Def Leppard's Phil Collen talks live album Mirrorball, new studio tracks

Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen is pumped - about the band's new live collection, that is! © Scott D. Smith/Retna Ltd./Corbis

"I supposed we could've called it Def Leppard Comes Alive!, but somebody's already used that," jokes guitarist Phil Collen about the band's upcoming live album, Mirrorball. "Joe Elliot and I were talking for ages about what to call it. At one point, he suggested Mirrorball, which I liked. So I was at the NAMM show and I started talking about the record and referring to it by that title. Then everybody started to want to call it Def Leppard Live, and I was like, 'Too late, guys. The name's already out there.' Beside, it's more than just a live album when you think about it."

Mirrorball is a bulging affair, to be sure - two CDs of rousing live performances (all the hits and more), along with a bonus DVD of assorted goodies. In addition, the set contains three new studio tracks, Kings Of The World, It's All About Believing and the can't-get-it-out-of-your-head-if-you-tried number one radio smash, Undefeated.

With a release date of 30 May in the UK and 7 June in the States, Mirrorball comes on the heels of a 48-city Def Leppard summer tour (starting 15 June in West Palm Beach, Florida and wrapping 15 September in Auburn, Washington, with warm-up shows in Belfast and Dublin on 7, 8 June, respectively, and a headline appearance at the Download Festival in Donnington Park, UK on 10 June). "All in all, it's shaping up to be a crazy-busy time for me," says Collen, who also just wrapped up recording a new disc with his side band, Manraze (we'll have more on that CD in the coming months).

And if that weren't enough, he and co-Lep guitarist Vivian Campbell recently completed work on Dreamin' With Def Leppard (due out 28 June), a collection of the band's classic tunes rendered as lullabies. Wait a minute…Dep Leppard as children's music? What are we, f-f-f-Foolin'? "It's not as odd as it sounds," says Collen with a laugh. "Well, actually, it is kind of odd until you hear it - and then you go, 'OK, I get it now.' It's really quite special."

MusicRadar sat down with Collen the other day to talk about Mirrorball and Dreamin' With Def Leppard. In addition, near the conclusion of the interview, we spoke about Collen's one-time partner in riffery, the late Steve Clark, who passed away 20 years last January. "I think about Steve all the time," Collen says softly. "It's good to know he hasn't been forgotten by all the fans who loved him, as I most surely did."

Mirrorball is a very cohesive live album. I was a bit surprised to see that it wasn't recorded during one show - it's culled from a few dates.

"That's right. We record every night we play - we've been doing that for years - so there was a lot of material to go through. The main thing we did was listen back to shows and focus on how good the audience was on any given night. Was the crowd really rockin', you know what I mean? You can focus on your own playing here and there, or if Joe's singing particularly well. Luckily, we're pretty consistent. I'd put us at 85 percent on a live scale. Sometimes there's a rough night, but nothing too horrible. There's a couple little guitar mistakes that I hear, but I don't mind."

You didn't punch in any guitar tracks?

"No. Nothing. No redoing of guitar parts, vocals, nothing. I can't speak for anybody else, but I didn't touch a thing. What I played live is what you hear on the album."

There's so many cuts on the record. How did you guys decide which version of each song to use?

"Joe was in charge of that. He got together with [co-producer] Ronan McHugh, and they picked out the best cuts and sent them to the rest of us. I think everybody was pretty happy with their selections."

Now, we can talk for days about your awesome guitar playing [Collen laughs], but let's give Vivian some love. Where on Mirrorball do you think he shines?

"Ahhh! That's a good question. On Love Bites, Vivian gets to do the whole ride-out. He does a very long solo, and it's kind of a showcase for him. He's fantastic on that. I'd say that's a good one for people to check out. And he's really great on Bringin' On The Heartbreak, too. He stays pretty faithful to what Steve Clark played on the record, but he does so in a way that's very tasteful. On Love Bites, though, that's the one where I think he's pretty astonishing."

OK, we can talk about your own playing now. Guitar-wise, what are your own personal favorites on Mirrorball?

"Hmmm. I'd have to say Photograph. There's some runs I do that are pretty cool. Some nights I don't get them exactly the way I want. You go, 'Shit, I didn't pull it off tonight. Oh, well, I'll try again tomorrow.' But the version on this record is a good one. I nailed it that night, for sure.

"See, the thing about me is, I don't get all weirded-out if I mess up. So many players get all screwed up if they make a mistake, and I'm just not like that. My attitude is, if you make the effort, that's half the battle. Even if you fuck up hideously, who cares? Just go out there and do your best. Play from the heart, play like you mean it. You know what I mean - don't hold back and be safe."

Absolutely. I love the acoustics in the first half of Bringin' On The Heartbreak - and then, of course, you guys slam into the electrics midway through. How long have you played the song that way?

"This is interesting. We started doing that on the Hysteria tour, and then, during the whole 'Unplugged' fad in the '90s, everybody started doing it. We used to try to play that song just like it was on the record - I'm talkin' vocally now. That motherfucker was so hard to sing live. [laughs] This was before we knew how to sing properly. We'd be out there trying to do some kind of Beach Boys meets Earth, Wind And Fire-type vocals. It was ridiculous! But with guitars, yeah, we brought the acoustics back out, and we tune down now."

The new songs are great. Undefeated is classic Def Leppard. The riffs, the hooks - it's got it all.

"That's all Joe. You know, he doesn't just come up with vocals. Everybody has a hand in everything in this band. Joe writes riffs and guitar parts, the same way that we might come up with vocal melodies. But he played that song for me and my wife, Helen, in a hotel room back in December, and we thought it was terrific. Vivian and I just played and sang on it, really. But we put a lot of effort into it. We put a lot into all the new songs. That's one of the things that I think is special about not doing an album: each separate song gets a lot of attention."

How does the band record these days? Back in the '80s and '90s, with Mutt Lange, you were known for your meticulous nature in the studio.

"Yeah, we don't do that now. Joe and Ronan get together and record stuff, and then they put the files in a universal site for the band, a kind of drop-box. So I'd make my comments, do my guitar parts and vocals and send them back over."

Is it weird working that way? Doesn't that make it hard to have a band vibe?

"For Def Leppard, it works out beautifully. We're a great live band, an amazing live band, but we've never been able to record ourselves that way. We get in the studio together, and it just never works out. See, you can spend too much time in the studio trying to get things right, and what happens is, you lose all the life and the essence of the song. Like with my band Manraze, we try to get things on the first take. If you don't get things on the first or second take, you can usually forget it."

The song It's All About Believing has a bit of an Edge-like guitar intro.

"That's my Fender Telecaster. I composed that song with my writing partner, CJ Vanston. We've been doing stuff together for years, but that particular song felt right for Def Leppard. Again, I think I used Guitar Rig on it, but it might have been version 3. CJ and I did that track, and and then we sent it to the rest of the band. I'm really pleased at how it turned out."

On the live version of Love Bites, Collen says Vivian Campbell is "pretty astonishing." © Gene Ambo ./Retna Ltd./Corbis

Do you like the idea of recording and releasing a few songs at a time? A lot of bands are forgoing the album format these days. We're almost back to the era of the single.

"I do like the idea. I like it a lot, in fact. Of course, I'm just speaking personally - other members of the band might have differing opinions. But yeah, I think it's cool to concentrate on a song here, a song there. Make each one really great, you know? I'd rather do that than spend a year working on an album, and then you wind up with one or two terrific songs and the rest are, you know…pretty good.

"Recording a few songs at a time - that's how the Stones used to do it, how the Beatles used to do it, David Bowie… You got the best out of each band or artist that way. Plus, I think the way the industry is going, with people downloading songs, it makes sense. If people aren't into full albums the way they once were, you might as well give them something really great to listen to. I'm not saying that's what we'll do, recording separate songs, but I wouldn't be opposed to it."

Well, until that time comes, you and Vivian recently collaborated on an album together, and lo and behind, it's Dreamin' With Def Leppard. A Def Leppard children's album - who woulda thunk it?

[laughs] "It's pretty cool, isn't it? Tor Hyams is the guy who produced it and sort of put the whole concept together. He's been very involved with kids' music. He said, 'We're doing this kind of lullaby record of rock tunes.' So at first, I thought, OK, it's one of those nursery rhyme albums to put the kids to sleep - that kind of thing. But when I heard what he was getting at, it became clear to me that he wanted to make it a bit more rootsy than that."

Yeah, there's some blues and jazz elements to it.

"Absolutely. That's what I liked about it. I would have been a bit put off if it was all soft xylophones and, you know…[almost whispers] 'All right, now, it's time to sing the little ones off the sleep.' [laughs] But Tor didn't want to do that. He wanted to do something that was cool musically, but it would still be a children's record.

"The whole thing turned out to be a lot of fun and rather easy to do. Take a song like Love Bites, which on the original recording has so many guitar parts. It's pretty complex. But it was a breeze to go in and play the song in a different format. I put down the melody on the chorus and various rhythmic parts during the rest of the song. I had a great time choosing the sounds, too."

I was going to mention that. I don't hear a lot of amps - were you and Vivian going direct?

"As for myself, I plugged into my laptop. They sent me the main tracks, these instrumental beds, and I recorded my contributions. Vivian and I worked separately on the record. I think he went into the studio where they put the tracks together, and he worked with them a bit. He might have used an amp on a couple of things. But like I did on the Manraze record I just finished, I did all my guitars with a Guitar Rig 4 and my laptop."

How many guitars did you use?

"My Jackson PC-1 and a Jackson Sweet Tone - those were the only two guitars I used on the whole record."

I love the restraint you display on Pour Some Sugar On Me. Was it difficult not to 'go off' a bit and play hammer-ons and dive bombs?

[laughs] "No, not at all. I played what came out. It was really cool to re-imagine the songs in such a unique way. I know people will scratch their heads when they hear about this album, but I guarantee when they listen to it they'll be pleasantly surprised by the results. I know I was."

Lastly, I wanted to talk to you about Steve Clark. This past January marked 20 years since he died.

"That's right. You know, it's really great to talk about Steve, and I'm glad you asked me about him. I'll tell you something interesting: Recently, my wife, Helen, filmed four separate videos for a Steve Clark fan site in which I answered a lot of questions about him that were put to me by fans from all over the world. It was quite incredible to hear from all of these people, and I have to say, Helen did a wonderful job of putting the videos together. I'd be very happy to have you and your readers check them out."

I'll certainly do that. But let me ask you, can you believe it's been 20 years already?

"No, I really can't. Sometimes it seems like just yesterday that I saw him. His style of playing and his personality…You know, Steve was just the loveliest guy in the world. He was like my best friend. We'd talk for hours and hours about everything under the sun."

"As guitarists, our styles were quite different. Although some things would overlap, our influences weren't the same, really. Steve's favorite player was Jimmy Page, but not just because of the actual playing per se - he really dug Jimmy was a producer and writer and the guy who put together so much of Led Zeppelin's music. Here, Steve I and were in total agreement because I think Jimmy Page is a genius. A lot of people just get the guitar stuff from Page, but Steve and I would really tune in to what he did as an arranger. The music was very complex, almost like classical arrangements in many ways.

"Steve absorbed a lot of that from Jimmy Page. The biggest thing he took was a complete sense of musicality. The song, the sound, the mood...the impact. It's not about just 'shredding' or doing all kinds of crazy guitar licks. It's more of an overall style and finesse thing. Steve definitely had all of that down.

"Yeah, it is hard to believe that he's been gone for 20 years. My son, Rory, is 21 now, and I can still remember Steve meeting him for the first time - and only time, for that matter - when he was just one year old. Steve kind of rubbed Rory's little bald head and smiled. It was very sweet…a nice memory."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.