The one-story building sinks back into the row of small businesses along San Diego’s Adams Avenue, all but imperceptible to passersby. At some point, perhaps those jaunty 70s, when they couldn’t make concrete and tinted windows fast enough for the architects of the day, this business likely contained a cozy neighborhood bank, although the rushing torrents of commerce have long run dry. The sign above the front door now reads “Gerson Institute.”
Inside, the walls are spangled with colorful tapestries accented by warm, low lighting. There is not a deposit slip in the entire joint, although one couldn’t swing a celery stalk without hitting a book about holistic medicine on one of the clunky desks scattered about the lobby.
Towards the back of the room stands a bespectacled girl in her twenties, wearing a black hooded Def Leppard hoodie. Clutching a microphone, she is addressing three circular tables—the kind with folding legs that spend most of the year in storage rooms—where a small, earnest-faced group polish off the last of a modest lunch. Sitting in one of the little folding chairs before her is Phil Collen, longtime guitar player for the bazillion-selling rock legends, Def Leppard.
One look at Phil (54), reveals him to be a spectacular physical specimen, brimming with a vitality and good cheer that eludes all but a tiny fraction of his colleagues from the 80s. While few bands have ever rivaled the dizzying heights of depravity in which the boys in Def Leppard once engaged, these days, Collen is a dedicated vegan, an enthusiastic juicer (in the fruits-and-veggies way, as opposed to the Roger Clemens way), and a balls-out fitness fanatic.
Earlier this year, music store owner Jake Willoughby reached out to Phil with a unique proposition; Jake had recently lost his mother to pancreatic cancer and, eager to convert his grief into a positive, he offered to provide a new guitar for Phil to play on Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages” tour this summer. They would then auction the guitar off and donate the proceeds to cancer research. Phil, who had lost his own father to pancreatic cancer 8 years earlier, readily assented and together they secured the talents of graphic artist Mike Learn, who donated his guitar-painting skills to create “Wings.”
The stunning six-string Jackson guitar accompanied Phil on tour all summer and this month it was auctioned off to a collector in New Zealand. After a bit of research, Phil and Jake selected San Diego’s Gerson Institute as the recipient of the $20,000 proceeds.
The Gerson Institute promotes holistic approaches to treating cancer through alternative therapies that generally fall outside of the more traditional shock-and-awe approach of using surgery and chemotherapy to beat back cancer. This is no New Age hocus pocus; the institute has accumulated a stunning library of research and counts many longtime success stories among its patients.
Following a scattering of brief speeches and the presentation of the check, Phil plopped down on a folding chair, broke out an acoustic, and played a quick set for the staff that included Def Leppard classics “Hysteria,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and a rousing rendition of Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself.”
After, we sat down with Phil for an impromptu chat about health, music and Def Leppard’s upcoming March residency at the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas.
For a band that has enjoyed a reputation over the years for its unabashed love of rock and roll decadence, you yourself are a dedicated health and fitness fanatic. How did you get from one extreme to the other?
Well, it’s a really interesting thing. For my cardio, I’m fortunate enough to have my trainer live around the corner. He’s one of my best friends—Jean Carillo—and he’s an ex-Muay Thai fighter and five-time champion Muay Thai coach. Five guys got their title belt with him. He’s actually teaching SWAT teams today in France. We do this kickboxing all the time. I had a root canal while I was out on tour, and I couldn’t do any kickboxing. We kick cold, starting with head kicks first thing in the morning (gestures kicking high in the air, at head height), and that’s what we do to get started. But I got this root canal and didn’t work out for two weeks. I started feeling like a fifty year-old guy, or whatever I was back then. I thought, “Man, this is weird,” and as soon as I started kicking again, all the pain went away. So there’s something to this, and you have to be active. The diet obviously plays a big role in that. So I really discovered from that, that if you’re being active and you’re not injuring yourself and you’ve got a routine down, it’s pretty cool.
As a junk food vegetarian, I can say from experience that dieting is a million times harder than working out. What’s the secret ingredient of your diet?
Just trying to avoid all the poison. Obviously when you’re out on the road or up on a plane, you do what you can. If you go on a diet or try to stick to a diet, you’ll probably fail. If you have a lifestyle based on what you know, your chances improve. Like, I know when I’m going to eat poison, and I still do it occasionally. Like chips and salsa—it’s got salt in it, it’s got acid in it some of the other ingredients, and you know it’s not going to do you any good, but you just make sure you have a green juice or a carrot apple juice or something. The more you do that, the healthier you feel on tour. Me and (Def Leppard drummer) Rick Allen and (Phil’s wife) Helen, we do it all the time; we just juice up all the time and it makes a huge difference in eliminating aches and pains. And it sounds ridiculous, but that’s what it is. When you come (to the Gerson Institute), they take it a step further and they really get into the whole healing thing and that’s what it’s about really.
You belong to a ruthless and fickle industry that views your art only in terms of its commercial capacity. Forty years in, does music still turn you on?
I love music. I hate the music business and I hate what it produces, but I love listening to stuff. And I do love some of the stuff it produces, because you have to take the good with the bad. You wouldn’t get Stevie Wonder or Jimi Hendrix or the Beatles, you know? It produced that as well. Pete Townshend. I mean, wow! It’s great. I love playing music. The reason I got into it in the first place was to express. I didn’t know how to express myself as a kid. I never had teenage angst because I had an outlet, and I think that whole artistic expression thing is the reason. It was a tool for making me feel better and to let off steam. You follow something…it’s like you feel, “I’m going to write this song,” and you’re in a different environment…a different astral plane almost. That’s what it feels like.
So you still get that feeling from making music now that you did when you were younger?
Yes. I absolutely do. And I actually had it the other day. I was writing a song with my writing partner, CJ Vanston. He’s great. He’s a keyboard player who used to be a session player and he said to me, “These people want this song in Japan.” Not that I’m actually going out of my way to be a songwriter, but I saw this thing and within two minutes I had the start to the song and put it in email and we got it finished in no time. And it was so inspiring, which is the greatest thing about music and art, that it releases something. It’s an artistic expression that you just follow, and it’s beautiful. So I still get that and I love guitars…
With the Manraze stuff, we can do anything we want. We do dub reggae one second and the next minute it sounds like the Foo Fighters or the Clash, or the Police. There’s all these different influences, and we do a Hendrix cover and we do 70s funk, so it’s wonderful not having any rules. So I like doing that and I’d like to tour with Manraze. I’d love that to happen. Even with Def Leppard, there’s a lot of people who haven’t heard of us. We had all this success in the 80s, but we still get new fans all the time, so there’s so much to do. It’s just getting the energy to do it.
What does Def Leppard need to accomplish in 2013?
It would be really nice if we had some new music out. We’re so slow at doing stuff. That’s just part of our thing. People used to blame it on Mutt Lange, but that’s not it at all. He’s done about four albums in the time it takes us to do three songs. You know what I mean? So we can’t really use that excuse anymore. (laughing) He’s fantastic. I actually saw him recently and we played together and worked together on a song, and it was killer. But I think that for Def Leppard, it would be really nice if we got some new music out. We’re painfully slow. We have issues. We love each other—it’s not that—but we’re in different parts of the world and for some reason, it takes us a long time. It’s weird.
You’re dipping back into the catalog for the upcoming Hysteria residency in Vegas, where you’re going to play the entire album. How did that all come together?
Funny enough, it was the promoters. (After locking in the residency,) we said, “Oh, we’re going to re-learn Pyromania and learn High and Dry…” But the promoter said, “We want Hysteria. We want you to come and play Hysteria in Vegas.” We thought, “OK, fine,” because we were trying to figure out what we wanted it to be and we were trying to split (the setlist) up, but they were very adamant, saying “Everybody wants to hear Hysteria. That’s the one.”
You mentioned Mutt earlier, whose production techniques typically require eye-watering heights of precision. What has it been like translating the album versions from Hysteria into the live format for the residency?
Well, we’ve yet to find this out. It’s not until next March and April. Me, Rick and Vivian rehearsed some of the songs up in L.A. a couple weeks ago and it was fairly shocking, because a lot of the songs we do, like Love Bites and Pour Some Sugar on Me… Seven songs we actually do already, but it’s the four that we don’t. I was listening and trying to sing while playing the guitar at the same time, and it’s like, “Whoa..” But it’s great. It was actually really cool. It was inspiring because they’re such great songs and I’d forgotten that. Mutt used to say, “Try this,” and you’d say, “Why are you making me play this? This is so difficult!” but then you’d hear it back and you’d go, “Wow, that sounds really cool.” So it’s never gratuitous with him. Even the harmonies and stuff—there’s always a place for them. It sounds really simple but a lot of it is really quite complicated.
At this point, one of Gerson’s staff asks if we’d like to check out the kitchen, where their chef was preparing some apple and carrot juice. Not even George St. Pierre could have prevented Phil from heading into the kitchen, where the chef delivers an impromptu juicing demonstration, furnishing Phil with a fresh cup of his raw elixir. The men discuss juicing at some length and as we pack up our own gear, Phil makes his way back to the front of the lobby, where he sits down and begins autographing pictures for the staff, giddily lined up in front of him. Comparing the grins on the faces of the staff with the broad smile on Phil, it is all but impossible to tell who is more excited to be here today.