An authoritative hard rock wrecking crew will soon be traveling across North America towards an amphitheater near you. The announcement that the members of Styx will accompany hard rockers Tesla in support of Def Leppard during their upcoming summer tour has been met which much excitement from dedicated listeners, in what is quickly being considered one of this year’s most anticipated treks.
Styx certainly aren’t strangers when it comes to impressive summer tours, having just last year hit the road alongside Foreigner and Don Felder for an extensive headlining run, however this is bound to be one of the most memorable tours in the band’s history. This formidable power trio will begin their five month sprint with a June 23 performance in Tampa, Florida, before continuing across the remainder of the United States and Canada.
Music Enthusiast recently sat down with Styx bassist Ricky Phillips for an exclusive interview discussing the band’s upcoming tour, what he enjoys most about performing live, his thoughts on the group’s latest studio efforts, his stance towards new material, and his ongoing work on the final Ronnie Montrose recordings.
William Clark: Let’s start with the popular topic of the week: it’s been announced that Styx will head on tour with Def Leppard and Tesla this summer! Are you personally looking forward to the tour?
Ricky Phillips: Oh yeah! We haven’t toured with Def Leppard in quite a while, but we did go out with them for several legs about five years ago, and for me it’s a lot of fun because Sav [Rick Savage] and Joe [Elliott] and I play a little bit of golf on days off and get away from the hotels and concrete. We just love those guys, it’s a good time. The two bands really get along well, and the music seems to get along very well. I think Tesla was a good add to that, as well. We’ve done shows with Tesla and it’s a good pallet, you know? It’s a really good compliment of music for the evening. We were busy when we first heard about it, we were doing a bunch of shows and didn’t really have time to digest it, but thinking about it over this past week now that it’s hitting the airwaves that we’re doing this tour, it really sounds like it’s going to be a great night of music.
William: I agree. Styx has made the welcome habit of regularly embarking on triple bill summer tours, in recent years heading out with such names as Foreigner, Ted Nugent, Don Felder, Yes and REO Speedwagon. What do you and the band enjoy most about these triple threat tours?
Ricky: Well I think there’s a few things. One of them, it’s really great for the rock fans that want to see a great rock show, and it’s a lot of bang for your buck. You basically are paying just about the price you would pay to see one band, and you’re seeing three. That’s an obvious given. The other thing is it’s a great way for fans that would probably not even know about Styx – like if they’re going to see Def Leppard or they’re going to see Tesla, and all of a sudden they go, “Wow, I had no idea.”
Conversely, it’s the same for Def Leppard fans and our fans. We really see this bringing together of people, and I have a feeling that the fans from all bands are kind of cut from the same cloth, but I know when I first getting into bands I had a certain path that I was following. There were certain bands that I would go, “Nah. No.” And I would stick with my diehard bands, what I liked musically. Then all of a sudden, you’ll go see somebody and somebody else is opening and you’ll go, “Wow, I had no idea.” It’s just a cool way of introducing other fans to our music. That’s one of the things ten years ago our manager was doing, trying to put us with bands that would be a good compliment musically, but it would also draw fans that might not usually come down our path.
William: Right. What bands were initially in your musical palette?
Ricky: Well, I think when I first heard The Beatles, I was so young that I didn’t realize how wonderfully influential that was. I learned so many things without really realizing that I was studying, like for example what a hit song sounded like. I was just listening to songs on the radio, I had no idea that it was developing me. Note placement instrumentally, production values.
Then I got into The Who, I learned John Entwistle’s slamming bass on “My Generation.” Think about it: a bass solo in a hit pop song? The way he approached music that was seemingly pop music but it was so heavy, that and Paul McCartney‘s bass lines in certain songs kind of… I was only eleven or twelve years old, but I’m starting to formulate what I dug.
When I heard Jimi Hendrix and when I heard Cream, I was over the moon. When Led Zeppelin came along, I thought that I had landed on another planet. You didn’t hear that kind of music. It was all new. It was the first time that any of that heavy, heavy music playing through Marshall stacks with such great musicianship and good song arrangement that took you on a musical journey. I just feel fortunate to have kind of been born listening to music for the first time when I was, because it definitely helped me carve out a need to create what I had heard and make the career that I’ve had.
William: Was that kind of the inspiration behind Styx’s 2005 album, ‘Big Bang Theory’ – to pay tribute to those bands that brought you into music in the first place?
Ricky: Yeah, man! You kind of hit it right on the head. Why would we do a covers record in the first place? Really that came about because we played Eric Clapton‘s very first Crossroads event, and we opened up the show. The evening before we did an acoustic set for a sit-down dinner for the people who were putting together the Crossroads event, and the next day we kicked off the three day event. We had just been kicking around ideas for “I Am the Walrus” in sound checks, and we decided to play that in the set. Do something different. Do something that people wouldn’t expect. We played songs that day that no one had heard us play.
All of a sudden that song, the live version of us playing that song got on over 300 stations in the country in like a month, and that led to Universal approaching us and saying, “You’ve got a hit on your hands.” It entered the Top 50 completely out of left field, we didn’t see that one coming. So they said, “We’ll pay you guys to go in and make a covers record. What do you think?” And we talked about it, and realized that we did have something that did come out of left field and was a chance of getting airplay that normally you couldn’t script. It absolutely happened out of the blue. We said that the only way this makes sense is if we don’t do music of our contemporaries, but the bands who formed us as musicians or influenced us, no matter how obscure they might be. Let’s grab those bands that had something unique and helped shape us – that created Styx, in other words. Hence the title, ‘Big Bang Theory.’
William: I’ve had the pleasure to see the current lineup multiple times, and when I caught you in Melbourne last year during your headlining tour the band played that cover of “I Am the Walrus,” and the crowd really ate it up. During those shows, Styx also brings out lesser known anthems like “Snowblind” and “Superstars,” in addition to newer selections like “One With Everything.” Can fans expect these songs to show up in the set during this upcoming run with Def Leppard?
Ricky: I hope so. The one little caveat, or the one little glitch is that we’ll have a condensed set. That’s the only drawback in a triple bill. So… we can fill that entire space up with hits, which is what people expect, but we lately have been trying to at least squeeze in one, sometimes two deep cuts that people like the die hard fans really look forward to hearing, and we will try to do that. I think we will be able to, but we are limited. People do expect to hear certain key songs, otherwise they’re going to feel gypped, so we’ve got to consider that. We’ve got to consider the fans, and we’ve got to consider people who are coming and seeing us for the first time, but within that… I could see “I Am the Walrus.” I could see “Snowblind,” I can see a few songs complimenting those hits and going right along with the attitude or the color of the shows. So, we’ll try to do that. We definitely will try.
William: That certainly seems to be the only downside. Would you agree that there are certainly more pros than cons, not only going on tour with Def Leppard and Tesla, but also being able to play larger venues and cater to more fans on this triple bill?
Ricky: Yeah. There is something though, it’s the overall feel for those people who have never been to a big rock show – and I’m talking about a real rock show with classic rock bands. I mean, the old school arena rock show is still unbeatable. The staging, the grandiosity… (laughs) We made an agreement about ten years ago that we’re going to stay on the road year round, but to be able to do that during the winter months when there’s not the big outdoor rock venues, we have to play theaters and small clubs, House of Blueses, Hard Rocks around the countries, and there’s other ones.
But there’s something about that small show where people are grabbing at your feet, that intimate experience where there’s something really special. At the same time, there’s also something about the big rock show and the triple bill, the excitement of hearing the roadies tune up before the band hits the stage, the whole thing. The people in the audience are kind of like the fifth Beatle during those shows. It’s the energy that we feel that gives us the ability to translate that into our performance. If you haven’t been to one – not you, personally. I mean anyone who hasn’t been to one, there’s that first time when you go to a big show that makes you want to come back for more.
William: Exactly, and Def Leppard, Styx and Tesla in one night should provide that same kind of memorable concert experience. What is your experience with the music of your new touring acquaintances?
Ricky: Ah. Well, that’s a good question. I’ve toured with a lot people, played with a lot of people, a lot of incredible musicians. One thing about the name Styx, if you just strip that down, no matter where we’re playing there’s something special about the guys I’m playing with now. What we have chemistry wise – and I know, I’ve played with a lot of smokin’ musicians, but there’s a chemistry that happens when we’re onstage that I have never quite equaled. It’s a different thing altogether, it’s a compliment that happens within the styles of five different guys. We breathe together, the whole Ebb and Flow of the night.
Within a show that we repeat, we introduce a few different songs all the time, consistently throughout the year. You just change it a little bit, and suddenly the whole thing feels different. It keeps it fresh, keeps us on our toes. We do this stuff as we’re walking out onstage sometimes. We change things up. I’ve never been in a situation where a band could actually do that, where we’ll be radioing back to the lighting director saying, “Look, we’re going to be going under this instead.” They have to change their cues. People don’t realize how involved it is to make changes, but we do seem to do it all the time. I think it’s the only band I’ve been in that could do this. It happens all throughout the night, and it’s an exchange that is something bigger than the band itself. I’ve never had the pleasure of having that chemistry and comradery before.
William: In coordination with last summer’s tour, Styx teamed up with Foreigner and Don Felder to record a new version of The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” which appeared on the ‘Soundtrack of Summer’ compilation album. Similarly, Styx and REO Speedwagon released a new single, “Can’t Stop Rocking,” for that 2009 trek. Is there any talk of whether something similar will happen for this tour with Def Leppard and Tesla?
Ricky: I haven’t heard any yet, and you know… it’s all good. I think that’s personally… I’m not even sure what to think about that. Those songs are fun to do, and it’s fun to have a unity of music. I think it’s interesting to some of the fans, but I’m not sure if that will carry on for this tour. I just haven’t heard any mention of it. If somebody had a cool piece of music that they wanted to tear into I’m sure it would be fun, but I just haven’t heard anything yet.
William: For not releasing a new studio album in ten years, Styx has still managed to put out a wealth of releases on the shelves. Not even including two impressive live efforts, the band also issued a re-recorded collection of ‘Greatest Hits’ for 2011’s ‘Regeneration: I & II.’ What was the idea behind that effort?
Ricky: I think it was an exercise in what we’ve been hearing now. The fans have been feeling that the band had improved and progressed with the proper – it’s a matter of semantics, I’m not sure how to say that, but there’s a lot of young fans who although the band has changed very little since it’s formation, there have been changes in personnel. If you change anything in any band, it does change. You may think you’re playing the same thing, but it’s a different musician in that chair. Even though J.Y. and Tommy – when they called me, they said, “Listen. Before you say ‘yes’ to this, you’ve got to climb on board forever. We’re going to rock ’til we drop, so don’t tell us ‘yes’ unless you’re on the same page as us. We want you to be the last member in this band.’
They were very careful and very meticulous about how they’ve chosen people that have been in this band, I think they’ve done an incredible job. I’m honored about the fact that I was given this opportunity. It’s been a great place to be. But within that, this great responsibility of presenting this music, I think the fans would expect no less. So… I’m not sure if I answered your question completely, but is that something in the ballpark?
William: I would say so. Were you trying to somewhat stray away from the original recordings? You talked about –
Ricky: Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t really answer that completely. With the idea from management, there’s a lot of young people who would see us and then they would go buy the record, and they would go – first of all, recording techniques have improved vastly since the 70s, and when people come to see us it’s a little big larger than life. Some of those recordings didn’t really reflect maybe what fans were hearing, and I think that was a little bit [of the inspiration behind ‘Regeneration’], but we’re also really careful to not change the arrangements.
We haven’t changed the lines or the solos or the vocals, we’ve been meticulous about making sure we represented the original recording, because it’s kind of sacrilegious – that’s the way we think about it, to mess with that.
But within that, we’re able to change it up a bit and make it so each musician has a place where they can Ebb and Flow a bit and show themselves, otherwise it’s a karaoke situation and that’s going to get stagnant. So we wanted to represent that.
Our management thought it would be a good idea to put this about, because a lot of young fans have been saying they wanted recordings of what they were seeing. We would also throw on usually something – there’s a song that Tommy came up with called “Difference in the World.”
We do that on there, kind of as a bonus track. We’ve been playing Damn Yankees songs with Ted Nugent whenever he would come sit in with us, so we popped a couple of those on our second one. Overall, I think there is one other element in there. We own the masters to these recordings, so we’re able to use them in areas and ways that we need to.
William: Like you mentioned, in addition to two Damn Yankees covers, ‘Regeneration’ also incorporated a new song, “Difference in the World.” What is your stance on Styx recording new material?
Ricky: Hmm… well, as long as it sounds like Styx and it accurately represents what the band has always been about, and it doesn’t take U-turns into something completely new, which would absolutely make no sense, then I’m all for it. And I hope we are able to do that. As of now, as you know, it isn’t the recording industry anymore. It’s a touring industry. Music is free. That privilege of making a living by being a songwriter and a musician and a band has been taken away from us.
We don’t have that luxury of having recordings support a tour and families and put food in our mouths and pay for our bills. That doesn’t happen anymore. We have to keep our crew and their families fed by making smart decisions. We do it very welcomely, we love what we do, we love playing live and that’s why we stay out all year. We don’t have to be out all year, but we’re on the road at least 200 days every year, and that works well for us. As writers, to satisfy being writers and satisfy that artistic side of us, we’ve all continued to write. So at some point it will happen, and I predict that it’s going to be soon.
William: J.Y. has previously commented that the current state of the music industry has for the most part discouraged any real work on another Styx record. It sounds as though if things were different as far as the way music is shared, you would encourage another album.
Ricky: I think we all would, really. Even J.Y. would. Here’s the frustration, though. To make a record, it takes a lot of time and there’s a lot of work that goes into it. The first time I made a record, I told my mom and said, “Mom, we recorded this record in one month.” She said, “Really? One month?” I was excited that it wasn’t six months, you know? She said, “Well let me ask you a question. How many songs did you come up with?” I said, “Ten.” And she goes, “How long are these songs?” I said, “I don’t know. Maybe three to five minutes each.” She said, “And it took you a month?” (laughs)
She doesn’t have any idea about the process, and I think general public doesn’t understand how much that music is run through over and over, and every little nuance is checked out to make sure it’s good songwriting, it’s good song structure, it’s good melodies, the lyrics are complete and make sense. And then also there’s going into the studio and checking the drum set, making sure the drums are appropriate song by song by song, and the bass is matching and hitting at the same time as the kick drum, and the vocals are all in tune. You know what I am saying? The way the guitar sounds, there’s so many things that people have no idea have to be meticulously gone through to make the good sounding records that they love. Once all of that is done, then the artist can just flow and hopefully a good song can be recorded in one take or two takes, but to even get to that point and start to play the songs, it takes a lot of work. That’s just something I don’t think the general public sees.
William: I agree. Considering your previous ventures in Coverdale/Page, Bad English, Ted Nugent and The Babys, one would assume that you enjoy creating new music?
Ricky: Yeah. I miss it. I miss the fact that it was once my job, you know? My job in a band was to work and write good material, sometimes by myself, sometimes with the band members, sometimes being pulled into another project to help finish something. To be checking out different tones and sounds from basses to amplifiers, there’s so much involved in the recording process that I just adore and love. I just kind of finished rebuilding my own personal studio with a bunch of sample instruments, I’ve got a real piano, a lot of amplifiers and things. I’m trying to approach it old school in order to achieve the best tones and the best sounds. I’ve made samples that I haven’t used, but there’s just something about the real thing.
William: Having recently completed work on your new recording studio, do you have any projects outside of Styx that are currently in the works or are awaiting release?
Ricky: You know, I’ve been doing more session work for people who have been asking me to play on their records, or producers who want me to play bass for them on projects that they’re producing. I don’t really have time to do the production that I used to do, I’ve had bands ask me if I could produce them and they ultimately end up hating me. (laughs) Because I’m on the road so much, they end up being so frustrated waiting for me to get back.
I’m right now finishing producing the last recordings of Ronnie Montrose, I’ve got incredible people on it. Sammy Hagar did a song, Edgar Winter did a song, Mark Farner from Grand Funk did a song, I’ve got Tommy Shaw to do a song with me. Their instruments all bring these songs through a different light, with myself and Eric Singer, the drummer from KISS. Before he passed way, Ronnie was able to get through doing the solos, so I have people like Joe Bonamassa and some other people who I probably shouldn’t mention as of yet. It’s something that for me is satisfying my love for the studio and my love for playing. It’s very important for me, I love doing it.
William: It sounds like it should be a great album once it comes out.
Ricky: Yeah, thanks man. I’m so excited by the way it’s coming out, the way it’s sounding and everybody’s incredible work on this record. It’s going to be good.
William: Moving back to the band’s upcoming schedule, you’re going to be out on the road for five months alongside Def Leppard and Tesla. What do you enjoy most about performing live?
Ricky: I think pretty much to what I’ve alluded to already, and that surge that comes out from the audience when they hear something they like. Like when we first start the beginning of “Fooling Yourself,” and all of a sudden you feel this wave come across that finally hits the stage, which is this recollection of, “Oh, yeah! I like this one.” Not just the screaming and the yelling, waving, chicks flashing or whatever. (laughs) There’s all that as well, but there’s these subtle moments that are really a shared experience with the band and with the audience. I think that’s my favorite bit of all. There’s those special moments where you play something and they go, “Oh, wow. I’ve been looking for that.” I think really the exchange, that deep powerful exchange is something that you can’t explain to anybody that hasn’t felt it. It’s one of the best feelings ever.
William: As you’ve mentioned, Styx isn’t going to wait until late June to head out on the road. It was just announced that the group will perform several dates with the Nashville Symphony later this month. Styx has performed alongside orchestras in the past, so what do you feel are the benefits when rock bands introduce a complete symphony to their live shows?
Ricky: Well as it turns out, Styx is one of the best examples of a symphony show working. Some symphony shows that I’ve seen, I’m like, “Well…. yeah. OK. I hear it, and it’s alright.” But there’s something about the fact that Styx music goes through several different time signatures, you know what I mean? It isn’t just 4/4 rock and roll. There’s songs even like “Come Sail Away” which break out of 4/4. There are so many things that work well with an orchestra, and it’s the composition of almost every Styx song that’s just absolutely laid out perfectly for a symphony orchestra to do. I’ll put it this way. Even when we played with the Youth Symphony, there were a couple of things that they did that I missed after we left! They actually added something, and that comes down to the arrangements and the arrangers who wrote these parts.
They found little things that were written within the songs and made them bigger, and it worked so well that I as a player who hear it every night actually missed stuff that the symphony orchestra had played when we went on to do our shows. It made it grow to another place, and I think that I haven’t seen a lot of bands get a lot of extra out of it like that, and that comes out of composition and the writing of the songs. That’s why earlier when I said if we do another record, we need to continue on that line. We can’t do, “Well, this is Styx of today.” Styx is ongoing, something that’s continued and improved, and I think to ignore your past is very short-sided. To carry the legacy onward, I think one of the things when it comes to new material is that it is important, and you need to have the proper time to respect what’s come before, before you head into the future.
William: I agree. Do you feel that performing with symphony orchestras and embarking on heavyweight summer tours keeps things interesting not only for the fans, but also for the members of Styx?
Ricky: Oh yeah. I mean, we’re always looking for things to change it up so we stay fresh. I mean, that’s only doing the audience a favor. We have a lot of repeat offenders, as I call them. We have a great fan base, we see a lot of familiar faces every single night. We see guys who were there last night, they’re there tomorrow night. Right now I’m in Indiana, and I will see faces that I saw last night in Muncie. I will see them tonight because they get in their cars and they travel. I don’t know how they do it or how they afford it, but we have a lot of fans throughout different parts of the country, some of them are crazy enough to go coast-to-coast. As we move around, we’ve been doing this long enough that we see a lot of familiar faces in the first twenty rows. I mean, that’s a big part of this band, the fan base, that carries us through with the support they give us.