styx

It’s another busy year for classic rock artist Styx. Currently in the midst of headlining dates, including an outdoor show at The LC on Thursday night, the band hooks up with Def Leppard and Tesla this summer for a run of dates in arenas and at state fairs. They’ll also be doing some cruise dates in June.

While many interviewers may not consider Styx worth interviewing if they can’t talk to one of the original members (James ‘JY’ Young, Tommy Shaw), I was very excited to have a chance to speak with bassist Ricky Phillips who has performed with Styx since 2003. Phillips has a long and storied music career including being a member of The Babys, Bad English, Coverdale/Page and Elements of Friction (a 2001 studio project which featured former MSG vocalist Robin McAuley and former Ozzy drummer Tommy Aldridge).

I had a chance to do a phone interview with Phillips recently. Here’s what he had to say.

Do you have a chance to do stuff on tour or is just ride the bus to the next city, roll into the venue for soundcheck and the show and then to the hotel after the show?

I like to play golf, get away from hotels and backstage and concrete – always have and have done it in almost every band I’ve been in. Not a lot of people in this organization get that, but our sound man will definitely sneak away with me and we’ll get a round of golf in. Lawrence Gowan will know something about a city or have read something so he wants to go see whatever that place is. Todd Sucherman goes straight to the music store to do a clinic. Tommy’s big on jumping on a bike and riding through parks and along rivers and getting out into the fresh air. It’s just whatever it is you need to do to keep your sanity on the road. It’s important to not just lock yourself into your hotel room and surf the net and get bored to death.

This is the first band I’ve ever been in that all hangs together. Everybody is hysterically funny. There’s a lot of humor involved in this band and I think that’s an important factor in getting along. We see each other more than we see our own families.

I interviewed Ogre from Skinny Puppy a few years back and he said that while he’s performed in New York City dozens of times over the years, his view of the city was limited to the block that the club was on and, if lucky, maybe the area around where his hotel was. He said he didn’t feel like he ever got to truly see New York City.

I kind of get that. I totally relate to that. My thing is I’ll be in a town and play a golf course and be three or four holes when I realize, “Wait a minute, I’ve played this golf course.” Or pulling into the back of a venue. You think you’re in the middle of nowhere and all of a sudden you walk into the dressing room and you’ll go, “Oh man, I’ve been here.” But names of towns sometimes become a blur. There’s a lot of places out in the middle of nowhere that you just don’t remember.

Styx has a full tour schedule this summer but you’re doing everything from headlining to touring with Def Leppard and Tesla to performing on cruises. With such a diverse touring schedule which also means varying set lengths, how do you mentally prepare each night. Is it tough because one night you’ve got a 2-hour headlining gig and the next night you’ve got 45 minutes on a state fair bill?

A lot of times I’ll walk into a venue, go straight into my dressing room, throw my bags down and then look up … they always put above my wardrobe case what the set is that night. We have sets that work into however minutes we’ve got. But a lot of times I won’t even know how long the set is. I just found out that we’re on the bill tonight with Hank Williams Jr. What? Really? That’s crazy. That’s cool as hell, but I didn’t even know until I got here. A lot of times we don’t even know who we’re playing with the next night. You just can’t keep up.

Our mindset is we’re going to go up there and we’re going to kick ass and do the best Styx show we can do. If you want to climb on board, it’s up to you. Our fans are pretty crazy and cool in the sense that they know all the lyrics and are singing along.

Styx is no stranger to Columbus. What should fans who come out to the show be expecting?

There will be some deep cuts. Usually this time of year we’re able to throw in a few songs that people don’t expect to hear – some of the deeper cuts that people think, “We’re never going to hear ‘Castle Walls'” or “We’re never going to hear ‘Queen of Spades’ or “We’re never going to hear ‘Snowblind”. We’ll just go grab those songs and throw them in with the hits. It’s a great response we get from the crowd. We’ll throw something in that people might not expect.

What Styx songs do you wish would work their way into the set list?

Well, I said “Snowblind” before. I love that song but we hardly ever play it. Back, before I think I was even in Bad English, it might have been back in The Babys days,  I heard that song and went, “What a cool song.” It has a cool blues-rock sort of elements, this cool harmony, and a minor half-step riff that happens within it. It’s a really, really cleaver tune. I like the way JY sings the body and then Tommy’s voice comes in the chorus.

It must be pretty cool to look into the crowd and see multi-generational audiences.

Definitely. What I’ve seen in the last 12 years, 9 years are now 21 year olds. When I first started with Styx I was very impressed with that, there were young people finding Styx on their own quest, their own journey much like we were finding Howling Wolf and blues artists back in our years. Kids are finding out about Styx and now they are in college and bringing their friends to the shows, there is a younger following. When we’re playing theaters, I notice a lot of the older fans seem to show up – it’s more comfortable in a theater surrounding. They aren’t going to be fighting for the front row at a big festival.

The joke used to be the corn circuit – playing the county fairs and state fairs and all that. But now, that’s where you reach your young audience. If you bought the ticket and get into the fair, you get to see the concert or at least a price reduction for the concert. You’ll see a lot of people coming and singing along all the words to the songs. It’s a good place to not overlook, I think a lot of bands are taking it a little more seriously. It’s a great place to glean young people and get them to see you. Once young people discover you and are into your music, they are there forever. That’s the cool thing about building a fanbase and being loyal to your fans. Styx is very conscious of our fans. It’s an incredible symbiotic relationship that we have with our fans. We’re not the most tech savvy people. I don’t think anybody in my band Twitters or any of that stuff but we’re trying to have a presence on our website and take it more seriously.

You’ve done production work in the past. Is that something that you’ve continued to do while not on the road with Styx? 

I’ve finally just gotten back into producing. For the last 12 years with Styx, I’ve been on the road over 200 days a year, so when people ask me to produce something, I basically have to turn them down and tell them, “Look, I’m doing you a favor because you’ll end up hating me. I just don’t really have the time, you’re going to have to wait for me to get off the road.”

Right now I’m finishing production on the last recordings of Ronnie Montrose that were started 10 years ago. Eric Singer from Kiss, myself, and Ronnie went in and cut tracks. When Ronnie passed three years ago, he hadn’t played any of his solos. Just before he passed, he told me he really wanted to finish the project. So I kind of inherited it and have tried to be the guardian of all these recordings and calling up people who were friends with Ronnie and guitar players that he respected and asking them to record the solos he hadn’t gotten to. It’s been a lot of fun. We’re getting a lot done, it’s almost finished. It’s a pretty star-studded cast of people who are on the record, Ronnie would be very happy with the way it’s turning out. We got Sammy Hagar, Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer. Brad Whitford of Aerosmith told he heard “Rock Candy” and wanted to be a rock guitar player. He said, in a roundabout way, Ronnie was responsible for him being in Aerosmith. There’s story after story after story. All these great players have chipped, great singers –  Glenn Hughes is doing a track for me which is the last vocal recording to be done.

I have a hard time understanding why there isn’t a new generation of bands that sound like classic rock artists like Styx, Foreigner, Def Leppard, etc.

I think it’s morphed into something different. I don’t necessarily think that’s bad. I just made the statement to someone yesterday that this (Ronnie Montrose) record, when we do it, it has so many elements from the ’70s, which I think was a really great decade for music. You didn’t have to conform to fit on radio. By the time we got the ’80s, everything had homogenized and it was such a small spectrum to get on the radio. Everything started to be so cookie cutter. Then it was the march of the flannel shirts coming in. Then we went into this void of very few good bands. It has to change, you don’t want to play your dad’s music or your grandpa’s music.

Styx performs at The LC on Thursday, May 7. Tickets ($35) are still available. Doors open at 6:30pm.