INTERVIEW WITH STYX BASSIST RICKY PHILLIPS
Date: July 4, 2016
Interviewer: Ruben Mosqueda
Photos: Jason Powell (second and third photos)
RICKY PHILLIPS JOINED STYX IN 2003 AND HE’E BEEN TOURING NON-STOP WITH THEM EVER SINCE. “WE’VE BEEN ON TOUR EVERY YEAR FOR AT LEAST 200 DAYS PER YEAR. IT’S A WAY OF LIFE. I WAS TALKING TO TOMMY SHAW ABOUT THIS THE OTHER DAY,” RECALLS THE BASSIST. PHILLIPS — WHO WAS HAPPY BEING A BEHIND THE SCENES GUY AS A SESSION MUSICIAN, WRITER AND PRODUCER — WAS APPROACHED BY STYX GUITARIST TOMMY STYX ABOUT JOINING THE BAND IN 2003. “I LOVE IT. I LOVE EVERY ASPECT ABOUT BEING IN THE BAND. THIS BAND REALLY GETS IT,” INSISTS PHILLIPS.
SINCE ENLISTING, PHILLIPS HAS RECORDED ‘BIG BANG THEORY’ , AN ALL COVERS ALBUM, AND THE TWO-PART EP OF RE-RECORDED CLASSIC STYX TRACKS TITLED ‘REGENERATION, VOL. 1 AND VOL. 2.’ [2010 AND 2011]. SLEAZE ROXX CAUGHT UP WITH PHILLIPS AS HE WAS GEARING UP FOR ANOTHER TOUR THAT WILL TAKE HIM THROUGH LINCOLN CITY, OREGON FOR A TWO-NIGHT STINT AND CHINOOK WINDS CASINO.
Sleaze Roxx: You joined Styx around the time that people began to ‘soften’ up to bands from Styx’s era. People began to embrace melody and songs with great hooks. People discovered or rediscovered Styx.
Ricky Phillips: I think that’s accurate. I think we, like Journey, like Foreigner, had this resurgence. I think those bands along with Styx have great catalogs. Listen, you can be a rap fan, you can be a country fan or whatever genre you’re into; you couldn’t live on this planet and have not heard these songs. These songs have endured the test of time and have become part of our culture. I think as long as the band performing them is executing the songs properly, then you move forward and not backwards as a band. When people hear these songs, it’s like getting back with an old friend. Over the years, we have seen a lot of young faces in the audience. Maybe they were introduced to Styx by their parents or maybe their grandparents? Or maybe it’s in their own quest to discover new music — I don’t know? It’s certainly exciting to see them out at our shows.
I agree with you there was a ten year period when melody was frowned upon. There was no infrastructure within record labels and there was no money invested in the development of new bands. I’ll use The Beatles as an example. They wouldn’t have been nearly the great band that they turned out to be had they not learned under [producer] George Martin. There’s no infrastructure like that anymore. People are recording songs in their bedrooms. It’s a different time.
Sleaze Roxx: You’ve been a part of a couple recordings during your tenure in Styx. There’s the ‘Big Bang Theory’ , which is a covers album with classics that were given a Styx treatment and the ‘Regeneration’ EP’s [2010 and 2011] which is a great way to introduce Styx to new fans. I myself didn’t catch Styx live for the first time until 2012 and have caught you a couple times since. The one thing that I take away from each show is how great the back catalog is and how much ‘heavier’ Styx is live. Styx live will rip your face off.
Ricky Phillips: [Laughs] Thanks man. I think I would have to agree with you. The first person that told me that was Rudy Sarzo. We met in Chicago while on tour and he came up to me. He and I have been friends for years. I remember the first time he came out to see us. After the show he said “Ricky I can’t explain it. It’s Styx but it’s tighter and muscled up!” [laughs] That was the expression that he used. We put a lot of attention to the songs that you’ve heard on the radio. What I think you hear is a band that has grown and the result is this natural progression. In our case, it sounds like we’re muscled up. Sure there’s a couple new players in it. We have Todd Suchermann who’s a hot shot drummer within the drumming world.
I discovered Todd as a session musician. He was already in Styx. So I was doing some production work and was disappointed that I couldn’t use the guy in everything that I did in studio. When Todd found out that Tommy [Shaw] and J.Y. were going to throw a bid my way, he asked if he could be the first person to call me. The one thing that I wanted to make sure of was that my vocals would fit within the band because that is such an integral part of the Styx sound. I have a similar tone to J.Y. if you can believe that, so it was a great fit. I guess I’m giving you a long-winded answer but we do perform the songs in the keys that they are recorded in and we didn’t detune the songs. We want to sound like the Styx the fans know and love.
Sleaze Roxx: You brought up a great point about the vocals. In this day and age, there are a lot of bands that are running tracks.You can hear the difference.
Ricky Phillips: Yeah, I think it takes about 2-3 songs and then you realize that they’re running tracks. I hate that! I hope we never have to do that! [laughs] I understand that some bands do it for good reasons. I’m not here to bad rap anybody because you have to do what you have to do doing stuff live the way you recorded it. I just hate that. I wish people just not use tracks and give the people what you’ve got. Hire another person and put them on the side of the stage! [laughs] When bands run tracks, it drives me crazy.
Sleaze Roxx: Where is Styx in terms of recording new music? Is that something that is on the table? The way bands make their money is via touring and merchandising vs. record sales.
Ricky Phillips: [Long pause] Yeah, it’s on the table. We’d love to do something new. However, it’s not a money maker. It has to be different. It has to be something that Styx hasn’t done. We want to ensure something isn’t ‘just another Styx record.’ It has to have a twist. We’re aware that it will be fodder for the press but so be it. Also something like that will go over well with one person and a failure with the next.
We’re not going to release an album that is going to be crap. It’s going to be good. Like you mentioned, we don’t make money from album sales. We have a road crew that relies on money to keep their families fed too. We have to sustain it and we don’t do this from music sales anymore. If you remember the sales that Styx, Foreigner, Journey or REO Speedwagon had back in the ’70s and ’80s; based on today’s sales, it’s going to be considered a huge failure. In terms of numbers, we don’t sell millions of records anymore. It’s a different time but you’re right, we do need to put out some new music out soon.
I love being in the band. I love being the bass player and carrying the torch of the guy that came before me [Chuck Panozzo]. I wanted to be Chris Squire [Yes]. I wanted to be John Entwistle [The Who] and I wanted to be Paul McCartney [The Beatles]. There’s so much great music because of The Beatles. They had the template for writing a great song. It was stunning. They wrote song that were like two minutes and like 40 seconds long. They got right to the point! It was a great time for me to be a kid and learn from the right people. Writing and recording are probably my favorite things to do. I have a studio and I can go in there and just get lost for days. It’s a blast being in the studio.
Sleaze Roxx: I caught Styx on the co-headlining tour with Yes. How was it spending the summer of 2012 touring alongside the late Chris Squire?
Ricky Phillips: [Laughs] Man, there were a lot of ‘pinch me’ moments on that tour. Chris was one of those guys that happened upon that signature sound of his by using both bass and guitar amplifiers. His playing was key along with orchestral bass lines, the fluidity, the melodic movement… He was the heavy cat in that band. He gave Yes that impact. You can get lost in “Round About.” I think just about every bassist in existence has heard that song and has learned that bass line. Talking with Chris was a blast. I was having lunch with Chris and he asks “What are you using up there?” I’m like what? “Chris Squire is asking me what I use on stage?” He liked something and he wanted to know more about it. He was always on that quest. What a guy.
Sleaze Roxx: At the tail end of the ’80s, you were part of Bad English. It was a supergroup of sorts. Though the album has that big ’80s sound, the songs still hold up.
Ricky Phillips: We had all known each other for about 10 years. We understood that Neal [Shon] wasn’t going to be a part of it. We wanted for him to be in the band and had offered him the opportunity to be in the band. He declined because he had been in bands for most of his career. He had been in Santana and Journey and he felt he needed to do some solo record. We understood. Neal would come over and he would lay down a solo on demos. Jonathan Cain and I were in San Francisco writing songs to see if we still had it. We were in Jonathan’s studio and Neal had agreed to come and play guitar on the demos. We actually were about to ask Andy Timmons [Danger Danger] to join the band. We procured this deal with Epic Records that John Waite had started. When we put this group together, it was a slam dunk for them.
Neal walked in, he played and the look on Andy’s face… We had Andy staying over for about two weeks learning the songs but when Neal played them… Like you said, all the part just fit together. It was seamless. We’d finish one song and then we’d go straight to work on another one. Songs were just flowing out of everybody. We had five-six top 40 singles off ‘Bad English.’ I would have loved the last song on the album “Don’t Walk Away” to have been released as a single. It would have been huge. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me over the years and ask what that didn’t get released.
Sleaze Roxx: On ‘Backlash’  it was around the ‘changing of the guard.’ You brought Ron Nevison on board who had worked with Heart to produce. That record was ‘slick.’ What’s your thoughts on that one thinking back now?
Ricky Phillips: Yeah, he had also worked with Damn Yankees and he goes all the way back to Led Zeppelin and Bad Company. Ron [Nevison] was maybe the right choice. Maybe not? I don’t really know. There was a lot of ‘tension’ working with Ron. That can be good, I had a good experience working with him. I love the way my bass sounds on that record.
We had some infighting within the band on that record. You know like brothers, we we get along great. It’s awesome. When we don’t, it causes a serious squabble. You can hear and feel the tension on that record. I don’t hear songs off that record often but when I do, it takes me back to the exact moment in time when that song was recorded, where I was standing and what was going on. It’s not all bad. Sometimes creativity requires tension. I think that song features our highest pinnacle as a band. I’m really a fan of the song ‘Savage Blue.” Jonathan Cain came in with a piano arrangement that he had for the bass line and I ran with it. That is one of favorite recorded bass parts I’ve ever done. It’s a deep cut and not a single.
Another great moment on ‘Backlash’ is “Time Stood Still” which John [Waite] and I wrote with Jesse Harms from Sammy Hagar’s band. It’s one of the coolest collaborations that I have done ever. That song was written within an hour and a half to two hours. By the end, we had a demo of it. That was a number one single in Holland and a couple other countries. IT was never released in North America because the bad had essentially broken up by the end of the recording of ‘Backlash.’
Sleaze Roxx: And There’s Coverdale/Page which you were a part of. I was looking at the RIAA page and the album achieved platinum status [1 million copies sold] in the United States. At the time, it was considered a ‘flop’ but it sold a million copies. It’s a good record.
Ricky Phillips: It went platinum relatively quickly too. I learned a lot on that record from Jimmy [Page] and David [Coverdale] making that record about the business. John Kalodner, a behind the scenes record guy who has made a lot of careers happen, really believed in it. John knew it was a great combination. David [Coverdale] got a lot of flak for sounding like Robert Plant. You know when Jimmy [Page] starts playing, that’s what you do! [laughs] That’s what comes out of your voice. That’s what needs to be done! [laughs] That’s what David was doing. I think he did an incredible job. I have some recordings of us working on material. I think those are even better than the record because we’re fishing for ideas. That’s really honest, pure creation happening there and I happen to have those recorded.
As time went on, Jimmy bought a home in Florida and he was moving there. Then we moved the recording to Vancouver, BC, and people got sick… A lot of stuff started happening. We spent about five months working and putting that album together. I’m not making any excuses because I think we made a great record. When we were making the video [“Pride And Joy”] Jimmy pulled me aside and said “I’m getting back together with Robert [Plant].” You know, there will always be those rumors that he worked with David just to get Robert to work with him. [laughs] I don’t know that it’s true. It makes me wonder. That’s what I wondered at the time when he pulled me aside. That was the end of Coverdale/Page.
I had a blast hanging out with Jimmy. I was constantly asking him about The Yardbirds which is one of my favorite bands. Can you imagine a band that featured [Jeff] Beck, [Eric] Clapton and [Jimmy] Page at one time or another? He didn’t seem to mind telling the stories. [laughs] On many levels, it was an interesting and educational time.
Sleaze Roxx: One thing I had no idea about was your work with Ronnie Montrose. How did you get connected with him and what has been your extent of your work with Ronnie? I’ll be honest. The last Montrose record I heard was ‘Mean’ back in the mid-’80s.
Ricky Phillips: I met Ronnie back in the early ’80s through a producer friend of mine. He and Ronnie had done a project where it was just he and Ronnie on stage. It was extraordinary. It was probably overshooting for the average Joe. It was aimed for a higher brow musically. Ronnie had done the Montrose thing with Sammy [Hagar] and he had done Gamma which was a bit more ‘proggy.’ He wanted to do something new. If he had just stayed a rock guitarist, he have become a household name because he was so great at it. He is a guy that played those licks first and a lot of guys stole from him. I’ve been told this from guys I know that are in huge bands.
I went out to do shows with Ronnie along with Eric Singer [KISS, Alice Cooper, Badlands]. We had a few different singers. Ronnie loved the way we sounded and he was inspired to do another rock record. Eric, Ronnie and I went into the studio and laid down ten tracks. I started working with Styx and Eric resumed working with Alice and KISS back to back.
Right before I went on tour with Styx I received a call from Ronnie he said “Listen I have an idea. I’m calling the record 10 by 10. We’ll get 10 different singers, one for each song and we’ll get this thing done.” I said “That’s a great idea Ronnie but we can’t even think of one singer we like! How are we going to find 10?!” [laughs] He replied “Listen I’ll call Sammy [Hagar] and ask if he can do one. I’ll call Edgar [Winter] and see if he can do another. I’ll call people I know.” I didn’t have the time to chase down people to sing on the album but he did. He got them and then some. He got Mark Farner [Grand Funk Railroad], Gregg Rolie [Journey, Santana], Eric Martin [Mr. Big] and David Pattison [Gamma]. I got Tommy Shaw on one of the tracks. It became this cool project that had this really cool band.
The record sounds cohesive. It’s a very interesting record. We finally found a home for it. We’re having some meetings with a label about it getting released and I hope we have this album released by the beginning of 2017.
I jumped ahead a little bit. When I say that we recorded the album; drums, bass and rhythm guitars were done. Ronnie passed before he could lay down guitar solos. I mixed the record so that Ronnie was very big in the record. It was his concept so I wanted to ensure that he was represented on this record. I wanted to bring in guys that Ronnie was into to come in and record the solos for the album. I didn’t get everybody that I went after but I think all the right guys are on the record. There’s a great mix of singers and guitarists on there. I have Glenn Hughes on a track with Phil Collen from Def Leppard playing the solo, Sammy Hagar featuring Steve Lukather [Toto]… Eric Martin, I paired up with Dave Meniketti [Y&T] and on and on. We have Joe Bonamassa on there too. I also have Brad Whitford who is the unsung hero to both Ronnie and I in Aerosmith. He’s the dark horse in that band. I called him and he was honored to be a part of it. I can’t wait for you to hear the track with Edgar Winter and Rick Derringer. It sounds like it was lifted right out of the ’70s.
I’m excited for the album to come out. There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into this album and a lot of love. I think Ronnie will be looking down on us smiling when it’s released. It’s pretty special.