British rock legends Def Leppard are back in a big way with not only a new album, Diamond Star Halos, but with the biggest Stadium Tour of the year with Mötley Crüe, Poison and Joan Jett.
Guitarist Phil Collen took some time out of the band’s touring schedule ahead of a Toronto show on August 8 to explain the passion and deep memories behind the meaning of Diamond Star Halos, as well as the writing process of some of those new iconic songs.
Def Leppard is back in a big way with a new album and this gigantic stadium tour with Mötley Crüe, Poison and Joan Jett. You guys are in Toronto, August 8, with a couple more Canadian dates a little bit later on. What makes 2022 the perfect time for such a big moment in your career?
It’s been on an upward trajectory, even before we got the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019. With a bit of perseverance, it’s just paying off. And then came the pandemic, it all just exploded after that. The audiences are going nuts on this tour. They’re just obviously been starved of it.
Many of the bands that rose to fame in the 80s, and the early 90s are not recording albums so much anymore. Was there any consideration that you wouldn’t put the music out? You could have easily just continued on your past reputation.
Why would we do that? I think that if you’re just in a band and you do this thing, it’s all fine and dandy, but that’s not us. We actually aspire to be like The Stones – always putting new music out. They go on tour and they always put new music out – it keeps them relevant. It seems like a bit of a cop out if you don’t do that. I know it’s hard and they just want to hear the older stuff, but we’re really proud of what we do. It’s expression. That to me is the most important part is writing, recording and getting stuff out. I wouldn’t really want to do the other thing. It’s very important for me to be an expressive artist.
I think that’s why the fans actually love you guys and they’re so passionate about it.
I think there’s an integrity that the band has. Every family goes through the same thing – births, deaths, marriages, divorces, terrible things happening, but, we’re in a rock band, and we just do it in front of everyone. So it’s kind of nice when it when it pays off, you know?
I’m assuming Diamond Star Halos is a tip of the hat to T Rex.
It’s more of a homage to an era. Joe Elliott and I use this phrase to describe the era that we got baptized into music. I was 14 and everything just musically exploded for me and my life changed. When you’re a teenager, and just around that time period, you’re a sponge and you’re looking for an identity. In my case, I saw David Bowie on Top of the Pops. I’d already seen Deep Purple on the Machine Head tour and that blew my mind and made me want to play guitar. Then I saw David Bowie on Top of the Pops and I felt like this guy was writing songs for me personally. And then I joined that tribe, if you like. We always describe that era, that feeling, as hubcap diamond star halos. A lot of friends of mine, had exactly the same moment, like Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols. Same time, same person. A lot of the stuff that was coming out at that time.
Many are calling this the best album in years. What drove the creative process to make something that fans are looking at as one of the better albums in the catalog?
Usually, when we do an album, we have a rough idea of what it’s going to be. When we did Hysteria for example, (producer) Mutt Lang famously said, “Everyone else is making Pyromania Part Two, let’s not do that. Let’s make a rock version of Thriller”. And that’s really what we did with that album – we incorporated all these different things. With this one, we didn’t have a plan. Joe and I started playing with phone ideas and mp3 texting. This stuff came out that really represented that era we just talked about, more than anything else. It just kept going back to that era of when we got into music.
It wasn’t a nostalgic thing, it was more like a light bulb moment. This was such an important time in our lives and we didn’t go out of our way to make a tribute to it, it just kind of happened.
We didn’t have to go to a recording studio, which was great. I’ve done all my parts actually sitting on my laptop. And I just plugged the guitar in, did all the vocals, and the rest of them did the same thing. We were sending stuff back and forth. Before we knew it, we had this amazing record.
Surprisingly, Alison Krauss is on the album. Not once, but twice.
Seventeen years ago, I wrote a song with my friend, CJ Manson, called This Guitar. It was about this spirit that follows you all through your life. If you’ve ever got anything artistic, like a guitar, or keyboard or painting or poetry or whatever, it’s always your friend, it stays with you. We wrote the song about that. Joe had been a champion of it for years saying “Oh my god, we should do that”. It has a big country vibe but he felt if he sang it, it would take it away from that direction.
When we started doing this record, he asked about This Guitar again. “Can you just send me a demo and I’ll sing over it?” So I sent the demo and it sounded very different and completely separate to everything else we had.
One day Joe was talking to Robert Plant, who was out on tour with Alison and we’re both huge fans of both of them. She sang a line on a song and all of a sudden, it just throws us straight back into it again. She’s the most amazing singer. If you’ve ever heard her, especially live, it’s like goosebumps all night. We told her we had a song, or a couple of songs, that may suit her. She got back within about an hour and said she could do both of them. She sang all the way through – it wasn’t just a line here and there; she sang the whole song. It just sounded magical.
Both songs really worked and the whole thing took us into another dimension. It’s beyond country or rock. I am still a huge fan of the Eagles and they really created the original rock/country hybrid, which they actually don’t get enough credit for. And the reason why they were so good is that they were just massively talented as artists and songwriters and everything else. If our songs are anything like that, we’ll take it.
Are the versions of the songs on the album as you intended, or were they slightly changed for her?
The original This Guitar had some kind of pedal steel that CJ Benson actually faked on the keyboard. Ronan McHugh, our producer, engineer and out-front guy, actually copied CJs parts on a keyboard and pedal steel – we wanted keep that kind of integrity intact because it was about every version of a guitar – slide, pedal steel, acoustic, electric – we wanted to keep all of that in the game with that song.
The song Lifeless initially sounded a bit like when The Stones used to go a bit country fide. When I started writing, I thought if I crossed that with a YouTube type vibe, it could create something different. And then obviously, when Allison came on it just, it made it into something entirely different altogether. That’s the great thing about art, you never know where it’s going. It can go off on a tangent, and when someone does such a beautiful thing to it, we’ve learned to just follow it.
That’s not the first country sounding thing from you guys. You’ve worked with Tim McGraw on a song.
It wasn’t like Def Leppard were gonna go country. We’d heard through Rick Allen’s brother who would work with him, that he was a fan. I met him for the first time backstage at the Hollywood Bowl and literally, I said, “I’ve got an idea for a song. If you ever want to do it”. I said “It kind of starts with this guitar riff”, and we pretty much wrote the guts of song in the hallway within about 90 seconds. Obviously we expanded on it and I loved the way that turned out.
And on a funny note, you guys tinkered with country with Release Me as Stumpus Maximus and The Good Ol’ Boys a long time ago. I remember when that came out on the Armageddon It single. Tell me about that one.
We were doing the Hysteria album, and we were just goofing around. I think Joe was on the piano and Melvin who was Steve Clarke’s guitar tech. We were just making fun of it and just doing this thing always changing the key and he sang “Please release me.” We kept changing it until he couldn’t hit the notes and tapes rolling – and it actually was a real tape back then.
The funniest thing of all, is that it became a hit in Greece. I think it was top 10. The single was other way round there – that was the A side.
That’s fabulous. Let’s talk about some of the new songs. When Kick came out, as soon as I heard that song, I knew the album was going to kick some ass. You wrote that one with Dave Bassett?
I had an idea for almost a Gary Glitter/Joan Jett style you know that sexy T Rex. kind of groove. He totally understands the hubcap diamond star halo line. In fact, before we actually even had the title, I said it’s Hubcap Diamond Star Halo and he actually repeated the next line of the of that song, so I knew that we were onto something; I knew he was in the in the groove and the right kind of headspace synergy wise and everything. We got just very excited about writing the song. It wasn’t going to be for Def Leppard, I was actually thinking of a female artist because we were thinking it kind of sounds like Joan Jett and there’s a lot of younger artists that are coming out who aspire to be like Joan Jett. I played it for Joe and he said, “Are you nuts? This is a Def Leppard song, we have to do this for Def Leppard”. So, there you go. It never got to a female artist, but as soon as Joe brought his voice to it, he was right.
Fire It Up was another one that was written with an outside co-writer.
Sam Hollander. I don’t know if you’ve heard High Hopes from Panic at the Disco – he wrote that and all this great stuff, but he also used to be a rapper in New York. What’s brilliant about Fire It Up, is that it’s got this hip hop kind of meter in the verse, so kind of like Pour Some Sugar On Me – “Love is like a bomb, baby, c’mon get it on”. The lyrics are just brilliant and I think Sam is just an extraordinary writer, he just kind of gets an idea and goes with it like he’s been channeled or something.
We got to a studio in LA where Ed Wood filmed Plan 9 from Outer Space. It’s one of the big movies from the 50s and this was one of the rooms that they actually used to film it. That was pretty cool. It’s like Bela Lugosi had been in there and all of this stuff. We recorded this riff and he just started free writing and all of a sudden, we had the song done in less than an hour, and we recorded the demo.
Ronan has been your producer since Yeah! in 2006. What makes him the perfect choice for all the albums?
He’s the best live sound engineer anyone’s ever heard. Everyone says his mixes don’t sound real. His live sound sounds like a record. He knows our voices really intimately and he records us all the time. So when we get out on tour, if someone’s got a sore throat or something, he adjusts it accordingly. He knows the guitar playing down to a fine art and he’s just been learning and taking all these ideas in as he goes. We learned all that from Mutt Lang. I think Ronin has taken that role on and he’s actually absorbed a lot of that stuff, so he’s a member of the band as far as I’m concerned.
The last time I saw you guys was in London, Ontario before the pandemic. You were on stage and I was like, “Oh, man, I want to be like him when I grow up”. You looked so built and you looked like a rock star on that stage. What is your regime to keep in shape?
Well, thank you. I’m a vegan although that has nothing to do with that. That was the result of me working out and eating the right amounts. During the pandemic, I got to my ideal look and weight, almost like a Marvel superhero, but I’m not that right now. I limited my food and I was working at just the right balance. It’s a little bit harder on tour, but it’s mainly a food thing. You can work out furiously, but even with a workout, I never go too far to injure myself. You can really do too much heavy weights and there are certain exercises that are bad for your body, especially as you as you age. I won’t be swinging kettlebells and stuff like that. I do martial arts, I always do kickboxing drills and training more to just keep my hips and knees and everything so I don’t feel like a 64 year old man. And it’s the same with the food – keep it constant. It’s leafy greens, crazy loads of fruit, and I do get protein powder to in my bowls or shakes. I allow myself some junk food every now and again as well.