around that time who were neck and neck with Leppard?
I didn't have big hair personally, but some of the guys in my band did. I never really thought we were part of that. Looking back, I think a lot of bands that came after that time, like Motley Crue and Bon Jovi, really didn't have the same essence or motivation. All they wanted to do was look a certain way. With every kind of successful genre, there are bands who actually get it and a million triying to jump on the band wagon and never really understand what the genre's about. With rap, with boy bands, with Britney Spears - I do love her voice but she so desperately wanted to be Britney Spears - just do it naturally. I toured with some of those hair metal bands and I was like, meh. I did think Motley were very real, and they were totally into their own thing, and a lot of bands copied them. I decided to not go the way of peer pressure. I stopped drinking and smoking and it was just really cool.
As someone who struggled with alcohol for a time, I'm sure the '80s and '90s were full of life lessons - can you talk about things you might have learned?
The biggest lessons were after all that. At that time, you're very young and you're running around like a chicken with its head cut off. When you get a little more experience, you start to understand things in a different way. I think in the last decade, I've had more life lessons than all of the stuff back then. Back then, you do things on impulse. I used to get really fucked up so I stopped drinking. I just hated what I would do, I hated not being in control of myself. All of these things. It really kicks in when you're a little bit older and things make more sense. You're not just acting on impulse and the physical nature of reaction, you're acting on experience.
Really like those bangs, man
One of the things you changed about your lifestyle early on is that you became a vegetarian. What was the day or the moment when you said, "No more meat."
I always felt weird about it as a kid. I thought, "Isn't this a dead body," and my parents would say, "Oh, no, you have to eat that." But, as we've been talking about, when I got more experience I just said, "I'm not going to eat that or do that peer pressure thing." At a certain point, I had the conviction, confidence and character to go, "No, fuck you, I don't care what you think". And you know, I don't soap box about it. I mention it, but I don't go around saying you should all do this. It's a very personal thing. To me, I always say this - it was like Jeffrey Dahmer's fridge. When they opened his fridge they found pieces of heart and head and stuff like that. And everyone recalls it in horror, but we get used to that. When I stopped it was '83. I kind of toyed with it and wanted to go there but I wasn't comfortable. I was influenced too much by others' opinions. I developed a backbone and that was it, really.
How would you describe your style of playing guitar, and what's some advice you could give to guitar players out there?
I always say two things are very important to guitar players - you've got to be listening to the rest of the band, and the song is king. Everything else pales in comparison. You've got to make the singer sound great. And then rhyhem and melody follows. Be mindful of the song. I have a very aggressive style of playing coupled with the melody thing makes it unique. Some guys might play melodically but they play a bit wussy. I don't do that style. I attack it, but I pay attention to melody, too.
You've done a few tribute side-projects in your day -- including one for Bowie and Jeff Beck and one for Bowie. That's really a true mark of a music fan. Who else influenced you early on?
I loved the Bowie period. When I was a kid, I gravitated toward the Beatles, Stones, Marvin Gaye. Anything that was cool and had a vibe but was serious and real.
What's the biggest thing that's changed since that era?
The motivation changed for becoming an artist, now it's about being famous and being paid attention to, and that's a huge difference between now and back then. Back then, people wanted to express their art, and you can hear that when you listen to Jimi Hendrix, Steve Wonder, The Who, Earth Wind & Fire - they're real bands and there's real stuff coming out. You can feel it. We spent three years making a record and going into hideous debt to get our art out. Bands don't do that so much anymore. They're more interested in role playing, in mbeing on TV. It's a very different thing.
What's the best thing about living in California?
The weather, for a start. It sounds silly, but it just makes you happier. I like being near the sea. My wife is from Brooklyn, so she just moved here really last year. We're just loving it. The sun makes you happy. We've got access to the beach and there's music around, lots of open space.
Def Leppard play with Heart at the Minnesota State Fair on Friday, August 26 at 7:30 p.m. More info here.
Phil plays the intro riff to "Pour Some Sugar On Me"at 2:15
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