The Ricky Phillips Interview
Bassist Ricky Phillips has been anchoring the bottom end for Styx since 2003. Previously, he was a member of the Babys from 1979 through 1981, and later part of the supergroup Bad English, featuring Babys singer John Waite, former Babys and present Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain, Journey guitarist Neal Schon, and now-former Journey drummer Deen Castronovo. He’s also played gigs or shared time in the studio with icons like Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Roger Daltrey, Ted Nugent and numerous others. Yeah, he’s definitely no slouch in the rock game.
Styx, of course, has been his bread and butter for the past two decades. When we chatted, he had just played the second of a five-night run with Styx at The Venetian Las Vegas. He most excited about the opening act, Don Felder, formerly of the Eagles, because Styx was backing him up. He also touched on the New Year’s Eve gig Styx played in Nashville, country music (sort of), his role as primary bass player and occasional guitarist in Styx, playing classic albums live, the Babys, Bad English, Jimmy Page, David Coverdale, new music and finished up with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Phillips is a songwriter and producer in his own right. He told me he couldn’t say much about the things he’s involved with — “I wish I could talk about it, I’m bursting to talk about it, but I can’t,” he said — adding it’s difficult to bring side projects to fruition because of the demands of Styx. And there’s some music of his own he’s eager to track. “I’ve stockpiled so much stuff that I feel before they throw that shovel full of dirt over my grave, I want to get some of this stuff done for my own satisfaction.” Thankfully, with so much on his plate and no end in sight, I was fortunate enough to get in a half an hour with Phillips for an enlightening conversation.
You’re in the midst of a five-night run with Don Felder at the Venetian in Las Vegas. How have the show’s been going so far?
It’s a very interesting blend of music going from Eagles to Styx and it seems to work really well. The audience seems to respond. We’re really sensitive to certain things and how you do a presentation and how it’s received. It’s a little different than normal, obviously, Very cool, very favorable. The people at the Venetian say people aren’t usually standing from the beginning of the show to the end. That’s nice feedback, but also there seems to be a lot of smiles on people’s faces, people singing along.
Don’s playing amazing. Last night, I think the songs were, I don’t know if they were better, but I think we did them with a little more ease, we felt a little bit more confident. Remembering parts, new things and harmonies. There are a lot of vocals involved. Thank God we’re a vocal band because it’s a lot to take on. We’re trying to do them exactly the way they were recorded and all the harmonies that are on the records. There’s a lot of things coming in and out, with lines. Sometimes, it’s a three-block harmony, and sometimes it’s an octave, a high part or a low part only. You got to remember which is which as you’re going down the line. It’s fun to make yourself kind of get out your safety zone and do something different.
What are some of the songs you’re doing?
We’re doing “Fast Lane,” of course, and “Heartache Tonight”… of course, “Hotel California.” We have a bunch, so I think we’re gonna trade out some of those for people who are returned victims get something extra (laughs).
You also played on New Year's Eve in Nashville before what I read to be around 100,000. And you braved the rain?
It was an interesting gig — it’s the wintertime, it’s outdoors, it’s raining, it’s cold. Actually, it wasn’t too bad. I felt bad for the bands that went on before us. They really got the bulk of the rain. When we went on, it pretty much stopped raining. They had these big blowers blowing hot warm up through the stage to keep us warm. Which on one hand, it was cool and it kept us warm. On the other hand, if you had a scarf on or anything around your next, it was blowing up in the air, which made for an interesting visual. When you have a 100,000 people, it makes a lot of noise. That’s a lot of response to what you’re doing. It makes it exciting. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t heard that many people singing along and rocking out.
And you were in Nashville, where this blend of rock and country is becoming the city’s new sound.
What’s interesting about Styx I think from my own observation is we’ve done very few shows with country acts, but when we do, it seems to really work well. We did a gig with Montgomery Gentry several years ago now, and they came into our dressing room and were telling us that Styx was the band that they listened to because country didn’t do stacked block harmonies back when they were kids they said. To hear that, what they were into, they had to find bands like Styx that did it, and they listened to us a lot. They actually asked us to be on the bill with them.
We have found somehow that we work with that audience; for some reason, it seems to cross over. There was no stretch there. Everybody was singing from the first downbeat all the way to the end of the set. Great response, which is exactly what you want. It made for a great time, a great night. It was a great New Year’s.
You've been with Styx since 2003, which is 14 years by my math, and your position is unique in that you play mainly bass, but you switch over to guitar when the band's original bass player Chuck Panozzo sits in. Was he there last night?
No, but he’ll be here for the rest of the week. He’s generally on stage with us, I would say, 95% of the time. He really wasn’t able to for a number of years. His health issues have pretty much wrangled him. He’s almost always able to do the shows. So, his life has turned around. He’s in a better place. He’s able to actually perform and play and do his thing, which he wasn’t able to do for a while. I would play guitar more often when I first joined, but then it got to the point where I had to do more of the heavy lifting, and I did and have been. But he’s very capable these days and it’s good to see because he’s gone through a lot.
He wrote a book, and it did well. He explains all the issues that he’s had. When he comes out on the stage, something lights up. He has his deep-rooted followers, young and old. For some reason, he has this appeal to certain people, and has his own region of fans that are there for him. So it’s kind of cool that he has a little bit of magic of his own.
One of the best Styx shows I’ve seen in recent years was when you performed The Grand Illusion and Pieces Of Eight back to back. Do you recall any challenges in tackling these pieces?
I have really found the most unique difference between a live show and a recording. It’s sort of this synchronization of a body of work and songs so that they create this mood and a vibe and takes you a journey without any hitches or bumps. To do that, you really start off with a song that’s going to grab the attention of — certainly you’re trying to get radio airplay — so all the radio programmers around the country need to put the needle down and listen to something that’s going to get their attention so they keep listening. Most of your hit songs are going to be in the first two or three, which you’re hoping to be your hit songs, your singles. And then the journey continues, and by the time you get to the B-side of the record and you get to the deep cuts, maybe the conversation gets a little deeper, the music might take a few more chances, it might not be as poppy, it might not be as radio-oriented, but it gives the die-hard rock fan something a little deeper to chew on.
It’s exactly the opposite for a live show. You want to start with something to get their attention, but then you ramp up and you build up to your hits. And that’s what you do at the end of the night and through the encore section of the night.
“Aku-Aku,” which ends Pieces Of Eight, is a very mid-slow tempo, Floydian song. Normally, we would end our show with “Renegade” — very up, very rocked out, full-on guitar, multiple guitar solos, and it’s on 10, probably on 11 (laughs). Ending with “Aku-Aku,” what we decided to do is, as it fades, we were going to do a live fade, and then Libby Gray, our lighting director, also faded the house lights, so that everything came, not only to complete silence, but also to complete darkness. There was that tense moment on the first night where we went, “Oh man, is this going to work because that’s not the way a rock show ends.” It was a couple of beats, and then all of a sudden, we heard the roar of the applause and it was very effective and we were confident enough, and then it worked from that point on. But I’ve never seen it done before and it was a tense moment that first night. That’s one of the differences.
We place great attention to detail to begin with. When you’re presenting this stuff as it was recorded, in the same sequence, you want it to sound like that. We’re trying to relive the vinyl experience. We had a movie where a kid comes out and he’s in his bedroom, looking through his stack of albums, pulls out a Styx album, puts it down, drops the needle down, and at that moment, we had a pre-recorded needle drop on a record and the hiss that it makes, and boom the lights are on and and we launch into the first song.
We wanted to continue that, and make sure that those people who did buy those records and did know the sequence the way those records went, go follow it all the way to the point that when the first side’s over, flash back up the screen and there’s the kid turning the record over. Dropping it down, went through the whole thing, it was a lot of fun and we got a good response from the audience.
We want to make sure all those little nuances that are on the record were being performed live, and we don’t use pre-recorded tape of any kind. That’s not true; on “Too Much Time On My Hands,” we have an alarm clock that’s pre-recorded. That’s the only sound effect. We also play all the songs in original keys. The soloists perform those solos that you grew up listening to. There’s places for all of us in a Styx show to be able to kind of flex our muscles and show what we can do as musicians .We try not to do it for the sake of the song. That’s been a conversation since the first day I was ever in the band.
I noticed Todd Sucherman, the drummer who came in and took John’s place because John had passed (editor’s note: John Panozzo was the original drummer for Styx) in the early 90s. Todd being one of those drummer who this following all around the world, he was able to play the songs the way John recorded them, but also really show what he can do as a drummer. I knew I had to figure that out; it took me a while. It probably took me over six months to really, really to be able to find the right places to do something where it wasn’t taking away from the song, it wasn’t changing anything, it wasn’t adding something in an inappropriate place. Once I figured that out, it’s just kind of been a constant flow of little places and things I know.
You don’t want to be thinking about stuff while you’re on stage, you just want it to come out and you want it be a performance. You don’t want it to be up in your head. You don’t want it to be a full-on tactical body experience (laughs) really. Most musicians will tell you, if you try to analyze a riff while you’re playing it, you’ll mess it up. It’s got to be a natural flow. That was one of the things for that show. It was really kind of fun, just a different pace than what a normal rock show would be. We did it very, very close — I think as close as possible to the way the records are.
I thought it was well done. Have you guys talked about doing other albums live in their entirety?
We have, but I don’t know if it will happen. For some reason, those two records together are hard to beat. We could do Equinox — that was a big record — Paradise Theater obviously. Styx is the first band to sell four consecutive three-million sellers. That’s been beaten since. Those are great albums, very diversified — that’s one of the cool things I always thought about Styx.
Like Styx or not, they were adventurists almost, they weren’t afraid to change it up from one song straight to the next, something completely different, but somehow it always sounded like Styx. That was the thing when I was in the Babys, when John Waite and I were touring with Styx. I remember he and I going out front and we were baffled by it. First of all, they have three lead singers, and each singer is completely different. Dennis DeYoung’s voice from JY’s voice couldn’t be more different, and then Tommy (Shaw) can kind of do both of them, but he had his own blue-eyed soul approach and with his southern Alabama roots, he has another thing going on there, which is very unique. But when they sang together, that was one of the most identifiable sounds that I think we’d ever heard — and very, very dynamic.
Yeah, doing other albums, I suppose we could, but I think we kind of realized we’ve already done the best combination, so I’m not sure we would.
Speaking of the Babys, they sort of opened the door for your career, and you may have heard they’re back without John Waite.
Yeah, without John Waite, without me, and without Jonathan Cain. It’s funny, I was texting John last night because he was actually in Vegas and we were going to try to get together, but our schedules just didn’t work and he was traveling. We kind of wanted to tip our hat to Tony and Wally; those guys, they play together, it sounds like the Babys. Everybody thinks it’s got to be all of us, or the voice, or whatever. Hey man, if there’s fans out there that want to hear the music, Tony and Wally should have the opportunity to play what they originated. They’re very good at it. Everyone can have their opinions, and I’ve got my own. If I see a band that’s still putting it out, and still putting it across, and I dig the songs, and they’re doing a good job of it, I support it. More than that, Cain, Waite and myself — we wish those guys well. They’re great players and they deserve to be able to play their own music.
When I interviewed John Waite, he said he’s one of those guys who doesn’t want to go backwards, and he's not interested in reunions. He said that about the Babys and Bad English as well, which is kind of a shame because I thought Bad English was one of those bands that had the potential to do a whole lot more.
II agree. Too many cooks. We all had been friends for 10 years at that point when we put that band together, and we were excited to work together and thought, “Whoa, this is going to be awesome.” And it was. But at a certain point, it’s like brothers. You know they love each other, but they also beat the shit out of each other. That’s kind of the way we were. It got to that point where it was, “We did this and it was fun, but now I want to do it my way,” “No, I want to do it my way,” “No, let’s do it my way. My way’s better.” Toward the end it seemed as though Neal and I were not interested in the singles, we wanted to rock. The two Johns were basically trying to write the next Number One single.
In my opinion, that’s a short-term gain because every time you put out a record, now you’re appealing to this year’s 12 and 13 year olds, and that’s what we saw. When “When I See You Smile” was Number One, all of sudden our audience went from this rock audience to this teeny bopper audience. The first twenty rows were little girls. It’s weird (laughs).
Everybody in the band I love dearly, they’re great guys, incredibly, gifted, talented guys. I’m glad we had the time to do it. What would be really fun to me, and Castronovo and I talked about this. Castronovo said, “If we had Journey, Styx and John Waite opening, we’d have everybody in Bad English, and maybe we could do a set.” I said, “Let’s do it.” I’m not sure of the reality of that lineup, but it would be fun.
One other thing I wanted to ask you about of your past was your playing on the David Coverdale and Jimmy Page album from the early 90s. How did you land that gig?
David saw me when Bad English opened up for Whitesnake. At a certain point, I got a phone call from David, and he said, “Listen, I don’t know if this is appropriate, but we have the same management. I hear through the office that Bad English is no more, and I’m not trying to inappropriate here but if that’s true, would you be interested in getting together with myself and Mr. Jimmy Page. We’re putting something together; we don’t know what we’re doing.” He didn’t ask me to join a band or anything like that. He asked me if I would help them work up the material. I wasn’t even supposed to do the record.
There were talks of (Geffen Records A&R representative) John Kalodner talking with John Entwistle, Chris Squire, all my heroes, being mentioned to be in this super group that they were thinking about putting together. And (drummer) Denny Carmassi and I arrived, and we started working. It took about — flying back and forth — four or five months to put all the material together. It was absolutely a blast. They liked the way it sounded and didn’t want to change it, so all of sudden, they were handing me my flight pass up to Vancouver to start recording. It was a great time.
I got to ask Jimmy Page all the questions I wanted about the Yardbirds. What was the lineup? Did you ever play with Clapton? You know, all the questions where I didn’t know. And we would hang out at night. In fact, Jimmy and I were the only ones that really hung out. David did a little sometimes, but for the most part, Jimmy and I were the ones who went out at night and had a few cocktails and looked at pretty girls. I learned a lot from him. Obviously, he’s a great producer and a great writer, and is such a great player. David as well — a very, very creative guy. He could pick up a guitar and slam down an idea. I had no idea he had those kind of chops. They worked really well together.
I actually thought he got a bit of disservice in the press when they started comparing him to (Robert) Plant. To be honest, I mean when Jimmy starts playing like that, that’s the way you sing. It brings that out. I thought what David did was very appropriate. I’ve had a lot of people like yourself say, “You know, that’s one of my favorite records.” And I love that. It’s kind of like one of those sleeper records where people say, “Oh yeah, that was a good record.” Very short-lived, but fun.
As for recording — and I spoke to (Styx keyboardist) Lawrence Gowan about this a couple years ago — is there any possibility of Styx making new music? I know with such a grueling touring schedule, it’s difficult.
Yeah, I get asked that all the time. Yeah, we need to do that; we all think we need to. That has been a conversation. We’ve been busy with other stuff. At the point where we can pull the bus over and go in. there’s a stockpile of material that I have been writing, Lawrence has been writing, Tommy’s been writing, and JY has some pieces of music that are very cool. As you said, I’ve been doing this for 14 years. Since the first year, no one’s had me come in a room and throw down a bass part.
We still write all the time. At one point, it was a monetary thing. We were watching all our comrades out there, putting out records and it’s crickets, a whisper. For bands who have sold multi-million-selling albums, it would appear as a great failure. So, there was no importance put on it. It would cost so much more. We’d lose money making it.
Sammy Hagar told me there’s no point in spending a half-million dollars making a big record with Chickenfoot and only selling 100,000 copies. It doesn’t make economic sense.
And you know what? Selling 100, 000 copies is great for a rock band these days! So what’s the point? But I don’t want to leave it like that. We still need to pull the bus over at some point and do that for us. That’s why we all started making music in the first place anyway — because we loved it. It needs to be done, and we’ll do it when we can. Right now, we’re booked through this year, and there’s talk about things in 2018 already. There’s a lot to deal with.
This year (2017) marks 45 years since Styx released their first record.
Somebody was saying that.
Any chance you’ll be doing anything special to celebrate that milestone?
Not that I’m aware of. I think I heard Tommy make that statement you just did a couple months ago and I was just, “Wow, that’s pretty awesome.” There’s a lot of decisions that are made for us, and I’m not the first one in line to get information about anything that’s being planned. I think we should address that and I think we will as it gets closer. I don’t know what that will be, but it needs to be acknowledged.
Another thing that I think is inevitable is that Styx getting inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, as they’ve become friendlier toward arena bands like Styx. Any thoughts on that?
I don’t know. It’s such a hard thing. I think everyone wants to be acknowledged for their hard work and for the success. What the Hall of Fame has become in the eyes of a true rocker; the fact that Yes and so many people were overlooked for such a long, long time. And the bands that were inducted years ago, ahead of some iconic bands. It just makes no sense to me, I don’t get it. It’s a business is what it seems to me. If it were to happen, I’d be happy for the guys, of course. They would never include me. That’s what I have seen. I’ve seen a lot of guys in these bands much longer than an original member, but the original members are the only ones invited. They don’t look at the reality that bands continue on and, like all marriages, sometimes the members change. It’s just odd. I’m certainly perplexed by that.
Obviously with Styx, there are certain people no longer with the band, and I won’t name names, but I would imagine there would be speculation about a reunion.
That doesn’t scare me. I don’t know if it will happen. I mean, I’ve had interesting relationships in my past in my bands. I love everybody now, but back then, I’m glad there were no weapons in the room (laughs). I don’t know how that would go down, or how that would be received. It’s too bad. Certain things don’t go away. You don’t forget certain things. I understand it and I respect it.