Styx’s Ricky Phillips Talks New Music, Touring and More: Exclusive Interview
Back in the day when Styx bassist Ricky Phillips was on the road, touring was a lot different compared to the technology-loaded perks that bands enjoy these days.
“We were playing Boggle and poker and Yahtzee, whatever we could to pass the time," he recalls. "Because there were a long bus rides where you’re on the bus for eight or nine hours, and you’re about ready to go out of your mind. It kind of explains a lot of the trouble that we used to get in. You’re bored out of your mind except for that two hours you’re onstage every day. We’ve always said, ‘We don’t get paid for what we do, it’s the time we spend traveling to get to the next city.’ Those other 22 hours of the day are what we get paid for."
Smartphones make it a lot easier to be away from home these days; Phillips can FaceTime with family while he’s away and even see his pets. And, as he notes, being on tour helps to keep those family relations together. “The joke around us is if we take a week off, when we get back on the bus, it’s like, 'Geez, it’s good to be back on the road,'" he says. "My charm was wearing thin at home.”
The touring life is something fans can get an inside look at in the documentary that’s part of Styx’s new live DVD, Live at the Orleans Arena Las Vegas, which weaves concert footage with interviews featuring band members and crew, presenting a vivid picture of what it’s like to be on the road. The current lineup of the group, including Phillips, who joined in 2003, has been together long enough that the members are able to keep things light while respecting everyone's need for space.
“Everybody’s got a great sense of humor, and everybody’s delivering one-liners throughout the day," Philips points out. "You learn that humor will take you further than just about anything. So it never really gets that tough. Everybody has their breaking point, and we know each other well enough when somebody needs to be left alone or walked around. Everybody’s got their time and it hits everybody at different [points], where it’s like, ‘Okay, I’ve had it, I need to go home for a couple of days.’ We all get it and it’s a pretty supportive group of guys -- people always say, ‘God, it looks like you guys are having so much fun up there!’ And there’s no fake smiles on the Styx stage. If we’re smiling, it’s because we’re in the moment and that’s what’s on our mind. It’s definitely the exchange between musicianship and the singing and it’s a very symbiotic...it’s sort of a dance that’s not completely mimicked from night to night.”
According to Phillips, the band works hard to deliver a live experience that matches the albums fans have memorized from end to end. There’s room for improvisation, but they never forget the important bits. “We try to change it up, but we also try to pay great attention," he explains. "It’s like, we really, really want people to come and hear what they’ve been hearing throughout their entire lives. ... I know where I can deviate and play and become myself and show a little bit more, but not for the sake of the song. We definitely deliver what was originally recorded in the fashion that everyone has grown accustomed to, and I think that’s really important. It’s a pet peeve of mine to hear bands kind of chicken out or cop out or not going for a note, whether it’s vocally or on guitar or whatever.”
Phillips first crossed paths with Styx in the ‘70s when he was touring as a member of the Babys, and he recalls watching the band from the side of the stage, marveling with Babys singer John Waite how Styx had three singers and were still able to present a show that consistently sounded like the same band, no matter who was on lead vocals. It demonstrated the importance of defining who you are as a band -- something that is the difference between having career longevity or becoming a one-hit wonder.
“Thank God they have that catalog," Phillips says. "Because it never gets stale. As soon as it starts to think about getting stale, we change the set list. There are certain songs we’ve got to play every night, but we spice it up by throwing in things we haven’t done in a while.”
Six years ago, the band dug deep into its catalog to present full album performances of the classic albums The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight. The experience of doing those shows continues to carry into the concerts the group now plays. The Orleans Arena performance, which was captured during the band's 2014 tour that also included Foreigner and Don Felder, features classic Styx songs like “Crystal Ball,” “Too Much Time on My Hands” and “Blue Collar Man.” But it also includes nuggets like “Superstars” from The Grand Illusion and “Light Up” from 1975's Equinox LP.
“The cool thing about Styx material is that it’s very cleverly written and goes from 4/4 in odd meter time -- maybe two or three times during the song that appears to be just a simple little pop tune for Top 40 radio," he notes. "And then there’s the deep cuts, things like ‘Castle Walls,’ ‘Queen of Spades’ -- there’s all of these not-obvious hits that all of the Styx fans know and I was aware of a lot of them. ... There’s a lot of depth and breadth to the Styx catalog, so whatever we reach into, as far as the grab bag from the past, whatever we’ve dug out has really been a blast to learn and then perform.”
When it comes to the prospects for a new Styx album, Phillips says that they’ll need to have some time on their hands to seriously focus on getting one done. There’s no shortage of material, according to the bassist. “We've been writing and recording stuff for years, really,” he says. “But I have not heard a peep about anything for months now. I think here’s what’s going to happen: We’re going to have to have some time, we’re going to have to get off the road. I think that [we] always start off with good intentions and it all stops, because we’ve got to get off. We’ve got to pull the bus over before we’re going to be able to [do that]. We’re booked into next year. I think that this is maybe a conversation the band needs to have. But you know, I would love to see some of this stuff finished. Some of these germs of ideas, maybe they’re going to flop. But we need to find that out. Before we can get in and really be serious about it, we’ve got to pull the bus over. I just don’t know when that’s going to be.”
One thing that’s edging closer to completion is the posthumous Ronnie Montrose 10 by 10 album release, a project Phillips first discussed during an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock in 2012. “Ronnie and myself and Eric Singer went into a studio ... live takes, mistakes and all, whatever came out went down, there were no retakes,” he said during that conversation, indicating that the recorded material had been waiting to be finished for several years. “We did 10 songs that [are] actually in the can. I’m hoping someday it will see the light of day."
The singers mentioned at that time included Montrose's former bandmate Sammy Hagar, Tommy Shaw, Edgar Winter, Mark Farner and Gregg Rolie. “We were kind of just waiting for Ronnie’s health to get to the point where he was in the frame of mind to do the solos, and that’s basically what is missing from the project,” he noted.
But as Phillips dug into the tracks further, he discovered that there was more work than he thought. “We weren’t done with it," he says now. "I was just kind of taking it on back then. I didn’t realize how [much work there was still to be done]. It needed guitar solos -- it needed everything. The only thing that was there were basic tracks and some singers -- not even all of the singers. So I didn’t realize what I was undertaking. But I’m excited, it’s a labor of deep, deep love with a lot of great things that I’m going to be able to share soon and I’m excited about it.”
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