“We’re like a hard rock Beach Boys.” Iconic Def Leppard returns to Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY — With more than 35 years of rocking stadiums and amphitheaters and selling more than 100 million albums worldwide, Def Leppard could easily put the rest of their storied career on cruise-control and ride off into the sunset without ever making another album.

Instead, the iconic quintet released a 14-song self-titled album in 2015, and it’s the best thing they’ve done in a long time (like, in nearly 15 years). The Def Leppard album combines elements from their classic Pyromania and Hysteria albums in songs like “Let’s Go,” “All Time High,” and “Dangerous,” while experimenting with different musical styles – all still grounded by the Def Leppard “sound” of harmonies and heavy guitars – in songs like “Blind Faith,” “Invincible” and “Wings of an Angel.”

This Friday night, Def Leppard returns to the USANA Amphitheatre with their typical high production show, in what is always one of the highlights of the summer concert season. Longtime friends Tesla and REO Speedwagon round out the triple bill.

The Deseret News recently spoke to lead guitarist Phil Collen on the phone during a recent tour stop in Atlanta about the new album, touring, and Collen’s new auto-biography, among other things.

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The new album, I think, is the best thing you guys have done in years.

PC: It’s amazing. I agree, totally. The reason we called it Def Leppard is because we actually made it for us. We went into the studio just to do a single, just because we’d been a bit dry of late. And then all these great ideas kept flowing and we actually couldn’t stop. There was no business agenda, there was no record company executive…none of that stuff. It’s purely us creating and kind of having an artistic expression. The reason you’re supposed to be doing it in the first place, like the Beatles, Dylan, Hendrix,  all of that stuff, kind of wild frontier. In those days, everyone just wanted to get their stuff out. So we’ve done it for those reasons and I think that’s probably one of the reasons, you know,  it’s got a bit of “real” to it, it’s got integrity. And that’s what we’ve been noted for and everyone loves it. We didn’t try to do anything fancy. We just followed our nose and the muse that was there and it came out in such a spectacular way. And I’m thrilled with it. And it went top 10 in many countries around the world, which is something we haven’t seen in awhile. So we obviously did something very right there that was very cool.

How has plugging 2 or 3 new songs into the set list rejuvenated the live shows?

PC: It’s great. You always want to play your new stuff. And as much as everyone says, ‘Yeah, we want to hear some other stuff,’ the reality is when you start playing things that you don’t know, they don’t really react to it. They’re like, ‘We want to hear Pour Some Sugar On Me.’ You look at a band like the Stones. They integrate their new stuff really well. But usually, you go see The Stones and they play a new song and everyone goes out and buys a T-shirt and beer. In the Stones’ case it’s great because they actually get a cut of that. They’re in a unique position. With most bands, it’s not the case. You put some new stuff in and it won’t be accepted. So we’re doing about three new songs. But they’re integrated really well into the set. We’re really comfortable with that, and that doesn’t always happen. Again, it’s working really well, and people seem to dig it and accept it.

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The new songs you’re playing this tour are the ones that have a lot of similarities to the old material. Could more experimental songs like “Blind Faith” ever end up on the set list?

PC: The reality of that is, you have to play your popular stuff. It’s really all fine and dandy playing what you like. But you really got to play to what the people coming to the show, the demographic of your fan base (want to hear). Again, we’ve experienced that a lot. People go, ‘Why don’t you play “Wasted?” (off Def Leppard’s 1980 debut album On Through the Night).  I remember we played “Wasted” at Wembley during the Adrenalize success. You could have heard a pin drop. About five people going nuts and the rest were like, “Yeah, let’s hear ‘Let’s Get Rocked.'”

Yeah, I’d love to do all that stuff. But you can really only do it if you’ve got a very theatrical, almost lightning, choreographed section of the show that’s more theatrical. Like a Kiss thing. You can do that and get away with it. Or, if it’s popular. That’s the reality of it.

Isn’t it disheartening to think that you have all these great songs that may never be played live? I think of a song like “Scar” off 2002’s X album. I’m not sure that’s ever been played live.

PC: Absolutely. When we did Vegas, that was a different story completely. We played there for almost a month and we’d done two sets. We’d done like a deep cuts set, like a 45 minute set. And then we went over and played the Hysteria album in full. And that worked. Because you had really diehard fans com in from Chile, Singapore, all around the world just to see that. But you do that in a regular touring cycle, and you’re time is precious. And you really need every moment to count. And unfortunately it goes down like a wet fart in a space suit. You actually see the reaction of the people. It’s like, wow, they’re not digging this. And you go, our time could have been used more effectively and wisely. A song like “Scar,” it would definitely work in that Vegas set up. But certainly not like now. Even last tour, we were doing a song, “Paper Sun” off the Euphoria album. And it really wasn’t going down that well. But we said, ‘We’re going to do it anyway because we dig playing it.’ And that was a great thing. And it was quite popular at the time when the album was out.  But you have so many songs that you have to kick out, so it’s kind of hard if you want to do a deep cut. You have to have a very specific reason to put it in.

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Since 1987, you’ve essentially been required to play “Pour Some Sugar On Me” at every show. But what makes Def Leppard so great in concert is no matter how many times you’ve played the song, you still look like you’re having fun on stage. There’s never a sense of ‘I can’t believe we’re playing this again!’  How do you find the motivation to do that night after night?

PC: When you see 23,000 people singing every word to it, it’s amazing. I mean, it’s amazing. You have to be a real jerk if you actually don’t get off on that.  Honestly, this has come up many times. When you rehearse a song, or when you choreograph on TV or (practice) a new lighting system, it is like watching paint dry. It’s like, ‘We’ve played this so many times. It’s a drag.’ The minute you put an audience in there, however small, it could be five people, all of a sudden you’re completing that artistic circle. You wrote the song, you recorded it, its been out, its been a hit, and someone actually appreciates it and sings along. So, however small the audience, when someone actually completes that artistic circle, they’re digging what you put out, it’s not boring at all. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. I still find it fascinating and really get off on it. I know there’s an ego that every artist or performer has that when you get on a stage and people are applauding you for whatever you’ve done, it strokes something in your ego. And especially if you’re a musician. And having said that, that song is current. It gets downloaded every week thousands of times. It still pops up in movies, commercials, everyone knows the song. So it kind of keeps it current. I really appreciate the hard work we put into it at the time because it’s got a really long life, or it keeps getting reincarnated in kind of a form of a hit.

You guys aren’t doing the 6 cities in 7 nights thing anymore. You’ve spaced out the shows on the current tour schedule.

PC: It makes such a huge difference to the vocals, especially Joe, and we’re touring with Tesla and Jeff Keith has to take a few days off. Just a lot of damage and a lot of hardcore kind of workout for the vocals, especially if you’re a vocal band like we are. We’re like a hard rock Beach Boys, really.  And you really appreciate that spreading out of the whole thing.

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This year also marks the 35th anniversary of Def Leppard’s second album, High ‘n’ Dry, which was recorded right before you joined the band. There are some fans who still today say High ‘N’ Dry is their favorite Def Lep album, even though after that you went on to record Pyromania and Hysteria, which both went something like 13 times platinum.  Any thoughts on those who say High ‘n’ Dry is still best?

PC: Well people go, ‘Oh, you went commercial.’ That’s very typical of a fan. They like to do that. I think the album was made when the band was still in its development stage.  It still sounded like a cover band. It sounded a little like AC/DC, it sounded a little bit like this and that. And it wasn’t until Pyromania and definitely Hysteria where the band actually sounded unique. When I joined the band and played on Pyromania, I thought, ‘Well, no one’s ever done this before.’ (Before) you can hear bits of Zeppelin, you can hear bits of all the favorite bands, Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, even bits of Boston and American bands, you can actually hear that.

So I don’t think it was until after that album that the band actually sounded like themselves. They didn’t sound like anyone else. You’d hear us on the radio and go, ‘That sounds like Def Leppard.’ When you hear the High ‘n’ Dry stuff, the band was still finding itself. And that didn’t really happen til the Pyromania album.

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Collen also spoke about his book Adrenalized. Its marks the first auto-biography from any of the Leppards. Many fans who have read the book and commented online found the inside information on recording Pyromania and Hysteria among the most interesting parts. But rather than writing his own version of Motley Crue’s The Dirt, Collen – who traded in his years of partying to become a vegan, non-drinker, and a kickboxing/fitness fanatic and is known today as much for his chiseled physique as his guitar playing – also writes more about how his life has been transformed by the people he’s met and places he’s seen since becoming an international guitar hero. It’s that part of his book that is also receiving the most attention.

PC: (Book co-writer Chris Epting said) ‘You’re story is really interesting. It’s not the standard rock-n-roll. It’s vegan, you haven’t drank for almost 30 years, you do these other things.’ So I said to him, ‘Well, no one would be interested.’  Then he came back with like five book publishing offers. So that was really interesting. That’s really how that came about. I think it’s a little bit egocentric and gloating when I see books from musicians and that. And I got talked into it. And like I said, it’s more about a journey and what happened than partying backstage, which everyone has done. Anyone who has been in a band can write that kind of book. There were just other things. The fact that I left school and ended up being a factory worker at 16 and then ended up being in all these amazing places and meeting all these incredible people. That’s really the journey, and what changes it. The stuff we appreciate along the way. The fact I see art galleries and architecture for the first time after living in England. Being born there and growing up there and then all of a sudden you notice something several years later that you see every day. And that really comes from being slightly cultured by the fact that you’ve traveled and met amazing people. All of a sudden you start seeing things in a different kind of format. That’s really what the book is about, that growth.

Will there be a second volume?

PC: I didn’t really even think there was a first volume. If there was a demand for it, sure, absolutely.

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Collen has formed a side blues project, Delta Deep, with vocalist Debbi Blackwell Cook. Look for a new live album from them to be released soon!  He also has been busy on the other side of the record-making process, producing a new single and album for Tesla.  My interview with Frank Hannon along with more comments from Collen is coming soon.

 

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