I had the dizzying experience of traversing much of rock’n’roll history in just a few days. On one end, I was interviewing a local hardcore punk band who’d only played together for a few years. On the other, I was about to speak to Phil Collen of Def Leppard, perhaps one of the most important rock bands in history, a band so famous and long-lasting that it seems redundant even to point this out.
Despite the band’s influence and fame, Collen talks about Def Leppard like he might a much newer band, always about to embark on the next great adventure. Their latest album is also their first self-titled one, and expands the band’s evolutionary trajectory into bold new territory. In a year of increased scrutiny of capitalism, Collen was eager to distinguish this album from Def Leppard’s previous efforts as its least commercial yet. Before long, the band will be on tour again: even after some 35 years together, Def Leppard show no signs of slowing down.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
How’s it going?
Great, it’s been pretty busy actually. Actually, all of this year’s been busy. It’s really kicking in now, that’s for sure.
Yeah, you were on tour this year.
We are, we started in April. We finished the US tour just over a week ago, and then we start a world tour in about a week in Tokyo, Japan, on the ninth of November. So that’s a little break, and then it’s off again. Yeah, it’s really exciting stuff!
A lot of your success really started when MTV aired one of your videos, one of your first releases. At the time, music videos were a new way to experience music. In 2015, how has the way we experience music continued to evolve?
It’s still in a state of confusion. It obviously comes down to a business model, the differences of streaming versus vinyl. You’ve got all these different things. Fans, and people who hear the stuff, it’s one thing. It’s completely changing, it’s right in the middle of a process. You just have to do everything. You just have to do what you want. I think the great thing about this album that we’ve done is we actually didn’t follow the business line. It was really like the old days, with the Stones or Zeppelin, Bowie, they’d write songs for the art of it instead of for the business of it. And I think that’s how this has come about, and the reason we really love it, and everyone else is really loving the album is that the motivation is an artistic one and not a business one. It’s really cool. Now, how to get it to people? Like I said, it’s evolving, so we just have to everything we can while we’re out there. Which is cool, we’re on tour, and away we go.
In your autobiography, you mentioned trawling record stores for new music in the '70s. Is there any analogue to this that you see currently?
There’s people who want to listen to music and that can be anything from Miles Davis to Def Leppard, if you like, and everything in between, Zep and Stones, you’ve got Bob Marley, and all of that. And then there’s the stuff that get thrown that peoples’ throats: reality TV, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, all that stuff. So that’s one thing. I think that there’s the whole vinyl thing. It’s almost like a club. You don’t want to belong to the stuff that’s been around and you actually go and look for the music yourself. I think that’s another reason why this whole concept of music, it’s music that mainly has been made many years ago, and people are just discovering it because they’re so sick of having this other stuff shoved down their throat all the time. So it’s a very interesting time.
I noticed a few years ago Billboard reporting that you were rerecording some songs to reclaim digital download revenue. What’s the story behind that?
When we get some time, we’ll do so more. The reason being, what was really cool, we had written in our contract that if there was another medium the labels couldn’t just put your stuff out on our dime but at their leisure. So we had something that old bands would put a clause in there to protect us from that. Obviously, that’s why when Eminem went to court, the Temptations and all these people were getting completely ripped off. They were getting cents on the dollar — not even! – and then they had to split that. It’s really unfair that the labels were running away and didn’t have to put the extra work or effort or money or anything. And as usual, the artists get screwed. So that’s what that was about. We weren’t going to just allow a record company to just have 85% of our stuff and not do anything with it. Back in the 70s and 80s, they would actually work very hard. I’ve got to say, the labels were great and they put a lot of effort in there. But then as soon as the digital age comes, they didn’t and then they want to get paid like they’ve been working for it. We were lucky that we had that.
To talk about the new album for a bit, some of the songs are written many years ago and others are much newer. When did the majority of the album start coming together?
Actually, it all came together in the first week at [Def Leppard’s frontman and co-founder] Joe [Elliott]’s house in February 2014. We went in and said, “Okay, what songs should we use a single? We need some new music out there.” And within two days we had twelve songs to choose from. We were really excited. The idea was that some of them were things that had been kicking around for a little while and there were other songs which were just appeared. And what happened there was all of a sudden you get inspired hearing some of these songs come to life. It would inspire you to start writing another one, on the fly, really. It was a muse. It was inspiration begat inspiration. That’s why this album was so much fun to make.
And the time span between the last album and this one also marked, in 2011, the twenty years since Steve Clark passed. Was he on your mind when writing this record?
Oh, he’s on my mind all the time. He was my best friend. Brian Wheat from Tesla just gave me this amazing photo of him. So, yeah, I think that’s there all the time. It’s awful what happened to him. Like I said, he was my best friend. I loved him dearly. So, yeah, all the time, and on lots of different levels: personal, musical, everything. He was inspiring. We just had such a great time together.
After playing together so long, why did you decide to release a self-titled album, is there any deeper meaning behind it?
Yeah, there is a meaning to that. It’s the first album we made for us. It wasn’t for a record company executive. It wasn’t any business or corporation, it was the first time we actually took the reigns and said, “I guess we’re making an album!” We’re making it for us and our family. That was a great thing, and that’s why we called it “Def Leppard.”
Def Leppard have experimented with different sounds and genres over the years, from heavy metal on Hysteria or more of a pop sound on X. How have your tastes changed over the decades you’ve been with the band?
Well, I personally put a blues album out this year, called Delta Deep. It started as a blues album, and it ended up sounding like Arethra Franklin singing over Zeppelin II. We have Robert DeLeo from STP [Stone Temple Pilots], he’s on bass. Forrest Robinson who used to drum for The Crusaders, India Arie, and TLC, and Debbie Blackwell-Cook, who is a 62-year-old black woman. It ended up being a combination of funk, blues, soul, jazz, and really hard rock, and I think it’s great when you start writing songs and you don’t put it and keep it in a box. If you’re a true artist, you just let it run, and if it tells you it’s something else, that’s a great thing about songwriting. It can start off as an idea, but it can absolutely morph into something else. And a great example is the song “Let’s Go” [track one from Def Leppard]. It was called “Do You Really Want to Do This Now?” originally and it was really poppy. It kind of started to sound a bit boy-bandish and we hammered this out in three sessions, February, March, 2014, had a little break before the KISS tour [and] we came back to it and said it sounds too boy-bandy. You can change it — you can do anything you want to your own material — and it just felt like it needed to exhibit more aggression, a bit of a violent streak to it. So that’s what song needed. And this is a great way of doing a record as well, because each song is its own concept, its own project.
Joe called it the most honest record he’s ever done. Do you find that to be true?
Yeah, I do think that. The Slang album was a little bit like that, but we still had parameters or guidelines. We didn’t have any of that on this. It was free. It was totally liberating.
What do you hope the fans will take away from the new album?
When you used to listen to The Beatles, or The Stones, or James Brown and stuff like that, they were on a trajectory of experimentation. The Beach Boys, you can just name them. Bob Marley, they were just doing what they wanted to do. And the fans loved it. I keep going back to this, but when it became about business, and industry, and artists weren’t allowed to be free, and release and do exactly what they want, because in the back of their head they’re going, “Well, is this going to work with the demographic?” Having said that, and I think this goes back to all those great albums, when people did whatever the fuck they wanted, and fans loved it for that, for the honesty, the liberating spirit of an artist, I think that’s what we got on this record.
Do you think making music today has made it more easy to liberate it from the business side of it?
If you allow it to. But unfortunately, people don’t. I meet loads of kids who are playing in bands and you go, “What do you want?” And the main thing I get back from is they want to be noted, they want people to recognize them. It’s very narcissistic and that’s where we are generationally. That’s where we’re at, and people are not doing it for the art anymore. Like I said, it’s a YouTube thing, it’s a narcissism era: “Please notice me!” With The Voice and American Idol, all the X-Factors, it kind of encourages that kind of thought process.
You’re a big fan of Deep Purple, and their most recent album was called Now What?! I want to pose that question to you, what’s next for you, what’s next for Def Leppard?
I don’t know! We’re just loving this experience. We’re just enjoying this. We’ll worry about that when we get to it. A big part of our career is like, let’s not even think about what we’re going to do. Let’s savor this. We’re digging it. We love it. We’re loving the album, we’re loving our live show, we’re better than we’ve ever been before. I think we’ll let that influence where we go next.
Def Leppard’s eleventh studio album, Def Leppard, is on sale now!