Styx bassist opens up about The Mission, the band’s new studio release, and producing Ronnie Montrose’s final recording
Photo by Sheri Hastings
Ricky Phillips is perhaps best known as bassist for the rock band Styx, a position he’s held since 2003. Other high profile gigs for Phillips have included playing with The Babys, Bad English and Coverdale/Page, as well as with Ted Nugent and Toto’s Dennis “Fergie” Frederiksen. Ricky sat down to talk with us about the current Styx/REO Speedwagon tour, which occasionally includes former Eagles member Don Felder in the lineup. The Styx set also includes a special appearance by the band’s original bassist Chuck Panozzo. The Mission, Styx’s first studio album in 14 years, was released in June.
FBPO: Congratulations on the new album, The Mission. I had a great conversation with JY (James Young) recently and he was telling me all about it.
RP: Right on, yeah. JY did some great work on this record, really nice stuff. I love his solo on “Gone, Gone, Gone.” It’s got some frantic, very cool, melodic little crazy tricks that JY does in his playing. Sometimes you’re not given enough palette to be able to become yourself and I think that was a real wide open door for him. Some really good stuff.
FBPO: How’s the tour going?
RP: This is just too much fun! Nobody should get paid for this. (Don) Felder is awesome. His band is great! We did a residence in Vegas this past January for two weeks with Don, and we were the Eagles for him. We sang all the harmonies with him and for him and that was a blast. His bands are always fantastic. He’s got Kasim Sulton playing bass and I’m a big fan of Kasim’s. He’s a great guy, great player. And Don’s always got Stevie D (DiStanislao) on drums. People might know him from playing drums with David Gilmour. Just great players, so that part of it’s cool. And REO, of course, goes way back with Styx, and one of my closest buddies, Dave Amato, is the guitar player in that band. All those guys are good friends of mine, but Dave and I go way back. I used to use Dave in the studio and he and I did sessions together in Los Angeles. That’s how we first met, actually. And then, you know, Styx. I’ve been in the band, just finishing my 14th year, about to start my 15th. I’m the “new guy,” but I’m so glad we have an album that I can kind of throw myself on and be a part of the mix legitimately. For some reason, I think recordings seem to legitimize the existence of a new member, even though I’m not that new. But this is a recording of new material, so I’m appreciative and excited about that part of it, just for myself, but, wow, Tommy Shaw hit a homerun on writing this and putting this together.
FBPO: You’re reminding me of an interview I did with Jason Scheff, from Chicago, a couple years ago. He was the “new guy,” but was in the band longer than Peter Cetera!
RP: (Laughs). I know, right? I love Jason. Actually, the first record I ever produced, a Frederiksen/Phillips album, which is Fergie Frederiksen and myself. Fergie, from Toto, and Jason came in and we sang some really cool background harmonies for that record. He and I have been buds for, gosh, I don’t know how many years, but great player!
FBPO: Tell me about Chuck Panozzo and how he is worked into the show.
RP: Well, it’s no secret that Chuck has had medical issues, but the joke within Styx is that he’s gonna be the last man standing. Nothing seems to bring the guy down, and he seems to be better than ever. There were times when he was going through medications and stuff that just dummied him down, and it was hard on us to see. But he is not that guy any more. He is very vital, very alive, and havin’ a blast. He and his brother Johnny started Styx in their basement. They’re the originators from the very, very beginning, as the inception of the band. I heard him yesterday, as a matter or fact, saying, “Hey, where’s my warm-up bass?” I love hearing that because he’s not just phoning in the parts, going out there and playing what he’s invented, really, and the parts that he’s been playing for all these years. He’s actually sitting down and warming up and woodshedding like the rest of us. My gig is basically to play the role of Chuck Panozzo first. It took me some time to figure out how to be in this band and not be in a Karaoke situation because I’ve done too much to settle for that. But I saw Todd Sucherman, who came in when Johnny died, and was able to play the parts that are iconic drum parts. And I knew that was my “mission,” if you will (laughs), to figure that out. It took me several months to kind of find the places I could deviate and add and not subtract because you don’t want to play parts that are basically self-serving and not the collective. Now I don’t even think about it. I just go up there and, when there’s a place that I’m inspired to play something, I’m laying down all the right bass parts and I can do it pretty seamlessly without even being aware that I’m doing it. It’s a process. You have to know what the original is and respect all the parts of that original piece of work before you start tearing at the fabric of it. What we’re trying to do is preserve the legacy of Styx and preserve these songs so that people come and hear everything that they’ve grown up listening to, from the vocals to the guitar solos and all the parts that are interwoven underneath, from the drums and bass on up. That really has to be at the forefront before you can change anything. You gotta be careful and aware of what you’re doing. We still do all the songs in the original keys. There are no pre-recorded vocals. That’s us. Lawrence (Gowan) and I and Tommy and JY stand face-to-face every night for twenty minutes and we sing together and we get our phrasing and we make sure nobody’s singing something different or moving in a different time. I’ll just give you an example of “Renegade.” When you hear that a capella vocal at the top of the song, and even when it breaks down later on when goes to the octave up, that has to be phrased tight. It has to be spot on note-wise and no deviation. We’ve already done that before we walked out on stage, so we can do it confidently. And we do that every night.
FBPO: I think you’ve mentioned just about everybody’s name in Styx. How much are Dennis DeYoung’s vibes still permeating through the band?
RP: Hmm. Interesting. That’s an interesting… I’ve never heard it put that way. I think that everyone has great respect for what Dennis contributed to the band and how big a part of the band he was. I know that when I first saw the band in 1979, I remember John Waite and I going out front and (saying), “What kind of crazy-ass band is this, man? They got three lead singers (and) they’re all completely different.” You’ve got almost that Southern blue-eyed soul Tommy Shaw, you’ve got JY’s almost Ian Gillan-esque sort of rock voice, and then you’ve got this operatic, kind of show-biz voice of Dennis DeYoung. And it’s such a killer sound together. So we’ve tried to maintain what creates that (sound) within the band. With him being gone, that’s part of the Styx DNA that needs to stay in tact, so we definitely take that into everything in every song. But Dennis didn’t, unfortunately, seem to get along. I wasn’t around, so I can’t pass comment, but at a certain point, to continue on, they needed to make the change. I want the fans to know that I’ve gone through my times of getting brought up in front of the judge and saying, “Hey, you know, this is Styx, this isn’t a new Styx” (laughs). This is something that’s been going on for decades. So, in answer to your question, we’re very respectful of everything Dennis did. We’re trying to protect it. It was definitely a great contribution. But now this band has morphed off into other directions and, as you can hear in The Mission, it is still a Styx record. It sounds like a Styx record to me and it seems to be, from what I’m reading in reviews and comments on social media from people, I think we’re hitting all the marks. But that’s a personal judgment for the audience, not for me to make. We do it with great reverence to the origins of the band, though. Hopefully, we’re bringing in new information, but it’s appropriate.
FBPO: How did you become a bass player?
RP: My bass player, when I was 13, left his bass at my house. We’d been rehearsing, I think, in my parents’ living room.
FBPO: You were playing guitar?
RP: I was playing guitar. I started on piano. I was pretty intrigued and impressed by Paul McCartney. But then when John Entwistle came along, I freaked out. I just went, Wow! I remember trying to play, it was probably John Entwistle’s “My Generation” solo or something like that. You know, how many top 40 songs have you heard with a bass solo?! So, I realized how difficult it was and how cool it was and I became obsessed. I kept playing guitar for a few more years, but I was always playing bass. I was, seemed like, wanting to play bass more than guitar. I don’t remember a conscious thought that all of the sudden… A friend of mine had a bass and it turned out to be one of the Holy Grail basses. He was playing a ’61 Stack-Knob Jazz bass. He was selling it for, I think, ninety-five bucks. They only made them in ’61 and half of ’62, so it’s a very, very rare bass. But I bought one for ninety-five bucks from a kid whose parents had bought him a bass and he just wasn’t playing it. And that became my main axe for a lot of years until it was stolen. It was around 1968 or ‘9 that I discovered the ’68 Telly bass and that’s what I played in the Babys and I played with Ronnie Montrose and I played with a lot of stuff. I have five ’68 Telly basses. They’re all very similar, but they all have sort of little unique qualities to them, as a Les Paul would, from a Les Paul to a Les Paul. But it’s that nasty, sort of cool, Ron Wood, when he was playing with the Jeff Beck group, or actually Billy Cox played the ’68 Telly, brand new one, at Woodstock.
FBPO: Do you have a main bass that you play all the time?
RP: I don’t.
FBPO: What do you tour with?
RP: What I tour with right now are some basses that are actually, if you look at the headstock, it says Italia, but they probably are not Italias. I take them and I kind of tear ‘em apart and make ‘em right for myself. I put in my pickups and, in some cases, I’ve rebraced the insides and changed the hardware. They have great bones and for an inexpensive bass. They’re probably pretty good for a kid to get, but I really like certain tones, so I’ve really changed them quite a bit. In Bad English, I started playing 5-strings because when you have a band that’s big like that and has a lot of keyboard-dominant parts, (you want) to be able to go down to low C’s, and D’s and B’s. I don’t live on that fifth string. I started off decades (ago) as a 4-string player, but I like having that low string to really accentuate that low-end dimension, juxtaposed to guitar parts in the higher registers. It’s huge. It’s such a big sound in an arena.
FBPO: There’s an art to playing down there appropriately.
RP: I agree. You really shouldn’t live down there. It should be an added dimension. And it’s nice. And for some voicings higher up on the neck, it allows you to play certain voicings to get to that, knowing it’s there. I think it’s really appropriate with Styx. On The Mission, I played all vintage basses. I didn’t play any 5-strings. Again, getting back to trying to stay in keeping with the band and its sound.
FBPO: Tell me about 10X10, the Ronnie Montrose project you produced.
RP: Ronnie and Eric Singer and I, in 2003, went into a studio that I had been producing projects out of. Ronnie had approached Eric Singer and myself – we’d been working together about a year and-a-half at this point, maybe even two years off and on – and he said I really love the sound of the power trio we have between the three of us. I want to create some new ideas and get some things done now.” So we went in and we cut these tracks. Some of them were ideas, or kernels of ideas that Ronnie had and some of them were maybe just a few riffs that he had. Ronnie didn’t really like to go in over-prepared or overly rehearsed. He liked to catch that initial intensity or excitement and group mind of a power trio, making something happen for the first time. He kept referring to old school: no click tracks, recorded on tape, which was fantastic. And very little rehearsal.
FBPO: When did the project begin to take shape?
RP: Ronnie had very meticulous ideas. Everything with him with him was very, very well thought out. I learned a lot from working with Ronnie. He called me up one day. He said, “Listen, I don’t want to lose this. I don’t want this thing to die on the vine. This is too good. I have a concept I want to run by you. He said we’ll call the record “Ten By Ten.” It’s ten tracks and we have ten different singers.” So he said, “I wanna call Sammy (Hagar). I think he’d be into a couple of these tracks. I want to call Edgar (Winter).” And from that point, his dear friend Mark Farner. He wanted to bring in immediately Gregg Rolie and Eric Martin, from Mr. Big. And there were a few people we went after that we weren’t able to get. Some contractual things got in the way, but in the end, I think all the right people are on this record.
FBPO: It sounds like the momentum was starting to build.
RP: He’d gone through a couple years where he hadn’t played guitar. He’d contracted cancer. He went through that battle. He won that battle, but it really took it out of him. And it took a while for him to be able to play guitar again. But at this point, he’d not only been playing guitar, but he was really on his game. He was back. And he said, “Look, I really want to finish 10×10. I’m ready for it. I’ve got my chops back. I’ve been playing and this is perfect.” So we were excited about that. Three weeks later, I had been back on the road and was flying home at six o’clock in the morning and I opened up my computer and saw that Ronnie had passed. I was totally confused and shocked.
FBPO: How did you end up producing the record?
RP: When Ronnie passed, I inherited a big project to finish because all we really had were basic tracks and about six lead vocals. I started hearing that some guys were going to pick up the recordings. I didn’t know these people and I didn’t know how that would work out because Ronnie and I and Eric were really the only ones who knew what Ronnie wanted to do with this music and how he wanted it to go. So I called his wife, Lisa, and I said, “Listen, I want 10×10. I want to get the guys and I want to work on this and I want to finish it.” I was on the road with Styx, sometimes over 200 days a year. Every three days I had off, or a week, I began to work on this thing. Finding the right people was kind of first on the bill.
FBPO: So, it’s not really a tribute record.
RP: This is not in any form a tribute record. This is Ronnie and his special guests coming in to play. This is actually the last recordings of Ronnie Montrose, and his friends came on board to help him finish.
FBPO: Is Ronnie on every track?
RP: He’s on every track. It’s a power trio of Ronnie Montrose, Eric Singer and Ricky Phillips on every track. To finish the record, though, I had guest guitar players who Ronnie loved and admired come in. The whole record is Ronnie Montrose. [Editor’s note: In addition to those already mentioned, 10X10, released Sep 29, 2017, also features Dave Meniketti, Rick Derringer, Steve Lukather, Glenn Hughes, Phil Collen Jimmy “Z” Zavala, Tommy Shaw, Joe Bonamassa, Bruce Turgon, Brad Whitford, Davey Pattison, Marc Bonilla, Tom Gimbel and Lawrence Gowan]
FBPO: How about the future? Any more side projects you’re hoping to do? Or maybe some solo stuff?
RP: I’m very rarely able to produce because of my schedule with Styx. Being on the road 200 days a year limits what I can really give of myself to something else, so I do turn down some things. I just tell people, “You’ll end up hating me in the end because it’ll take so long.” But I still love the studio and on this last break, I’m buying all kinds of stuff. (laughs). It’s an addiction! But I love writing and I love that process. I’m so, so glad that we finally have The Mission out and we’re able to satisfy that part of what I do.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
RP: (Laughs) I don’t know, man. I don’t know. I went to school. I was going to be a psychologist, I guess, of sorts. I was working with kids who were, the tag they were given was “hard-core juvenile delinquents” and I did camps when I was really young. I wanted to get into people who didn’t have a great family background and didn’t have a great role model. Had a lot of good in them, but they were led down another path. I was always intrigued by the things that the human mind will do for survival, and maybe not because they’re evil or bad people. So I may have gone in that direction had things not started clicking for me.
The following albums are available here
10x10, Ronnie Montrose, Ricky Phillips & Eric Singer
Peter Cetera Gets Real (Exclusive FBPO feature)
FBPO interview with Jason Scheff
FBPO interview with Paul McCartney