Interview: Def Leppard’s Phil Collen & Steve Clark with a little help from Rick Allen

SOURCE: ROCK SCENE MAGAZINE – JUNE 1988 | By Beth Nussbaum

This past week was very special for me.

I spent one afternoon and two evenings (consecutively) with various members of the Def Leppard group. But, the highlight of that fabulous time was the night I got to see another (and my second) Def Leppard show. Why was it so special? Did they play solely for me? A private concert, perhaps? Well… not exactly, but that could have been the case.

This private concert for a select 1,000 people took place at the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey, and it was as intimate as a Def Leppard show is ever gonna get! No stage in the round here, folks, but they did have some lasers and stuff. Virtually every seat in the house could have been considered a good one, but then I chose the “real” front row as my ticket to musical appreciation – Leppard style.

Needless to say, the show was brilliant, the sound phenomenal, and the players in top form. It could have been my living room – as it was every time I closed my eyes and sang a lyric with the group. A night surely to remember, forever.

In this month’s Musicians’ Spotlight we give you two who have certainly aided to the success and sheer brilliance of Def Leppard, and continue to thrill audiences even as this word is being written. Let’s see, it’s Saturday night, 8:15pm, where are they now? Could be in your town. I know they’re not in mine, or else this typewriter would be spending the evening alone. Oh well, I have only my third Leppard show to look forward to, and a lot more great albums to come from the group. Indeed that thought alone is worth living for.

Rock Scene: Phil, Hysteria was the first LP that you had a hand in writing. How much did you contribute, and was it hard orienting yourself to writing with a new band?

Phil Collen: I contributed quite a bit, actually. I think that comes hand in hand.

Steve Clark: He fit in straight away. There was no problem at all. In fact, on the previous albums, I wrote a lot because it was left up to me to do so. No disrespect to Pete (Willis), but he wasn’t one of the main writers. So, when Phil joined it took a lot of weight off of my shoulders, in some ways. Plus we’ve always been a democracy, and the best ideas always win at the end of the day. Phil has obviously had a big hand in the writing, so, there’s no real problems. We just all fit together so well.

RS: How would you compare and contrast your playing styles?

Phil: Just the influences, like, in general. Steve used to listen to a classically orientated style and I’d rather listen to a jazz sort of thing. If that has any reflection on our playing, well, I don’t know.

Steve: We’re just really different. There’s no one person that we based our styles upon. It’s just, we’re different, and that’s the only reason that it was an obvious choice that he join the band when the spot was available. We always thought, ‘What’s the point of having two guitarists that are probably equally as good, but play exactly the same?’ There’s no point. There’s no contrast then. And, I think that any Def Leppard fan that’s been with us for the last two albums could tell who’s playing what, straight away, as far as the solos. And, why not? That’s why I always loved Aerosmith, ‘cause there was two dual guitarists playing off each other.

RS: And, why is Def Leppard a two-guitar band?

Phil: ‘Cause we don’t like keyboards!

Steve: It’s a two-guitar band because we like a lot of dynamics in our music and there are a lot of things that you can’t do with one guitar. Where there’s only one guitar it has to be the foundation of the group, with only a bass and drums behind it.

Phil: In the studio there would be a shitload of guitar parts, orchestrated… like, in “Love Bites”, there’s like four different parts going off at the same time, and really, you need four guitarists, but I think we can get away with two.

Rick Allen enters and joins the conversation, much to our pleasant surprise!

Rick Allen: You see, what normally starts to happen with one guitar bands, is, they’ll get in the studio, and, to create dynamics, they’ll just end up using a keyboard player, or putting keyboards down. It’s a great way of doing it, I’m not knocking it, but, doing it with two guitars and making it sound dynamically interesting, is a hell of a lot more difficult than just going in and slapping a keyboard down. It’s like they said, in certain songs you’ve got an outrageous amount of guitar parts purely to create one sound. So, it’s quite interesting the way the two of them work together.

Steve: But, also live, we can get it really close, as close as we want to get it. I don’t think we want to get any more polished live because we can also compensate and do counter-melodies and things together. And, that’s part of the sound. It’s just the way the band started, and that’s the way we wanted it to be.

RS: What is your approach to guitar playing?

Steve: I play it low and he plays it high! Ha ha! Whatever’s right for the part, that’s our approach. On record, it’s not to overplay, just to play what fits into the context of the song and not play more than what’s required. Live, it’s a different story. You get a chance to WIELD!

Rick: I would call the two of them “field” guitar players.

Steve: Even if you play a million miles an hour and you’re doing a song like “Love Bites”, it would be really out of context with the song. So, you don’t have to particularly be flash to prove that you’re good. Part of being a good guitarist is knowing how to work to make it fit in the song. It’s just as important as a vocal, and a lot of groups get that little thing wrong. Where you can have a beautiful song, and then you listen to the solo, and it’s absolutely offensive, or like the singer will be screaming, ‘Arr, arr, arr’… I think it just puts a lot of people off. Just playing guitar, sometimes less is more. You know? But then, live is another story. Wield dude!

Phil: In that instance, more is more! Eleven!

RS: How do you work on improving your guitar playing?

Phil: Practicing.

Steve: Drugs. Ha, ha, not really.

Phil: When we’re on tour I always carry a guitar to my room, cause I practice everyday. I just play, I mean, I don’t really sit down and practice scales, or whatever. I just write songs and play, so, you’ll notice a big improvement there.

RS: You’re very much perfectionists in the studio. How about live? Can you make mistakes?

Phil: Oh yeah. That’s the whole difference about it. It’s gotta be a different thing, completely. A record comes out, and it’s gotta last. Well, it’s immortal. It’s around for years, but live, you can make mistakes, and no one really hears it. It’s gone a second later.

Steve: When you jump off the drum riser and do a triple pirouette, you can’t expect to hit the fucking chord note for note. I mean, if that’s what you want, you want perfection…

Phil: Go out and buy the album!

Steve: And close your eyes and picture us there in your room. We always look at the two elements separately. We’re out to entertain live, and I think we get it very close, musically. Any tighter than that, we’d have to sit on stools, and I think that would be a real bore.

RS: Would you say that you had similar influences?

Phil: Yeah, we all have like a common interest, but then after that, it gets radically different. We all used to like Queen, and that approach, but these days we listen to quite a lot of different things. I listen to a lot of Prince, and I quite like the new Van Halen album, as well.

RS: Why did you originally start playing guitar?

Phil: I went to see Deep Purple when I was about 14 and I just thought it was really cool, it just blew me away. I’d never been to a gig before, and I saw Richie Blackmore, and couldn’t believe it! I was an only child, well, I still am actually, and I just kept pestering my dad and mom, ‘get me a guitar, I wanna do this’, and that was about it, really.

Steve: It’s sort of the same thing with me, really. I just wanted to do it real bad.

Rick: I picked up a tennis racquet one time, but guitar was too expensive so, I had to opt for the biscuit tin.

RS: Which song, created by Def Leppard, are you most proud of?

Steve: “Answer To The Master”, no, ha ha. I’m really proud of everything we’ve… well, except for the first album. It would have to be something off Hysteria, I think. Because that is the nearest we ever got to sounding like we always wanted to sound. I really like them all, it would be hard to pick one song, cause I think they’re all great. I really like “Love and Affection”, even though HE (Phil) wrote it; the intro. I just like the way the guitars are played when we do that one.

Phil: The whole album actually sounds… like, for four years we had this imaginary sound of how we would like our album to turn out, and it wasn’t till we actually finished it that it was like that. We were actually blown away.

Steve: See, everybody thought we were totally fucking nuts, at the time. They said, ‘what you’re after, you can’t get.’ But we knew we were that close. It may sound weird, but I know what Phil wanted to hear, and he knew what I wanted to hear and everybody’s going, ‘you’re trying to find something you can’t get.’ And, we did end up with it, after all. I’m not saying that Hysteria’s the perfect album, but it’s the closest we’ve ever got to sound like we wanted that particular album to sound. So, I’m really proud of the whole album, the way it is.

RS: Would you say that good luck played a part in your steps towards becoming a professional?

Steve: Yeah, but no more than we had a lot of bad luck. I think it all balanced, in the long run. I think we’ve got a clean slate, at the moment.

 RS: What’s the biggest highlight in your professional career, to date?

Phil: When Pyromania was happening, we actually couldn’t believe our luck. We couldn’t believe it was happening to us. The first time you have that kind of success, you can never repeat it. I mean, Hysteria may sell more than Pyromania, but it still won’t be the same. It was like, very special. After we went platinum, it was, like, ‘fuckin-A, is this really happening to us?’

Steve: Then it kept on going and going, and it’s not as if you get used to it, or blasé about it, but it’s like anything else. It’s like meeting a girlfriend for the first time and you’re all buzzed up. Then, when you’ve been with them for six months, it’s like… you know.

Rick: Is that how it is?

Phil: When we did San Diego we had like 55,000 people out there, and when we went out it was like… at home. ‘Wow, they’ve all come to see us.’

Steve: With everything, it’s like, your first Christmas that you can remember and even though it can be as good, after that, it’s never your first time.

Rick: A highlight for me, personally, was doing those shows in England. We’ve never played shows in England as big as that before. (Wembley)

Phil: Donington was great because it was our first gig after Rick’s accident and that was really kind of emotional cause we’d done that show and we’d gotten away with it. It was great. He could play, and the audience really got off on us. It was definitely a highlight.

Steve Clark

RS: Is being a successful rock musician all it’s cracked up to be?

Steve: It depends on how serious you take being a serious rock musician! If you want to believe it, yeah, then you have a big let down when it’s over. We’re just very grateful for everything we’ve got. I don’t think many groups could have gone through what we did, not just the four years off, but all the problems we had, all Rick had, everything in general. We went through four years of hell, so, we just take it for granted. I think we came that close to losing it, and so, if it didn’t happen again it wouldn’t be such a let down. If it happens it happens and if it don’t, it don’t. We’ve given it our best shot, we’ve tried 100 percent, or even 200 percent, and we were prepared for whatever happens. I think a lot of people who believe it’s all what it’s cracked up to be, when it’s taken away from them, can’t handle it.
It’s really just what you want to make it. If you want to believe all that bullshit, and live by it, great, but, you’re just foolin’ yourself, really. So, we just get on with it, and have the best time we can together as mates, and that’s probably why we’ve gotten over all those problems.

Rick: And not only that. That’s probably one of the reasons we can spend 15 months on the road and not get on each other’s nerves.

Phil: Yeah right, we have fun together.

Steve: See, some groups go on the road hating each other. After we’ve been out for four months, to them it would probably feel like two years. We’ve already been out for over ten months, and… as long as you get the odd couple of weeks off here and there… which we don’t actually, ha ha. If you feel depressed or something, you can wind each other up. After 15 months we go, ‘has it been that long already?’ We want to be even bigger, and we’re already starting to feel depressed, going ‘goddamn, we’ve only got like four months left.’ It’s like, gone.

Phil: It’s really gone quick already. We were saying before, ‘we better savour this, because we’re gonna be off tour soon.’ What a shame, since we love it so.

But, they’ll be back. And this time it WON’T take four years!