By Chyrisse Tabone, Tampa Correspondent
After previewing Delta Deep’s self-titled album (please see Rock At Night’s review), I was really curious about Phil Collen’s interest in blues. After all, this is the guy who started out in a glam rock band Girl prior to joining hard rock/metal band Def Leppard in the early-1980s. I wondered if this was a new interest he recently acquired? Was he a closet-case blues aficionado? What is the scoop?
I actually caught up with Phil Collen on June 23rd, the same day as the debut of Delta Deep. We had a very interesting and animated conversation on the history and culture of blues, his interest in the genre, and the formation of his new labor of love Delta Deep.
While sitting comfortably on a bench in the tour bus, I could not contain my enthusiasm saying, “I’ve been listening to your album for the last few weeks and the first song—as soon as I heard it—I thought, ‘Wow!‘ I’m all over this!’ The slide guitar…the energy… I felt like I was at a Southern tent revival.” I then asked how the blues project evolved.
Collen explained, “It really came about with me and Debbi while playing the acoustic guitar. I’m so disappointed with where blues went because initially it was an expression of agony, pain, and suffering. You know, the whole slavery, gospel singing, and blues.
“I got so annoyed with the stylized, glossy style of blues. It’s really a feeling. I grew up with blues-based guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Richie Blackmore, and Jeff Beck. All of that. Also, when I was a kid I noticed Aretha Franklin. I noticed Tina Turner [and all the] agony and pain. Even Little Richard, I think, was the first rock singer. There was so much expression! He had so much suffering in his life, being a black man in the United States.”
I mentioned that blues pioneer Ray Charles could be added to the list and that he lived in Florida for many years. He attended the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine and resided in Jacksonville as well as here in Tampa.
Collen continued explaining and said how cathartic blues was for him and how it was an expressive outlet for black Americans. “Wow! So you can’t do anything about it so you have to release it in another way. On a minor note I never suffered teenage angst as a kid because I had that. It really can’t be compared to what these people suffered. So when I heard Debbi singing I thought ‘Oh my God!’ It took me to that place.”
One song on the album that really impressed me is “Whiskey.” Blackwell sings with raw emotion yet it is smooth and sultry like an old jazz torch song. There is still a touch of grittiness, like a person who has pangs of sorrow. The jazz-blues singing is the real deal and not the slick, engineered sanitized blues musicians try to pawn off on the masses.
Collen described the motivation behind Delta Deep is to “put the soul back into soul music and rhythm and blues back into R&B.” He explained that he is not the only person involved with Delta Deep who shares his vision of blues preservation. Paul Cook, formerly of the Sex Pistols, and currently Collen’s other band Manraze, plays drums on “Black Coffee.” Other special guests on the album include David Coverdale (Whitesnake), Joe Elliott (Def Leppard) and Simon Laffy (Girl, Manraze). Funk-bassist Robert DeLeo and metal-drummer Forrest Robinson are active members of the band. The concept of heavy metal or hard rockers gathering for a blues album is intriguing because it is rooted in a musician’s desire for collaboration but also the need to be creative outside of their known style.
I asked, “This almost seems like an evolution to me because Manraze is alt-rock but it’s not Def Leppard. Then, you are evolving to this! Was this intentional?”
Collen shook his head and noted, “No, even with Manraze we’d sound Motown or punk. We’d go dub reggae. We’d go real heavy dub reggae. It’s like that except this time we have a different artist painting, like Debbi. You’ve got this voice. She sang at our wedding acapella. It was ‘The Man I Love’ by Ella Fitzgerald song and it was just beautiful.”
Collen actually beams when he talks about blues and his love and appreciation of the genre. One can hear how proud he is to be working with Blackwell. He continued, “So, we had been singing together (and I heard “that thing”) and I said ‘Whoa!’ It was like the first time I heard Aretha Franklin when I was just a little kid.”
I noted Blackwell’s similarity in vocal delivery and passion to Tina Turner, speculating her rocky relationship with Ike likely had an influence. Collen reminded me,”Yeah, I know. ‘Black Coffee’ was actually written by Tina Turner.
I was actually thrilled to see “Black Coffee” on the album because it has always held a special place in my heart. I explained, “Actually, I’m a huge Humble Pie fan. Steve Marriott recorded ‘Black Coffee’. I am so happy that finally somebody re-recorded that song!”
Collen said, “Me too, and that version.”
I confirmed, “And ‘Mistreated’ by Deep Purple!”
He continued, “Yeah, again, I loved it! Richie Blackmore’s guitar playing. He was really a blues player with the volume cranked up.
“Blues guitar went from the Delta to Chicago and got electrified. Then, white guys got it like Keith Richards and Jimmy Page. They adopted it. Led Zeppelin was a monster blues thing on steroids—and so were the Stones.”
I retorted, “If it wasn’t for the British in the 60s, I don’t know if the blues would have been revived? I believe they obtained old 45’s during World War II and started playing them. They had an appreciation.”
So then, I had to satisfy my most burning question of the evening and I asked, “You are known for heavy metal in Def Leppard. Is this [blues] something you have been suppressing or is this a new exploration for you?”
He answered, “No, it’s always been there. In Def Leppard it’s a different context. People ask, ‘Are you using the same amps and guitars?’ Yes! It’s the same amps and guitars except for a few tracks where I use some other stuff.“
Collen continued explaining that writing Def Leppard music requires a certain structure. If the music deviated with a blues song or another vibe, the material would be out of context. He learned a lot of the writing process from producers like Mutt Lange. I desired to know more about the writing process for Delta Deep, asking, “ I understand that you, Helen, and Debbi wrote the music. What is the process? How do you write the music? Is there a system?”
He explained a word, phrase, drum part or guitar or bass riff might be the catalyst for a Delta Deep song. He explained, “Me and Debbi were just sitting around ad-libbing.”
Collen demonstrated by impromptu singing a blues melody. He continued, “Helen would just sit down and write all the lyrics to ‘Burnt Sally.’ Debbi sung it. All of a sudden it just clicked. Now with ‘Whiskey’ I had a [jazz chord] guitar sequence in my head since I was about 17 years old. I’ve never, ever got to use it!”
In amazement about the harbored jazz chord, I exclaimed, “Who would know that about Phil Collen of Def Leppard? It’s almost like you are out of the closet now!”
“Yeah, totally! And I played it.”
Phil starts to sing in a raspy, almost Rod Stewart-ish voice…
I got me this place where the whiskey drank the blues…
“And she just sung the rest!”
Collen explained that Blackwell suffered the loss of her son due to gun violence. Additionally, his wife Helen tragically lost two of her three brothers. He said, “So, all of this stuff comes from there!” It appears both women write or sing blues from the depth of their pain as a form of catharsis.
We then discussed the painful history of Black America and acknowledged race relations are “worse than they have ever been.” Collen discussed how his wife Helen was raised by her grandmother who actually worked in the cotton fields as a child since sharecropping was still prevalent in the South. She was able to travel to New York in her teens and escaped the bitter lifestyle. He smiled and beamed as he lovingly talked about her, “I had the pleasure of spending time with her at the house. She’s just an amazing woman! “
Collen acknowledged the strained race relations in the U.S. saying, “It’s everywhere. It’s very much an American thing (because of the slavery thing). In England they invited all the people from the colonies to work (in the 60s) —India, Pakistan, West Indies. But if you go to England, there’s more of a sense of belonging because they were invited over.
“In America, the African people were brought over against their will and enslaved, so you have a different attitude toward. If you meet somebody from Pakistan in England (a lot of the time) there’s a new generation of kids. They feel entitled and say ‘we’re British.’ Whereas in America, a lot of blacks say ‘we don’t feel entitled at all. We feel like we really don’t belong.’ So that’s the big difference (socially) between the two different countries. So, then, the music comes out from that feeling. “
Back to discussing the new album, I asked if he had a particular favorite. Collen answered, “Uh, all of them! It’s that thing again…like you can’t pick between your kids. All of them have things.”
Collen explained the formation of Delta Deep just organically happened through jamming at home on an acoustic guitar for fun. He said, “Yeah! It was acoustic and it was a lot lighter than until we got Forrest and Robert in. Then it went…”
“Heavy? Hard rock?” I asked.
“Debbi can really belt it out!”
“It sounded like Rage Against the Machine. It was interesting because the bass player from Rage Against the Machine got his licks from Robert DeLeo anyway!”
I then wondered about Blackwell’s background. Collen noted her roots are soul, R&B, and gospel. I then asked, “Did she evolve into hard rock because of the project?”
Collen reiterated, “Like I said, we don’t put limitations on genres, I think. In Def Leppard, we have to. Even when we’re writing, it’s a lot harder because there are narrow parameters—so we’re aware of it. In the band [Def Leppard] we would love to do this…”
“But you can’t?”
“We can’t. It actually makes us better writers for it.”
I asked, “So this is why rock musicians have side projects…so they can explore different areas?”
“We do get to exercise a lot of things with Def Leppard. It’s so melodic..there’s counter rhythms (all the stuff we learned off of Mutt Lange)…vocals, backing vocals. Counter vocals, stuff underneath…”
I confessed, “I like the style [in Delta Deep] because there are background vocals. I like the style in the 60s when there were real women. Now we have vocal harmonizers, auto-tune, effects that you step on…I can’t stand that…”
Collen agreed, saying “I know. We wanted to make this album for grown-ups, actually.”
“Right. That’s who you are targeting?”
“Right, because mostly they go ‘What are the kids doing? We want to be accepted. We want this and that.’ We went ‘No! We don’t care about that. We wanted to make music for us.’
I commented on Blackwell’s voice again saying, “I was thinking about the song ‘Whiskey’. That’s a sexy song!”
“It really is!”
“I think the way I’d describe her [Debbi] is ‘attitude’.”
“She’s so versatile! One of the songs sounds almost like Rod Stewart…kind of gravelly.”
“That’s me singing. We trade off.”
“Ohhh! So that was you in the beginning of the song?”
“Yeah, ‘Treat Her Like Candy’…We duet on that. In ‘Black Coffee’ Debbi does what the Blackberries did in Humble Pie and I do the Steve Marriott part.”
Anytime the name “Steve Marriott” comes up in converation with anybody, I start to gush like a school girl. I really cannot help myself. I replied, “I drum. And I drum to Humble Pie’s ‘Smokin’.”
“I’m probably sitting here gushing but I really like blues-rock or anything that is Humble Pie-ish.”
“It’s got to be aggressive!”
I was wondering if Delta Deep was just a one-shot-album or project, I asked, “Are you going to be touring?”
“Are you gonna’ be coming to Florida?”
“We’re going everywhere!”
“I hope so!”
“Yeah, we’ll play twice a day if we have to.”
I wondered if his voice would hold up (he assured me it would) and about Delta Deep’s recent debut at The Hotel Café in Hollywood, Calfornia.
Collen said,” The show the other night was just phenomenal!” He described the audience’s reaction as “stunning” and said a live album recording will likely be released from the event saying, “We recorded it and it was like ‘We have to release this. It’s killer!’ “
Since I play music I wondered if he used a special guitar or rig for Delta Deep. He answered, “I use mainly a Jackson PC1 which is my own model. Most of the time I use this thing called Guitar Rig which I plug into my Mac. It’s not even an amplifier.”
“So you use that to write music at home?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing to write the last five Def Leppard albums. It’s exactly the same stuff..and the Manraze. A couple of the songs I used my live rig which is a Marshall JMP rack-mounting with a Marshall tube M-12 and a Randall amp. That’s it!”
“Have you ever thought about using a blues harp in your music?”
“Not yet but I’m sure we will because it’s wide open.”
“I can really see that!”
I then recalled reading about Collen hurting his hand and then discovering the slide guitar. I assumed this played a major role in how he finally found his voice in the blues after his heart had been deeply rooted in the genre for most of his life.
“Yeah! I had never played slide before and I’d always been a fan of it. I always liked Duane Allman, Ry Cooder, Joe Walsh (I love Joe Walsh) and Bonnie Raitt (I love her slide playing)…Rory Gallagher. All of these guys I’ve dug and it was in my head. I had never played and I didn’t know I could do it.”
“So this! (Phil shows me the top of his hand) I literally had just gotten out of a boxing ring (he balls his hand into a fist and barely presses it against the floor) and did this. It was four days before a Def Leppard tour.
I asked, “Do you box?”
“I kick box.”
“Oh, martial arts.”
Apparently the incident was very serious. When I asked if surgery was required, he answered, “Big time! I’d play and the finger would pop.” This is really devastating to a guitarist because the chord fingering is performed with the left hand. He had to wear a cast for about six weeks and he described “basically I had to start playing guitar again from scratch.” He had to perform exercises to build up the hand strength, for example, squeeze a rubber ball.
I asked, “Was it painful?”
He responded, “It wasn’t so much painful as being really uncomfortable. After that, because I couldn’t hold a guitar, I figured ‘I might as well learn slide.’”
And, indeed, he learned! He recalled, “This is really funny. I went on YouTube and there’s a Joe Walsh tutorial. Ten minutes. He said ‘This is how you play slide guitar.’ He learned it from Duane Allman who told him directly. I learned it and the next week I wrote and recorded ‘Bang the Lid.’ I could play it straight away after he showed how the tuning went and the technique I said, ‘Wow! This is really cool!’ It was really very exciting!”
I asked, “What kind of slide do you like to use?”
“I prefer a metal one. Other guys use the bottles and glass. So I got a metal one. Helen got me one—a big wide one—and it’s great!”
“I play the ukulele and I tuned it so I could do the slide guitar. If you think about it, in the early 1900s…they used a lot of homemade instruments.”
“Absolutely! Like the cigar boxes…”
We talked about upcoming news with Def Leppard. There is a new album coming out in October which he describes as being “the best since ‘Hysteria’.” Def Leppard is going to be touring Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and finally landing in England.
So the future looks very bright for both Delta Deep and Def Leppard. I am looking forward to observing more growth and development from Delta Deep and I am waiting for that tour bus to return to Tampa, Florida!
“Down in the Delta”
Song Sampler from Delta Deep
DELTA DEEP’S WEBSITE