Interview: Styx's Ricky Phillips talks new tour, recent album, and life on the road
© Styx, used with permission

Classic rock legends, Styx, are wrapping up a residency at the Venetian in Las Vegas with Don Felder of Eagles fame. They will embark on a tour within two weeks that will include a stop at Phoenix’s Celebrity Theatre on Feb. 22. AXS was able to catch up with bassist Ricky Phillips for a candid interview before the tour. Here are the highlights.

AXS: You are getting ready to wrap up your second Las Vegas residency. How has that been going?

Ricky Phillips: It’s been going really well. We have two more shows at the Venetian Hotel. This residency with Don Felder has been a blast. He’s not just a great musician and has written some iconic music, but he’s also a good friend.  He and I got out to play some golf on one of our days in between. There is a friendship there and great respect for what he has done and his talent.  

AXS: You are embarking on a new tour very soon. Will Felder be playing with Styx on the new tour? AXS will be ticketing some of the shows.

RP: It’s possible. I can’t keep up. Our schedule is impossible to keep up with. I just ask where I’m going the next day. I try to find out if there is family or friends in certain cities. I glance over three or four months at a time and I take notes. It’s become a way of life halfway through my 15th year with the band. There is a great comradery within the band. We have a great chemistry when we play together. It’s something we don’t take for granted. If somebody hears something off, they say, “We are not hitting the mark as tight as we should, Let’s all sing this right now face-to-face and see what’s going on.” Just because you’ve been doing something for years and years doesn’t mean it can’t get away from you. We are big sticklers for staying on the original blueprint of how the songs are recorded. We don’t try to change them. It is important to stay on the top of our game at all times.

AXS: Can we talk about the new album, The Mission? Will you be playing that on the upcoming tour?

RP: It depends on the venue. If we are on the bill with two other bands and your set is cut down, then it will be a set of hits. We will definitely slide something in from The Mission. People hold up signs with their favorite songs from the album. The other night in Beverly Hills, we played about five songs from the album because we had an extended over two-hour set. Generally, people want us to play the hits, but for some reason, this album has fostered some sort of crazy following. People really want to hear these songs live. We get the social media shout outs to please play “Locomotive” or play all their personal favorites. It’s fun for us but generally, people want you to play classic hits. And we don’t want to force feed them the new material. As a kid when I went to hear my heroes, I didn’t want to hear the new stuff because I didn’t know the new music. But The Mission seems to be an exception. People seem to be getting this record right away.

AXS: It is unusual for a band that has been in existence as long as Styx has would release an album of new, great material. Are you that surprised that fans would embrace the music?

RP: I appreciate your saying that. I’m really proud of that record. We let that record sort of write itself. Tommy Shaw is the one who should get the credit for the writing end of it. I was in the studio producing a record for Ronnie Montrose’s last record. Tommy was singing one of the songs as he was completing them kind of ‘wood shedding’ them a bit saying, ”What would you do with this?” I was already set up in the studio and I would fire something off to him. By the time he was done writing, he was developing this really cool storyline, which is about a mission to Mars. The reason I think it is successful is that it’s really about the people that come together in the storyline. When we got to the point that we came into the studio with it, I walked in the studio and, boom, everything just fell together and nothing was forced. The writing was so good and we had been so active in our own personal parts we walked in and it grew from that thing we have when we get together. It was probably the very easiest recording that I can remember.

The struggles may have happened, but I didn’t see them. Tommy may have gone through those moments, but by the time we got into the studio everything had been smoothed out. He just wanted us to give 110%. We had the luxury of recording the drums on tape. We had gotten the bass on tape as well, but we were using two old two-inch machines and run that through Protools so that it could be digitally recorded in the end. We wanted that sound that Styx records are known to sound like. It really pays off to have some of the drums and bass already recorded. I think that the drums are sometimes sacrificed in digital recordings. The warmth of the drums is well represented in this recording.

AXS: Congratulations are in order for a band to be together for so many years to be able to put an album together of new material that really works.

RP: I pinch myself sometimes. It’s a different day and a different time. Back in the day, I think this record would have catapulted really high into what was happening. Now the game has changed. The audience isn’t as broad. Rock and roll isn’t the centerfold for music. I’m delighted that it has been received so well. It makes me glad now that we waited so long to make sure we got it right.

AXS: Are you working on any side projects now?

RP: I’m just finishing up on the Ronnie Montrose 10X10 record. It forced me to get my own personal studio up to snuff. I brought Lee Jackson in my studio and he has helped tremendously. In the music world, he is known to have the Metaltronix amplifiers. Ozzy Osbourne’s guitar players and a lot of guys back in the 80s were using his amps. He designs foot pedals and other stuff too. He is also a brilliant guitar player. He’s a dear friend. I brought him into my studio and he has gotten my studio to the point that I can go into there and start writing. I’ve been stockpiling songs over the years that I have written on the road. You do what you like to do on the road and I like to write songs. I’ve got these little notes and the recordings and it’s time to work on them in the studio. I write all over the map. The very first song I wrote for The Babys’ was the title track to Union Jacks, my first album with them. Johnathan Cain and I were the token yanks in the band when the band came over from England. From then on, I got some songs placed in the first Terminator movie and that got some other producers to call me. I just wanted to be in a rock band. That may have been a big mistake as a career move. I should have embraced my songwriting a bit more. The producers told me what they wanted and I gave it to them, but I wasn’t trying very hard. It was easy for me. I was just young and stuck on being in a rock band. I’ve had some fun and gotten away with some things. And I’m just blessed. I don’t know what makes people pick up the phone and call me. When Tommy Shaw called me up to be in Styx, I was humbled to be the exact guy to carry on the legacy of Styx. He trusted me as a player and as a person to be on the road. There is great talent out there, you’ve got to be on what I call that ‘submarine’ on the highway. You are on that bus with five other guys and you’ve got to get along. People ask, “Isn’t it beautiful out there?” and I say I don’t know, I was on the bus and didn’t see a single tree. I don’t know what certain venues look like from the front. I only know where I am when I walk in and see the dressing room.

AXS: Who is your biggest influence?

RP: My biggest influence is Paul McCartney. His bass playing is so melodic in his note choice. I don’t think people realize the genus behind that guy as a player. He looks just like a mop-top shaking his head and singing his songs. It’s pretty deep how he plays the lines when you break them down. Also John Entwistle from The Who is a huge influence. He is quite a bit more aggressive. He also is very melodic and he is sort of the lead player in The Who. Chris Squire is also aggressive yet possesses a unique tone. I’ve learned a lot from him. Entwistle played with a pick and his finger. McCartney played with his thumb and his fingers and Chris Squire played with his pick. I play with both. You really should do both if you want to create all the sounds. I play with my finger and my thumb on certain things because when McCartney did that there was a different sound on thumb or fingers. Felt picks are kind of cool as they do a different thing. I think you should do as much as you possibly can because there are colors that you are always looking for when you are in the studio, writing a song or you are playing for someone else.

AXS: What is the most fun album you have ever worked on?

RP: I really enjoyed the whole Bad English experience.  The band was so strong. Deen Castronova and I had seven first takes on the first record. It was recorded on tape so there was no moving around or adjusting the kick drum with the bass or anything. It was all done very natural. The first album had so many singles on it. It had a number one on it and two other top tens. I believe we had six top 40 singles off that first record. It was on MTV all the time. There was a lot of infighting going on with the second record. I loved the tension that I could feel. The songs had a little more teeth to them. That said, after that, David Cloverdale asked me to make a record with him and Jimmy Page. We had so much fun for about five months putting that material together. That was a really nice experience.

AXS: Do you have a dream that you would like to come true?

RP: I just hope this all ends well. I think I have surpassed any dreams I had. I was from a small town in northern California. There were only 18,000 people living in this little town when I graduated from High school. I used to go snow skiing on Mt. Shasta. On the way home, I’d stop and go water skiing on Lake Shasta. I grew up in this cool little spot. My family was in a pretty special little area. To do what I have done in a crazy industry like the music business, my dreams have been surpassed. What I am trying to do is keep my dreams alive and have them last as long as I possibly can.

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