Def Leppard's Phil Collen talks hair-metal life lessons

Phil Collen (second from left) and Def Leppard

Phil Collen (second from left) and Def Leppard

Listing Def Leppard as an all-time favorite band might not be the coolest thing one can do to earn music cred these days. Sure, they were at their height of mainstream success during what's so far been one of the cheesiest eras in music history—but what's not to love about Leppard's succinct rock cocktail of radio-ready songs, famously big-time riffs, and tinge of hair-metal flair? They rocked as one of the top-grossing bands of their day with hits like "Pour Some Sugar on Me" and "Animal," with longtime lead guitarist Phil Collen holding court as one of the few members of the band who respected his hair during those dark days of Aquanet and rat-toothed combs. In anticipation of Def Leppard's gig with Heart at the State Fair Grandstand this weekend, we caught up with Collen to talk about the pop-metal era, who he felt were poseurs, who rocked, and how he came out of it a healthy, happy Californian.

City Pages: How has the tour been so far with Heart? Did you guys have a previous friendship with that band?

Phil Collen: It's going great. We started in the U.K. 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 now 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 L.A. 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.

CP: The hair-metal era in the '80s is fascinating. Did you ever have big hair? What did you think of the other bands around that time who were neck and neck with Leppard?

Collen: 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 Mötley Crüe 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 trying to jump on the bandwagon and never really understanding 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 Mötley were very real; 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.

CP: As someone who struggled with alcohol for a time, you probably found the '80s and '90s to be full of life lessons for you personally.  

Collen: 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 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. 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.

CP: One of the things you changed about your lifestyle is that you've become a vegetarian. What was the day or the moment when you said, "No more meat"?

Collen: I always felt weird about it as a kid. It was like Jeffrey Dahmer's fridge for me. 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.