Interview: Phil Collen of Def Leppard Discusses the New Manraze Album, 'Punkfunkrootsrock'
Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen talks to GuitarWorld.com about his roots, his gear and Punkfunkrootsrock, the new album by Manraze.
Guitarist Phil Collen, formerly of the English glam band Girl, joined Def Leppard in 1982, replacing original member Pete Willis, during the recording of the band's third album, Pyromania.
Call it the luck of the draw, because the album, thanks to the singles “Photograph,” “Rock of Ages” and “Foolin,'” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, launching the Sheffield, England-quintet into superstardom.
The trappings of fame took a toll on the band, including the death of guitarist “Steamin'” Steve Clark and the near-fatal car accident that claimed the left arm of drummer Rick Allen.
Recently, the band suffered another loss. Lead singer Joe Elliot's father, Joe Sr., died of a heart attack on July 8. The band, which was in the midst of the 2011 Mirrorball tour, cancelled its July 17 Rock Show concert in Cadott, Wisconsin.
A few weeks before the tragedy, Guitar World spoke with Collen while Def Leppard was taking a day off after playing a show in Orange Beach, Alabama. Collen talked about Def Leppard, guitars and his side band, Manraze, featuring his former Girl bandmate bassist Simon Laffy and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook.
Coincidentally, Collen and Laffy formed the nucleus of Manraze when Collen was in England, in 2004, caring for his dying father.
GUITAR WORLD: What got you interested in music in the first place?
Coming from England, you couldn't miss The Beatles and the Stones and stuff like that. Me and my next-door neighbor used to play like we were John Lennon and Paul McCartney in our backyard shed with tennis rackets. I really just listened to everything that was on the radio, anything that had a groove or great performance — whether it was Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys or The Who — and you knew it was special compared to the really crappy pop music.
Obviously, as you were strumming your tennis racket, you were imagining yourself playing a guitar. What solidified that notion in your head?
My cousin brought me into rock music. He got me into Zeppelin, Floyd, Deep Purple and Hendrix. He took me to my first show ever. I was 14 and we saw Deep Purple on the Machine Head tour, and that pretty much did it. We got to the front row and Ritchie Blackmore was right in front of me smashing his Strat, and that was it for me.
Did it take long for you to get your first real guitar?
For two years, I pestered my mom and dad to get me a guitar. Finally, when I turned 16, I got a Gibson SG 200, which was the starter guitar for Gibson and switched out the pickup to a DiMarzio. It was a great guitar, and I still have it.
Fast-forward to today. What guitar or guitars do you find the most trustworthy?
The one I have on tour at the moment — Jackson PC1. It just plays like crazy. I also have one of the new Jackson PC Supremes. It's got a really chunky neck and it's heavier than the others. I've been playing that in the Def Leppard set, more than any other guitar. It's got a fat neck and fat frets, which I love. I've always liked DiMarzio pickups, ever since I was 16, and it's loaded up on DiMarzios, which does what you want it to.
Back in 2004, you were back in England and decided to collaborate with Simon Laffy and formed Manraze. What was the spark that lit the flame?
Me and Joe Elliot had a lot of the same albums when we were growing up. I'm from London and he's from Sheffield, but we had identical album collections, as far as the glam stuff went. We both liked David Bowie's guitarist, Mick Ronson. He was such an influence for us, but the more Def Leppard created its own sound throughout the years, the less and less we were able to toy with that vintage sound, except when we did the covers album [2006's Yeah!, which featured covers of songs by T.Rex, Sweet, David Bowie and Thin Lizzy, to name a few]. So there was this void I wanted to fill. So one day, I sat down with Simon to write a song that was influenced by those glam bands, and it came out amazing.
How did Paul Cook come into the picture?
It was one of those lucky things. One day I said to Simon, “Wouldn't it be great if Paul Cook could be the drummer?” And then, quite literally, I met Paul two days later on the street. So I asked him to come down and jam.
Manraze not only was focused on the glam rock of the '70s, but also tapped into punk and dub reggae. Was that deliberate?
Yes. The punk energy and dub reggae stuff is very much a London thing. We all had those influences that never really got a chance to get out. We felt Manraze would be the perfect vehicle. It's a classic three-piece, and I really enjoy it because I never knew what it was like playing in a three piece with just a guitar, bass and drums. That was so liberating and different. It was wide open and free.
Manraze's second album Punkfunkrootsrock (the followup to 2008's Surreal) is scheduled to be released Aug. 2. How were you able to record the tracks while preparing to hit the road with Def Leppard?
We had all the songs that were written or half written, but we didn't have the opportunity to record them, although we had a lot of demos. Then I met Kevin Day, who owns Rocket Science (a music sales and marketing company), and he asked when we could get some stuff together. Since I was preparing to go on tour, we got this album together in two weeks. We went to London and turned a lot of the demos into masters and banged it out. We did it on a very low budget and went to a friend's studio for the drums and did all my guitars on my laptop, like I did with the new Def Leppard songs on Mirrorball.
Does being in Def Leppard help or hinder projects like this?
I think it hindered the first album a bit, because everyone was wanting or expecting to hear Def Leppard, when we were really just trying to find our own sound. With the new record, we knew what we wanted it to sound like and the process was very natural. We didn't worry if a song sounded like someone else this time. Before we worried about the sound and changed a song if it sounded like Def Leppard or another band. On this album, we went with what the song demanded and the album goes all over the place. That's why we called it Punkfunkrootsrock.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This last question was answered before the death of Joe Elliot Sr., and it's unsure if there will be any rescheduled dates for Def Leppard's Mirrorball tour that will interfere with Collen's plans.
After the Def Leppard tour, will there be a Manraze tour?
Yes. We're doing our first American gig at the Roxy on July 31. We have a little break after Def Leppard. I'll go home to California and go rehearse for a few days and go to the show. The album comes out a few days after that on Aug. 2.
Punkfunkrootsrock, the new album by Manraze, comes out August 2 via Rocket Science. For more about Manraze, visit manraze.com.
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