AFTER THE FIRE: Interview with Def Leppard’s Steve Clark & Phil Collen

Guitar For The Practicing Musician – March 1988 – Interview by John Stix.

Photos by Ross Halfin with kind permission

Widely regarded by hard rock musicians as perhaps the most perfect recording since the Boston album of ’77, Def Leppard’s Pyromania (1983) set awesome standards as well as expectations for the band. Leppard may have rewritten the Heavy Metal Rules book of ’83, opened the gateway to a slew of Bon Jovial bashers, but by ’85 or so the notoriously discerning fans of crunching guitars would know if they were real or just another flash in the pan.

While metal itself was reeling from assorted body blows in ’84 and ’84, a double right cross from MTV, a kidney chop from the PMRC, the boys of Def Leppard were getting their backs bounced to the canvas, mired in troubles of their own. When Mutt Lange, their guru for Pyromania, wasn’t available, they tried to work with Jim Steinman of Meatloaf fame. When that proved unsuccessful, they tried to produce themselves. Then on New Year’s Day, 1985, drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in a car accident. For a band with two albums in the can before Pyromania, this was a particularly vicious case of the Sophmore Jinx.

Summoning reserves of courage and expertise, the Leps survived, inspired by Rick Allen’s gutty return. And by waiting out the fates and the muses, and Mutt Lange’s crowded schedule, they managed to catch a break at last. Buoyed by the mega-success of post-Leppard bands like Bon Jovi and Whitesnake, Poison and Cinderella, Hysteria’s eventual release arrived at what must be considered great timing.

Steve Clark and Phil Collen 1988

If not as definitive a statement as Pyromania, Hysteria nonetheless answered many of the burning hard rock questions turned to cinders during the hiatus. We had questions of our own, perhaps most burning of which was would guitarists Steve Clark and Phil Collen cling to the energy of their youth, or instead stand up as musicians who were, like it or not, four years older than those wild pyromaniacs who started metal blazing up the charts when last we last heard from them? The answer, as we learned in this interview, is that time marched on and so did they.

After Pyromania fever died down did you put your guitars away?

STEVE: People don’t realize that for the whole three and a half year period after Pyromania there was always at least one member of the group in the studio. There was never a break. After we left America we went back to Europe and toured for another two months.

PHIL: We finished touring and went straight to Ireland and threw ourselves into writing. We had no material prepared whatsoever. At first it was a struggle because we hadn’t actually counted on the fact that the tour would end and we’d have to write a new album. We didn’t write any songs while we were on the tour. So we were stuck. It was a bit uninspiring actually.

STEVE: We were a bit lost for a direction to take. Was there anything [Phil] from when Jim Steinman tried to produce the band that you learned and later applied to the album?

PHIL: No. It didn’t work at all. It was a very wrong move on our part. We ended up having to scrap all of that and record again.

STEVE: The first two years were virtually fruitless. Phil and I both knew exactly what we wanted and we couldn’t get it. I don’t think he heard it the same way as we heard it. It wasn’t going anywhere. We knew in our guts it was wrong but we sort of went along. I think after Jim left about five new songs appeared.

Did any of these early efforts make Hysteria?

STEVE: “Gods of War” came out then.

PHIL: “Animal” is a reincarnation of the original.

STEVE: We wrote “Armageddon It” in Dublin and there’s not one section that survived. The chorus wasn’t strong enough so we changed the chorus. Then we thought the chorus is so strong the verse is a bit weak. We rewrote the verse and said the bridge stinks. There’s not one existing note from the original, but a progression that went over about three years.

PHIL: The only thing the same is it’s still in E.

This is the first album where Phil had a hand in writing. Where is that influence heard most prominently?

STEVE: It’s all throughout the record. Phil came up with a lot of lyrics. I didn’t come up with any lyrics on this album. Listen to the riff in “Rocket.”

PHIL: We’re not a band that says, you’re the guitarist, you write the music; you’re the singer, come up with the lyrics. If anyone has an idea then that’s fine and good. I wrote vocal melodies as well. Instead of writing a guitar riff and putting the melody on top of it, I’d write a melody and we’d put chords underneath.

STEVE: We’d guitar-ize it after, in the gaps between the vocal, rather than coming up with a complicated riff and thinking, where is the vocal going to go? We’d come up with the vocal first and in the gaps we’d be putting interesting riffs and suspensions. That’s something that Phil added that we’d never done before. The good thing about it is we have the capacity to think differently. Phil will come up with a riff that I’d never even think of. Also, we can come together at some point and make it work.

What’s the role of the guitar in the band’s sound? 

STEVE: We now approach things more like a classical orchestra. There is a part for everybody to play. It might be the simplest thing in the world, but if it sets up another part to come alive, that’s what’s right. It doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated, as long as it makes the song live [gives the song life]. You just have to be mature about it. We don’t make any bones about it; we do whatever it takes. People thought we were crazy sitting in the studio just hitting an E string. Guys would come in and say, what the hell are those two doing? It can be that simple. If it all comes together to make a piece of music work that’s the thing. It’s just using the instrument properly.

PHIL: I wouldn’t say we are making a detour, but there is a lot of guitar players who play solos for the sake of self- indulgent reasons. The guitar, after all is an instrument, and it should complement others like a voice. If you can’t so that then you’re playing wrong. If you’re getting in the way of a song with a great vocal, something is wrong.

If I spoke to you on the first album you probably wouldn’t have had this attitude.

STEVE: No, but it’s a good sign that we have the capacity to grow, because I know people who don’t develop that. There are some great players around, but they are not doing anything they weren’t doing ears ago. They are playing for themselves as an ego trip. That’s fine for them, but they’re limiting their audience. We want to look beyond just guitar players and cover every aspect. We take a lot of pride in everything, especially guitars. Part of that is knowing when to stop.

PHIL: Another important factor that a lot of people don’t realize, is that so many good front room guitar players, when put in the studio with a drum machine, can’t play in time or they can’t play chops. But you need to get it right. We worked hard on this stuff. It improved our playing a hell of a lot.

STEVE: We play everything down to a click track. We think if you can get dynamics and emotion out of the sounds and the playing itself, then when you put the cymbals and drums fills on, it’s going to add to it. We won’t do that until there is a certain amount of energy coming out of the guitars to a straight click. Where a lot of other players bang it straight down to where there’s no mistakes, we try to get more out of it than that. This is a good progression on the same way we did Pyromania. A good example is “Love Bites,” which has only two live rhythm guitars. We sat in chairs playing harmonies and different suspensions to each other through two little Gallien Kruegers. All we heard was a drum machine. We tried to go into the studio and improve on the sound but we couldn’t get the same vibe. So even though we record some songs very precisely, that we left as it was because we couldn’t recreate it. It’s very difficult because you can be playing for months and you’re still playing to a guitar backing track that’s so tight. When the thing starts taking shape and the backing vocals appear and the bass goes on, that’s when you sloppy it up a bit. That’s when the track comes to life, but you know you’re playing to a solid foundation. If it starts wavering on the backing track it’s only going to get sloppier from there on. When the backing track is rock solid it’s the reverse, and things can get even better.

PHIL: A lot of the experimenting we did individually. There some things where we played live together. On the “Rocket” solo we got the solo worked out and we played the same solo. We made it purposely sloppy. But it was done first take.

STEVE: The actual backing track was so rigid that we wanted to sloppy it up. The solos we played in unison and one note out of 10 in harmony. I’d be wanging it, bending it into tune. We’d have different spinoffs. I’d add a totally different delay to what Phil was using. It created a wash in the solo. The solo in “Hysteria” was done live.

PHIL: The rideout section on “Hysteria” as well.

When you’re so meticulous where is the spontaneous spirit of rock ‘n’ roll?

PHIL: An album is immortal. It lasts for a lifetime. A night’s show comes and goes so you can be spontaneous. But you’ve really got to make sure the album is right.

STEVE: We definitely separate playing live from the studio. It’s two entirely different approaches. There’s all that atmosphere live. You’re buzzed up, there’s lots of people there. In the studio you’re playing to four walls. You have to create an atmosphere. In the control room we’d put the lights off and get it moody.

PHIL: Live is a totally different thing. You expect mistakes and to be sweaty and for your voice to go out of tune and to bend notes out of tune now and again. That’s what makes it live.

STEVE: If you do it live exactly the way it is on the record, that’s the reverse. I’d have to put a Strat down and pick up a Les Paul for the bridge and after the bridge take that guitar off and play a Gretsch. Within the songs themselves, some passages have four counter melodies going on underneath the vocal. That’s four different guitar parts. There’s no way between the two of us that we can play that. What we do is pick out the most featured parts and condense the two parts into one. It’s not cheating, but we don’t try and get it exact. We pick out what people hear on the record and play it. We do get it pretty close.

PHIL: What we lack from that is definitely made up for in energy. During the five months the album took to mix we did some B-sides and started rehearsing. We rehearse until we can do it in our sleep. The main thing is when we started rehearsing these songs they were physically impossible to do. We rehearsed so much we actually got it. We raised our standard.

STEVE: The fun comes after we get it automatic because you don’t have to think about it too much. Then you can experiment and things change nightly. On this tour we now have the ability to chop and change songs every night, which we never did before. We rehearsed far more songs than we actually play. There is a lot of contact, rather than saying it’s like this on the record and that’s it.It might be totally different the night after that. We might not even play that song. We learned that from Prince. It makes it exciting for us as well as the audience. I’m not the biggest Prince fan in the world, but I do like some of his stuff and the professional was he presents a show. It’s even down to the way he works to put a show together behind the scenes. He keeps his crew in order and there’s no drinking until after a show. We let a lot of things go in the past. He taught us a lot from every aspect. Now we keep our eyes open for everything.

PHIL: Prince rehearses his band nine hours a day sometimes, even on a show day.

STEVE: We met him in a little jazz club in Paris. That’s the time he wasn’t playing guitar anymore. Phil said, why don’t you play more guitar? Prince did a set in this 200 seater and he played “Red House” for Phil. Another thing Prince showed us was that there’s always a way to get around things. We were scared to use a pedal board because it ties you down. What we learned from Prince was to get an effects rack and let somebody else work the thing. It’s a question of being more professional and expecting more from your crew. It was the same philosophy with the album. We said there is no way we can do this live. Now we actually play the new songs better than the older songs. Even the way we present songs live, there’s no battle between us. We’re not afraid for one of the guitars to drop out during a verse to create dynamics. It’s maturity. Mutt Lange made me aware of it too. You get a bit bored and want more than just a three-pickup Les Paul and a Marshall and that’s it. Steve Stevens blew me away with a great sound. The guy in Simple Minds got to me. It wasn’t his playing so much as some of the sounds he was getting I woke up one day and thought I want to get into using different delays and a chorus rather than just a Marshall.

PHIL: You kind of wake up and start listening to other things. You become aware of dynamics. Sting and The Police had an impact on me. So did a lot of the early Motown stuff. The recording techniques weren’t that great but the dynamics of the songs still come through. There is obviously more than just studio technology and studio equipment. You know it’s in the playing. It was something I learned, especially from Mutt Lange. I wasn’t aware of time. I never used to really listen to what else was going on. I used to listen to only me and go wild, which is a very selfish thing After a while you listen to timing and what the drum parts are doing and the bass and you play toward that, so your playing changes a bit.

STEVE: It’s almost like one day you wake up and you are aware. It comes with age, but it sort of dawned on us. For example when we played “Love and Affection” live or “Armageddon It” I use the Firebird. I don’t need the loudest most distorted guitar Phil is doing the solo, so I don’t need that much sustain. And it worked for the song. We realize now no matter how good the outfront guy is who is doing the sound, he can only control what is coming off the stage. If we nail that and get a cleaner sound for the rhythm part so the solo shines through, it will have a bit more clarity and it’s a different ball game out front.

Terror Twins Steve Clark Phil Collen

Did you go through changes in equipment as well?

PHIL: A hell of a lot. Now I use Jacksons. Grover Jackson sent me a Charvel and it blew me away. I met Grover and he made me a Jackson Soloist with Jackson pickups and a Kahler and I love it. He is building me a special shape body with a 24 fret neck.

STEVE: I endorse Gibson now. They made a lot of changes for me. I have two brand new Les Pauls with Kahlers. I feel more relaxed about playing now, so Gibson made me some coil taps so when I press the volume control the pickups split. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that before. I’m also using Firebirds, which have weaker pickups, for songs like “Too Late For Love” and “Love and Affection.” It’s a compromise between a Strat and a Les Paul. It’s got that bite to it but more warmth than a Strat. Gibson made me one which has the treble volume control push pot for splitting the coils.

PHIL: We both use the same amp setup. We’re using two Randall rack mounted heads in stereo with Randall cabs. We use two 4×12’s and two 2×12’s on each side where the mike stand is. There is one 2×12 at the back. We use t.c. Electronics gear for chorus and delay, which our roadies operate. We’ll try anything.

The kind of layers and dynamics I expect from Queen are all over Hysteria.

PHIL: We like that big sound. Although they did it with vocals we’ve done it with guitars as well.

STEVE: After Pyromania we said we never wanted to make Pyromania II so it was a very intentional approach. There were more keyboards in Pyromania, so we said let’s still write keyboard parts but play them on guitars. We even tried to make the guitars sound like keyboards in some places. It’s very orchestrated and we try to get a lot of dynamics and clarity out by layering sounds.

Did you know what you were going after?

PHIL: We knew how it should sound and that we weren’t getting close to it. A lot of stuff took a hell of a lot of experimentation. We used E-bows, or played a whole chord playing each string individually. We tracked it eight times. Eventually we got what we wanted.

STEVE: It was very hard work. There were times when we felt like throwing in the towel and saying we’re trying to get something that is impossible. But we just kept on trying.

Your musical approach sounds almost like Boston. If you were to pick out any melody note in the vocal along with the rest of what is going on, that single note would make an intentional chord?

STEVE: If you saw it on manuscript it would probably look that way. The thing is not to clutter things or to have conflicting melodies clashing with each other. We start off with a click and it takes a certain shape. Then you go in that direction for a song. We treat every song differently. We wanted the album to be a collection of songs; we didn’t want it to be all straight down the line with the same guitar sounds or rehashing the things we’d done before. “Excitable” is new territory for us to do.

Who did what solo?

STEVE: I did the solo in “Women.” We both did “Rocket,” “Animal” is Phil, “Shot Gun” and “Gods of War” is me. “Love and Affection” is Phil. “Sugar” doesn’t have a solo on it.

Did fatigue set in during recording?

PHIL: That’s one of Mutt’s great points. He’ll make you do it until it’s right. He’ll sit ‘till five in the morning.

STEVE: We were running out of time and it was costing a lot of money. We said we’ve got to knuckle down and if you don’t finish ‘till five in the morning then that’s the time you finish.

Did you have a say in the mix?

STEVE: After Jim Steinman left we tried producing ourselves. We’re a real democracy and nobody’s ideas get shelved before they are tried. It takes us five times longer to do anything. Applying that same theory when doing the mix, there’s five different pairs of ears. We all hear it differently. We said we’ll be mixing this album for the next three years if we don’t let someone take charge. We let Mutt mix it.

I love the instrumental part of “Women,” with that last D chord.

STEVE: It wasn’t part of the song at all originally. That developed in the studio. Basically we had half a song and then went in and totally redid the end bit.

PHIL: Mutt said we need an ending on this song that’s different. We sat down and worked out a climactic bit. To be quite honest, the end bit is a bit of a goof off and it got left on.

STEVE: There is an E after the D which didn’t make it.

PHIL: It’s like the nonsense before “Rock of Ages”

STEVE: We had the same thing with “Photograph” there’s a noise before the riff comes in. The rideout on “Hysteria,” with Phil on a clean Tele sound was another accident. He filled in every gap between the vocal. People think that is the most clever thing ever done. It was a total accident.

It sounds like this album is exactly as you want it to be.

STEVE: As close as we could get it at the time. I don’t think we could have gotten much better. The next time could be totally different.