By Jeb Wright
Photo by Helen L. Collen
Phil Collen is a pretty famous guy in a pretty famous band. With Def Leppard, he has sold tens of millions of albums. His face was splashed all over MTV back in the day and his chiseled frame and blond hair still see him recognized as one of his generations biggest rock stars. He has a side band called Manraze that his fans also know and love. Now, Collen has let out another side of his musical persona…the blues!
Rocking blues licks are actually one of the first things that got Phil to pick up the guitar in the first place, so it is really no surprise, at this stage of his career that he would return to one of his first loves. What is surprising, however, is just how damn good he is at it!
Delta Deep was created when Phil started singing around his house with his wife, Helen’s, Godmother, vocalist Debbi Blackwell-Cook. The chemistry was so strong between these two that a full-fledged band was formed and an album recorded!
In the interview that follows Collen discusses the fortunate turns of events that led to the band’s creation. He opens up and talks how Delta Deep’s racial make up actually leads to the bands freedom of expression and success, something Phil knows well from his personal life. We also discuss Def Leppard’s upcoming album and guitarist Vivian Campbell’s return to the band after a bout with cancer.
Read on to learn more about this exciting new band.
Jeb: Before we get into Delta Deep, which I have fallen in love with, we must talk a moment about Vivian Campbell, who is on his way back to the Leppard band after another bout with cancer.
Phil: He rejoins us soon. It is a nasty disease, that one. The main thing that I notice with Viv in the band is the blend of our vocals. Me, Sav and Vivian have a distinct blend. It took five years to get it, but all of a sudden it came. We did an acoustic thing at a radio station once and it sounded like some strange effect. I asked what it was and they said it was just how we sound. We really have a spiritual chemistry. That is the main thing I notice with him. Steve Brown has done an amazing job. When you sing and play with someone for so long there is a blend that you can’t describe and that’s what we have. I will be glad to have him back.
Jeb: Delta Deep has a pretty good blend, too.
Phil: We do.
Jeb: This project began because you were jamming with your wife’s godmother. Is that really true?
Phil: Absolutely, true. What is interesting is that we did this little charity thing where we did this acoustic thing and everyone was like, “This is great. Where can we buy this?” We were just goofing around. When we started recording electric it took on a whole different form, you know.
Jeb: You told me about this possible ensemble long ago, and I have faith in whatever you do because you’re damn good. But I think you can tell from my enthusiasm over the text I sent that I think this is really fucking good! When I texted you I was on the track “Treat Her Like Candy.” I love the blues, and that song really just made me dance. Debbi is an amazing vocalist.
Phil: She’s incredible. She sang at our wedding, she sang an Ella Fitzgerald song. I met Debbi on the phone before I met her in person and by the end of the phone call we were singing to each other! I knew from the get-go what she was like.
Jeb: There are many great singers, but there are a few singers that make the hair stand up on your arm. She is one of those.
Phil: Definitely. We did a gig last week and it was mind-blowing. We went to another place and it was incredible. She was the ultimate performer. It is all well and good… and then she is singing and she has that voice, but she has an amazing stage presence. We were jamming stuff we had never done before. It was really deep. It was like a spiritual experience, it was great.
Jeb: You’ve been doing the music thing for more than a few years. It is great that you can still tap into the ‘creative well’. You do things like Manraze and Delta Deep that are not what one would expect from you. It has to be gratifying for you not to lose that passion.
Phil: I think something has happened in the music industry recently that makes it where there is no reason to be in a band. It is all Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber and that’s all fine and dandy, but there are a lot of people that love music that are left out. The whole reason for making music is different. Many just want to make money and be noticed. I want to make music as an art form. With Joe and the guys we are just in it to make art.
The new Def Leppard album is the best thing we’ve made since Hysteria. We approached it differently as the industry has changed. We have done it for the reasons we got into it for in the first place. We are just creating music. We don’t have a record executive telling us we need three singles and five filler tracks.
Even the fans tend to think you should go one way, but it is really important to go your own way, as that is what got you there in the first place. That is what got the Rolling Stones there, and that is what got Led Zeppelin there, and Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix… they didn’t listen to everyone else. Something has happened in the industry and in life in general for us, and it has allowed us to do what we want to do. We are not just in it for money or fame. It separates the men from the boys, I think.
Jeb: Def Leppard does not need to do an album. You don’t need to do Delta Deep. It is coming from a real place. All bullshit aside, when you sit back and listen to Delta Deep what do you feel inside?
Phil: Helen and I have been telling everyone about it. We want people to listen to Debbi and to the music. The album is out and we did that show the other night and it was great. One minute it sounds like Howlin’ Wolf and the next minute is sounds like Rage against the Machine. I think one of the brilliant things we’ve done is that we had the attitude of no limitations. A true artist does not have limitations. Blues turned into rock and roll and soul and it went in different ways. Little Richard, Chuck Berry and BB King were initially playing the same kind of songs, but it got stuck into different boxes. We are going back to those places and we have no restriction or limitations. We play all of the genres… blues, R&B, Soul and Rock and we can combine all of those. We’ve kept it very pure in that sense.
Jeb: Do you find that it is easy not to have limitations as you are in a multi-racial band and you are a member of a multi-racial family? You do not have a lot of blinders on that others do. Does that cross over into your music?
Phil: It absolutely does. I am sitting here with my biracial daughter, Samantha; she is here with me right now. It makes a difference. My wife is black and I am white. There is not any stigma or weirdness attached to anything. The Delta Deep songs are that way. We can write songs that we may not do if we were an all-white or an all-black band. “Down in the Delta” is about slavery and if we were just a white band it may be touchy. People can get upset or weirded out depending on that. We are a biracial band with a white guy, an Italian guy and two black people… we get pure expression and we wrote without any type of taboo at all. It is really liberating I’ve got to say. I do think that has something to do with it. It knocks down a lot of barriers and walls as we are so free in that respect.
Jeb: So there were no rules to the music Delta Deep could create or in the case of the cover, re-create.
Phil: Initially, we were going to do an acoustic blues things. Helen said, “I would love to hear you and Debbi sing ‘Muddy Water Blues’ by Paul Rodgers.” We did that and it just clicked. We started writing some of the songs and before you knew it all of the songs had their own thing going on. One was like James Brown and one was like Wilson Picket and one was like Led Zeppelin. We didn’t push things, we just went with one.
Jeb: “Black Coffee” is a killer old song. That is you singing! You are a great lead singer Phil. Damn, you nail it. This is your band Manraze with Simon [Laffy] and Paul [Cook] and you, but here is no punk at all.
Phil: It started off as something different. It is one of the first songs we recorded. We didn’t even know this would be a band yet, we thought it was just going to be a project, and then it turned into a real band. I asked Paul down and he is a big fan of Steve Marriot and of Humble Pie, so we got that together and before you knew it we did “Miss Me” and “Bang the Lid.”
I had hurt my hand and I had to learn slide guitar because I could not hold a guitar properly. The first songs I ever played slide on were “Bang the Lid” and “Black Coffee.” That was only a week after I learned to play slide.
Jeb: Are you 100% recovered now?
Phil: I am. In fact, I did what I consider to be the best solo I have ever done on “Mistreated.” It is the one in the middle of the song. It came out great. That was done post injury. I had to practice scales and I had to get my wrist strong again. My fingers were not really working so I had to just sit and play Yngwie Malmsteen, where you just sit and play for hours upon hours.
Jeb: Tell me what happened… I forgot.
Phil: The tendon tore off my finger. I was getting into the boxing ring. I was going under the ropes and I just rested my hand on the floor and it squelched, it made a noise, and the tendons came off straight of the bone. It didn’t hurt but it just kept popping and you could see it sliding back and forth.
Jeb: Oh that’s just gross.
Phil: It was gross. I had to do a tour which was slightly embarrassing. I would play and I would try to bend a note and my second finger would pop and it would sound like I had Tourette’s on the guitar. I would play one thing and it would come out something else.
Jeb: That stuff makes me squeamish.
Phil: Join the club… join the club. When they did the operation they put it behind a sheet and there was blood all over the place like a horror movie. They said, “Just turn the other way.”
Jeb: Back to Delta Deep. David Coverdale is on the album, but he didn’t sing “Mistreated.” Why?
Phil: What happened was that David has just put this album out where Whitesnake recorded all of these old Deep Purple songs. He wanted to be involved and he suggested another song. He said, “With my new album I can’t do ‘Mistreated’ but I’d love to hear Joe on that.” He suggested that and I agreed.
I asked him what he wanted to do and he said, “Private Number” without hesitating. We did a version of that and it sounded almost like the Red Hot Chili Peppers meets the Isley Brothers. He did a duet with Deb and the two of them sounded brilliant together. The same thing with Joe and Deb and they really got down with it. David Coverdale was into it. I sent him the track and he loved it. He did his vocal and he sent it back and we blended it in. He suggested more guitars, so I did more guitars and it came out great.
Jeb: The song “Burnt Sally” sounds like an old blues standard, but I swear I have never heard this. Where did you find this song?
Phil: Actually, Helen wrote all of the lyrics to that song. I think the subject matter is very much a blues thing. It is about a woman that has just been burned by this guy. It is the same old blues story and it is just portrayed in that way. I was playing guitar one day and Debbi just started singing anything that came to her and Helen just sat down and wrote lyrics right there. We had it done on an iPhone in about ten minutes.
Jeb: I have to ask about the one tune that got me hooked “Treat Her Like Candy.”
Phil: That was the last song that was done. We recorded the backing track live. The rest of the stuff I did the guitars first and then me and Debbi did the vocals and then the guys put bass and drums on it. That one and “Shuffle Sweet” we went live in the studio. That was great.
Jeb: “Bang the Lid” is the song that sums up the entire project.
Phil: That was the slide guitar thing… in my head I knew all of these things from Ry Cooder, Joe Walsh and Duane Almond but I couldn’t play it. I did this ten minute Joe Walsh tutorial on YouTube. I watched it and then I wrote that song and recorded it a week after. Again, it is actually a song about killing a slave master. It is a pretty deep song. It is one of these things that most people don’t talk about and they certainly don’t sing about. That really is what that one is about.
Jeb: What is going to happen with this band? Will you play live?
Phil: I think the priority is Def Leppard and Delta Deep for me. We are going to get some dates in between Def Leppard shows. We will do the odd gig and we will do an acoustic thing when we can. I want to do a full blown tour. I would love to tour this band. Maybe we can do it early next year.
Jeb: Def Leppard seems to be on tour forever. When does the album come out?
Phil: That will come out in October. We are still finding little bits to dig in and play on. We did some vocals on it the other day. It is really is amazing. It is the best thing we’ve done in twenty years.
Jeb: Are you all singing lead vocals on different songs?
Phil: No, no, there is one song where we all take a verse. That is all that is. It can get misconstrued. We are not going to tell you who sings which verse so we are having a little competition.
Jeb: You play in many different styles in all of your bands. Have these blues riffs just been laying around in your cannon?
Phil: They were there before all of the other stuff. What is really interesting is that I play exactly the same as I do in Def Leppard, but the context is different. I use the same amps, the same guitars and all of this stuff, but Def Leppard is structured and a little more clinical. There are two guitars and backing vocals and you have to be mindful of different melodies and different rhythms and have very strong arrangements, where in Delta Deep we just express. It is pure expression and it is pretty much all one take.
It is really interesting that the guy playing is exactly the same. I did this gig last week in L.A. with Delta Deep and people were going, “Oh my God, your playing is great!” Last night I played in Def Leppard with the same gear and they said the same thing… actually I used a different amp for the Delta Deep. It was a bit more an aggressive sound, but it is the context that is different and that makes all the difference.
Jeb: You talked about that solo in “Mistreated.” You really tear it up. Even your pick attack is more aggressive.
Phil: In a Def Leppard context you have to mellow that out a little bit otherwise it sounds too over the top. Even the rhythm parts are very distinct in Def Leppard songs. It is the same in Delta Deep, but it is different as it oozes out. It is just like total expression and it’s like screaming at the top of your lungs and not really caring. In Def Leppard, a vocal would have to be multi-tracked thirty billion times and then I would have to do the harmonies, then do the harmony to that, and then everyone else has to do the same thing and it is all really precise. In Delta Deep you don’t have to do that. The beautiful thing is that Debbi and I have really come together with our vocals. We did some radio stuff at nine o’clock in the morning and our vocal blend was there, even that early in the morning, it was really cool.
Jeb: Sounds like the band Manraze is on the back burner right now.
Phil: People have asked that and I tell them if they want to check out Manraze then listen to “Black Coffee” on the Delta Deep album as that is all of us. We have some stuff just sitting around. We all have song ideas and we get into a room together they just ooze out as well. I am not worried about that aspect at all, but the way we should do the next Manraze album is to do two or three songs at a I time. I love working like that.
We did the next Def Leppard record that way. We did the album in three different sessions over a year. There is no pressure that way. You are not in a studio all the time, which can make you bored and you can get cabin fever. The great way to do it is to just do it like Zeppelin and the Stones used to do it. The Stones did “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” in like two or three days. The reason there is such inspiration in those songs is that each song is its own project. I think the songs come out better that way instead of doing 12 songs all in the same place and you’re just sitting around all day. David Bowie, James Brown and all that stuff they did at Muscle Shoals, they would just go in and get inspired and have fun. Those songs are all great and they have a different vibe because it is inspired. I want to work that way more.
Jeb: Last one: When Manraze goes back in to record, I want to suggest you guys remake a song from a band you and I have a passion for. I want you to remake “Driven to Tears” by the Police. Manraze would kick ass on that song.
Phil: That’d be great. Actually, that’s a great idea. I like that…I like that.
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