Phil Collen Bringing Def Leppard To His Own Backyard

by Robert Kinsler

How did one of hard rock’s most successful acts decide to make its first-ever live album? In the case of Def Leppard, the answer was not to even think about it.

“The reason we’ve never recorded a live album before is because we’ve either been in tour mode or we’re recording a (studio album), so a live album was never really a priority,” said guitarist Phil Collen, who recently invited me to his Laguna Hills home to talk about Def Leppard’s newly released CD/DVD collection Mirror Ball: Live & More and a variety of other music and fitness-related projects.

“Mirror Ball” is not a traditional live album. Released on June 7, 2011, to coincide with the band’s 2011 tour (which includes a headlining spot at Jack’s Sixth Show at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine on Sept. 10), the album’s first 2 discs feature more than 20 live tracks that were each recorded at different tour stops on the band’s 2008-2009 Sparkle Lounge Tour. There are also three new studio tracks. In addition, the third disc is a DVD with behind-the-scenes footage, live performances of hits such as “Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop)” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and official music videos.

“We thought of doing one, but never had the time,” Collen said of the band’s long wait in issuing a live collection.

“But we had a year off in 2010, which was our first year off in 30 years – which is ridiculous if you think about it. And Ronan (Ronan McHugh, who handles sound for the band) had been recording (all) these shows; it wasn’t as daunting as it sounds. Say (we played) Denver, he’d mark it off on the hard drive, ‘Good tonight, good audience’; I didn’t have to go in and redo any parts, any vocals – not one…”

Back before the days of digital downloads and YouTube, live albums from a favorite band were on the dream list of many music fans. The first-rate performances and bonus materials on “Mirror Ball” will likely thrill fans of Def Leppard, a hard-rocking outfit that has sold more than 65 million albums since emerging in Sheffield, England in the late 1970s.

“It’s a real live album. We wanted to make it a bit different. We didn’t want to call it ‘Def Leppard Live.’ So it got an official name, which is ‘Mirror Ball’. Our last album was called Songs from the Sparkle Lounge, (now) ‘Mirror Ball,’ is kind of a tie-in to that,” explained Collen, who has lived in Orange County since 1990.

While Collen, 53, is best-known for his long-time role playing guitar in Def Leppard, his successful side project MANRAZE has just issued its aptly-titled sophomore effort punkfunkrootsrock. The release of the latest MANRAZE disc on Aug. 2 again teams Collen (lead vocals, guitar), bassist Simon Laffy (who played with Collen in Girl before he joined Def Leppard in 1982) and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook playing a wide range of original material.

“I was in London. My dad had terminal cancer…So I went over there and hung with him,” Collen recalled of the situation leading up to the creation of MANRAZE in 2004. “I had an amazing time with him. I had, probably the best time since I was 7 or something.”

While Collen was staying in London, he reconnected with Laffy.

“We never wrote together when we were in the band and he played me some of his demos, and I said I’ve got this idea for a song and it clicked. (I said) ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Paul Cook was the drummer?’ This is a true story. (Two days later) I went to see my dad at the hospital before I got him out to go home and there was Paul getting in a car.”

“All of a sudden it changed. It was a completely liberating experience for me. You can go off on crazy tangents in a three-piece band. In Def Leppard, we actually have another instrument, the backing vocals. It takes a lot of effort from us. We have to be on cue for choruses and bridges. We really use it to an extreme. It’s a focal point. It was weird all of a sudden not having to do that. Let’s drag this guitar solo out a little longer or go into a groove, the whole thing was totally liberating. And then I understood the Hendrix Experience and the Police, Nirvana, Cream, all the great 3-piece bands. You can go wow.”

This writer first met Collen when he appeared at the NAMM music trade show in Anaheim in January 2011. Collen was there on behalf on several music manufacturers, including Jackson Guitars, but he was thrust into the spotlight when he was invited to jam with bassist/Gov. Mike Huckabee. The widely-featured footage of the famed lead guitarist who is a vegetarian and is widely recognized for his dedication to the martial art of Muay Thai Kick Boxing jamming with the well-known 2008 presidential candidate summed up the spirit of NAMM which brings together people from all backgrounds together for the shared love of music making.

“He was a really nice guy. I’ve got to say he was genuinely warm and just cool. He does this thing called ‘Wanna Play’ – it’s a foundation and they get musical instruments to kids who either can’t afford them or schools where the program has been cut. I have a thing for it because I was a really late starter; I was 16 when I started to play guitar…I was raised and grew up in the East End of London and it was rough and a lot of the kids did violent things,” said Collen, who added that playing music allowed him to stay on a positive path and avoid getting into trouble like other kids in the neighborhood.

“So the ‘Wanna Play’ thing starts with Mike Huckabee. What a great idea.”

Only a couple of weeks after appearing at NAMM, Collen and Muay Thai trainer Jean Carrillo were featured at a demonstration at the Los Angeles Fitness Expo. A long-time vegetarian who stopped drinking alcohol in 1987, Collen continues to be dedicated to the art of guitar playing while on a simultaneous mission to inspire others to lead healthy and active lives. He understands many people don’t have the time or access to hire a trainer, but says everyone can do something.

“There is a pecking order of things. Most people want to lose weight. To lose weight, you do cardio. You don’t do isolation exercises like dumb bell curls or crunches. You won’t even see that until the fat gets removed. Walking is great to start with. Biking is great because it’s low impact. Again, it’s a catch 22. You’re a bit heavy, so you’re putting so much stress on your back, your knees and your ankles, so therefore you want to do something low impact. A spinning class is brilliant and you just build it up,” explained Collen, noting he is sad to see so many of his friends – even those 10 or 15 years younger – struggling from health issues related to a poor lifestyle.

Collen plans to issue a DVD designed to help inspire and demonstrate how easy it is to get fit.

“We’re talking about it now. It’s going to be called ‘Physical Mechanics’ and it’s a three-tier system. It’s like a workout for someone who couldn’t do one push-up without hurting them self. It does involve walking. You don’t need any workout equipment.”

Collen, who married his wife Helen a year ago, couldn’t be happier despite a crazy schedule that includes high-energy workouts, sold-out tour dates with Def Leppard and upcoming club shows with Man Raze.

“I’m in a really great place now. I’m totally happy. I love it here in California. I’ve been in this house 21 years,” Collen said.

“The only downer about doing hometown gigs is your guest list,” admitted Collen when asked about performing in Irvine at a venue located so close to his home.

“I love it; the quickest I’ve got home was nine minutes. Last time (October 2009) was 12 minutes.”

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