“I think I learned a big lesson from it. I hate barriers between musical genres, actually in life. It’s narrow minded to just stay in a box…I think the whole idea of being an artist is so you can expand on an idea.” – Phil Collen
Phil Collen may very well be one of the few prominent musicians left who can still capture the spirit of true blues music. His newest project, Delta Deep, pursues the key thematic elements that are so often missing from modern blues rock and draws its authenticity from lyrics rooted in racial tension, social struggle, and raw, sorrowful emotion.
After over 30 years as one of the genre’s most well-known and successful guitarists, it’s clear that Phil hasn’t lost an ounce of the creative drive that contributed to the prosperity of Def Leppard, since the days of Pyromania.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Phil Collen about Delta Deep, the state of the blues, and the music industry in general, as well as some of the most recent updates on Def Leppard’s new self-titled album launch.
Let’s start from square one. Was Delta Deep a project you’d been wanting to do for a while?
“I’ve always wanted to do an album like that, [but] it came about by accident, really…I met my wife’s godmother [Debbi Blackwell-Cook], she’s been singing since she was 2, she’s 62 now, and she’d come and look after the house, and she sung at our wedding and all this, and we just got so naturally comfortable around each other singing…Before you know it we’re doing Smokey Robinson, Temptations, Stevie Wonder songs just for the fuck of it, just because, no other reason. And that’s really where it went.”
Phil says a huge part of Delta Deep’s formation came from a charity performance he and Debbi did at the Gerson Institute, which has developed a juice therapy treatment for cancer patients. The authenticity of the band’s sound came, in large part, from Debbi’s firsthand experience with some of the core concepts that the blues is rooted in.
“I said ‘Wow, where can we get this?’ I just liked the sound that we were creating, you know the harmony, the blend, and just the vibe of it…so we started writing songs. Debbi’s just a brilliant songwriter, and I didn’t know this….And certainly being from Brooklyn, the whole black thing, and Rawkus Records…it wasn’t a contrived thing, but because of those backgrounds it just naturally went in this direction…I was shocked at how real it was.”
According to Phil, the addition of drummer Forrest Robinson (India.Arie, TLC) and bassist Robert DeLeo (Stone Temple Pilots), and their wide variety of musical (and ethnic) backgrounds, fostered the incredibly diverse sound and conceptual strength of the Delta Deep.
“When we all got together in the same room it was just so exciting and it really took it from there…We wrote a couple of songs the other day, just the subject matter is amazing…you can touch taboo racial subjects because we’re half white and half black as a band. It’s very interesting all of it…It’s where it comes from, it came from slavery, came from spiritual gospel, electric Chicago blues…it sort of touches on all that stuff, so we’re more than thrilled.”
Well you’ve got a lot to be proud of with the Delta Deep record. You mentioned that you wanted to bring real blues back, but you ended up with a dynamic [cross-genre] record…Was it your intention going in to create something really diverse and creative in that aspect?
“It’s a problem especially when you’re in a successful band, no one really takes me that seriously you know, ‘you’re a white, middle-aged, millionaire, male what you got to worry about?’ But I never had teenage angst as a kid; any kind of pain or anything came out in playing guitar or singing the way I do…I wanted it to have a rock edge but I had no idea it was going to go that far…It did go in a different dimension for us.”
This mindset spilled over into the making of the newest Def Leppard record, a self-titled effort slated for release this week. Phil emphasized artistic freedom in his comments; staying true to the art and moving forward without a record label or production staff has, in his opinion, resulted in Def Leppard’s best release since 1987’s multi-platinum album, Hysteria.
‘Let’s Go’, the lead single from the new record, marks a departure from the more traditional ways of marketing new music, as well as traditional motives. Def Leppard’s latest effort was not about business or monetary gain, but instead simply about “making music because [they] actually want to make some music.” A lyric video for the single, as well as their latest release ‘Dangerous’ have preceded this week’s release of ‘Def Leppard’.
With creative flexibility being a primary concern, was all of the material for Delta Deep brand new, or had some of it been sitting on the shelf for a while?
“It was all new…except the song ‘Whisky’, which is ironic. I started playing guitar when I was 16, and I got this jazz guitar chord book…I wrote all the music in [Whisky] 40 years ago which is bizarre, and I never really got a chance to play those chords on anything because I play in a rock band…all of a sudden I started playing that, I sung the first melody, and then Debbi took it and wrote the whole song about her son that got murdered about a year and a half ago during the Vegas residency. Someone…killed him in Baltimore, and she wrote it about that. [She] took it and made it a very personal, kind of real song.
Most of the stuff was brand new and fresh, just a here we go type thing.”
I’ve heard you say a few times that part of your drive with Delta Deep was that you don’t hear true blues in modern music anymore. There are a few exceptions, but the genre as a whole has definitely faded. Do you feel there’s a place in the mainstream for a blues revival?
“Yeah I do, and it’s interesting we did a show the other night in New York, and it was mainly a black audience…and they hadn’t heard that for a while. We’d actually done an Al Green song, and you had a white guy singing that stuff…they said ‘wow, no one’s even doing this anymore.’ Even soul music has got no soul in it anymore. Modern R/B is just an exercise in hitting notes…there used to just be a different, primal approach to it.”
For Phil, the genre as a whole has simply become too comfortable vocally, as opposed to someone in strong emotional pain expressing themselves, even with the prominent blues rock names in the industry today. To him, hearing authentic struggle coming out in pure expression, even in respect to punk, hip-hop, and rap, was a crucial element to that authenticity.
“They’ve taken the venom out of it.”
All in all, Phil Collen feels there is still a place for honest music in the mainstream, and an audience that’s waiting to hear it brought back.
On that same note, I’m curious about your thoughts on the industry in general. We hear this rhetoric about corporate music killing rock ‘n’ roll, but Def Leppard is still packing stadiums every summer. Do you think people are becoming less interested in a real deal rock band as opposed to your Drake/T-Swift types?
“I think the rock music is disappearing, I think we’re just having an Indian summer…it’s about being active…being this great live band, and you’ll take the KISS audience, you’ll take everyone else, and ultimately you’ll be the last man standing. We just did a show the other day. Ironically we had 18,000 people show up, and Van Halen played it the same week and only 6,000 people showed up. I love Van Halen, don’t get me wrong…[but] I think there’s maybe some stuff going on that’s not great and the fans hear it. They want to hear something real, and someone going out there with a bit of verve, and a bit of honesty, and I think [Def Leppard is] getting that.”
For more on Phil Collen, Def Leppard, and Delta Deep, you can check out:
About the author:
Justin Trombetti is a drummer & vocalist in Salt Lake City-based rock band, Larusso, as well as a contributor to the band’s official music blog. He owns and operates Premier SEO Services, an online marketing and blogging firm that has an entertainment marketing division specifically dedicated to helping artists create solid web copy, biographies, and marketable, original content. He has an affinity for creative music, inappropriate memes, and beautiful prose.