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INTERVIEW: RICKY PHILLIPS of STYX – June 2018

| 16 June 2018 | Reply

According to a recent press release: “STYX is giving their loyal fans a new release in July. The highly anticipated reissue of their critically acclaimed first new studio album in 14 years, THE MISSION, on July 27 via Alpha Dog 2T/UMe. The two-disc package will include a CD of the original album, as well as a Blu-ray of THE MISSION mixed in 5.1 Surround Sound by singer/guitarist TOMMY SHAW and producer Will Evankovich accompanied by stunning visualizations for each of the album’s 14 songs based on the album artwork. Other extras on the Blu-ray include: “The Making of The Mission Documentary” of exclusive interviews of SHAW and Evankovich, four music videos—“Gone Gone Gone” (official video), “Gone Gone Gone” (video created by NASA), “Radio Silence” (lyric video) and “Radio Silence” (live video from Syracuse, NY)—and three hi-res audio playback modes. Pre-orders are available now. “THE MISSION, a concept album of all new music, is a trip,” declares TOMMY SHAW. “Now it’s coming to you in 5.1 Surround and you’re cordially invited to strap yourselves in and take that trip with us, then take it again!”  With the release on the way and a tour underway, I was able to grab some time with Styx bassist Ricky Phillips from the road…

Toddstar: Ricky, thank you so much for taking the time out. I know you guys are really busy right now.

Ricky: Yeah, this is definitely a busy time, but a good time.

Toddstar: That’s awesome. Well listen, there’s so much going on, but right now you guys are getting ready to release an extended version of The Mission.

Ricky: Yes, we are.

Toddstar: What brought that around?

Ricky: I’ll put it on Tommy. He’s released an audio file, and they had put up sort of a mock up 5.1 surround sound mix of … I think it was “Locomotive”, and he just went, “Oh my gosh. This is a perfect body of tunes for 5.1.” It started there, and then it just progressed. He just loves hearing something sound as good as it possibly can, and taking it the extra mile, so that’s kind of where it came from.

Toddstar: Very cool. You guys are out on tour, out there with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and doing another run with Tesla. You kicked off about a week ago. How are those shows coming out for you guys so far?

Ricky: It’s been so good. Until you actually see something, it’s hard to experience it the way I would try to explain it, but if you think about Styx and Tesla, there’s great diversion there just in style. Then if you put Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in there, it goes a completely different direction. It’s such a nice evening, because as different as we all are, the complement from one to the next is very refreshing. Refreshing might not be the greatest word used with rock and roll, but there’s just something about it that works. I’ve been saying to everybody, “Don’t be late,” because Tesla brings it. They come out with both guns blazing. Get there, get parked, come in and don’t miss a single song of theirs, because it’s a great show. Then Joan comes on, and her band is just… she always has great players that she finds that does her version of punk and rock and roll, and they totally get it. It’s another case of, “Oh yeah, I forgot she did that one. Oh, I forgot she did that one. Oh, yeah.” It’s one song after the next that you will know. She is that person. She’s like a character almost. She is a dyed in the wool rocker with punk roots, and it’s just a great, great show. Then we come on and do… Styx is known for being flamboyant and larger than life in our genre, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a really strong show from beginning to end.

Toddstar: You talk about a strong show beginning to end, and you guys are doing something this year that you haven’t done for a long time. You guys finally rolled up the sleeves and are ripping out “Mr. Roboto.” What’s that like for you guys, knowing that it was something the fans really have kind of wanted to hear it for a while?

Ricky: You know? It’s fun. There have been people who stop our crew. They’re buying a t-shirt, and they’ll tell the guy, “Man, can you ask them to play “Roboto”?” It’s been going on for years and years and years, and every guy in the crew has been unwrapping cables or out at the sound board, wherever they are, stopped by fans saying, “When are they going to play it? When are they going to play it?” I think it isn’t that we’re always trying to find something new to do, but you definitely try to keep the shows different and fresh, and maybe do a different set list. It just came up that what if… it’s really hard for me to answer this and put it all back together. The next thing I know, “Let’s play it. Let’s run it down.” We played it, and being away from it all these years and playing it as a piece of music, and not about something that was a dividing line in the band. Instead of it being a change in direction for a band, it is just another color from the pallet, from the catalog. We find that it’s all about where you place the song. It’s a fun, fun little ride. It’s a short ride, but it’s a fun little ride, and then we’re back to rocking in Styx world. It is a part of the band’s history. I wasn’t around for that when it was going down, but I knew the guys, I had already toured with them a bunch, I knew them very well. When it came on the radio, it was a head scratcher for me. I was like, “What in the hell?” Now, all these years later, it seems if anything I think it’s kind of punched. It kind of all of a sudden doesn’t have that crazy stigma anymore. It’s a song that is what it is. For a lot of people who were kids, are now adults. They’ve been adults for a couple decades, who heard that song. What kid doesn’t like a song about a robot? I get that, and I get how fun it is for a certain body. There’s certain songs I liked as a little kid. There’s a song called the “Purple People Eater.” I mean that was one of my favorite songs, but is it great? Would a musician take pride in that one as his mantel piece? No, and so I get where all these things come from, but that doesn’t mean that they’re entirely worthless or bad. I don’t even know if that’s a great analogy or a great example. It just came to mind, because I was thinking of myself as a kid and what I liked. I liked Alvin and the Chipmunks for God’s sake. There’s certain things that depends on when in your life you heard the song. We all have our soundtrack of who we are in growing up, and hey man, if that song brought joy to somebody, that’s awesome. Fantastic. The fact that we’re doing it now is taking a little bit of the tension that may have lived there at one point. It’s not there anymore for us, and we’re having fun doing it.

Toddstar: Awesome. Again, you guys did the Regeneration project where you kind of went back and you kept the spirit there, but you guys are such a tight unit and have been since 2003; it’s been you five guys. For you guys to go back and do this one with a heavier groove, which I saw with Regeneration. You guys brought a little heavier hammer to the party so to speak. The clips I’ve heard kind of gave me that same feeling…

Ricky: I don’t mean to interrupt you, but I would like to interject that we don’t do that on purpose. As musicians, when you change one musician you change the sound a little bit. We revisit a lot of the catalog, because we don’t want to change these iconic songs for people. We want to represent those songs the way people heard them growing up, so they can come to our shows and leave going, “Wow. What a blast from the past. That was great. “I remember that one, “Fooling Yourself,” how old I was, or where I was when they played that on the radio.” Or “Too Much Time on My Hands,” or “Blue Collar Man,” whatever the song is, “Renegade.” We just happen to… I don’t know, when we played it, it just came out sounding… same song, same parts, didn’t re-write it. I remember Andres Segovia, we had this thing when I was a kid, because I was into every guitar player who had done great things. As a flamenco, classical guitarist, he wrote that he didn’t catch his stride as a player until he was in his late 50’s. I think what happens is, as we’re on our musical journey, things that you maybe had to think about, it’s kind of like second nature now. When you play, you know what you’re trying to do, and you know what you’re going for, so naturally in this case, I think we pay it a little more heavy handed, because it’s kind of a product song if you look at it. Instead of approaching it the way, or perceiving it the way it was presented back in the day it was written, now we look at it and we play it the way we are as seasoned musicians. I think it just comes off as a stronger piece of music honestly. It wasn’t by design for us to change it in any way, and so because all the original elements are there, people seem to be really enjoying it.

Toddstar: I agree. I think it’s a little heavier handed, and I actually dig it more than the original, so that’s just one man’s opinion. That said Ricky, what song or couple songs from the Styx catalog – like you said, you were well aware of who they were before you were in the band, so you know the catalog – would you love to be able to dust off and put the Ricky Phillips stamp on that bottom line?

Ricky: Oh man, we have done “Castle Walls” that I’ve been able to do at times, but unfortunately it isn’t in heavy rotation in the catalog, because we have so many songs that were stronger and more known hits, and a lot of times we can’t really get through too many more songs than the hits, because that’s all the time we’re allowed. “Suite Madame Blue,” that’s like a Led Zeppelin song. I mean when we play that song live, it’s huge. Those are the kinds of things that I like. I love “Renegade” for that very reason. We do get to play “Renegade” every night, but there’s a lot of the stuff in the catalog, that the band has been together so long now, that all the guys are just cracker jack musicians man, and just things come easy to them. I’ve grown within other bands for the same period of times they have, so it’s so much fun to work with my brothers in Styx at this point in my career. It’s not the way I would have scripted it when I was first starting out. I would’ve never known, even when I played with those guys back in ’79, I would never have thought, “One day you’re going to be in this band. Oh, yeah right.” It wouldn’t have made sense to me at that time. Now that I’m here, it’s such a cool place for a guy like me, who I like to come up with. When we did The Mission, Tommy really pushed me into this direction. He said, “Man, I want to hear Ricky Phillips warming up in the dressing room. I want to hear all those cool melodies and lines you come up with on bass on this record.” Within that, we talked about how this has got to sound like it came out the same time the Grand Illusion did, or Pieces of Eight. I was the one guy that got to deviate a bit, by both Will and Tommy’s instruction and so I had a blast. These are the things that are within the Styx catalog from way back. A song like “Mademoiselle,” very, very poppy song, but if you listen to the inner workings of that song and the lines that are going on musically within that song, it’s gorgeous. Just really great, not just great playing, but the composition itself, the writing of it is just brilliant. I mean now that I’m more aware and have had to go in and learn all these songs, I realize how deep Styx really is. The band goes much further. I mean it doesn’t sound like a music theory class. It just comes off very honestly, but there’s a lot of great odd time signatures, the popping out of nowhere, a guy that’s not a musician or a gal that’s not a musician is not going to hear that, but they’re going, “Oh, that’s kind of cool.” It’s just they knew when to do that and when to break it up and take it out and give an odd time signature, or bring out more of an emotion. I give those guys, everybody in the original band just great credit for all the compositions they put together.

Toddstar: That’s cool. Ricky, you’re all over the place. I mean you’ve done some singing of your own and we’ll point everybody over to the 10×10 project. I spoke with you about it back in 2015, and then last year you got to see a lot of your work come to fruition. When we first talked about it, it was still on the front end. Now that it’s on the back end of it, are you still just as proud, more proud? What’s your take away now on that project?

Ricky: I think I’m frustrated that there’s a lot of guys out there putting out really great rock music, and there’s no voice for it. I think I’m frustrated when I hear somebody I admire and respect, and they tell me, “Oh I just heard about – what’s this record, 10×10?” When people hear it, they love it. I get that. I mean it’s my colleagues, and generally that’s where it’s aimed. It’s aimed at the people who came out of the 70’s and into the 80’s. It’s kind of that sound. You and I talked about that before, but it’s so good. Everybody did really bring their A game. I was really happy. I was frustrated with… I had to stretch it out over almost three years to finish it, because of my own touring schedule with Styx, but it also gave me the luxury of really living with something long enough to make either production changes or remix something or to add something maybe even a year and a half later to something that I thought was finished, or take something out. I got that record really, really where I wanted it to be, and I think that’s why most of my colleagues like it so much. It sounds like something lifted out of 1977 or something, you know? Well of course you’ve got Rick Derringer, Ronnie Montrose, and Edgar Winter on the same track with Eric Singer from Kiss and myself as the rhythm section. Both of us loved the Edgar Winter Group. There is that, but nevertheless, it’s just like a needle drop from 1975 or something on that particular track. I think I was able to do that on the whole record. I was really able to find the right people. I had asked people who I couldn’t get, that I knew were friends of Ronnie’s and who would have normally, if I didn’t catch them at a bad time, they were either too busy or in one case there was a family death. In the end, I think all the right people are on the record. I really wouldn’t change anything at this point. I’m very, very happy with the way it came out.

Toddstar: You recruited some killer guitar players and the vocalists. It’s hard to argue with Eric Martin or Sammy Hagar, or this unknown guy, Tommy Shaw. You get something like “Kingdom’s Come Undone,” and personally it’s one of my favorite vocals on the album, only because you could hear it. You could hear what the song and Ronnie meant to you through your vocals. To me that was kind of cool.

Ricky: That’s nice to hear. That’s a special song. Ronnie had asked me to sing. Ronnie was asked to do a song for a record called Secondhand Smoke, which was a bunch of different guitar players were asked to do Frank Marino’s songs. It was a tribute to Frank Marino. Ronnie chose a song – it’s a very hippy song, and it was a very kooky song. Ronnie asked me to sing it, and so I did. He was living in Sacramento at the time. I went up to Sacramento and sang the track for him. That was the first time I had sung with Ronnie. I didn’t even know Ronnie dug my vocals. Otherwise I probably would not have sung on 10×10. I would have probably waited somebody out. I don’t second guess anybody else on the record, I just second guess myself. I appreciate hearing that.

Toddstar: No worries. I know you’re busy and I know I want to try and help get you back on track, so I’ve got one more before we let you go. If you could go back through the catalog of recorded music Ricky, and there was one album that you could be a part of, that meant that much to you, that you’d want to be a part of, what would that album be?

Ricky: Probably would be Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix. That record is a huge part of my DNA as a player, and having heard that as a kid, I was young enough to just completely consume it. I would go to sleep at night on my brother’s record player and it would turn itself off. I would pick which side I wanted to listen to, and it would click and turn itself off after one side. I would go to sleep listening to that. There were a lot of different people who wrote in and out of that studio. I’ve read a lot of things about how it was recorded. I’ve even used people who were on that record on stuff I’ve produced. It’s just Mike Finnegan, who played B3 on that record, I’ve used him on a few different recordings. Jimi Hendrix was just at a special time and a special player, and I realized that a lot of younger guitar players, they listen to it, and they’re missing what else was going on. He went from Herman’s Hermits to Jimi Hendrix in the blink of an eye. They’ll listen to it, and they might not get the influence and how important it was of Jimi Hendrix, because there’s so many people doing so many things pyrotechnically on guitar, that are maybe beyond what Jimi did, but Jimi did it with soul. He did it from a blues based framework, and there was a meaning behind every note, and it was before guitar players were just learning incredible scales and playing them as fast as they can, and there’s your solo. For me, that was a really important time just in learning something. That’s a huge lesson that I learned from him. I learned a lot from the Beatles. I was initially, when you first asked me, I was going to say Abbey Road, because Abbey Road was another very incredibly well-crafted record song by song, by song. Total masterpiece, but I think Jimi Hendrix is really more the soul of who I wanted to be and wanted to become. If I could just grab as much from his natural abilities, and do it without the technicality of every note he played, every single note, and everything he sang was just heartfelt, and that’s something I’ve learned, that I’ve stuck by.

Toddstar: Well it comes across in what you do. Again, whether it’s the Ronnie project or out touring, which July 6th at, we’ll call it Pine Knob…

Ricky: That’s what we know it as.

Toddstar: Detroit and Pine Knob loves you guys and anybody who wants to see a bass player who doesn’t stand in one place, who digs what he’s doing, and with a smile on your face it’s obvious you love what you’re doing these days Ricky. I advise that they get out there and check this show out.

Ricky: Thank you, Todd. I really appreciate it. It’s great talking to you.

Toddstar: All right, we’ll talk to you soon Ricky.

Ricky: All right, man. Take care of yourself. 

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Todd ‘ToddStar’ Jolicoeur

Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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