Hysteria Blues: Going Delta Deep With Def Leppard Guitarist Phil Collen

Dave Grohl is often acknowledged as being the nicest, coolest/cheeriest guy in rock & roll, and while I can indeed confirm Messr. Grohl is (to use a technical term) an absolute mensch amongst mensches, I also happen to think Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen could give Dave a run for his money.

I’ve spent a good bit of time in Collen’s presence on the road recently during the first leg of the highly successful Def Leppard/Styx/Tesla summer tour extravaganza, and he always has time to share a good word or make sure everyone is having a great time — even when he thinks you’re not looking. “We’re having a blast, yeah,” Collen says backstage in upstate New York. “It’s fun circling the wagons with these two bands. We get along so well. It’s always nice to hook up with old friends on tour.”

Collen is also passionate about sharing his creativity beyond the lighted stage. Besides working on a new Def Leppard studio album due in the fall and an autobiography, Adrenalized: Life in Def Leppard and Beyond, slated for a late-October release, Collen is the mastermind behind the self-titled debut of Delta Deep. Delta Deep (Mailboat) accelerates from the stomp and slide of opening track “Bang the Lid” to the jazzy Stevie Ray Vaughan tone of “Whiskey” to the smoking hot jam of “Burnt Sally.” You’ll even find guests vocalists like David Coverdale (“Private Number”) and Collen’s Def Lep bandmate Joe Elliott on “Mistreated,” the album’s all-sinew closing track. “You could call it a punk/blues mixture,” Collen says of the album. “We just made music that made us feel great, and there are loads of people out there looking for that who appreciate that. There are a lot of people out there who dig real music.”

Delta Deep is as real as it gets. Recently, Collen, 57, and I got together to dive on down into Delta Deep’s sonic origins, rediscovering the joys of vinyl, and the signal he gets when he’s in the right improv zone onstage. Pour some blues sugar on us, Phil.

Mike Mettler: So I’ve been digging deep into Delta Deep lately, and there’s only one problem I’ve come across with it — I can’t seem to get it to play loud enough.

Phil Collen: (laughs) That’s a good sign!

Mettler: You guys sound like you’ve been playing together for years.

Collen: I know! It’s amazing! We had some rehearsals right after I’d gotten back from a Def Leppard European tour in early June. We got back on a Sunday, and Monday, we were doing Delta Deep rehearsals. It was phenomenal. It’s like a fire-breathing dragon. It’s hard to describe, but it’s really, really cool.

Mettler: How were you able to lock in right away? Was it one of those instinctive, we know how to play this material kind of thing, or…?

Collen: I think partly that, but I also think it’s very much based on expressions, the Delta Deep stuff. That’s just how it came about. Everyone in the band is really, really, good. I mean, [drummer] Forrest Robinson replaced Steve Gadd in The Crusaders. He did all these sessions in the ’90s and 2000s. And I think Robert DeLeo is one of the best bass players to come out of the whole ’90s and alternative scene. [DeLeo is probably best known for holding down the low end in Stone Temple Pilots.]

And then me and Debbi [Blackwell-Cook, vocalist] can just wail over the top of it. I can be as sloppy and expressive as I like. Debbi’s just amazing. She’s Aretha, Tina Turner, and Chaka Khan — she’s all of them. You put it all together, and I think everyone rises to the occasion. You just lock in. You rehearse, and you go, “Oh sh--! Where is this coming from?”

It’s really cool, because there are no restrictions. It’s a bluesy-type thing, but it ended up like [Led] Zeppelin, really. That’s a band that took it further and went to so many different places. You’ve got all of those elements — the blues, the punk, and everything all combined. It’s kick-ass, and it’s great fun.

Mettler: I totally agree. A song like “Whiskey” shows just how great the collaboration is, but I think my favorite track is the last one, “Mistreated.” Was that done live in the studio, with everyone together?

Collen: No, no — if I remember rightly, I had done a really sh---y guide bass-drum thing and some basic guitars, while Debbi had done some vocals. We recorded the bass and drums separately, and later, we added some more to it. Even the solo — I added more to it, the main one. There was a lot going on with it.

Mettler: You mentioned Zeppelin. “Mistreated” reminds me of the end of Zeppelin I and “How Many More Times,” and the way everybody fed off each other there.

Collen: Absolutely! Absolutely yeah! I totally think that’s really on the money. It actually builds. But we didn’t try to go there. A lot of bands go after doing a Zeppelin thing, but we weren’t trying to do that. And in some parts of the rehearsal, we sounded like Rage Against the Machine.

Mettler: I like the sound of that. Let’s talk sonics, and how you record. First, do you think high resolution has a future? Is it something you’re encouraged by? You’ve recorded a number of records over the years with Def Leppard that have an incredible amount of detail on them.

Collen: Right. I do, but I think the majority of people who listen to music don’t care if it’s squashed. We didn’t do 96 [kHz] for this record, but it all comes down to the mastering. We did all of that with Def Leppard, and we record analog anyway. There is a process and a point where it does make a difference. The bottom line is it just has to sound great.

People get used to any environment, like the car. But I do think the audiophile thing is wonderful, because you do hear it with those great records of the ’60s and ’70s, but then in the ’80s, you could totally tell when it went digital. It started losing that “thing.” It was more than just a sonic thing — it was an attitude change. You talk to kids these days, and they don’t want to get in a band because they want to artistically express themselves or create art to be appreciated as art. They want to do it so people will pay attention to them. (chuckles) I’m only half-joking, but it’s kind of that way now.

Mettler: Thanks to the vinyl revival, at least people seem to be paying attention more when they’re listening to full albums.

Collen: I totally agree. I think it’s great the record revival is encouraging people to listen to records again. Back in the day, when I was learning guitar solos, I’d put the needle on the record, listen, and go back and play it. I got into that a little bit.

Mettler: What albums did you do that with? What records were your bibles, as far as that stuff went?

Collen: The classic stuff, really. Early Deep Purple, Zeppelin II, Motown Chartbusters, Stevie Wonder — it was right across the board. That’s all my vinyl.

I was just over in England about a month ago digging through my old vinyl, and all the old 45s. I pulled out this thing I got when I was a teenager, The Guitar Album (1977, on Polydor). It had Hendrix on it, B.B. King; everyone. It was something. I haven’t got a record player, but my wife [photographer Helen L. Collen] does.

Mettler: It might be time to pull those records back out and reinvest in a turntable of your own.

Collen: I think you’re right, actually. Now that I’ve recorded just about everywhere and been all over the world, it might actually be cool to start a new collection. Every vinyl I would get would be something I absolutely, desperately wanted. I used to just get every CD, and I’ve still got stacks of CDs I’ve never even opened.

Mettler: I’ve got stacks and stacks of CDs downstairs that I’ll probably never get to. But if a new 180-gram record comes in — that I’m putting on.

Collen: You’re right, you’re absolutely right. I have to get my sh-- together, I think. Tell me this — do you seek out old stuff, or do you get new stuff all the time?

Mettler: It’s really a combination. There are a lot of reissues coming out on 180-gram, such as this John Lennon box set I just got [Lennon]. You hear all these subtleties and details in songs you think you know so well. It’s encouraging that a lot of the more traditional rock stuff is getting reissued, but there are also modern artists like Jack White who understand the value of the format and tailor much of their music and release it to be appreciated in that way.

Collen: Wow! Cool. We were just in Europe, and I signed so many of our vinyl albums, even some of the later ones — like Mirrorball: Live & More (2011). It’s a big deal, and I think it’s really encouraging.

Mettler: Agreed. I don’t think there could be a better-named project than Delta Deep, because that encapsulates exactly what’s going on here. There is a whole generation that doesn’t know much about the blues, so maybe they’ll come here to find out more about it to dig further into it and find the other building blocks behind what we hear on this album.

Collen: Absolutely! The band is half black, and half white. My wife Helen came up with the name Delta Deep, and she writes the songs with Debbi and me, so she knows. Debbi recently lost a son to gun violence, and Forrest is from Memphis. There’s a lot to express. There’s a lot of anger and oppression that still exists. The blues really exist very prominently in what we’re doing, especially in the solos when we play live. All of these things represent what we’re all about. “Down in the Delta” is basically a metaphor about being in hell and and being enslaved to kill. You can see where the blues comes from.

Mettler: I’m curious about something you do live with Vivian Campbell, your guitar partner in Def Leppard. Of course, you guys have a framework you have to follow, but I’ve seen enough shows on this summer tour where I can tell you throw something new in there to keep it interesting for yourselves to keep each set fresh.

Collen: It’s called “forgetting your sh--” — that’s why it’s different every night! (both laugh) No, no, I’m joking. You do kind of change it up, and it is nice — within a context, and without straying too far off. Really what I do is — and I do this a lot — is I’ll throw something in that’s not getting in the way of the vocal or it’s not messing up any rhythmic thing. Usually, if I’m being adventurous, it’s more jazz than anything else. And 7 times out of 10 I’ll go, “Ahh, this is great! This is what I was trying to do!”

Mettler: Will Vivian or Joe give you a look that says, “Oh, that’s interesting…”?

Collen: My techs do. They throw up the “jazz hands” if I do it. (MM laughs) The band, they don’t do it so much.

Mettler: You know, I’d love to see a Delta Deep vinyl EP get released on Record Store Day.

Collen: Oh, maybe. We’ve got an EP coming out sometime later called Blues with four other tracks, and some acoustic takes on things from the full album. I think it’ll be a 10-inch EP. There’s so much vinyl being made now that they couldn’t print it up in time for the [CD] release date, so it has to come later. Amazing with all that vinyl coming out now, huh? Who would have thought that would have been the case?

Joe’s a big fan of that [i.e., Record Store Day]. Ross Halfin, our photographer, goes to all the record stores whenever he’s out on tour with us. We just finished a big thing up in British Columbia, Canada, and he said, “Ahh, I just have to go off to the vinyl store,” and off he went. Yeah, it’s a pretty good club to be in, vinyl, so I think you’ve talked me into it.

Mettler: Glad to be of service. Call it the research you and Helen have to do for your next project. It’s due diligence. (Phil laughs) Next time I’m out there on the road with you guys, we’ll go record shopping.

Collen: Great, ok. We’re on! (chuckles) That’s a great idea. I wouldn’t have even thought about doing it until we started talking.

Photo by Helen L. Collen

A longer version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site, soundbard.com.