When Def Leppard announced the re-release of their darker, alt-rockier album Slang, Trebuchet’s Meltem Yumulgan was initially expecting to speak to the band’s co-lead guitarist Viv Campbell.
A few short paragraphs about the glory days, perhaps a little pullquote about groupies, maybe a buried lead about working with Mutt Lange. The usual.
As it turned out, Phil Collen turned up as interviewee, and any expectation of stock responses to standard promotional questions were left, ahem, high and dry.
Def Leppard’s Phil Collen explains the reissue craze and pours some (unsugared) cold water on any utopian fantasies of the music industry.
Where did the idea of re-issuing Slang come from?
We actually got the rights back to our own album. That sometimes happens with record labels, they get reverted back to the artist. We thought we’d release it on iTunes, as there isn’t much stuff on iTunes.
But you’ve changed the sound, it’s been re-mastered?
Yes, of course, you need to do that; otherwise it would be 15 years out of date. It goes so quickly these days, with technology and everything. We also had these bonus tracks that had been sitting around and we thought we would make it a bit special, instead of just releasing it.
The fans love that kind of stuff.
Anything new with the sound?
Not really. All the parts are still there. We actually recorded all those Indian strings and everything when Bhangra music was so popular in the 90’s. We’ve got some other stuff as well. It was very experimental and I’m glad we’ve done that album, it actually sounds great and very fresh, even today.
that sounds like any other band,
it’s not likely to happen,
unless you’re a popstar and
have a pretty face
Slang was an underrated album; do you think there was a reason why?
In the 90’s there was a lot happening in music, for example, Grunge Rock was very popular. Moving on from the 80’s style bands, the sound changed, and people wanted more aggressive sounding music. Apart from the actual style of music, everything was changing and it was time for us to do something a little different as well.
We recorded it in a different way. We recorded the backing tracks live in a villa in Spain. That was something we hadn’t done for years and it had a very different sound for us. It had more aggression and the whole live vibe of playing together.
I think a lot of people didn’t really like that; they just wanted to hear the same old stuff from Def Leppard when we recorded everything in the studio separately.
People have a concern about the future of music these days. Young bands are struggling to reach out to new audiences. What has changed in the music to come to this? Aren’t people interested anymore?
They are very interested in music, but not the way it used to be. I know kids who are excited about music the same way I was when I was a kid. How they receive music, though, is not special in people’s life anymore.
From the 60’s to the 90’s, it was more an industry than an art form. The way people receive it now is like they have more important things in their life than music. They have so much entertainment, they can escape, they can watch reality TV, play games… so much sports, internet, etc. They have access to everything.
It’s not as important in people’s life. Being a rockstar is not that important or exciting anymore, it just doesn’t mean as much.
Don’t they need the escape in music these days?
They do, but they get it from somewhere else. Unfortunately now in America, and the same in England, they get it from really crap reality TV, having a smartphone and all that stuff. That is an entertainment for people. Music is not as exciting for them.
When I was a kid… Rolling Stones, studying the Blues and all those albums that came from America… now, no-one even cares. They either like it or they don’t, it’s just another piece of entertainment. That era of bands with different concepts and the mystique and all that, it’s gone. It’s had its day.
Even now, there’re only a few artists that people get excited about. It’s Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, One Direction or whatever. That’s what they get excited about, because it’s put in such a way that there’s so much money behind it, and finding new bands is not as important.
I wonder if it’s the lack of good musicians that are starting out, or is it because the music industry is not investing in them anymore?
It’s exactly that. They don’t need to! There used to be thousands of record companies, now there are two. The two own whatever is around. They know that if they invest in those bands, they’re going to lose money. So they put all their money into those Pop artists and they don’t have to worry about new artists.
If you want to get music like Led Zeppelin etc., you can buy a catalogue album. You can buy it online. I think it’s changed and it’s the end of that. There’s nothing to motivate the new bands to be an artist. One thing I’ve noticed with new guys is all they want to be is be famous so people can pay attention to them. Whereas, back in the day, The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix, they had that amazing music they just needed to share as an artist.
But it works both ways. If you invest in someone and say here’s the studio, write new music; surely something will come out if they have the talent or the vision?
Yeah, but they need to promote it. The record company used to promote stuff. It’s so expensive to do that. Now the record label isn’t going to do that, they don’t care about nurturing some artist, they don’t care that some musicians are trying to write some new good stuff. All they care about is the bottom line: how much money they are losing or making.
They don’t care about a brand new band, because they won’t make any money on that.
So, it’s again down to the audience? The record companies know that there is no demand.
Absolutely! Demand is what people are told. If the media says it’s ok to put all their money into one band, people will hear that. That’s really the way the industry works. It’s run by accountants; it’s not about musicians or artists. If you don’t bring money, then you’re no good to them.
They won’t invest any money in a brand new band at all, unless everyone’s going ‘Oh, these guys are amazing!’ Arctic Monkeys were playing all their gigs, and that’s how they grew. It really worked for them but that’s kind of rare.
You say there’s no demand but when Def Leppard plays a huge arena, it gets packed. If an album is released, they will still buy it, though not as many as they used to. So, there is still a demand for the old bands. Are you saying that’s because the promotion is easier if it’s already a famous band?
That’s the reason that we’re still alive. We still tour and we’re a really good live band. I think, in a few years, we will be seeing less bands touring. Bands like Aerosmith, AC/DC stopped touring. The whole thing is fading away. There aren’t many new bands that can actually do that. Even venues are closing down.
What we’ve known as is coming to an end, and we are lucky that we can still do that. We’re still in the public eye because we go on tour. It still airs on the radio. If we were a new band, we wouldn’t stand a chance.
It’s very pessimistic….
For example, with the Man Raze stuff, we put this stuff out and it’s great. But, no-one really cares. With Def Leppard, we put a lot of effort and energy into the touring part. If we didn’t, it would just go away and no-one would care.
But when you think about those Pop artists that they invest in and build some demand for, it makes you wonder why they wouldn’t do that for a good band.
It costs too much money and is too much of a gamble for anyone investing in it, so they won’t do that. For any new band, it needs to be a proven thing that they can invest in them; no-one’s going to take a chance.
Have you lost your faith in the future of Rock’n’Roll music?
No, I’m just being realistic. I’m still going to be writing, Def Leppard is going to be recording and doing stuff. It’s just that it’s changed. That big band era when people went down to see all those bands is gone. People just don’t care anymore. They have more important things to do.
What about the vinyl trend, bands releasing vinyl versions of their new albums. Evoking the nostalgia of the old times, maybe to bring back their hopes about it? What do you think about that, have you got a vinyl player?
No, I haven’t! I have a few vinyl records, but not the player. It’s a very small percentage. You couldn’t actually have a career on it. People used to sell millions of records, now there’s no such thing. Most people get it from a download – whether they bought it or got it illegally. Releasing the vinyl version is not going to earn anyone any money.
and so many different ways of
getting them. It’s taken the special
out of it. There’s too much out there
Maybe it’s like a commercial trick to reference to the big rock band era when people used to buy those records? People think, ‘Oh, is it coming back…?’
The sound wasn’t that big anyway. We released vinyl as well, but it’s not going to sell a million. It’s just a nice thing to have.
Based on your experience, do you think there could be a new approach to make things better? Things like iTunes and Spotify, making an effort to make music more convenient and accessible?
It is very easy right now, it’s easier than it’s ever been. You can access pretty much all the music in the world and it doesn’t get any easier than that. I think that’s actually part of the problem! Before, you used to get excited about a Led Zeppelin album or hearing it on the radio. In England, there were maybe two radio stations and one TV show.
Now it’s everywhere. There are so many artists, bands and so many different ways of getting them. It’s taken the special out of it. There’s too much out there.
But some musicians are happy that getting themselves out to the world doesn’t depend on a record label’s investment. They can share their music and they might stand out if they are good enough?
Yes, but there are so few bands that can do that. As I said, like Arctic Monkeys; they did small shows, they got a following, they’ve done it very much that way. But it’s kind of very rare. One Direction, for example, they won the X-Factor or whatever it was, but that sound was created by the industry, by businessmen. It wasn’t really an art form.
For new bands, it’s great trying, but unfortunately, people do not care. What they do care about is disposable music. It lasts for a small amount of time and then they move on to the next one.
Let’s say there is still little hope for new bands, like the Arctic Monkeys example. Do you think getting yourself across to get famous is about being lucky or about being really good?
It’s about being marketable. It’s not even lucky. It’s someone going ‘Ok, we can make some money on this artist’. Even with painters; William Blake, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci . . . they were broke! William Blake died sleeping in someone’s spare room.
An agent or manager will recognize something and say ok, we can make some money out of that. That’s really how it works. When they ask me if I have any tips for young musicians, I say, “Yeah! It’s the fulfillment that comes from making the music.” That’s artistic fulfilment and if you want any more than that, you are going to be disappointed.
Don’t go thinking ‘I’m going to be a huge rockstar and be rich’. The fulfillment comes from making the music and being an artist. If anything else happens along the way and someone else thinks it’s good, that’s a bonus. But for most people that doesn’t happen.
An interesting point. But when you look at massively successful bands, like Def Leppard, you opened a new era but it’s also marketable. So, maybe quality and being artistic can pay off sometimes?
It does but you’ve got to be different, and not just for the sake of being different. You have to have a quality, an x-factor that is special so someone recognizes it – someone who is in a position to push that forward and has faith in. If you’re just another band that sounds like any other band, it’s not likely to happen, unless you’re a popstar and have a pretty face.
It’s like actors; there’re so many great actors out there, but someone who looks better and can act kind of ok, will do better than someone who has been working his arse off in theatre for years. It’s the same as that. This is where hard work comes in. It doesn’t just happen; you need to work your arse off.
We worked so hard, sometimes it pays off and other times it doesn’t. You’ve got to be different, special, work hard, and be prepared to drop everything and work even harder.
In part two of this interview, Phil Collen talks about Katy Perry, Skrillex, Jan Van Eyck and the importance of being both different and special. Out next week.