By Jeb Wright
Phil Collen is one of the guitar players for the band Def Leppard--you know the guy who defies age, refuses to wear shirts on stage and gets more buff every tour. Yeah, that guy. With his physique, earrings and short blonde hair while wielding a Jackson axe, his was an iconic MTV image from the band’s most successful daze… err... days.
The same Phil Collen is now a producer. And why not? Hell, his tutelage came under one of the best button pushers in the business, the extraordinary Mutt Lange!
Collen has taken his songwriting and guitar skills and applied what Mutt taught him and is currently in the studio with touring mates and friends Tesla working on their new album.
Phil trots out some big name comparisons in the interview that follows, and if the sights and sounds of the first song they have released, “Save the Goodness” are any indication, this album may turn out as grand as Collen promises.
Read on to learn what it is like to produce your friends and how this album came to be…
Jeb: You’re producing the band Tesla. How did this even come about?
Phil: What happened here is interesting… we’ve been friends for years, it’s actually me and Brian Wheat you know, and just all the guys. They supported us on the Hysteria tour and so we’ve always been in touch with each other. We did a tour last year, as a matter of fact.
I started writing this Delta Deep song with Helen and Debbi and I said, "You know what? This would sound great if Jeff Keith sung on this as well..." and that’s how it started off. I played it to Brian Wheat and he said, “Jeff sing on it?” He said, “How about we record it? It sounds like a Tesla song. You produce it.” That’s really how it came about.
Jeb: “Save that Goodness” is the name of the song. That was going to be a Delta Deep tune?
Phil: It was, it was going to be Delta Deep with Jeff Keith on it, but Brian said, “Shit no, that’s a Tesla song, that’s going to belong to us.” I said, “You know what? Fair enough.” It totally suited their style of playing. They’re such great players and I just think they deserve a lot more than people give them credit for; they are such a great band.
Jeb: Oh, I agree.
Phil: I’ve always thought that. I think they need to raise the bar a little bit. There are a lot of different bands from that genre and that generation, and I think they need to get their props. I think just pushing them a little bit further and seeing what else they’ve got was really good. And since they started recording they got really excited, really quick. Everyone was just coming up with so many ideas for a new album. I just can’t believe how that sounds. If you took Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Queen, The Beatles and AC/DC and mixed it all up, that’s what the new Tesla album sounds like.
Jeb: Now you know Phil, that’s a pretty bold statement…
Phil: It is. So that’s how it’s all come about, the new record sounds great; it’s really exciting.
Jeb: Now, is this the first time you’ve produced artists that you’re not in the band?
Phil: No, I’ve done an Australian band called BB Steal, that was like early ‘90s… but you know, that’s what we do, just being in Def Leppard everyone does a bit of that, it’s part of the thing. I’ve been doing it for years, really… I did the Manraze stuff.
Jeb: I knew you did your own stuff.
Jeb: I was wondering… this will probably be the biggest profile gig as a producer outside of your stuff.
Phil: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve done a Loverboy song as well when one of my best friends, Scott Smith was in the band. He has since passed away. We actually started recording a Dionne Warwick song years ago and then he passed away and we’d done this song.
Jeb: I remember. That was a tragic sailing accident in San Francisco in 2000.
Phil: So yeah, I’m kind of familiar with it and it’s kind of fun producing, but it’s a lot of energy and I know some guys don’t put that energy into it. I’m thinking if I’m going to do that, I’m going to put all that energy into it. It’s fairly exhausting, but it’s a lot of fun.
Jeb: How has Mutt Lange influenced Phil when it comes to being the producer instead of the guitar player?
Phil: Everything I do is actually stuff I learned from him. I mean absolutely everything. I’m not copying him, it’s just that he would push and raise the bar; he would simplify everything. I mean, some of the stuff is really hard to play or sing but he would simplify it in the respect that the person listening to it, it’s got to be melodic; it’s got to have a groove. You’ve got to get rid of cliché’s. Some cliché’s are okay, but some of them are deal breakers and some of them are not. You just have to be aware of all that and just sitting around with him for many years, sitting next to him in the studio or around his house or wherever we happen to be. I just learned so much.
There’s a thread and there’s a theme to it with everything he does, and I think a lot of people don’t work hard enough. They don’t try hard enough. I think the songwriting aspect sees people just settle for less. I think one of the things I learned from Mutt was that he’s not gratuitous with guitars. He wants to use them to create something unique. He’s really interesting because he’s done all that to us. I can remember he’d say, “Sing this” and I’d go, “I can’t sing that.” He’d go, “I heard you do that earlier, go on and sing it.” I’d do it then he’d go, “Yeah now do it a bit more aggressive.” He’d go “Trust me, it sounds great” and then you’d sing it and you’d go, “wow.” It is the same with the guitar playing. I’d end up playing shit that I couldn’t actually play. He’d say “Well, do that” and I’d say “I can’t.” He’d say, “Well yeah yeah yeah, do that.”
He’d trick you into playing this thing then you’d understand it and follow it. I think that’s it, there’s something in there that sounds right in its performance and it’s kind of all the above and it’s creating an image as well. I think you have to do that. When you produce something you have to create an image. Even when you write lyrics you have to create, you know like a great song like “Hotel California.” The first line “on a dark desert highway” it creates a picture and you pretty much have set the tone for the song. So all of those little things and increments you just put into that when you’re producing. Like I said, all of that stuff I actually learned from him and still do, really.
Jeb: You’ve got to have a vision. You’ve got to be a leader, but you can’t be a dictator. So, how do you balance it?
Phil: Well what the trick is, you get the person you’re working with… and again this is what he used to do with us… He would inspire us. He would get us so inspired that even if you felt a little insecure about the song… I mean it’s pretty amazing. A lot of musicians are kind of insecure and they have issues and all that stuff, because you have this weird little ego thing.
If you make the people you’re with feel inspired, like totally inspired, then they will do everything and do anything for you. I think that’s really what he used to do with us. I’ve seen him do that with other bands as well. I’ve seen him do it with other artists who don’t feel that they can do a certain thing and he would just pull it out of them, push them to the point where they’d go, ‘wow’. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a flow of confidence and the next thing you know they’re playing better than they’ve ever done before on a song that they’ve actually performed on before. It’s all of those things, I think without being a dictator you get all of them on the same page and you’re this show of inspiration then that’s really what does the trick.
Jeb: Now did the guys have some ideas or are you co-writing this?
Phil: Yeah, I’m co-writing. I think if you have an idea of what you think that somebody should sound like, you have to obviously make sure that they are in agreement with it. I think before you know it, again you have an instinct about it. Everyone just loved how the single just turned out, thank goodness, and then it was like, “Do you want to do the album?” On the same kind of wave length I said, “absolutely.”
We’d get ideas and bits of songs, and like any other band we might throw some ideas out. Others will be where this chorus is great or this verse is killer, and then we need another section for it, you know. It’s just that really and you know it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s like a really interesting jigsaw puzzle and that’s really how it works and that makes it exciting. The same deal with Def Leppard, you start a song, maybe a chorus or just a melody or a groove and before you know it, it turns into a full blown song; it’s great.
Jeb: They say you shouldn’t work with friends… How hard is it? Did you have to lay ground rules or did you just say look we’re going to go in and this is either going to be fun or it isn’t… or did you just jump in?
Phil: I did make a ground rule actually. I said, “Listen, I’m going to put so much of myself into this, so much energy, so much effort… I’m not going to do it if you guys aren’t going to fucking do the same, or even more and that’s it.” I actually called everyone and said, “You know if I’m going to do this don’t leave me with my dick in the wind out there!” You know what I mean? I said, “If we are going to do this, you get all of me.” It’s so much energy and effort and they have really stepped up. That’s exactly what they’ve done.
Me and Brian were in there for… in fact everyone I’ve worked with, we’ve done a lot of stuff separately. When you’re all there together it’s one thing, you get the ideas, you throw them around and you do all this stuff, but everyone has different roles and different songs and parts of songs. Brian’s actually doing most of the engineering. We recorded it while on tour and we’ve got another engineer when we get back.
I literally just got back yesterday from Sacramento. We had just done mainly vocals and some piano stuff with Brian and then the band shot a video and Brian had this concept, this idea for a video which sounded great. It was in this church and it was about 108 degrees. They had this great idea and I think that everyone was getting great ideas, which inspires other people. I think if you get that flow going then that really works. Jeff’s really excited about it. Again, you’re getting him to do stuff that he hasn’t tried for awhile, or ever at all. He was just letting them play or sing and it’s like I want to get more out of them and you know I think everyone is receptive and we are having a blast and the stuff sounds killer.
Jeb: Are you putting them through the mill like Mutt did you? Over dub…over dub…redo… redo…are you getting some revenge?
Phil: Not so much revenge, it’s just getting the magic out….
Jeb: I was kidding on that!
Phil: I know. I think a lot of people misread him. They think he’s this tyrant and all that stuff, but he’s actually just getting the magic out of whoever he works with. When that happens, whoever the artist is, they really love the fact that all of a sudden they’ve done this thing that they weren’t capable of doing before. I’m speaking from experience; he has me playing guitar stuff that I didn’t even know I could do, and singing stuff that was completely beyond my capabilities, completely out of context on a way different level he’d have me doing this stuff. Then he’d make me sing this with a rock and roll edge with a real nasty gruff voice that would hurt your throat. He’d say, “It’s great, trust me.” You’d play it back and you’d go, “Wow, this sounds great!”
It’s just working to get that magic out, and like I said, I wouldn’t make you do this if I didn’t think you were capable of it and they are, they are more than capable. Frank and Dave are such amazing guitar players, they don’t get enough credit and they haven’t played that style of guitar on Tesla albums before. They’re doing stuff that’s like really deep and it goes back, sounding like ‘70s guitar stuff. It’s really cool.
Jeb: Frank has always been one guy that I’ve been like, “You know what? That fucker is better than anybody gives him credit for!” Unless you are a guitar player...
Phil: Oh, he is so tasteful. He’s done this one take... he brought this new guitar and he brought it in the studio… we’ve got this song and it’s really upbeat and it’s a real commercial, really pop and he played it in one-take. It was this ‘Strat thing’ all the way through that was kind of like a Hendrix thing, really melodic.
If you could imagine -and this sounds real kooky- if you could imagine the band Train and Maroon 5 and Jimi Hendrix walked in and played over it, that’s what it sounds like. I mean he did that in one take. Shit, his is cool and you know you’ve never heard that on a Tesla album before or anything of that genre. It's stuff like that that is really cool and it’s really good that they run into it like that, you know.
Jeb: This album isn’t even out yet. I just wanted to kind of let people know what’s going on. Now the song, “Save the Goodness” is a bonus track in the new Tesla live album.
Phil: Right. We’re actually going to start playing that live. I’ve been asked to come on stage. Me and Debbi are going to join them on stage in Atlanta, we’ve got a sold out show, 80,000 people in Atlanta, Def Leppard and Tesla’s going to debut the song on their set with me and Debbi playing and singing with them, joining them on stage, so that’s coming up in Atlanta in the next few weeks, so that’s exciting.
I think the live album has that as a bonus track and the other album that we’re going to finish that off this year, a lot of the guitar and stuff we do on tour, you know backstage…We find a bunk or a train or even on a tour bus, an hour a day or two hours a day a person at a time and we just getting it done like that. It’s really inspiring and inspired. We should get it done… hopefully it will be out next year.
Jeb: Oh man, I hope so! You’ve got me excited because I knew this had to be a cool thing, but it sounds like you guys aren’t just doing this to make an album, and you’re doing it for all the right reasons.
Phil: Yes, you want to try and make the most classic amazing rock album. You know people don’t really do that anymore. The motivation for doing records is now to be famous or to get the single. We are trying to make the best rock album of the century. People stopped doing that.
We just did that with Def Leppard. That’s really what we tried to do. There was really no reason for us to do the album. I don’t see ‘gains’, not financial. We just want to do it because we are pure artists and we wanted to do it for all the right reasons, purity. With the Tesla album we actually tried to create the best rock album of this century with all the right ingredients, so you know that’s the best. I know it sounds crazy but people just don’t make music like that anymore. We figured that we would, and what a great band to do it.
Jeb: What made you see this potential in Tesla?
Phil: When you sit down with the band, you find out the stuff that they are into ranges from… Frank really likes the Allman Brothers and some southern -all of that stuff. Dave likes Metallica. Brian likes The Beatles and Jeff… it’s like he’s one of the classic rock singers that likes it all. They like all of this stuff and you listen to their albums and you can’t tell that, as they sound like a hard rock band and that’s okay.
We do the odd love song, but for the most part you can’t tell that that’s their influences and that’s really what they want to do. So you know what, if you guys are up for it, let’s make an album that sounds like all of that stuff that you love and combine it all on one record, but do it like it sounds like Tesla. That is the easy part because it does sound like Tesla, the influences are just crazy; like I said, it’s like AC/DC meets Aerosmith meets Beatles… it’s all of that.
Jeb: What else has happened with your side projects, anything?
Phil: Yeah, Delta Deep has a live album we recorded earlier in the year that sounds amazing. It’s actually going to be called East Coast Live. We did a West Coast and East Coast and the East recordings came out better, so we’re going to release that. Then Manraze, we’re going to be re-releasing a kind of a best of album with the singles on them, you know the best of both albums.
So, there you go, we may do some gigs out of that. We are super busy so it’s just a matter of getting the time to do all of that, really.
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