Our Interview with Phil Collen

How did you get hooked up with Taylor Swift for “CMT Crossroads”?

Phil Collen: Honestly, I think it was partly to do with the fact that we had teamed with Tim McGraw [on the song “Nine Lives”]. I think that kind of raised a bit of the interest. I think the main thing — you know, we actually started reading about Taylor Swift, and we saw this thing where she said if she was ever going to anything like Crossroads, the band she’d love to do it with would be Def Leppard. Right there, that pretty much set it rolling, really.

She was born two years after “Hysteria” was released. Do you find that there’s a whole new generation of Def Leppard fans out there now?

There are, and there’s two reasons for it. The kids’ parents — I suspect that there was music around Taylor Swift growing up. … The other thing is the curiosity. I think there was a big stage just a couple of years ago. Everyone started getting into, you know, vintage T-shirts and, as you know, anything that’s more than a decade old is cool. Anything that’s in the decade previous is really uncool. So if you can ride out that storm more than one decade, you wind up being the cool thing again.

Your new album debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart. There aren’t a lot of bands that are able to stick around for 30 years, let alone be successful after that period of time. Does it surprise you that people are still so into the stuff you’re doing?

No, it doesn’t because it’s been [inaudible] all the time. If you’d have said that the two or three albums before that, a couple of them really tanked. [Laughing.] We could have said, Def Leppard aren’t around anymore. I think we get brownie points for having a bit of integrity. If you do stick around, you do believe in what you do and stick to your guns, when it does come around everyone’s kind of rooting for you — everyone kind of wants you to succeed. There’s a bit of that, and that’s really been cool. Sticking around means that you have to take the lows with the highs, I think. … No, it didn’t surprise me because we’ve expected that with every album, even the ones that didn’t go anywhere near that.

It seems that “Yeah!” — the covers album the band did a few years ago — made a lot of people take notice of Def Leppard again. How did that project come together? How did you decide what was going to be on it, or even that you wanted to do it in the first place?

Well, that was the easiest part. I think the toughest part was actually getting the album made. Before I joined the band, I used to know Joe [Elliott] and Steve [Clark] and everyone prior to that. I joined in ’82, and Joe Elliott was kind of going off about a covers album like Pin Ups — like the David Bowie album Pin Ups — even back then. … It just never happened. One day, one of the guys at our label in England said, “It’d be great if you guys did a covers album.” And Joe was like, “Yes! Let’s do that! Let’s do that now!” So we did, but we didn’t do the regular thing where it’s like, “Let’s get a hit off of this. Let’s record big hits.” It was like, “No, let’s record songs that really meant a lot to us, that were the reason that we got passionate about music.” … When we did the Bowie song, we stayed clear of, say, “Ziggy Stardust,” which everyone’s done, or “The Jean Genie” and stuff like that — we thought, “Let’s do ‘Drive-in Saturday.’ No one’s ever done that.” Just kind of weirder songs. Dig a little bit deep, go into the catalog. And I think that showed where we were coming from.

Doing the song by John Kongos [“He’s Gonna Step on You Again”] was a little bit cathartic because when we did it, it was like, “Wow, this is where [our] song ‘Rocket’ comes from. It’s got a huge drum [inaudible] that’s almost a tribal African thing, which is where the idea came for “Rocket,” big guitars, a huge sing-along chorus. We weren’t even aware of it but when we started recording it was like, “Wow, that is absolutely the big brother of ‘Rocket.'”

We did a David Essex song. Where a lot of people would say, “Oh, that’s uncool.” But “Rock On” was a great rock ‘n’ roll song. Back in the ’70s when we were getting into music, you could like a Supertramp song or a Sex Pistols song and it would still be cool. For whatever reasons it was that it floated your boat or blew your skirt, that’s the reason you do it. I think this whole album was kind of based on that. It was for us, really — it wasn’t for anyone else. … It was all about us.

Until I heard the Faces cover [“Stay With Me”], I had no idea you could sing. Now you’re fronting a new band called Man Raze [with Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and Simon Laffey from Collen’s pre-Def Leppard band Girl]. How is it different being at the forefront?

It’s a little tougher. You get so much freedom from being in a three-piece band. … It’s a bit like Cream or a being in a Miles Davis-like situation, where you can just go off and improvise. So that was really cool. The difficult part is actually singing and playing guitar all at the same time. You don’t really get a break. In Def Leppard … there’s a lot of time I can goof around and have a bit of fun. With the Man Raze thing, it’s like, if I’m not playing a solo I’m probably singing.

Getting back to the “Crossroads” episode: What’s going to be tougher, incorporating Taylor Swift into the songs that you’ve been playing for years or learning her stuff and injecting your own vibe into that?

I think it’s going to be easier getting Taylor Swift to sing some of our songs. Because she’s a female, we can get her to sing all the bits that we really struggle with. So that’s going to be easy. “Well, we struggle with this — you sing this because you’re a girl and it’s a bit higher for us.” … We met with her band just a few weeks ago, and they were really cool guys and girls, and it was just fun. I think they can adapt to anything. I noticed that about them when they were goofing off in our backstage area. They can join along and play anything. I think you find that with a lot of country artists. They’re proper musicians, where we’re a rock band — it’s a totally different concept really.

I think it’s going to be fun. I think it will be exciting. And I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a stretch because I’ve heard the songs — the Taylor Swift songs — and the chords are very similar to some of the stuff that we’ve done. … You don’t really realize it until you start playing along with the and it’s like, “Hang on a minute. Someone’s been listening to ‘Photograph’ or the song ‘Hysteria.'”

When you joined Def Leppard 26 years ago, did you expect the band would still be going strong in 2008?

I certainly did not. Honestly, back then, I would think you couldn’t have a rock star past 30 years old. I really did think that. … The reason is, most people lose the passion. They actually lose the vibe and they get very comfortable. It happens with athletes. You see it with boxers — they train so hard, they get all the success and they’re not so hungry. What I think happens with musicians, it’s not really an age thing; it’s an experience thing. … With us, I still feel really hungry. The band feels hungry because I feel we have so much left to achieve.