A Conversation With Ricky Phillips
I recently interviewed Styx’s bassist and former member of The Babys and Bad English, the incredibly talented Ricky Phillips. Styx is currently on the road with Don Felder and Foreigner on the The Soundtrack of Summer Tour and they released a companion album, The Soundtrack of Summer: The Very Best of Foreigner & Styx, featuring a new version of “Hotel California” that’s performed by Felder, Styx and Foreigner. Enjoy the interview and make sure to catch the guys when they come to your area this summer.
I spoke with John Waite the other day and mentioned that you and I were talking today. I asked him if he had a message he’d like me to pass on to you. He responded with, “Get a haircut and a shave.” What’s your response to this statement?
(laughs) Well, the last time he asked me to get a haircut was when I had just joined The Babys, and I dyed it red. Another time, when we again cut our hair, I dyed mine peacock blue. He dyed his read like a Marlboro cigarette box and we went to Japan. This was in 1979 and I remember the Japanese girls waiting for us to get there and being in shock by our outlandish appearance. But ya know, that’s John. He likes to mix it up and that doesn’t surprise me.
In addition to being in The Babys, Bad English and Styx, you’ve worked with a variety of musicians in and out of the studio. Everyone from Jeff Beck to Joe Cocker. What was it like working with such legendary artists, especially during the beginning of your career?
The Jeff Beck thing was actually live. John Waite and I were both invited to sit in with Jeff in the encores and Neal Schon came out, we were in Bad English at the time. And we played “Going Down” at the end of Jeff’s set.
Jeff Beck is absolutely my favorite guitar player, bar none. He’s just a guy that’s continued to push the envelope and reinvent an instrument like I’ve never seen anyone else do. And to be on stage with him was a great honor. It was just fantastic. It was a blast. And hanging out in Japan with all those guys, we were traveling around together, it was like a dream come true in itself.
When you’re playing with guys who were your heroes, you’ve got a moment at the beginning of being awestruck but then you better get over it in about 60 seconds because there’s work to be done.
When you rise to the top and are asked to do some of these things that I’ve been fortunate enough to do, you’ve gotta’ be able to produce. As much as I’ve learned from them, I definitely try to pass on the thank-yous for all the things I’ve learned from these guys. But in that next moment you’ve got to learn to produce with them and for them, and give them what they’re looking for. It’s an honor. It’s definitely an honor.
How did you land your gig with The Babys?
Cold audition, man. I landed in LA and I was sleeping on coaches, not making any money, just trying to land a gig. I landed a gig with a local band. It was kind of the happening thing in Los Angeles at the time and we did two shows at the Starwood, which was this big club in Los Angeles, and the sound man from The Babys saw me perform. But then he lost track of me, he didn’t know how to find me.
When John Waite decided he didn’t want to play bass, he just wanted to front the band, they had a permanent residence in the States after having moved over here from England. And I had gotten myself a job at a music store and he walked in and saw me there and said, “dude.” Well, he didn’t say, “dude.” The Brits didn’t say dude back then, now they do. He said, “I’ve been telling the guys about you and I saw you – you’ve got to come across the street and audition.” I basically took a bass off the wall, walked across the street, started playing with the guys, and they asked me to join the band. And we started touring two months later.
What was it like working with John Waite and Jonathan Cain, two artists who would go on to achieve great success?
We were all kind of cutting our teeth and getting started. Jonathan and I came in as the two token Americans – it was a British band. John and I got together like a house on fire. He said, “Hey, man. If you want to write a song in the middle of the night, call me and I’ll put the coffee on.” And that’s kind of the way we did things. We played hard and we worked hard, and we toured a lot. We all taught each other a lot of things. We learned songwriting at the same time. It was a good time. It was a real pure time.
We were on a record label that was kind of trying to find its way as well. The only way we were selling records was by touring because people would come see us then go buy our record. It was just a small enough label that other bands were getting the attention at that time. It happens, ya know. It’s a common story. It ended up tearing at the fabric of the band and we split up.
But we got back together and we did Bad English and that was fun as well. And again, I think the reason that was only a two-album project was basically we all had moved along away from each other. When we came back, we had a lot to say but we got it out quickly and it was over. We were done. We went about two albums. We still wanted to move in our own direction. When you get a lot of really talented guys in one room…sometimes you need one really talented guy, maybe two and everybody else needs to be a solider rather than a Colonel or a Captain. And in that band everyone wanted to have it their way, so our commonality ran out quickly. However, it was a great time and a great band while we were together.
Bad English’s debut album went platinum and you had a number-one hit with “When I See You Smile.” How did it feel to achieve this level of success with a new band?
It was great. But I think people forget that we had so many top 40 singles in The Babys. I think we had three top 10 singles but I think we stalled out at number two or three with “Isn’t It Time” and “Every Time I Think of You.” But we never got that number one.
When you do have a debut album that goes platinum, now that’s amazing how quickly that happened, and having a number one song right out of the shoot. It is a different thing.
I didn’t really want to do “When I See You Smile.” I thought that was too poppy. I thought, “Man, let’s make this a rock band.” Neal Schon was on board with me but John Waite came in and said, “Hey, listen. I can make this a number one song. Back me up on this because things change when you have a number one song, then you can do whatever you want.” I kind of went along with that.
But it’s one of those things…I’ve always kind of been the rocker in every situation. I’d rather get longevity in a band than chase the flavor of the month all the time, or top 40 singles. The great example is we were knocked out of the number one spot by Milli Vanilli. When you’re in the top 10, it’s a different kind of song – there are many ways to look at it – but it’s a different kind of…you’re always chasing young kids, so every year you’re replacing your audience, rather than creating well-written songs that create a hotbed of fans that are real audiophiles that really dig music and will be with you well into their lives.
That’s interesting because Dennis DeYoung and Tommy Shaw were known for having that struggle over whether Styx’s music should be rock or pop oriented. Did you and Tommy realize you had this commonality when you first joined the band?
Yeah, probably more than we realized. Tommy and I met in ’79 when The Babys opened up for Styx, and he was in Damn Yankees, I was in Bad English. We sort of had this commonality in our careers but not that anyone would notice, because we hadn’t worked together.
But Tommy had told me, “It’s great that you’re in Styx. I always wanted to work with you.” And I always loved Tommy as well. I absolutely thought the guy was a fantastic rocker.
When James Young and Tommy decided Styx had gone as far as they wanted in the pop direction and they wanted to get the band back to its roots – the prog roots and the tougher rock roots…and they’re not ashamed in any way of the pop success. That should come along naturally if you’re doing things right. But rather than chasing that, let it happen naturally. That’s the way I look at it.
So, when we did get together…this is the first band I’ve been in that really knows how to be in a band. This is a band that gets along, listens to all the opinions, evaluates…you gotta’ know when to speak up as well as when to shut up. Then, there’s a brotherhood that comes out of that total respect. I know that when I’m up on that stage – whether I’m sick, tired or whatever – I know that those guys have got my back and it’s not gonna’ show. It’s a reciprocal thing all the way around the stage.
I’ve been in this band long enough to do between 1,300 and 1,400 shows and we know when each of us has to move right, move left or whatever. I’ve never experienced this before. It’s an absolute blast. It’s great even though, musically, it isn’t a place I would have thought of going, but I’m there and I’ve found a way to make it my own. I still perform the songs the way they were written…we’re not reinventing, “This is Styx now.” Styx is a continuum and we pay great reverence to the original recordings, so when people come to see us they hear and get what they expect, and not a reinvention of the way things used to be. Within that format, I’ve found a way to be myself so it’s not a karaoke situation.
I noticed that Todd Sucherman, the drummer for Styx, who is world renowned, was able to do that, and I thought, “Man, I’ve gotta’ figure out how to do that for myself.” There’s plenty of room within our set to show who you are without tearing at the fabric of a well-written song.
What was it like recording Big Bang Theory with Tommy and the rest of the guys?
It was quick. We spent two days in the studio and done, as far as basic tracks go. I think the hardest part and the longest part was figuring out which songs we were going to do. We realized we didn’t want to do too many songs by our colleagues. Rather, we wanted to do songs that, perhaps, kids don’t hear today. And these were songs by bands that influenced us. That’s why there’s a couple eclectic, strange choices on that record. I think if you go back and listen to that record, some songs you pass right over and go, “Great. Oh yeah, I think I like the original version better” or “That’s an interesting take on the original version.” But there’s a few songs on there that you may not have heard that much or listened to. I know everyone listens to Hendrix, but “Manic Depression” was a huge influence on me and Todd Sucherman. And to cover that song was so much fun.
There’s a few performances on that record that…”Summer in the City” was my choice to add that song. The guys said, “Lovin’ Spoonful? What are you talking about?” And I said, “Listen, that song is a song that could be recorded heavier.” And I actually wanted it heavier than we made it. But the point being there are a lot of songs and influences. Influences come from strange places, man. I’ve heard symphonic music that has influenced me and I’ve used it in some place down the line. There are show tunes; my parents were really into them and I was introduced to a lot of plays as a kid and involved in theater. And there are things from West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein – man, that music was very influential on me as a rock writer later on. So, wherever the influences come from, it’s nice to be able to pass them on. And that was kind of the point of Big Bang Theory.
Speaking of albums, when can fans expect a new studio album from Styx?
(laughs) I only laugh because I get asked that all the time and because it’s a very difficult question to answer. We’ve never stopped writing, so we’ve compiled a lot of material. Mostly it’s unfinished material, like three-quarters done. We usually do that last quarter in the studio or in pre-production rehearsals with the band. But the germs of, I don’t know, probably 200 song ideas are archived for that time.
But the pill we have to swallow is this isn’t the recording industry anymore, it’s the touring industry. And we have managers and agents who remind us of this constantly when we want to go in and record. We will find the time to do it. We just don’t know yet. I think we’re booked well into next year.
We’re always…I’ll get a call from Tommy or Lawrence or we’ll be on the bus and somebody’s working on something and they need a bass part. And I’ll slam down something really quick, and we’ve got a lot of song ideas. I’ve got a little thing I sing into or I play into that I pop into my computer when I get home and put into Pro Tools and work on it a little bit, and all of the guys have been doing the same thing.
This summer Styx is touring with Foreigner and Don Felder. What’s it been like being on the road with these two legendary acts?
This is a mutual admiration society. The set that Don Felder does each night when he opens the show, you know the words to every single song and you realize that sound of the Eagles, how influential he was. You can hear his guitar in the presentation of the Eagles material. I mean, it’s incredible.
Tommy goes up and sits in on “Hotel California” and he laughs as he comes off stage and says to me, “Man, going on stage with Don is like taking a guitar lesson.” The guy has just got a thing that is all him. It’s very simply presented with this great tone, great sound. He’s got incredible hands with the way he plays and his influence on that material is huge when you hear his band play.
And then you’ve got Foreigner, and they’re just hit after hit after hit of some of the best rock/pop songwriting that’s out there. So, it’s a night of great music and it’s just a blast. We’re having so much fun out here.