Phil Collen Interview: Screw Ballads, I Prefer Being Sweaty and Running Around

By: Rob Cavuoto

Take rock guitarist Phil Collen of Def Leppard, combine him with the dynamic intensity of an iconic drummer in Paul Cook from The Sex Pistols, add a soul stirring rhythmic bass of Simon Laffy from Girl, and throw in the experience of selling over 80 million records, 2 achieving diamond status…and you’ve got Manraze, an electrifying London based alternative dub-punk-rock band.

The band issued their debut album Surreal the summer of 2008 in the US and the UK to rave critical reviews comparing the band to the Police, the Foo Fighters, and the Clash.

Now on August 2, 2011, Manraze will be releasing their second album aptly titled punkfunkrootsrock paying homage to their many musical influences throughout the years.

Many of the songs are reminiscent of early Def Leppard songs weaving in and out of raw rock to punk to commercial radio singles. punkfunkrootsrock features 12 tracks with so many great rock/dub/soul moments. There are some killer hard rockers like “I Superbiker”, “Get Action” and the single “Over My Dead Body,” as well as some moody and haunting tunes like “ICU in Everything” and “Edge of the World” in the vein of The Police. I know that its only half way through the year, but I must confess that this one of my favorite CDs to date.

I had to chance to speak with all the members of Manraze, and I am now sitting down with guitarist extraordinaire Phil Collen, who sets the record straight on writing, recording punkfunkrootsrock and how it compares to his experience with the more corporate process of Def Leppard.

Phil Collen

Phil Collen Photo: Rob Cavuoto


Rob Cavuoto: Tell me a bit about the creative process for Manraze and how it worked with Simon Laffy and Paul Cook in London and you in the US?

Phil Collen: As far as writing goes, it’s usually me and Simon just bouncing ideas off each other. We would send lyrics back and forth over the phone and texting – any which way we could.

It’s kind of fun process. We never let distance stop us. If you’ve got a bit of a groove going on or you got an idea or a concept of a song, it’s kind of infectious.

It does take longer because they’re in London, so that’s always gonna pose a bit of a challenge.

Rob: How did you take all those song fragments from emails and texting and form the songs and bigger idea of the CD?

Phil: Well, this album was unlike anything I’ve worked on in my life. We had compiled 20 song ideas when I met Kevin Day, from Rocket Science Records in L.A who who said, “We could do this CD, but it would be ideal if you could get it done before Def Leppard goes on tour.”

We literally had a few months to get all the songs together, to write it and then to record it. We recorded it in two weeks in London by just getting a bunch of studios together on the cheap ’cause we had no budget. We had to get friends to let us borrow their studios. We ended up going to three different places.

All my guitar work was done on my laptop with Guitar Rig 4. It has such a great tone. There’s probably two or three overdubs with real amplifiers on the album, but for the most part it was Guitar Rig. So that was another big problem alleviated. You don’t have to sit around and mic things. The guitar sound was instant. I did the same thing for the latest Def Leppard. You can’t really tell the difference; it sounds like a Def Leppard record.

I like the idea of doing it that way so we can spend more time and energy being creative. I know in the past with Def Leppard I would spend literally months trying to get a guitar tone only to scrap it to use speaker simulators. I have an idea of what the sound should be, and I can get any sound I want so I can concentrate on the actual songs.

Rob: The thing that impressed me the most about the CD was the way you blended all of these musical styles to sound like a cohesive unit. Understanding the complexity of the creative process, was that a challenge?

Phil: Actually, I think the speed of the recording really took care of that. Again, going back to some of the Def Leppard stuff, it took three and half years to complete Hysteria. I remember specifically for, “Animal,” we’d done the backing track, kept the lead vocals, then scrapped the backing track and rewrote a whole new track around the lead vocal!

After three years in the making some of the songs started sounding dated, so even with some of the best technologies we had to change the sound. When you have bands like the Stones, Beatles, Zeppelin, when they did albums, it was done in a very short amount of time, and they concentrated more on the songs and the arrangements so the band’s sound really took care of it.

With Manraze we never really thought, “This is kind of straying off,” because we’d done it in two weeks. Each song has that luxury of sounding very similar to the other songs, ’cause a lot were done in the same day. Even with the guitar parts done, the drums were being edited at the same time and then I had to do the lead vocals. It all was very quick. You don’t really have time to think.

It was very exciting and a really cool way of doing things. Very distant from a lot of the very corporate ways over the last twenty years. Recording has been very uptight and this was a throwback, to just having fun and doing it for all the right reasons. That’s why it sounds cohesive.

Rob: It must be very liberating for you compared to Def Leppard?

Phil: Yeah it was really cool, I loved it.

Rob: How many Manraze CDs do you think you could put out by the time Def Leppard has a new studio album out?

Phil: [Laughing] We did another very interesting thing with Def Leppard. We released Mirrorball, which has twenty-one live songs and three new songs. I think the three new songs sound great ’cause we didn’t have to do twelve.

I really think that if we’d done like ten or twelve songs it would have gotten a little bit diluted.

I think with Def Leppard, perhaps we should take note and record as need be instead of writing twelve songs and sitting in the studio which can become very time consuming. Again with Manraze, I do think we’re on a bit of a flow. I think we had to make a commitment to each other and stop writing. It was almost like a vow. When you get going, you get really inspired – more songs kept coming out. Again, a very different setup to what Def Leppard is, but I’m just really privileged to be a part of both.

Rob: Do you think Manraze came out of the slowness of Def Leppard to produce and the need to get your creativity out?

Phil: Partly, but more than that. Joe and I spoke about this years ago. The more popular Def Leppard became, the less we could experiment with stuff. We did that with Slang; we loved it and everyone else hated it. So we are painted into a corner. There’s no way we could have done what I’m doing with Manraze where you do a dub reggae song and then a song that sounds almost punk.

Similar thing happened with Queen, they started writing different types of songs, and people kind of shut off. It was weird. You’d think the fan would grow with the band, but that’s not always the case.

I had lyrical ideas and musical vibes that I really needed to get out, and we could never have done that with Def Leppard even though we’d attempted that before. For me the Manraze thing is great. It allows me to scratch the itch.

Rob: On the CD I was surprised at how similar your voice sounds like Joe Elliott’s. Do you feel like you have similar voices?

Phil: On the choruses like with “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” that’s my voice you can hear, so that’s why it sounds familiar. Also the fact Joe and I learned how to sing from Mutt Lang, so all the inflections and the way he bends notes and all that stuff was literally from sitting down with Mutt teaching us how to do it. So there are gonna be similarities.

Rob: Was it a difficult decision to take lead vocals rather than hiring someone else?

Phil: This has happened loads of times, when you sing ideas to someone and they can’t quite get it. It’s much easier if you just do it yourself. Especially if you know how it should sound and you’re expressive with it.

I’ve always sung. I’ve been singing since I’ve been seven, just on my own. It’s not that I’ve wanted to be a lead singer at all, but it’s practical.

I’ve just always thought of vocals were a really important part of a band, and in Def Leppard we used it as another instrument, and I think as a lead vocalist you’re the narrator. It’s not just about singing and hitting the notes, it’s about being expressive. Whether it’s playing guitar or singing, it doesn’t really matter to me, just as long as you’re getting it out and expressing it and being artistic with it. It’s still fulfilling whether it’s a guitar or piano or whatever, really.

Phil Collen

Phil Collen: Photo Rob Cavuoto

Rob: If Def Leppard ended tomorrow, would Manraze be the band that you carried on with?

Phil: Absolutely, yeah.

Rob: Any chance of Manraze, the Down ‘N’ Outz Boys and Thin Lizzy would go out on tour together?

Phil: That would be cool. It probably wouldn’t happen, but it would be fun.

Rob: What are the plans for touring? I know that Def Leppard has a pretty extensive schedule for the rest of the summer.

Phil: Our first gig’s coming up in America, the 31st of July at the Roxy in LA so, I’m really looking forward to that. That’s gonna be an album release party, a special release day. So that should be a blast.

I think at some point, Def Leppard has a three or four week break. We [Manraze] have a really solid cohesive album that’s coming out on a proper record label and we want to tour. We actually want to get it out there, and I’m just thrilled to be doing that.

It’s great playing in a three piece; it’s really high energy. It’s a whole different thing that comes with it. All the bands that influenced us, the Police, Hendrix, you can really relate after you play in a three piece. It’s almost like a jazz thing, where you can go off on a tangent. You can’t do that if it’s too structured and you’ve got too many instruments. So there’s a certain amount of freedom that comes with a three piece, especially if you’re the lead guitar player and the singer. You just listen to it and just go off. I’m loving that experience.

Rob: When you were last in NYC, you told Eddie Trunk the next Def Leppard was going to be a rock CD. What are you going to tell him if its not?

Phil: It should be. It’s not Eddie that’s the problem, I’ve gotta convince the rest of the guys. What seems to happen is that we start off like, “Yeah, let’s do some live backing tracks,” and we start with every great intention. Then we get sidetracked and the song takes a different life of its own. I’m not making excuses, but that’s what happened with Def Leppard.

It starts with something and we try and make it better, all of a sudden you look up and there’s an orchestra, a violin section, and you go, “Jesus, what happened?” [Laughs].

So yeah I don’t know what I’m gonna say to Eddie, but I’ll get him his hard rock album at some point.

Rob Tell me what your thinking when you’re playing “Pour Some Sugar on Me” for like the billionth time?

Phil Well, last night we did a show in Charlotte, NC. It’s great, it’s absolutely fantastic. Everyone’s going bonkers and everyone’s singing along to it and you forget… My daughter, who is six, just asked me, “When did this song come about?” and I said, “Well, 25 years ago”.

What’s really amazing is that it still has that same effect. It’s a lot of different things, but the fact that we put all that into it and were still doing it 25 years later and it still has the same effect is mind blowing. It doesn’t get old really. It does get old if you’re in rehearsal and there’s nobody in there. It’s like pulling teeth. But if you’ve got an audience that’s great like they were last night, it’s amazing.

Rob: Is there any song that you would like to never play live again that you can’t stand playing?

Phil: No, I mean they’ve all kind of got a story like. I prefer playing rock songs to ballads. Ballads are cool to write but I’m a bit “Eh” when it comes to playing them live. I mean, I don’t hate it, it’s cool still, but I prefer being sweating and running around.

Rob What would you have done if you’ve never picked up the guitar?

Phil: Well, I was delivering things on a motorcycle in London, so I hope I’d have moved on from that. [Laughs] I really do believe that if artistic expression is part of your life and you tap into that fulfillment, whether it’s painting, sculpting, poetry, music, directing, anything artistic, I think you’ll be satisfied.

I think I would have carried on looking for something that gave me that fulfillment. It would’ve been something artistic. Again, I think it’s very important for people that don’t “make it.” As long as they’re actually getting that fulfillment, then they’re happy.

I think we’ve gone really far away from that with the current kind of American Idol style, where people just want to be a star. It’s more important to express your art, and I think that’s a great thing. Some great musicians would be happy as pigs in shit just getting their stuff out.