I had the opportunity to sit down with none other than Ricky Phillips, who plays bass and sings in STYX. A longtime veteran of the music business and a guy whose resume is as long as my arm, Ricky is a very unassuming, down to earth guy who just loves what he does, and takes his craft seriously. We spoke about the new STYX album The Mission (their first in 14 years), out now, the United We Rock Tour with REO SPEEDWAGON and Don Felder, and several other things. Check it:
Amps: Tell me about this new record, The Mission.
Ricky: It’s something that’s probably long overdue. There was a possibility of us never doing another record but everybody’s still avid as far as songwriting goes. It’s definitely a part of our DNA. Tommy (Shaw, vocals/guitars) came up with the concept that he felt was worth diving into and sure enough came up with the goods. I think when we first heard about it we were all scratching our heads thinking, “Really? A concept album? Isn’t that the very thing that caused us problems in the past?” (laughs). But he believed in it and he started sending me some song titles and ideas and asked me to put up some bass stuff on them. I remember thinking, “Wow this is really freakin’ good.” He kept at it and working on it during our time off and somehow found the time to sketch this thing out musically and lyrically and after a few years crossed the finish line. It’s been 14 years between STYX records, and to have that luxury of being on so many different stages in that time all around the world together, I think it’s been beneficial to making this record. I was kind of surprised when I heard the final product, at how great it was (laughs). It really pulled me in, and all I could think was, “If it’s pulling ME in this way, what’s it doing for other people?” It was sort of a “Pinch me” moment.
Amps: I know you play a lot of shows every year, so how much down time do you, I mean YOU, actually get?
Ricky: Well, the down time goes according to the calendar. Usually we have meetings around September as far as what the next year’s gonna look like, and I can see these pockets of time where we’ll maybe have two weeks off. Or if I wanna write or get sessions together with people I can do so. I don’t do a lot, and I’ve turned a lot of bands down, as far as producing, because I said, “You’ll end up hating me, because it will take forever to finish your record. And I think I’d be doing you a disservice by making you sit around and wait.” A vacation for me is staying home. My studio is in my house, and of course I do stuff around there like scheduling a plumber or something.
Amps: I imagine the tour offers come pouring in year after year, right?
Ricky: Yeah, but we never see that process. It’s brought to us. Management will sit down with us and say, “OK, there’s an offer from here, and we should do this area because we haven’t visited there in awhile, so we need to get back there.” But yeah, our year fills in pretty quickly. I think at this point, we have stuff booked through 2019. We’re trying to keep it at 100 shows a year. We take pride in our vocals. Me, JY, and Tommy, we’re nose-to-nose every night for 20 minutes when we sing and warm up together. We try to sing tight and get everything right like in “Renegade” where you’ve got that a capella vocal. I think that benefits the show. We also do all of the songs in their original keys and there’s no pre-recorded vocals in this band. As Tommy like to say onstage, “All the mistakes you’re hearing tonight are done live!” (laughs). And that’s the way we approach it.
Amps: You, REO Speedwagon, and Don Felder is a match made in Heaven, right? I was bummed this tour wasn’t hitting Philly.
Ricky: Don has a great band out with him. Whenever he goes out he always has these great musicians with him, but right now he’s got a really great, tight band. And his guitar work is iconic. And REO and STYX go way back. They’re some of my dearest friends of many, many years. I’m talking three decades plus. We’ve all had the luxury of playing a great catalog for so many years that it’s pretty well-honed and never a disappointment for our longtime fans. And it’s so comfortable backstage, we have such a good time. It’s a lot of fun.
One of the things that makes life on the road so much fun and better than you can imagine is the other 22 hours of the day when you’re not onstage, just having fun and being with people who get it, who come with a sense of humor.
Don and I like to play golf on days off. Bruce Hall from REO, he’s in on that as well. Kevin Cronin (REO singer/guitarist) has been getting back into it as well. It gives us a chance to get out and breath some fresh air, you know? We don’t take it too seriously. There are some good golfers among us, and some who aren’t good, but we don’t care. It’s all about the comraderie and getting away for a bit.
Amps: You’ve also been part of some other great bands and projects. Tell me about the COVERDALE/PAGE album in 1993.
Amps: In BAD ENGLISH we opened up for WHITESNAKE and I got to know David Coverdale pretty well. He called me and said, “Hey, I’m doing this record and I’m trying to keep it quiet for now. but it’s with Jimmy Page, and John Kalodner wants to do a Supergroup, so we don’t know what’s going on. Would you be interested in helping us with the material?” And he had heard that BAD ENGLISH was splitting up, so it opened that possibility up. But he was really just wanting to invite me in, because he had a lot of my heroes involved, like John Entwhistle. So I was diggin’ on that. Denny Carmassi was playing drums, and me, Jimmy, and Denny started smokin’ really quick from the first week of playing together. It took about five months of flying in and out of Tahoe, which is where we went to get away from everybody, and us playing together became a lot of fun. We were sequestered with not a whole lot to do. Denny and I would get together at 7 a.m. and go over what we’d done with Jimmy the day before. By 10 o’clock we would go into this cabin where Jimmy, Denny, and I would jam on ideas till about 1 p.m., then David would come in and sing over the stuff we’d been putting together. We’d kick ideas around and it started coming together pretty quickly. But then we wouldn’t see each other for awhile. Then all of a sudden I’d get the invite to come up and start cutting tracks and that’s kind of how it came about.
Jimmy and I liked to go out at night and when he and I were in Vancouver we would go to clubs and hang out a bit. David wasn’t really into that, although he came out two or three times, and Carmassi would only go out and have a beer with us occasionally. It was really a great time to hang out with Page and ask him all the things I wanted to know as a fan. And we developed this friendship, so the door was open. It was really cool to get out and socialize. I think me and Jimmy did that more than the other guys, and I caught myself more than once going, “Dude, this is Jimmy Page you’re hanging with!”
I’m a fan of anyone who had a hand in the music I grew up to and was impressed by. He was part of my DNA as a young musician, and represented where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. And LED ZEPPELIN was definitely a part of my young development as a young musician. There’s a song called “Locomotive” and a couple of reviews have alluded to the fact that I was chanelling Chris Squire (late YES bassist). That’s partly correct, but I also like Paul McCartney and John Entwhistle, and I think those guys are probably inside there somewhere. I think that lent itself to this material on The Mission. Tommy said to me, “I wanna hear that stuff that you rip on backstage before we go on in your rehearsal room.” And he said, “I want that on this record.” With that green light after hearing the material I thought, “Well, I’m gonna do more movement than I normally do on a record.” I just kept the gate open a little bit. And now I’m very pleased song by song at what I was able to do.
Amps: You’ve done a lot of session work as well, correct?
Ricky: I have, yes. The drag about the whole session thing is that I was never really comfortable in the session world. And that’s because more often than not they wanna dummy you down. You’ll play something that’s badass and they’ll go, “No, no…can you just play eigth notes?”
And producers are just trying to get hit songs on the radio. They’re not trying to get proficiency or display someone’s true talent. And that’s their gig, I totally get it.
Amps: What would you like to say to all the fans of STYX and everything else you’ve been a part of?
Ricky: Just a big thank you. To be able to have their support in so many different projects. The kind e-mails I get from people who have recognized any contributions of mine. It’s a life of rarified air up here, being able to do what you love and to develop even further as a good player and a good teammate with great bands that have continued to invite me onboard. And I don’t take it for granted at all. So again, thank you.
Ricky Phillips is a great storyteller, isn’t he? One thing’s for sure. If he ever writes a book, I’ll be first in line to read it. Pick up your copy of The Mission now, wherever it is you buy your music, and be sure to catch STYX on the road in a city near you!