"Styx's Ricky Phillips played with greats Jimmy Page, Neil Schon and Tommy Shaw." - Interview

Over the last ten years Styx has made a name for themselves via Adam Sandler, “South Park” among other popular culture references. Whether you’re a Styx fan or not, there is probably a Styx song out there that you like. It could be “Lady” or “Renegade,” regardless, there is something for everybody. Recently I got a chance to speak with current Styx bassist Ricky Phillips, who has played with some of the greats like Jimmy Page, Neil Schon and, of course, Tommy Shaw.

Q - What brought the band to re-record some of their classic hits for “Regeneration Vol. 1,” which will be available at your upcoming shows?

A - It was one of those things that built up over a number of years. It started off as fan requests on our personal websites and Facebook and stuff like that. The band has definitely evolved over the years and not just member changes, but also as you mature as a musician you just play better. The recording techniques of today are different from back then, and the band sounds different even though we’re playing homage to the original recordings and we don’t really change stuff, it just naturally sounds a little bit updated. I think it was our manager’s idea, he said, ‘you know what, you guys are getting enough of these requests you should really think about this.’ So we dove in and did it.

Tommy (Shaw) had written a song that I had just fallen in love with, “A Difference in the World.” We decided to throw it on there as well, as something new. In my estimation it’s sort of an updated version of “Fooling Yourself (Angry Young Man).” It’s kind of that sentiment of being young and looking at the world before you and how you’re going to tackle it. It’s kind of reflective observation and when I heard it I said, ‘Tommy this is a great song, at some point if it comes up we should do this as a Styx song.’ He said, ‘really?’ I don’t think he really thought of it as a Styx song at first. We put it on there as a little something new for people to chew on. I don’t know if that’s going to be the trend, we’re going to keep putting out songs a little bit at a time and we may put something new on for each one, it kind of depends.

Q - How important is it to make new music, even though Styx has such a large catalogue of music to choose from?

A - I think it’s really important and I think people who stop doing it, because maybe the nature of the business kind of gets them down. For us it’s not really the recording industry any more, for us it’s the touring industry. We used to tour to promote a record, now we just tour because we love to play and we have a fan base that allows us to do that, we really actually feel blessed that we do have that, we’re very fortunate. As I watch young bands, and I’ve tried to work with and help some younger bands, it’s tough out there to find your thing. It’s getting a little easier to see that there are more ways now to display your work.

(Photo by Ash Newell)

Back to your question though, it’s really important to write. Everybody in our band is a writer and once you let that flower wilt, you’re kind of killing a part of what will ultimately be the performance. We all have home studios and we all write, whether it’s just to write period or to write for something like film or television whenever they come by. We’re all doing something. I think at some point, if we ever get off the road long enough we’d definitely want to go in and, for ourselves, do a new Styx record. We certainly have logged a lot to choose from. That’s kind of where I should stop, because really anything else is just speculation, because we really don’t know.

Q - You’ve been with Styx now for 6 or 7 years now. How did you come to join the band and what’s it like joining an established band with so much history?

A - I met the guys in ’79 when I was in The Babys. We opened up for Styx on a bunch of shows. I kind of became friends with Tommy. We weren’t real close friends, but we remained friendly over the years. We’d bump into each other every so often at industry functions and hang a bit. We built a friendship that lasted over a period of years. When I was in Bad English, he was in Damn Yankees so we sort of had a duality there. We just always seemed to gravitate toward one another in certain situations. Todd Sucherman, the drummer extraordinaire with Styx, a mind blower to work with, he and I had met during a session in Los Angeles and I was always frustrated, because Todd and I worked so well together, but I thought, well he’s with Styx, so that’ll never happen. So when I got the call from Tommy, actually Todd called me first and said, ‘you know Tommy is going to call you in a second to ask you something, but I asked if I could be the one to call.’ I said, ‘ok what’s up?’ and he told me and I said, ‘come again?’ (Laughs)

A few things happened within the band, but at a certain point Chuck (Panozzo) had health problems that had been publicized in the press, so Chuck doesn’t do full shows with Styx. He’s with us 95% of the time and we bring him out during the show, but they needed a solid bass player to play the body of the set. I play guitar as well and keyboards and sing, so it was something, they batted about some names, and I floated to the top of the list. I was honored to get the call. That last real project that I had done was with Jimmy Page and David Coverdale and at that point as music was changing and the flannel shirts of Seattle were taking over, there was a wandering process of where was music going through the 90’s. I had kind of just gone back to a nice studio in Los Angeles that I was working out of and became a song writer/producer for various things. I used to call it the Hollywood shuffle, just trying to keep busy, find the next gig, but stay in the music industry.

At certain times I was happy doing it, but always in the back of my mind I was going, man I didn’t get into this business to stare at a computer and play a bunch of instruments. I like the interaction; I like the band process, the band experience, the sum of the parts sort of analogy. You get so much more working with other view points and opinions, so when they called I jumped at it. It came at a perfect time, I was finishing a huge project and I was at a burnt out point when they called me. I was like, ‘when do we leave?’ As a matter of fact it was seven years ago today, Tommy’s birthday at a party where we got together for the first time. Even though I was asked a couple weeks before this, this was the first time in the same room with all the guys, so we kind of call this my anniversary day.

Q - You guys are heading out on the road in October where you’ll be playing “The Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight” albums in their entirety. What brought that on?

A - Actually it was our manager’s idea. He’s kind of a real audio file, listens to a lot of music. He’s more of a southern boy; you know Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Outlaws, that’s where his heart is. When he listens to a band he likes to go to the heart of what he feels is the best part of them. He called a meeting with the band and said, ‘look this is what I want to do.’ We immediately took to it, but then we tried to figure out if this was something fans would be into, so we decided to throw out a few tester shows that we’re going to do in October. Then all of the sudden I looked at the schedule we set up and we’d already booked twenty-two gigs. Apparently a lot of the promoters wanted to sign on for it. If they believe in it, especially when the economy is the way it is, then it’s kind of exciting for us.

(Photo by Aynsley Floyd/Hard Rock Café)

It’s kind of fun working on it, because even though we kind of do a different show night after night, depending on what part of the country we’re in and how long the set is, we change the show, we get to do different songs, but it’s kind of the same pool we dive into. So those are the songs you’re pretty much going to hear, so for us to be able to do some of the deeper album cuts it’s exciting for us. We’re going back and learning, certainly I’m going back and learning songs that I haven’t learned before, but even the guys are going back and saying, ‘wow, how did this go again?’ We’ve been working this stuff up in sound check and it’s really, really fun. It’s great music; it’s the progressive side of Styx, and the side I personally was always attracted to.

Q - You guys have toured with some great bands over the last few years like Journey and Def Leppard to name a few. Since joining the band has there been a favorite tour or show?

A - Immediately my mind went to Def Leppard. So maybe it’s the Def guys. We just got on so well with them. Joe (Elliot) Sav (Rick Savage) and I would play golf and we’d just goof off. The bands would go out and have dinners together. It just seemed to be a real mutual admiration society, unscripted, unprompted, an easy flow. The crews got along together. I don’t know, we were really sad, as a matter of fact they asked us to do the next leg of that tour and we did, we did two legs with those guys, because we didn’t want to say goodbye. When you get those magic combinations like that you want to hang on to them. Really we’ve been fortunate enough to play with a lot of bands, the reason I think most of those bands are out there is because they do care and they’re a survivor because, I don’t think improving is the right word, but you care enough to change the game up. We’ve seen bands out there that I think were as good as they were 25 years ago when they were in their heyday. It’s great to see. There are exceptions to that and it’s sad to see a band that is phoning in their parts, but mostly the bands that are out there these days are really doing a great job.

Q - What’s your favorite Styx song to perform live?

A - I’ll give you the three that it kind of rotates between. It goes from “Sweet Madame Blue” to “Renegade,” which is an obvious choice. “Renegade” is just a full out let’s jam. It’s great fun, it’s got the little vocal sections where we get to sing the a cappella parts of it. Then “Fooling Yourself” is the song that I think is one of the most classy, cool written songs that is in an odd meter, that doesn’t appear to be with a great melody. I often go to that as my number one song to play. You can feel the vibe in the room change when you play that song. You can feel the exhale from the audience because they’re just listening and watching.

Q - Looking back at your career, who are some of the artists that shaped who you are as a musician?

A - Well definitely John Entwistle from the Who. I’m more of an Entwistle fan than a Who fan, but I’m a huge Who fan. Paul McCartney, definitely the Beatles in general taught me arrangement, not just of music but vocal arrangements as well. I learned from the Beatles how to arrange, so that was a heavy influence on me, just the shear architecture. The guys I still go to, who just blow my mind are guys like Jeff Beck, working with Jimmy Page was an absolute treat, Neil Schon when I was working with him in Bad English; he’s probably one of the most prolific underrated guitar players that I’ve ever worked with. Most of the guys I grew up on were Brits. Chris Squire from Yes, of course John Paul Jones, I was a huge Bowie fan, because he would take something that was really well structured and put a twist to it and just make it a little bit angular and had a different take on melody which I still think is great. Queen was a big influence. I think that’s basically my major influences.

Q - What advice would you give to any up and coming acts trying to make it in this musical landscape?

A - Make sure you’re doing it because you love it; you’re doing it because you can’t stop doing it. It’s not a place to go if it’s not deep in your soul and in your gut, because it’s a tough road. If you can’t live without, do it 150%, go flip burgers and do whatever you can to keep do it. Don’t just do it because your best friends doing or to pick up chicks. It’s a tough road to coin the old Midwestern phrase, you’ve got to be willing to get dirty, you’ve got to get down and put the hours and the time in. Whether it’s going out on the road in a station wagon with everything piled into the back, hitting every city playing for $60 bucks or whatever it is. I remember when I first moved to LA I was sleeping on couches with a suitcase and two guitars. You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice and when you win, you win big time.

















BYLINE:

Bob Zerull is the Managing Editor of Zoiks! Online. He writes pop culture commentary, does interviews with bands, and reviews music and stand-up concerts. He also administers Zoiks! Online's Facebook page. Follow Bob on twitter at bzerull. Email Bob at bob@zoiksonline.com.
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