Def Leppard still packing in audiences with high-energy shows

A little more than 20 years ago, Phil Collen discovered a nifty way to squeeze an extra two hours out of each day.

The Def Leppard guitarist quit drinking, and from there on out, he stopped spending precious time every afternoon recovering from gut-roiling hangovers.

This all happened right before the band released its top-selling album, 1987’s "Hysteria," which made Def Leppard one of the biggest rock bands in the world and put its members right in the eye of a tornado of booze and babes.

"For me personally, the only difficulty was seeing where I could draw that boundary," Collen says of getting off the sauce. "I tried to do the social drinking thing, and it didn’t really work in that environment. Everyone always wants to force drinks down you, and ‘take this,’ and girls are throwing all this at you. The only way for me to do it was to go, ‘OK, well, I’m not going to drink any more.’ And then it became really easy. I was totally done."

Sobriety has its benefits: Collen actually remembers the band’s rise to multiplatinum prominence without the memory-scrubbing fog that comes with getting to know Jack Daniels on a first-name basis.

These days, Def Leppard doesn’t sell records like they used to, but the band is still a steady arena filler and has become an institution on the summer touring circuit, where it’s as much a part of the season as sunburns, bikinis and lots of dudes passed out in the grass of your local amphitheater.

Collen himself has become similarly ingrained in American culture. The British expat has lived in the same house in Orange County, Calif., for the past 19 years, and his three kids were all born there.

"I go back to London, and I love it — I didn’t like it when I used to live there — but I go back now and I get out of touch with what’s going on socially or who these comedians are on TV," Collen says bemusedly. "I have no clue. I’m completely lost as far as that goes. I’m more Americanized. I just sound like a foreigner."

Mostly though, he sounds like an overenthusiastic teenager, the youthful vigor in his voice belying the fact that Collen turns 52 this year. He still acts like a kid as well, playing every show with his shirt off, grinning like a dude who just lost his virginity,

This energy is palpable on Def Leppard’s most recent disc, 2008’s "Songs From the Sparkle Lounge," a punchy, pop-rock barnburner that takes the band’s T. Rex, David Bowie and Sex Pistols influences and dunks them in glitter and adrenaline.

The band began working on the album while on the road, and it’s named after the area backstage where they began to demo their new songs.

"We wanted to start (the album) while we were on tour so that we didn’t have that terrible lull after getting off tour, six months, nine months, and kind of losing the vibe of it," Collen recalls. "We started while we were on tour with Journey opening up. A lot of times, we’d be in the little Sparkle Lounge studio room, which was just a computer basically, a laptop, and you could hear Journey in the background. It was very inspiring, I must say. That’s a really good way of doing it. The Stones and Zeppelin used to do that. They’d tour for a few months, go in the studio for a little while, and it just keeps you fresh. I think we’re going to do the same for the next one. Even if we get one song on the go, that’s enough to set the ball rolling."

And for the most part, life has been a ball for Collen. You can tell by speaking with him for a few minutes.

He knew he wanted to become a rock star when he was 14, when his cousin, who was two years older than him, took him to see Deep Purple.

"That pretty much was the catalyst," he says, his voice pulsing with a boyish awe. "I saw the ‘Machine Head’ tour and Ritchie Blackmore was smashing his guitar. I was like, ‘Whoa! OK, I want to do that.’ "

Over the years, Collen and his bandmates have brought lots of fireworks to the stage themselves, becoming plenty rich and famous in the process.

Collen once imagined himself in this position, though he never imagined that it would be like this.

"When you’re growing up and you want success, you think of it purely on a local level. You think, ‘I’m going to play my hometown venue’ and it’s gonna be based around that," Collen says. "If you have any success at all, you can’t choose where it’s going to come from. I think the fun and inspiring part about that is that it takes you places that you’ve never been to. People are going nuts, they get it, and they’re so far removed from where you came from. Or what you could have imagined."

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ or 702-383-0476.

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