Phil Collen: The Leppard Changing His Spots
Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen enters the blues with new band, Delta Deep. Here he tells us about white privilege, the blues behind punk and the dangers of playing guitar with your teeth.
“Let’s be honest,” says Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen, smiling out of The Blues’ laptop via Skype from his house in Orange County, California. “The blues was born out of agony and pain. I see guys these days copying the blues style and it makes my skin crawl, because it isn’t based on real suffering. Kurt Cobain was like a blues artist, without actually being a blues artist, because he genuinely suffered.”
Hold on a tick. Here we have a member of a massive-selling stadium rock band defining the blues by invoking the name of a grunge musician. Explain yourself, Collen! Fortunately, he has a convincing argument to back up this assertion, explaining: “Truly expressive artists are people like Kurt, who had this agony in them. It’s very much like rap. The original rap was a social commentary, an expression of pain.”
Warming to his theme, Collen adds: “Punk music was similar to blues in that sense, too. When the Sex Pistols came out, Johnny Rotten’s lyrics were so grim for a young man, because they mirrored the social angst of the time. That feeling was let out through that medium, and I think that’s really what the blues is about. It’s about suffering, pain and agony and frustration – and letting those things out the only way you know how.”
Before anyone points it out, Collen knows perfectly well that – as a middle-aged white dude with the benefit of 100 million album sales behind him – he’s hardly authentic blues material, by his own definition. However, talk to him and listen to his new album, and it becomes rapidly clear that he clearly understands the basic impetus behind the music. “I’m a privileged white guy who lives in a really nice house,” he says, “but I remember when I picked up a guitar for the first time. It wasn’t because I wanted to be a musician. I did suffer from teenage angst, although I haven’t had the same pain as John Lee Hooker or Howlin’ Wolf had, of course – but I was still able to use music as an outlet.”
Why all this chatter about blues from a man better known for crunching out heavy metal riffs? Simply because Collen has formed a blues band, Delta Deep, who are about to release a debut album. The self-titled collection pulls together a wide cast of musicians, from Whitesnake singer David Coverdale and Collen’s Leppard colleague Joe Elliott, through to bassist Robert DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots, keyboard player CJ Vanston and session drummer extraordinaire Forrest Robinson. Collen shares vocals with Debbi Blackwell-Cook, his wife Helen’s godmother, whose rich, soulful voice points directly to her history as a backing singer for jazz and soul artists such as Michael Bublé and Luther Vandross.
“We had our first rehearsal yesterday, right here in my front room. It was electric!” says Collen. “Robert came down, having just finished some Stone Temple Pilots dates, and Debbi and Forrest were here too. It was mind-blowing – real goosebump time!”
Asked how the Delta Deep project first began, he explains: “We started it about two years ago. I was raising money for a cancer charity called the Gerson Institute down in San Diego, so we went down there, auctioned off a guitar and played some Motown covers and a couple of bluesy things. Afterwards, everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, where can we buy this?’ So Debbi, my wife Helen and I started writing original songs.”