Sure he’s working up a sweat, running around playing guitar under hot lights most nights, and when he’s not playing with the band, he’s writing songs, recording and producing. But don’t try to tell Def Leppard’s Phil Collen he’s got a hard job.
“It ain’t tough,” Collen said. “My wife’s grandmother, who just passed away, was 5 years old, working in the cotton fields. She moved to New York and worked hard. My wife taught her to read and write. That’s a hard journey. Playing in a band and getting accolades for it and paid for it very well, this is easy.”
Not only is it easy, Collen, who’ll be back in Lincoln Wednesday when Def Leppard stops at Pinnacle Bank Arena, says he’s getting better with each passing year.
“I can sing better now,” said the 59-year-old guitarist. “I can play guitar better. I think some bands don’t do this. You can put that down to health. They get old, they get sick. We don’t do that. We get older, you can’t help that, but we still feel like we’re young.”
In fact, Collen, known for appearing bare-chested at shows, showing off his toned physique, says he feels younger now than he did when he was 29 when he stopped drinking. He also has been a vegetarian for 34 years and is now a vegan.
“I don’t put all that stuff in my body,” he said. “You get a reward for it.”
The guitarist for the glam band Girl, Collen was recruited into Def Leppard in 1982 as the leaders of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal were making the sonic turn that propelled them to international stardom.
That change was adding elements of pop, glam and a little contemporary R&B with electronic drums and layers of harmonized vocals to metal. The amalgam made its definitive appearance on “Pyromania,” produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, the first Def Leppard album on which Collen played.
“Mutt Lange deserves all the credit for that,” Collen said of the signature Def Leppard sound. “It was his idea and him pushing us that far. We didn’t stay in the genre, we didn’t just listen to rock bands. What we did was incorporate what was happening at the time, whether it was pop or hip-hop turning into rap. It really comes down to that -- that open-mindedness.”
Staying open to other styles and making changes isn’t just critical for bands, Collen said, it’s imperative for individual musicians.
“I think you have to as an artist, otherwise, you stop being an artist,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it, being inspired by so many different things and having it come out some way. One of my favorite artists of all time is James Brown. I work out to him all the time. Def Leppard doesn’t sound a bit like James Brown. But it has to have an influence on me in some way, and sneak out in some way.”
Fueled by the hit single “Photograph,” punctuated by a Collen guitar solo, “Pyromania” exploded, lifting the band from opening for Billy Squier to headlining stadiums and selling more than 10 million copies in the U.S., earning a Diamond certification.
Then came “Hysteria,” another Diamond album, released after drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in an automobile accident. That album generated seven singles as Def Leppard became one of the world’s biggest bands.
The band’s magpie approach, Collen said, carries over to its live performances as well.
“We always have been fans of the hybrid, even with the show,” Collen said. “You hear Earth, Wind and Fire, or whoever, all these bands, you add a little bit of it. It’s the same with the show. You see KISS and all the production and lights and then a punk band in a club and you combine them. You combine all these things.”
Collen didn’t know the precise combination for Def Leppard’s 2017 tour during the interview. The finishing touches were just then being put on the production, and the setlist wasn’t yet complete. But figuring out what songs to play isn’t hard.
“You have to play the hot chestnuts, it’s a given,” Collen said. “There’s a bunch of them that are absolute essentials. Then there are second tier ones. And there’s a little bit of wiggle room for a new song or fun ones. But you have to play certain things or people are going to be pissed.”
That means it’s a certainty that concert-goers will hear “Hysteria,” “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and “Photograph” when Def Leppard hits the stage at PBA.
Wednesday, it will be preceded by Poison and Tesla, a lineup that Collen enthusiastically embraced.
“It’s fantastic,” he said.”We’ve toured with both bands before and love them. It’s almost like a celebration of integrity. We’ve got three bands with original members, not like some bands where there are just one or two. All these guys have been going, pretty much, at it as long as we have.”
And he said, he’s got another connection with one of the opening acts.
“I literally just finished producing the new Tesla album,” Collen said. “It sounds like Zeppelin or Queen or The Beatles from minute to minute, but it still sounds like Tesla. ... I sat next to Mutt Lange for years, I learned some things. It’s pretty cool.”
As Def Leppard tours this spring and summer, Collen said, there’s a chance for a memorable show for him.
“They pop up now and again, you have that magic that kind of sticks with you, playing the Marquee Club in London. I’m from London and played it dozens of times, but playing there with Def Leppard; Budokan, the first time we played there, when Rick Allen came back after his accident,” he said. “They’re a lot of them. The songs, they’re all your babies. They’re all really cool.”
So is the feeling when an arena full of people gives voice to one of the babies.
“If you sit down and write a song and spend god knows how many hours in the studio recording it, then you go out and people are singing it back to you, it’s the best thing in the world,” he said. “It changes everything, even if the song is 30 years old.”
All of that, Collen said, is a payoff that only veteran musicians can understand.
“To be honest, I think you appreciate it more when you’re older, appreciate it as an experience,” he said. “As a kid, you kind of take it for granted.”