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Def Leppard’s Phil Collen On The Band’s Classic Albums ‘Pyromania’ And ‘Hysteria’ + New Music

David Becker, Getty Images

Earlier this year, Def Leppard took time to celebrate the legacy of their classic ‘Hysteria’ album by performing it in full during a special extended residency in Las Vegas. But 2013 also marks the 30th anniversary for their preceding album ‘Pyromania,’ a release that would take the forward momentum which the band had built with the ‘High ‘N’ Dry’ album and really blow things wide open for the group.

They went into the sessions for ‘Hysteria’ poised to take over the world and although the construction of the album would take a few years, they did exactly that when ‘Hysteria’ was finally released.

Guitarist Phil Collen recently spent some time looking back and was happy to discuss with Ultimate Classic Rock what was going on in the period that those two albums were being recorded. He also shared a few thoughts regarding the new music that the band is starting to work on.

It’s been 30 years now since ‘Pyromania’ was released. What do you recall about that period? It seems like things really started to gel for the band with that album. And of course you came into the band during that album as well.

I was in this band called Girl [prior to joining the group] and Def Leppard had been to the States and they were kind of getting a buzz going, but they were still an opening act. Actually, the first tour I did when we played England, it was half-empty theaters and clubs and it was on the way, but it just exploded [with the ‘Pyromania’ album]. So the whole thing, I don’t want to say it was like a blur, because I remember all of it, but it was probably the most exciting period of the whole career. I know that ‘Hysteria’ was a much bigger album that actually meant a lot more and the sound of it was more special — it was actually our own sound — but I think the first time you make it and the first time you go platinum, double platinum and quadruple platinum, it’s unbelievable just how everything changes around you, even though you’re exactly the same.

As I mentioned, you came into the band during the making of that record. How long did it take before you were really integrated into the process to where you felt comfortably like you were part of things?

That first day, actually, because I actually changed the dynamic of [the band] just even [with] the [guitar] solos. Steve [Clark] and Pete [Willis] played a certain way and I played a way more aggressive and flashy style and it seemed to work and to click straight away and I thought “whoa.” Everyone kind of reacted to it positively, so I actually felt really good straight off the bat, to be quite honest. That was a nice welcome. No one really knew what was going to happen, you know?

They didn’t know what it was going to sound like when I started playing. I could sing and that was another element that wasn’t lacking — the guys could sing, but I had a different kind of voice, so you hear that on the records as well. It just changed it a little bit and I don’t even know how you’d describe it really, but it changed the whole thing. But none of us were aware any of this thing was going to happen or explode like it did, so we were kind of shocked, pleasantly. It was just an amazing, exciting period.

All the stage time that you got touring with the band for ‘Pyromania’ obviously would further help to complete that transitional period for the group. When it came time to go in for the ‘Hysteria’ sessions, how did the ‘Pyromania’ album and all of that subsequent touring play into where you guys wanted to go with the next album?

Well, we were really good as a band by the time we finished the ‘Pyromania’ tour. We were actually getting better the whole time and it really comes down to Mutt Lange. He said, “Look, everyone else has copied this last album, from the Scorpions to Bon Jovi.” Every rock band in the world was trying to get that snare drum sound. Even Stevie Wonder went, “Oh, I’ve got to have that snare” at some point — I think it was actually ‘Hysteria.’

But the fact that it influenced [a lot of people], everyone else’s records started sounding like that. So Mutt said, “Look, we can’t do a copy of ourselves — we have to do things radically different. Let’s make the definitive rock album. Let’s fuse pop with rock.” Which he’s so brilliant at doing — obviously, you know the Shania Twain thing — I honestly believe he brought country to the masses. I remember going into an elevator in Japan and hearing Shania Twain.

Back in the early ‘80s when I was in Girl, you would never hear a country singer. So he fused it and he had this great plan and that’s really what ‘Hysteria’ was. So we get off tour and that was Mutt’s briefing, basically and we were totally, totally into it, because we trusted everything that he said, because he was always on point. He’s just one of the coolest guys out there and just a genius. So that was a no-brainer for us.

The last time we spoke, you talked about how the band was trying to find their niche during the ‘Pyromania’ sessions and working to write songs that had commercial appeal. Based on the reaction and success to some of those songs, was there a conscious effort to focus on writing more commercial material with the ‘Hysteria’ album? It seems like sometimes bands have struggled with that a bit, going for that brass ring while still staying true to where they began as a group.

It’s very hard. You know, people in general have a real struggle stepping outside of their comfort zone, even playing wise. I worked with Mutt just a couple of years ago and it really hit me, he had me doing stuff that really got me out of my comfort zone. We don’t do that. You know, we don’t sing if it’s too high — that’s why a lot of singers as they get older go, “Well, I can’t hit the notes anymore,” is because they stop trying.

The reason the body atrophies is because we’re not active — so it’s all of these things. I think if you’re aware of that, that if you slow down, it will slow down. You’ve just got to try. I think the hardest thing to do is write a cool song that’s catchy that still has credibility. It’s actually really hard period, especially if you’ve had a few hits yourself. It gets more difficult because you paint yourself into a corner. You have a certain sound and you have fans that want a certain thing. So if you go off and do things [differently], like we did with the ‘Slang’ album — everyone hated it [and] we loved it!

We were going, “Oh, this is great” and we were just expressing ourselves and experimenting and people just didn’t like it. They just wanted to hear ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ all over again or ‘Photograph’ and things like that. You can only write so many songs like that in a genre or a vein without it sounding crap and predictable. It’s a tough one — it’s a real tough one, especially when the credibility comes into it. You start a band and you have an idea for an album and you get all of these great ideas, it’s a hit and you go, “Oh s—, now what do we do for an encore?” I think that’s really the problem.

What I’m really excited about is that we’ve just started to get some new ideas together. We haven’t had new Def Leppard music for a few years now and some of the ideas that are floating around are really, really special. Because we haven’t been over-harvesting that field. I’ve been doing Manraze stuff, which I love it, because I get to scratch that itch — I get to write and record anything I want. We can do dub-reggae one moment and kind of go jazzy funk the next or [do] full-on punk. I really get to exercise that demon and it’s wonderful.

But with the Def Leppard thing, it’s exciting because we’ve had this big time period away from it and everyone’s coming in with these killer ideas, so I’m excited. That’s going to be next year, probably in January we’ll start that. I’ve got to heal from this hand operation, so I can’t play guitar until then.

Def Leppard has released a handful of new songs over the past few years but it’s been a little while since the band has done a full album. It’s interesting that you’re eyeing an EP first and then an album. For so long, you guys were a band that thought in terms of albums when recording. Obviously, the industry is in a different place and there’s also the question of time for you guys as well. Is it hard to parcel songs outside of whatever vision you might have album-wise, to fit into the idea of doing an EP? It seems like it might feel incomplete.

I think it’s way cool. It’s way easier working on a project by project basis. We do that in Manraze — obviously we’ve got the new EP coming out. It’s so much easier having a concept for one song as opposed to going in there and having a jigsaw puzzle of 10 to 12 songs. It’s a totally different dynamic. I think with the Def Leppard thing. because it takes us so long, we’re not going to get an EP finished even for next summer. So I actually think we may as well start even just recording an album. I think we probably can do that. As long as we keep the costs down, I think then it’s worthwhile. Going back to Manraze, we did an album in two weeks, so there’s a difference there with us doing albums like that.

But you’ve really got to go, “Well, how much is this going to cost?” I mean, you’ve got to fly all of these people to one place and so that’s what we’re very conscious of this time around in Def Leppard. I think if you’ve got the songs and you’ve got the ideas, that’s great. I think our problem in the past has been that we turn up in the studio on day one and no one’s really got anything — we don’t have a concept and all of that stuff. So that’s [the important thing], I think [is] if you have a concept of what the album is going to sound like or even a collection of songs.

Like [we’ve got] four or five songs and we want them to sound like this, which is the case with the Def Leppard thing and certainly with Manraze — we have so many ideas in Manraze that it’s actually hard to put the reins on it, to be quite honest. We had a dance track out last year, ‘Take On The World’ and it’s so much fun. I think if you keep that kind of spirit going, that’s what we’re kind of heading towards [with Def Leppard] — it’s the way to go. You know, you’re an artist first and everything else should fall into place. I like the idea of doing one or two songs at a time, not just sitting around doing an album if it waters the whole thing down.

With the new ‘Viva Hysteria’ release, It’s cool that Steve Clark was part of the shows, via video at least, on the intro for Gods of War. He definitely brought a lot of personality to the group, both as a person and as a player.

Absolutely, yeah. That’s why we wanted to include it. I actually really wanted to….we saw the hologram stuff, like [with] Tupac [Shakur] and obviously that’s really expensive, but we really wanted to include Steve. He was such an integral part of it, it would have been really crass if we would have left him of. So to me, it was absolutely essential that he be part of the show.

Next: Top 10 Def Leppard Songs

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