Thanks to mega-hits like “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Rock of Ages,” Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen has seen the world from arena stages and out the window of million-dollar tour buses — and more recently, from the behind the wheel of a rented SUV as he drove his new band, Delta Deep, from gig to gig on a California tour earlier this year.
Collen, 58, doesn’t mind getting back to basics with his blues-influenced new lineup, which is maybe a side project, maybe a supergroup, but definitely rounded out by Stone Temple Pilots bassist Robert DeLeo, drummer Forrest Robinson (TLC, India.Arie) and powerhouse vocalist Debbi Blackwell-Cook (Luther Vandross, Michael Buble). Not coincidentally, Blackwell-Cook is also Collen’s godmother-in-law — Collen’s wife Helen, Blackwell-Cook’s goddaughter, serves as DD tour manager and photographer.
Between Lemmy and Bowie it’s been a rough time for music losses, and Delta Deep’s members have not escaped unscathed: Def Leppard’s ill-fated cruise earlier this year saw bassist Jimmy Bain pass away onboard, while DeLeo’s longtime STP and former Velvet Revolver singer, Scott Weiland, succumbed to mental illness at the age of 48. When the Village Voice caught up with Collen while he was driving up to LA from his Orange County, California home, he explained what the blues really were, how he learned a guitar technique from YouTube, and what makes Delta Deep tick.
Village Voice: How did Delta Deep form?
Phil Collen: Debbi sung at our wedding, and she’s with [my wife Helen and I] a lot, and whenever we’re around she’d just be singing. My wife suggested we do this Paul Rodgers song, “Muddy Water Blues,” just for the hell of it. So we did it acoustically and [then did] a charity event at the Gerson Institute in San Diego. Everyone [asked] “Where can we buy this?” so we started writing songs. It started as a blues thing, but loosely based. [Think about] BB King, Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard — they all played the same venues, sometimes on the same night. So it was funk, soul, blues rock; it all comes from the same place. I think what we’re doing in Delta Deep comes under that umbrella.
It’s not definitely blues. Real blues comes from suffering, slavery, pain, agony. That’s why I find it quite funny when I hear white musicians [talk about the blues]. I do pretty well myself being a white middle-aged man, but I’m very aware of what the struggle was, and I hear that in the music and certainly heard it in Debbi’s voice. She’s been through a hell of a bunch of stuff, as my wife has, too. My wife lost two brothers to gun violence; Debbi’s son was killed by a gun three years ago in a robbery; just a lot of things that don’t seem to happen to white people. You hear that pain coming out.
VV: So you and Debbi were doing Motown. How did you find your rhythm section, and how did that change the sound?
PC: Yeah, we were doing Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Temptations, Tina Turner, you name it. The first original we wrote was called “Miss Me.” When we got the other two guys, Forrest Robinson and Robert DeLeo, it morphed into something else really quite aggressive. It got muscular. It really reminded me of Led Zeppelin, who started off as a blues band, as did the Stones, of course. As an artist, that’s what you’re supposed to do — change. I find if you stay confined in any one box, you’re not going to grow. You let everything in, and therefore, let everything out. It’s amazing to do that.
VV: How did you meet Robert?
PC: Though a friend, Chris Epting, who I did my book Adrenalized: Life, Def Leppard, and Beyond) with. He said, ‘Have you ever met Robert De Leo, man?” I hadn’t, but Chris said, “he loves funk and blues and he’s a Motown disciple.” We met and he really is. And I love STP and him as a songwriter, but I had no idea that’s what he was into. And Forrest, Joe Sample chose him to play in the Crusaders, which is such an honor. I met him when he played with India.Arie, but all he ever wanted to do was play metal, double-kick drum metal. Again, don’t judge the book by it’s cover; he’s a 6 foot 2 black guy with dreads. When he got into this, it exploded, the whole thing sounded different.
VV: “Bang the Lid,” “Whisky,” Shuffle Suite” are so authentic, like they could have been written in 1920. What is your writing process?
PC: We just naturally went with it. It’s me, my wife Helen, and Debbi, which is how these songs on our 2015 debut came about. “Bang a Lid” is down in the Delta, about slavery, which I certainly wouldn’t be able to write on my own as a white guy. That’s what the song ended up being about. We actually have an album’s worth of stuff left over, but we’re dying to get into the mode of writing and have Robert write — the more the merrier. A lot of the time with bands there’s an amount of something that’s contrived, not taking anything away from anyone. But this just flowed very naturally. There are no restrictions, and there’s a freedom to that that’s amazing.
VV: “Bang the Lid” starts with some great slide guitar; have you been playing slide long?
PC: This is really funny. I had an operation on my hand (a tendon slipped off a knuckle), and I was sitting around with a cast on for six weeks. When it come off, I’d atrophied, my wrist was all sloppy, and I couldn’t pick anything up. I said, “you know what, I’m going to learn slide guitar.” And God’s honest truth, I went on YouTube, and I found a 10-minute tutorial. I’d listened to slide for years, but never actually played, ever. So I got it down, wrote a song, recorded it next week and that was the first song I’d ever played on slide.
VV: You’ve got a few big names on the album — your singer Joe and Whitesnake’s David Coverdale…
PC: The first song we actually recorded (the 1972 Ike and Tina Turner tune “Black Coffee”) had Paul Cook and Simon Laffy on it, who are in my band Manraze. Debbi had sung on our last Manraze single, so that made sense to have them on this. It’s keeping it in the family, and the same with Joe and David Coverdale. I’ve toured with Whitesnake and David Coverdale, and he’s a really cool guy. Deep Purple (who Coverdale fronted from 1973 to 1976) was the first band I ever saw. So for these guys, it wasn’t “let’s get some guests in.”
VV: So, the two go-to tags for Delta Deep would be supergroup and side project…
PC: It’s neither, really. It’s a real band. If it was a side project, I wouldn’t be scrambling around in a van. Someone else would be controlling it. But we’re totally on it and in it. As for the supergroup, a lot of bands get together and it’s a name thing. This is something else, a love for what we’re doing. Again, when you say us live, it’s clear it’s a very real band.
VV: Def Leppard is still out there touring. How do you find the time?
PC: Right now I’m driving some guitars up to LA for Def Leppard. It’s pretty hectic. I’m actually producing the new Tesla album too. I’m going up to Sacramento the day I get back from the Delta Deep tour.
VV: You’re used to arena shows and Def Lef Leppard crowds. What’s been your experience in clubs with Delta Deep?
PC: I’ve played everything from a cave in Morocco [Ed. — Caves of Hercules near Tangier] to a haystack in Canada, so it doesn’t really bother me. I can get on any stage and it’s fine. The Def Leppard fans who come out are really respectful. I think they’re blown away by it, and it has the same energy that I put out at a Def Leppard arena show, just in a different context.
VV: The Def Leppard Hysteria on the High Seas cruise this January was marked by sorrow when The Last In Line bassist Jimmy Bain, died on the cruise, and of course, a lesser tragedy, when Joe lost his voice.
PC: That was awful that Jimmy died. It was a pretty weird cruise, I have to say. We couldn’t dock because the weather was so awful. Then Joe went to sing and nothing came out. Looking back, that was quite funny: He REALLY needed a break. He sang for nine months with walking pneumonia. The doc said, “if you wanna lose you voice for good, keep doing this.” Now he’s right as rain. But when I compare rock tragedies to real life, the comparison I make is the comparison to my grandmother-in-law. She died in Brooklyn last year at 95. After slavery had been apparently abolished, she was in the cotton fields at 5 years old. She saved money and left North Carolina for New York and didn’t even know how to read until her granddaughter, my wife, taught her. When I compare that to rock tragedies, it’s a breeze in comparison.
Delta Deep plays B.B. Kings on April 3rd.