MGM Oct. 10;
Ricky Phillips has been in the music for forty years. He got his break in 1979 when he was selected to join The Babys. After three years and two albums, the band broke up. A few years later, he joined the super-group Bad English. In the ‘90s he was a highly sought after musician to play both live and in the studio.
Since 2003, Phillips has been the bassist for Styx. The classic rockers make a return appearance to MGM Center Stage on October 10th.
We had the chance to speak with Ricky to discuss his career, his time with Styx and his upcoming appearance in Northfield Park.
Greg Drugan: Hey Ricky, how’s the fall tour been going so far?
Ricky Phillips: It’s been great! This is kinda business as usual, but this year we’ve been doing more shows in a row so we can get five days to a week back at home. It’s a little tougher on us but everybody in the band sings, so it kinda lightens the load instead of having just one singer. Styx has always been a band of three lead singers and it allows us to do quite a few shows in a row.
GD: You guys are one of the hardest working bands in the business. How many dates does Styx usually play in a year?
RP: We play around a hundred shows. When I first started in the band, it was closer to 150. That put us on the road over 200 days a year, with travel days too and from. You never want to fly the day of the show, with the way airlines are like. Half of the band would make it. We’ll fly into a hub city. Like last night we flew into Houston. Everybody flies in from their hometown because everyone is spread all over the country. All the trucks and buses are waiting for us when we get into each city.
GD: When you are on the road, what’s the one item that you have to bring with you on tour, or since you are flying, does that not make a difference?
RP: We have a suitcase with however many clothes we need to make it through however long the run is, two weeks or three weeks. We have wardrobe cases that have stage clothing and we have big vaults that hold guitars, basses and drums. We have two simi’s that are ready to go at anytime. If we have a show in New York, and the next show is in LA. There is no way a truck can get to Los Angeles overnight. So we’ll fly and the B rig will be waiting for us in LA. We usually employ the B rig four or five times a year. If we’re in Europe, we’ll fly the B rig out and the A rig will stay behind. We’ll do the B rig and sometimes I’ll say, what basses do I have in the B rig? (laughs) It’s always a surprise. Our system is worked out. We are on the road a lot and we love it!
GD: Styx released The Mission two years ago. What was it like working on a concept album like that? I don’t think you’ve done anything like that before.
RP: I haven’t! At one point, I was kinda anti-concept albums. I just didn’t like them, but I won’t mention any. But what Tommy did was that he made it work. The underlying tone of every song is about the people. He wrote this about the first mission to Mars, which is scheduled to happen in 2033. He developed relationships with people from NASA so he could get the storyline right. If he was talking about anything technical, he was proper. He wrote it about all the people, fictitious of course, because we don’t know who they are going to be.
Quite honestly, we didn’t think we would get this reaction. We didn’t know that we would be on the charts for a year. We fall off, then we come back on (the charts).It’s been a real positive experience that we didn’t see coming. Rock was the mainstay on radio and now it’s not. We’ve seen our peers put out records that we thought were quite good and it’s been crickets, no reaction. You still want to exercise what your purpose is here on this big blue globe and for us, it’s rockin’ and rollin' and writing good songs and expressing what we love. To have this success has really been cool.
GD: I thought that album was excellent. Are there any plans to make new music?
RP: Yeah, we are moving in that direction. Like in basketball, we hope it’s not a blocked shot. We realize that there’s that possibility. We want to go in a different direction, but we have to make sure it still sounds like Styx. We tried to make it an extension of the Styx catalog and not come out and say “Here’s the new Styx.” You grow as a musician but you have to make sure you don’t outgrow your audience. Tommy and James Young have been the captains of our own ship and they make sure we stay in our own lane, in that regard. All of that will be taken into consideration as we approach writing new material. We’ll see what happens!
GD: That's great! Looking back in your career, what made you want to be a musician?
RP: My parents bought me a piano when I was nine. It was ok, but I went through seven piano teachers. Little league was more important. But when my dad would sit down and play the guitar and piano, he would have a Scotch and a cigarette and would sit there and drift, and play on his own for an hour and a half. There was always an excuse for him to get up and be the entertainment. It was nothing really big, nobody paid money to see him. He was just one of those guys. He had something figured out, and he was always having fun and enjoying life and expressing himself. I couldn’t wait to get out of my small town and do that on a larger scale.
GD: Do you remember the first band you saw in concert, and how did that impact you?
RP: I saw The Beatles and The Stones and The Who and that blew my mind. Jimi Hendrix blew my mind. All of that stuff as a kid, I grew up at such a great time to learn and gleen off all that stuff that was cool, fresh and new. I was trying to be the little brother to those guys and learn as much as I could. Never really thinking that I could have success in the music business.
GD: How did you end up getting the job with The Babys?
RP: I was sleeping on couches in Los Angeles. I got a gig when I was only there for three weeks with a guy who was a pretty big deal there. Every record company in town came to see him. The sound man from The Babys was there. John Waite was the bass player in The Babys but he only wanted to be the front man. So, the sound man was there and he asked me to come down and jam with them. Jonathan Cain was there and that was really our first successful band we were in, they had a record deal and we were touring the world within a month.
That really set me off. I met Journey, AC/DC, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick, Styx. I met Tommy Shaw in 1979 when we opened up for Styx. We maintained a friendship after all these years. Seventeen years ago, he called me up and asked if I would consider going out on the road with Styx. We talked it out and here I am. These seventeen years have just flown by!
GD: Wow! Going back to The Babys, did you realize The Babys last show was in Akron? What do you remember about that gig?
RP: Yeah, I kinda do. I remember John Lennon just got shot. I remember John Waite twisted his knee the night before. Someone grabbed his leg and when he twisted away, he tore his ACL. We did one more show, and that was it. John went in for surgery. Journey was very aggressive in stealing Jonathan Cain from us. We had been on the road, and we had hit songs. We got caught up in a scandal. Not much has been written about this, but there were pirating of records and we were caught in the middle of that. We were selling records but they weren’t coming from the record company. A lot of bands records were being pirated and it was easier back in the day to sell those records to Peaches or Tower Records. We weren’t making any money, we were touring non-stop and we had songs on the radio. It didn’t make sense. There was some in-fighting within the band. We didn’t go out with a big bang or anything, we just kinda threw in the towel. Jonathan went to Journey and Jon Waite had his solo career. I started doing session work in LA.
GD: After the breakup of The Babys, how did Bad English come about?
RP: When Journey broke up in the late ‘80s, Jonathan Cain said, let’s put a band together. He bumped into Waite and that became Bad English. Neal Schon had put some solo’s down for us and he wanted in the band. We found Dean Castronovo and he joined the band. That was a cool project as well.
GD: There’s this kinda resurgence of ‘80s bands getting back together and touring. Do you think there might be a chance of a Bad English reunion?
RP: I doubt it. I never say never, but I doubt it. There’s always so much drama in the Journey camp and Jon Waite doesn’t want to be near any drama. I’m in a very happy place. Styx is the most level-headed group I’ve ever been around in my life. That’s why we have such great chemistry.
GD: In 2003, you joined Styx. How did that opportunity come about?
RP: Todd Sucherman and I met about eighteen years ago doing session work. The first day we met, we were working for a producer that we both weren’t crazy about working for. We recorded this guy’s record in a day. And it wasn’t just a three cord wonder songs. We had this chemistry from the first day we met. When I joined Styx, when he found out I was the guy they were picking, he asked if he could be the guy to call me. What a great way to come into a band. There’s just a special relationship between a drummer and a bass player. It was very cool that Tommy said that he could call me and tell me that I was the guy they wanted.
GD: Todd is a monster behind the kit! He puts out these videos so you can watch him play live and you and him play off of each other so well, it’s just fun to watch.
RP: Thank you! He is a monster!
GD: You’ve been in the band over 16 years already, do you have a favorite song to play live?
RP: I always say “Fooling Yourself” because that’s a song I wish I had written. You can feel the energy from the crowd when we play that song. They look at each other and say “We love that song.” It’s got three different time signatures and it’s not like you are in a music theory class. It’s got a beautiful melody and a beautiful message. It’s a very creative song.
“Renegade” is a great song and “Come Sail Away” is a simplistic song but it just resonates from the very first notes that are played on the piano. But I kinda like the darker songs. “Castle Walls” and Dennis also wrote a song called “Suite Madame Blue” which is a Zeppelin-esque kinda song.
GD: You are going to be playing in Cleveland soon. Do you have a particular memory of playing in Cleveland in the past?
RP: Man, the Cleveland Agora and staying at Swingo’s! There is just something so rock and roll about Cleveland! They will always be close to my heart. The Babys loved Cleveland. We did a live show there that we recorded that I own. I just love it there.
GD: What can fans expect from your show when you appear at The MGM?
RP: An awesome time, I guarantee it or I will pay you your money back! (laughs) My brother was the director of the New York City Opera. He saw us about ten years ago and that was the first time he actually got to see the whole show. Afterwards he said, I didn’t know if I should watch you or the audience. They know all the words to all the songs and where in the hell did you find New Yorkers with smiles on their faces? (laughs) It’s a good time.
GD: I’ve seen you guys many times and I can attest to that! Ricky thank you so much for your time. I wish you safe travels and Cleveland is looking forward to seeing you!
RP: I’m looking forward to it. Now all the memories of Swingo’s and all the crazy things we did there are coming back! I appreciate it Greg!
Be sure to catch Styx at The MGM on October 10th. Only a few tickets remain.
For tickets and more information, please click here.