Bon Jovi, Jewel, Jessica Simpson, Darius Rucker—the list of rock and pop stars dipping their tootsies in the warm inviting country music waters gets a little longer every day. Veteran British hard-rock band Def Leppard recently collaborated with Tim McGraw on "Nine Lives," earning their biggest radio hit in nearly a decade. And later this year they'll take the next logical step by performing with "Tim McGraw" singer Taylor Swift on the genre-bending CMT series Crossroads. Have Def Leppard gone country?
"Not really," guitarist Phil Collen says with a chuckle. In fact, Def Leppard's new Songs From the Sparkle Lounge finds the band cranked up to full blast again after a few less-than-edgy studio efforts. As he strolled down a sidewalk in his native London, Collen (who also fronts the all-star alt-rock band Man Raze) talked to the Scene about Def Leppard's renewed vigor, dalliances with Nashville and unique perspective on a music world that has changed drastically since the group formed three decades ago.
Scene: Where does the more aggressive sound on the new record come from?
PC: The more albums we've done, the more they've ended up sounding perhaps more slick. It was nice to change it up, especially after X —that was very much a pop album where we really highlighted the songwriting. People said, "Oh, you guys have gone soft." Me included! I thought it was time for a change. So the brief on this album was to continue on that songwriting curve, but record it a bit more raw.
Scene: You did much of the writing and recording while continuing to tour last year. Why did you approach it that way?
PC: Typically you come off a tour, take a little time, reacclimatize yourself, get domestic, put on a few pounds and before you know it you forget what the fuck you were doing, what you're actually there for. We've certainly done that many times, and the albums have sounded a little insipid. By doing it this way you get the best of both worlds. It was something we'd never done, but that's what the Stones and Zeppelin used to do. It was quite inspiring.
Scene: How did you get to know Tim McGraw?
PC: [Def Leppard drummer] Rick Allen's brother Robert is Tim's tour manager, so Rick's known him for years. He'd said it would be nice if we wrote a song together, and once I'd heard that, I started coming up with an idea for sort of a bluesy thing. Then when I met Tim, I said, "I've got this idea, it goes like this [sings 'Nine Lives' riff]. Then you come in and you sing, 'Is your luck enough?....' " We stood in the corridor at the Hollywood Bowl for about 90 seconds and pretty much wrote the basis of the song. It worked a treat.
Scene: Def Leppard have licensed a few songs for the upcoming fourth edition of the Guitar Hero video game. How do you feel about that phenomenon?
PC: I'm excited. As the labels are disappearing, it's a great way to get your stuff out there so people can actually hear it.
Scene: How much are you worried by all the changes in the music business?
PC: It's done two things. It's heightened the live business. A lot of bands who go on tour now can really tour—especially if they have a huge catalog, which we do. It's made that stronger, so overall it's helped us. And it's also helped bands to be even more creative, because they don't have a buffer telling them they can't do this and can't do that. A lot of artists are doing exactly what they want to do, and they couldn't do it before because they were affected by someone controlling it all. From that point of view, I think it's really cool.
Scene: A lot of successful bands break up, and then it's a big deal when they reunite. But there isn't as much of a fuss made if you just don't break up in the first place.
PC: I've noticed that. It's slightly irksome, but what do you do? Having said that, I do believe we've been given a lot of credit for sticking together. It's good to get a few brownie points, one way or another.