With Def Leppard, guitarist Phil Collen has sold over 100 million albums and toured the world dozens of times in the band’s four-decade-plus career. The list of hits featuring the axman’s genius includes “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Foolin’,” “Animal,” “Hysteria” and many more. In late 2015 Def Leppard released their 11th studio album, and 2016 sees the band as big as ever and playing sold-out arena shows.
In his spare time Mr. Collen has teamed up with soulful singer Debbi Blackwell-Cook, former Stone Temple Pilots bassist Robert DeLeo and drummer Forrest Robinson to create the impressive new blues/rock/soul/R&B combo Delta Deep. The band’s overwhelmingly solid debut CD features a sonic blast of raw musical passion — plus an impressive guestlist including Def Leppard singer Joe Elliot and David Coverdale.
Mr. Collen spoke about all things Delta Deep and Def Leppard.
Question: I’ve noticed that during most Def Leppard shows you are shirtless and oiled up. Is there a shirt for your solo shows too?
Answer: There is a shirt for tonight. And there has been a little bit of oiling, but that has soaked in already.
Q: We have to talk about David Bowie. I know he influenced you.
A: I had an epiphany at 14 when I saw Bowie and [Mick] Ronson doing “Starman” on “Top of the Pops.” That changed everything. My life went from black-and-white to color at that moment.
Q: How did Delta Deep come together?
A: Debbi is my wife Helen’s godmother. Debbi sang at our wedding. By virtue of the fact that we are always hanging out together, I’ve always got a guitar in my hand and Debbi is always singing. At a certain point we started singing together. We did a thing at the Gerson Institute in San Diego. They help cancer victims. We went down there and played. Right after, people came up and asked, “Where can we buy that?” Then we started writing songs.
Q: Did it start as a straight blues band?
A: It started as a bluesy-type thing. Blues artists now try and stay in a box. Back in the day at all the clubs you would see James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, The Isley Brothers, Little Richard and Etta James all play the same venues. It was a mix of funk, soul, blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
Q: The band’s name is a bit deceiving. It’s a funk-rock outfit.
A: It totally is.
Q: How did you round out the lineup with former STP bassist Robert DeLeo?
A: A friend of mine said, “Have you met Robert DeLeo? He is a disciple of Motown and funk.” He came down and was so on. Then the band went somewhere else stylistically, [no longer] just a blues band [and] became what it was supposed to be.
Like Zeppelin were a blues band but [also] so much more, [as were] The Stones.
Q: How do you balance the two bands?
A: I think if you’re inspired, you don’t let a little thing like scheduling and deadlines get in your way. I always say if you want to achieve something, you have to work a little harder and get out of your comfort zone. That is with everything: relationships, the band, music, athletics. All of the above.
I have totally been aware of that before in Def Leppard situations where we have been $5 million in the hole and asked, “How are we gonna get out of this?” You just make it work.
Q: I imagine your Def Leppard bandmates approve of Delta Deep?
A: Absolutely. We were actually recording the Delta Deep album at the same time we were doing the latest Def Leppard album. One of the songs on the Def Leppard album, “Sea of Love” was supposed to be a Delta Deep song. But Joe [Elliot] and Sav [Def Leppard bassist Rick Savage] were like, “This is great. We can do this; it would be killer!”
I had to come back to Debi and say, “Def Leppard stole our song.” So it’s cool. Everyone is inspired. Joe does his other thing, and we’ve got this.
Q: How did David Coverdale come on board?
A: I asked him because we were originally gonna do a cover of Deep Purple’s “Mistreated.” I was a huge Deep Purple fan. We wanted to do that song but he was doing this [Deep Purple cover] album called “Purple.” He said, “Joe can sing that one. But I would love to be involved.” I asked what he wanted to do. He said, “Private Number.” Just like that. We did a version of that that turned out like Hendrix meets the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers.
Q: Did you record the album song by song?
A: Yeah. It’s great doing it that way. We did the new Def Leppard album that way too and it wasn’t a chore. You would get excited about a song or two, go and record them. That’s how they used to do it: The Stones. Bowie. James Brown. Instead of that ‘80s thing where making an album became business and you had a business agenda. That was very uninspiring.
This was very inspired.
Q: What’s next for Delta Deep and Def Leppard?
A: Delta Deep are going to release a live album called “West Coast Live” and do more dates. Def Leppard is on tour. We are about to embark on the first ever Def Leppard cruise.
Q: Are you worried about being on a boat with seasick fans?
A: Not worried about that. Worried about drunk fans, actually.