Ricky Phillips of STYX Shares Some Great Stories Ahead of Band’s Performance in St. Louis June 3

Styx bassist Ricky Phillips performing at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in Saint Louis in 2017. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

WHO: STYX/REO SPEEDWAGON

WHEN: Friday, June 3 @ 6:45 pm

WHERE: Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre St. Louis

TICKETS: On Sale HERE

 

–by Christine Rivecco

 

Christine Rivecco: Congratulations on the release of the album Crash of the Crown, and the tour.

Ricky Phillips: Oh, thanks.

CR: Incidentally, I’ll let you know the very first album I ever owned was Kilroy was Here. I got it as a birthday gift. Ha, ha, ha!

RP: How cool, how cool! That’s great.

CR: Ok, I’ll dive right in if you’re ready to go.

RP: Let’s do it.

CR: I read an article recently that referred to you as the Kevin Bacon of rock musicians, referencing your numerous connections, extensive experience and so on. Even though you have been with STYX for nearly twenty years now – 

RP: That’s crazy, right? I mean, come on!

CR: – can you tell me a little bit about your experience coming up as a musician and how staying in touch with people has affected your career?

RP: Uh, yeah, sure. I ended up in Los Angeles. I was playing in bar bands, traveling around the country as far east as Chicago, as far south as Texas, even up into Canada. But I was from California, so everything in between, north up to Seattle even. At a certain point, as good as my band was, I realized that if I wanted to make it I needed to break off. I needed to get myself to either New York or Hollywood and start diving in with auditions and making myself known.

So, I had twenty borrowed dollars when I landed in Los Angeles. The guy who took me to the airport knew I was broke, flat broke. And, I’m not even kidding, not even a dime. So, he handed me a twenty dollar bill and said, “Pay me back when you get your first gig.” So, I went to L.A., landed on a friend’s couch until his wife said, “OK, how long is this guy going to be here?” I was couch surfing around Hollywood for a bit.

I talked this music store into letting me re-fret guitars, polish amplifiers, you know whatever I could do. They were paying me $100 under the table. So, I was still virtually sleeping on couches, ‘cuz who can do much with 100 bucks a week? (laughs)

Ricky Phillips of Styx performing in St. Louis in 2017. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

But, I finally got a place and what happened in the first three weeks I was there is I was fortunate enough to get an audition with a guy named Timmy DuLaine, who was signed to Manticore Records, which was Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s label. Really talented, talented guy! He was selling out two shows a night at the Starwood, which is the hot club in L.A. at the time.

So, after being there for only a few weeks, I was seen by the sound man of The Babys, a guy named Mark Salter, an Englishman. He didn’t approach me. He didn’t say anything. But he went back, I found all this out much later, to his band The Babys, which John Waite was the lead singer. John had been wanting to only front the band, instead of having to play bass and front the band. So, he went back and said, “I think I found the guy.”

They didn’t get a hold of me for a while, because they were making the Head First record. So, all of a sudden they track me down. I go in and audition. Jonathan Cain had just been hired to the band. So there was another Yankee in the band. It was an English band, but now Jonathan and I were in there. I played for them. Jonathan, John Waite, and I sang together. I think we sang, “Isn’t it Time” and “Every Time I Think of You” which was going to come off the record that was just being finished. 

There was talk of Jonathan and I going in and rerecording keyboard and bass parts. We got together with … the record label and they said, “You know what? This record is really good even with the studio musicians and whoever else is on here. Let’s get out there. You guys are fresh. You’re hot. I think we’ve got some great lead off tracks. We should do well.” And so we toured with Journey. We toured with STYX. We toured with Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick. Jonathan and I were in Europe with the band a month and a half after we joined the band. 

It was a good time, but the band needed a bigger presence. So, we worked a lot and we came out with the Union Jacks record next, which Jonathan and I were very heavily involved in writing with John Waite and Wally and Tony. We had continued success.

There was some infighting going on, some disagreements with direction, this and that, that goes on with young guys. You know, everybody thinks they know the way it should be and won’t listen to anybody else.

(CR: sure)

RP: So we butted heads and ended up splitting up, but not until after doing another record called On the Edge, which did well. But, no number one songs or anything like that. “Isn’t it Time?” and “Every Time I Think of You” I believe were both top five, or maybe even three, but no number one.

So, Journey was, uh, I was kind of doing a lot of jamming with Neil Schon and Steve Smith, the drummer and guitar player from Journey on the road or in clubs, wherever. There was even one night where Steve Perry and I were sitting in a club waiting for everybody to get on the bus and we were having a beer together. The band had gotten up to take a break, and he goes, “Hey, you know “Mustang Sally”, don’t you?” Every bass player knows “Mustang Sally”! I said, “Sure.” And, I don’t think most people know, he is kind of a bad ass little drummer.

(CR: oh, nice)

RP: Oh, yeah, Steve Perry’s got some chops. So, we went up, just the two of us, bass and drums, and we started, you know in his voice (RP sings) “Mustang Sally…”and then slowly but surely John Waite walks in and Anne Maire LeClerc, our background singer. The thing was there were pretty much three patrons in the place. So, other than the band there were three people and they’re in the back going, “Uh, they didn’t even ask to play our gear, but oh my God is that Steve Perry? Is that Ricky Phillps? Is that blah, blah, blah? Is that Neil Schon?” And everybody got up there. I think we went from that to “Midnight Hour”. We did a couple of soul songs. Then, took off the instruments, got on the bus and took off. And I know those guys were sitting at the bar going, “No one will ever believe us.” 

CR: (laughing) That’s a great story!

RP: (also laughs) It actually happened. It actually happened. 1979.

Anywho … it’s just like one of those things. After Journey ran its course with Jonathan, which was quite a course because he wrote a lot of hits with Steve Perry. I got a call from Jonathan saying, “Hey we are splitting up and we want it to be known to the press. Before we release it I want to get something going. Do you want to get back in? Let’s put something back together.” He ran into John Waite, not even thinking of John. Thinking John is doing his own thing; he has his own career. He had a number one song with “Missing You” on his own. But, they ran into each other, had dinner, and Jonathan called me and said, “Look, I think we should do this. I think the three of us should get back together.” And we discussed it. I said, “Man you guys argued. You disagreed on everything, but I will say this: through the struggle, good things came out of it. So, I’m in.”

Then, to keep the story from getting any longer, Neil Schon started coming over and helping us out and putting solos in. He wanted in. But it was a slow process and we found Dean Castranovo, who is now singing the Steve Perry songs with Journey. So, it’s been kind of an incestuous thing with some of us, between The Babys and Bad English and Journey.

Styx bassist Ricky Phillips performing at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in Saint Louis in 2017. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

But now, here I am with STYX doing a completely different thing. But, when we split up with Bad English I got a call from David Coverdale to do – actually, he didn’t want me to play on the record, he was calling to see if I would woodshed the material. So, I woodshedded the material for the Coverdale/Page director. Then after about three months of tweaking out all the material, they said, “Here’s your flights to Vancouver to start recording the record.” I had John Entwistle and Chris Squire and all my heroes calling in every other day, because they were going to put a “super group” together. But, things were going well with Denny Carmassi and myself and they just decided, “Let’s just keep it like this.” I don’t know if it was to get a bigger piece of the pie for themselves. I don’t know if there were too many intangibles that I wasn’t privy to. That was none of my business. I was just being hired. But, it was a blast to do. We had great fun. We had a really good time and I made some great friendships.

When Jimmy would come to Los Angeles, when I was still living there, he would call me up. I would pick him up at the hotel. And we would go, I would take him to The Rainbow or wherever he would want to go.

After that, I had been writing for film and television. I had the luxury of getting a few songs in the first Terminator movie. That opened me up to some producers and other music personnel. That was kind of a side thing I was doing, having fun with. Everything from a children television show to, oh gosh, you name it.

I was working on twenty-three pieces of music for an industrial film when I got the call from STYX. And I really didn’t think I was going to be in the band. I had been away from being in a band for a few years at this point and I thought, “OK. I have reinvented myself. I’ve got a good little studio. I’ve got to work a little harder at finding jobs and finding things to write music for.” It was fulfilling and I was enjoying it. But I got the call from STYX and they asked if I felt like putting the dancing shoes back on. It didn’t take me more than five seconds to realize I wanted to do it.

CR: So, did you feel like it was time to put the dancing shoes back on? That it was time to, I don’t want to say “come full circle” because that makes it sound like it’s over. But, like it was time to explore that side of your abilities again?

RP: Um, I’m trying to remember if I was that smart or not. (laughs) Probably not. I probably wasn’t that smart. I missed that camaraderie. I’d had, I don’t want to say I’d had bad luck, because in my prior bands there were times when everybody got along and it was great. But, I did see deterioration and what happens when … I think when you’re young you haven’t learned your lessons yet. So, you don’t compromise as much.

I was asked that question recently, about how all the guys in STYX seem to get along so well and why do I think that is. And I said, “The first thing that comes to mind is experience. You gotta figure it out. If you want something to last and something to grow and to get bigger, um, you’ve gotta learn how to play nicely.” Some people don’t learn that. They guys that are in STYX now learned all those lessons and then some. We choose to hang out on days off, you know what I mean? We can go anywhere. A couple of us will go grab dinner together or not. Maybe it’s your day to say, “Oh, man. I’m just going to stay in my room and watch football or whatever it is. But, we know and respect each other’s privacy and cherish each other’s friendship.

That really helps in the song writing. I think that’s one of the reasons why Crash of the Crown is so successful. Not only that, but we have a producer who has done the last two records, Will Evankovich. He joins right in there. He’s one of those guys who just gets it, who knows the give and take of being in a situation with big personalities, so that they can all be represented but still get along. We’re all on board with where we are and very thankful.

CR: That’s great! Kind of a maturity story there, too. A little bit of growing up.

RP: I suppose. I’m sure we’ve all, all of us are guilty of being immature early in our careers and having to figure it out. I think most young people are not born with wisdom. Wisdom comes with time.

CR: For sure. For sure. Well, speaking of the new album, let’s talk a little about recording it. I understand that it was started pre-pandemic at Tommy Shaw’s home studio, but then of course the pandemic came and so we had to do things like social distancing, and testing, and quarantine and all that. Can you tell me about how that affected work on the album?

RP: I can. The way we did the drums … Todd has a great studio because he does a lot of podcasts and there is a company called Drumeo where he is followed by many drummers around the world. So, he is set-up to record at all times and has an engineer who can record him while he is in his studio, even while his engineer is in his own home. Technology has gone that far. So, Todd did his drums on Crash of the Crown that way, from his own studio, with Will and Tommy being in Tommy’s studio.

I chose not to do it that way, because Todd and I, the bass and the drums, are the foundation as you are building a song or building a house. I have that little extra thing of having to also not just play rhythmically, but I also have to have the right note choice to go with the direction of not just the song writer and the producer but the style of STYX. So, I wanted to be there face to face with Tommy and Will.

So, I put on a facemask and a face shield, got on a plane, and flew to Nashville. Tommy had a separate residency, where I stayed. When I came into the studio each morning, I got the shot in the forehead to get my temperature checked. We did all the safe things. We wore masks the whole time, even though it was just us. And we were in sort of a bubble as much as you can be, because I had just been on an airplane and we didn’t want to jinx anything. So, we really followed the protocol.

Styx performing in St. Louis. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

And, it worked! I mean, uh, we got my tracks done. I mean, I’d been working on them for quite some time and so had Todd. We didn’t just do this quickly. We worked on the material and shared the material, got arrangements right. And then once that was done, we all started diligently digging in and writing our parts. So, I was able to … there’s about seventeen pieces of music, I think, including little segue things. They’re not all songs, like little vignettes, on Crash of the Crown. I think I was able to do all seventeen in four days and then we had Friday, the fifth day, to kind of go over and listen and see if anything needed to be punched in anywhere. If we were still on the same page with the arrangements and what’s going on melodically. We really didn’t have much to do. I think we were done on Friday before noon. Probably eleven o’clock in the morning or something. We had lunch and I got on the plane and flew back to Austin, Texas, here where I live.

Lawrence, I think, did his keyboards at home in Canada, because there’s that, his hand was kinda forced of course. I think he would have liked to do it the way I did it, but there’s that Canadian, you’ve gotta sequester yourself for like a week and all that stuff. But, we got it done. Everybody got in, including Chuck Panozzo, who is healthy.

People are always asking me, “How’s Chuck doing?” Chuck’s healthy and he is doing better than I’ve ever seen him. There were a number of years there where I didn’t really talk to Chuck much because he would come out on the road and he had just about enough energy to do the show, get on the bus, fall asleep, and wake up in the next city. His book is very fascinating for people. (chuckles) We always call him … there’s always a joke in the band that when it’s all said and done, and Earth is about to implode, it’s going to be Chuck and the cockroaches! He’s going to be the last man standing. Just nothing is going to take him down. But, he’s doing great. He’s doing really, really well. Back to being on the road with us.

CR: That’s great to hear. I was going to ask you a question about him, actually. I know that you guys kind of split duties on the bass, occasionally. Right? Is that right?

RP: Oh, yeah. I was playing a double neck guitar so I could play six-string and twelve-string during “Fooling Yourself”. And, what else was there? There was something else. Oh, “Come Sail Away”, I always had the bass on for that because there were certain times where his medications or whatever weakness, he wasn’t sure. There wasn’t a guarantee he was going to be able to get through that piece of music. 

Now, it’s not a question. What Chuck and I have decided is I leave the bass on now. I don’t put on the guitar and play the other parts. I could, but we have worked a thing out that, it’s really a duality, it’s not that we’re playing separate parts. But, I play a little bit more than Chuck does. I fill in some of the melodic things. We’ve done it so long now, we know how to complement each other, and how I can stay out of his way when he’s doing something. And, it’s very interesting.

Our tones are a little bit different. There’s a little different color there. What’s the saying? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s kind of what’s going on here. Should it ever change and our sound man says, “Why don’t you guys go back and…” we would. Because we trust Cookie, our sound man. Cookie is amazing. He’s got amazing ears. He has said, “Man, that’s really cool. That sounds really cool. What’s going on with you guys?” We’ve stayed there for most of the time.

And, as I said, Chuck is playing great. He is on Crash of the Crown. He’s got a piece of music that is all his. He’s actually got two pieces that are all his.

CR: Which are those?

RP: Let’s see, uh, “Lost at Sea” and “Our Wonderful Lives”.

CR: That’s my personal favorite. I’m going to ask you about that in a moment.

RP: Sure.

CR: One other thing that Chuck had said. I thought this was interesting. He said that he is constantly amazed how Tommy’s song writing continues to connect with social consciousness that spans across generations. Because, of course, it’s been years that the band has been performing. I was thinking about the multitude of changes – like changes in technology, and social attitudes, and politics, and of course effects of the pandemic. How do you think that STYX continues to remain relevant, as you do, to old and new audiences alike?

STYX performing in Saint Louis. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

RP: Well, it might be a simple answer. I’ve just thought about this myself. I am realizing that STYX has one unique quality that I’ve never known any other band to have. That is a positivity and a hopefulness in all of their writing. It can be reflective, you know, just a personal reflection. But, if you think of all the … there’s something very uplifting. That’s every bit as much a part of STYX’s songwriting as the melody and the vibe and the feel of each piece of music.

I’ll be writing something and then I’ll realize, wait a minute, this has taken a twist. And, my style isn’t always happy. I come from … I’m a student of the Blues. That’s deep within me. So, I have to really focus when I’m writing for STYX. I have to stay on that positive side of things, because it is huge, probably the biggest part, of why STYX has their own sound, why they have so many fans, why there’s always smiles in the crowd as far as you can see.

It’s unique. There are probably other bands who have that quality, I just haven’t learned their material or listened to them enough to be able to spout who they might be. I found very early on, in learning STYX material, there’s never any “woe is me” song coming at you.

CR: I’m so pleased to hear you say that, because that was my feeling, too. Another question or thought that I had while listening to songs like “Sound the Alarm”, “Coming Out the Other Side”, and “Our Wonderful Lives”, that’s what I thought. These songs feel like a recommendation to stay positive and celebrate our reemergence, whether it’s after covid or just any time, and my question was, “Was that the intention?” I feel like maybe it was, huh?

RP: Yeah, I don’t think that uh, a lot of these songs were kernels and ideas that started way before covid came along. So, I think the band is the appropriate mouthpiece for the hopefulness of rising out of a pandemic totally by accident. Not by design, because the design has been there for decades.

CR: Excellent. Well, I see we are getting close to noon. Do you have a couple more minutes for a few more questions or do I need to wrap it up?

RP: Absolutely.

CR: Very good. Thank you. So, kind of back to the music side of things. As I was listening, for me personally, I got a very Beatles-esque feeling (RP chuckles) from some of the softer harmonies in “A Monster” and “Reveries”. Kind of George Harrison-like. And then on “Hold Back the Darkness” I felt a little Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, that kind of thing. So, I was thinking of it from both sides. A. How have those artists influenced your work? and B. How do you think STYX influences newer artists today?

RP: (deep breath) I’m not sure I have the answer to the latter question, but you picked, well there are many influences, but you picked two huge influences on all of us. The Beatles – Lennon and McCartney and George Harrison – yeah, thank God for those guys being there when we were young and impressionable to learn from. Learn song structure, learn melody, learn something besides eighth notes. Learn diminished chords, learn so many things. And then, we’re all Tom Petty fans. So, for you to pick out Tom Petty, yeah.

As a matter of fact, when I heard that song, “Hold Back the Darkness” was one of those songs as well. I mean, it comes out. I was just kind of surprised. When you go back. When you comb over past STYX records, those are a little bit unique. They have STYX elements, but they go a little further away, which I was delighted with.

I didn’t want to do another “Too Much Time on My Hands” or even another “Fooling Yourself”, as much as I love that song. I want to keep doing interesting things and moving in new directions. When I was sent stuff that was being worked on … there was a song of mine that was being worked on. They didn’t even tell me they were working on it. I didn’t even know until they sent it and I said, “Wait a minute. Is that?” “Yeah, that’s your riff. I thought Tommy told you. You didn’t know?” I said, “No.” “Man, we’ve been working on that for three weeks!” (laughs)

So, anyway, I love the fact that the band gets itself. I haven’t ever seen or been in on a writing session where I’ve heard anybody say, “No. That’s not us.” I’ve never even heard that. It may have happened, but it just seems like everybody stays in the right lane instinctively.

CR: Which would you say is your favorite track, then?  Would it be “Hold Back the Darkness”, or which is your favorite on the album?

RP: Um … (thoughtful pause)

CR: Am I asking you to pick your favorite child? (chuckles)

RP: Well, no. It’s okay. I think I like a few things for different reasons. I think some of this is coming from the side of a player. I love what I was able to do with “Crash of the Crown”. The bass parts in that are just bad ass, I think, and it brings out my love for John Entwistle as does Long Live the King. It has a very cool middle section that, had another five minutes gone by, I would never have written. It was just a magical moment where I went, “I know exactly what to do here.” And I was right in my studio, sitting there. I had the bass in my lap. I went, “Hit record.”  So, the bridge in Long Live the King is a really unique, probably a McCartney-esque line. He would come up with something like that. It’s moving and unexpected.

But, I kinda tear records apart. I like parts of songs rather than the whole song. I have my own little, personal favorite little things. Although I really think “Crash of the Crown” is just an all around really cool, cool song. There’s a lot of great songs on here.

“The Fight of Our Lives” has got some really cool … it’s rock and roll, but it’s got some intelligence to it.

CR: Oh, for sure.

RP: (continues)  And I like that. I like a lot of the odd meters. I don’t think people are listening to the record and even know there is an odd meter coming at them, but it’s not like a music theory class or anything. But, from a musical standpoint, there’s a lot of very clever time signature changes.

CR: I was thinking that, too. I have – so, you don’t need to know about me, but I do have a daughter in college. She’s a music performance major, so we have a lot of music theory talks around our house and such.

RP: OK. (chuckles)

CR: But, I was thinking there is some 6/8 and 12/8 stuff going on in there and 

RP: Yeah!

CR: (continues) and some changes that I noticed and appreciated as a music lover.

RP: Well, I think Genesis and bands, even Yes, a lot of bands who could kind of drive through different … without … hopefully, the listener gets that as part of the ride. But 4/4 all the time, constantly is just boring. I’m sorry. And so we, in our band, have. We are guys who, even when we weren’t all together. I mean, I had this. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I got the gig with this band, because I fit-in in that way as well.

We love odd meters, not just to have odd meters, but for what it does. Whether it’s a bar of nine that throws it a little lopsided, but you don’t know why. For a good reason. Or if it’s 5/4 or 6/8. There’s so many cool things that we can think of. You know, “We should throw a bar of blah-blah-blah and then go with it. Straight at it.” So, somebody will doodle around with something and say, “How about this?” Do you know what I’m saying? We are all fans of what that does.

Styx guitarist James Young and bassist Ricky Phillips performing at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in Saint Louis in 2017. Photo by Sean Derrick/Thyrd Eye Photography.

CR: Absolutely. It ups the interest for sure. And, whether a person understands what is happening or not, just the casual listener, it definitely makes it more interesting. And I think that’s the great thing about your band, for sure.

RP: Genesis. (sings) duh, duh, duh, buh, buh, buh. It’s like no one would know what that was or why, you know, but they found a melodic – it’s commercial as hell! If you tell somebody that is odd meter, it would confuse them. So, then all of a sudden they might not like it anymore! I don’t know. (laughs)

CR: Right, so let’s not tell. Let’s not tell. (laughs)

RP: Yeah, don’t tell them.

CR: OK.  I have kind of a silly question for you, maybe. You said that you live in Austin. I know that every place you go, every place has local foods that are favorites. This interview is in anticipation of your St. Louis concert. They are famous for sweet potato fries, gooey butter cake, breaded pork tenderloin, that kind of thing. So, what’s your favorite thing to eat when you are in St. Louis?

RP: Wow! Wow. You know, we get spoiled because wherever we go the caterers want to outdo any catering we’ve had. So, I mean, if it’s catfish or whatever they’ve done something to it. Put some magic sauce on it or whatever. I love the Midwest. I was born in Iowa and I love the Midwest because … catfish and corn as high as an elephant’s eye. Whatever it is, it’s going to be delish.

I remember my grandmother. I thought she was a goddess because she put food down in front of me that came out of her garden. It was fresh. She made her own sauces. Made her own whatever. I never even knew what it was, but I just knew it was going to be good. When I think of the Midwest I just think of “Good.” It’s some good eats! (chuckles)

CR: (also chuckles) Good, good. I agree. Let me see, is there anything else? I had other questions here about, you know if there is any charity work going on with Rock to the Rescue or individually or anything else you’d like to tell me about?

RP: Well, we’re very. We all think charitably and we sign over one-hundred guitars every year to donate and sometimes auction off. Yes, Rock to the Rescue is the band’s personal charity, but I just had the office send me something for a fireman’s fund here in Austin that’s happening Monday. It’s a golf tournament and I heard about it. So, I had the office send me a signed guitar that we can auction off here for the fireman’s fund. I think that’s the third one that I’ve done so far this year. 

All the guys are doing the same thing. We all have our personal, uh. Linda Blair, for example, is a dear friend of mine from years and years back. She has dedicated the last thirty years of her life to animals, specifically – not only – but she works with pitbulls that have been abused and mistreated and overbred and stuff. She’s got over one-hundred at all times. 

And Tommy has certain people that he tries to reach out to. Rock to the Rescue is a constant and I’m not always aware of what we’re doing. But, every night off of the stage we auction off a guitar. You know, they’ll get a guitar and we can raise money for Rock to the Rescue.

CR: Very nice. Very nice. Ok, well I think that’s about all I have. I want to thank you very much for taking your time to talk with me today. I’ve enjoyed our talk very much.

RP: Good. Me, too.

CR: Best of luck with the tour and stay well – you and the whole band.

RP: Thank you, Christine. You take care, yourself.

 

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