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Ricky Phillips of Styx

Legendary bassist talks old, new, technicality, and talent

Hagar. Page. Nugent. Cocker. Beck. Money. White. Jagger.

Ricky Phillips has been referred to as "the Kevin Bacon" of rock and roll for his connection to so many legends. Phillips, who joined Styx in 2003 and has been with them on bass ever since, is his own legend too, however. Prior to Styx and a wide swath of collaborations and studio work, Phillips played with The Babys and Bad English. Styx is currently on tour and will be coming through Lincoln on August 9 and Phillips--the band's mouthpiece when it comes to interviews--agreed to have a candid phone call with The Reader before the event.

The Reader: Styx isn't the first big name you've worked with by any means. Can you kind of walk me through some of your musical journey and history?

Ricky Phillips: Well, yeah. The Babys was probably the first big band and that was John Waite, Jonathan Cain [of Journey] and was my first sucess as far as getting airplay, touring, all that. Bad English was ten years after that. I mean, my career hasn't really evolved so much as you never know what's around the corner in six or 12 years. If you had told me told me 20 years ago that I would be having this phone call, doing an interview for Styx...I probably wouldn't believe it. I feel blessed to have had these opportunities to play with great people and to end up in all these great places. I think it's everyone's dream to be musically satisfied and being in a band is like a brotherhood but it's also whether or not you're able to express yourself as a player. I'm in a place where I'm able to do that more than I've ever been able to in my career.

Reader: Speaking of expressing yourself...how did you intergrate yourself into Styx's sound without changing it? I know you've said that it's a pet peeve of yours when somebody comes in and just redoes something.

Phillips: I think what you have to do is really know the material before you can change it. You have to learn every little nuance and understand it. If you change one thing in an arrangement in a song, you change everything. Nothing will sound the same. We're really strong on presenting the catalog the way you--our fans--know it. We don't want to change it and say "it's a new version!" because that is a pet peeve of ours. We do all our songs in the same key they were written, we don't alter, there are no background vocals flown in--everything is done live. The only thing that we fly in is the alarm clock at the beginning of "Too Much Time on My Hands." Everything else...as Tommy Shaw says, "all the mistakes you here are live." [laughs] That's really important to us and our integrity as musicians. We present things the way people are used to hearing them, not changing those notes and actually hitting every high note whether it's vocals or guitar. The Styx catalog is deep enough, there are plenty of places where I can stretch out, flex some muscle and show what I can do, rip a little on bass. Everybody on their instrument is given a place in the show to do that but it isn't at the sake of representing the catalog.

Reader: What would you say are some of those songs you get to flex on? What's your favorite to play?

Phillips: You know, on "Come Sail Away" there's a couple places I rip and it's funny how it works. It took me a while to figure this out. I noticed Todd Sucherman [drummer, Styx] was really able to flex his muscles and show what he can do and still play them exactly how they are on the record. So I had to figure out how to do that for myself and it took a while. But then you have your moments and you realize "oh wow, I can do this here and it doesn't take away from the song." So, on "Come Sail Away," there's a spot where I drift out and I always know I'm probably doing something right because Libby Gray, who is our lighting director, will always hit me with a spotlight. [laughs] Also, in "Renegage" there are two spots that I kind of take off. Throughout the night, I find little places where I can do some things but more importantly is just the unit itself, the other guys I play with in Styx. Gosh, how do I explain this? We weave this tapestry every night, together. As you're doing that, as you're builidng this, it feels good because you're really supporting the band. It's the sum of the parts and we're really making a greater picture here of each musical piece. So, within that, you know whether you can go off and do something and if the fabric is going to remain intact or if you're going to be tearing the fabric by doing that. You're so caught up in the moment and you feel it, you know if it's right or wrong. I don't mean to get crazy esoteric right now but this is kind of really true: it is rare to find a band that is listening at all times to all the other parts. Maybe it isn't on purpose but it's something that we do that is an ebb and flow. That's really a unique situation that in all the things I've done, all the bands I've played in, all the records I've played on, all the musicians I've worked with, I swear this really is the most unique situation. It's a give and take between five guys on stage.

Reader: So what do you feel the band has now that it didn't have in the '70s, the '80s, or even just since you've joined?

Phillips: Experience and maturity. You could say it's like a fine wine. I read a quote once when I was a kid, by Andrés Segovia, the great classical guitarist from Spain. He said he didn't even catch his stride as a player until he was like 58 or 68, something like that. I now know what he means, because for some reason you're still able to play everything you could when you were younger but with so much more note choice because it's now living in your head. There's so much more finesse, it's so much more effortless. It seems just like butter. I think the seasoning of each of the musicians in this band definitely caters to that.

Reader: What were some of your biggest musical inspirations growing up?

Phillips: Well, as a kid, obviously the first time seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. That was life-changing, hearing the girls scream. I always wanted to make the girls scream and could never do it. The Stones too, of course. I can think of two of the most life-changing moments though. I grew up in a small town and we had two stations of black and white television. Two stations! Radio was just as limited. Somehow, I heard a song called "Strange Brew" by Cream...and I heard Eric Clapton play guitar for the first time. I lost it. Then, right around the same time, I heard "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix. I dove over the backseat of my dad's car to crank the radio dial up; he thought I'd lost my mind. I had never heard guitar playing like that before. Then, Led Zeppelin came out a few years later. By this point I'm 15, I'm getting to where I can kind of play. I started playing guitar in bands when I was really young but by the time I was 13, 14, I started playing bass. I heard John Entwistle from The Who and realized that what he was doing was absolutely off the chain. Then I decided that if I could play bass like that, that I would die a happy man. I probably will die trying to play like John Entwistle. He and Chris Squire [of Yes]--who recently passed away...those two guys were very influential on my playing. We toured with Yes a few years back and I got to sit and talk to Chris about a lot of stuff. The very first time I met Chris, I was in Bad English and I bumped into him. I met him at a show in Anaheim, California and I said "man, I owe you so much. I've probably developed a lot of things I learned from you," and he put his hand out and said "well, pay up!" I invited him to come see a Bad English show the next week at the Palladium and it blew my mind that he showed up. This is a guy that was absolutely a hero of mine. There's always been a debate that I see especially on facebook about fingers or pick [for bass playing] and I've thought, "really? Why are you picking one or the other? All of you are losing." Because then I think, who are you discounting? Chris Squire played with a pick. John Paul Jones [Led Zeppelin] and Paul McCartney [The Beatles] played with a pick, and McCartney played with his thumb. I started watching these guys and your technique develops at a young age but I realized I could use both. You play differently when you use a pick, you play differently when you use your fingers. Sting [The Police] and Paul McCartney both use their thumb a lot. It feels different, it sounds different, and sometimes that can be different. But anyways, not to get you too far into a musical class but that's really something I've learned from a lot of guys that have helped me develop a very successful career. I an indebted to all of them.

Reader: You actually answered one of my questions before I asked it. I was talking with Stu Cook of CCR the other day and we talked about Chris Squire and I knew you had toured with them so I wanted to mention him to you.

Phillips: Good old Stu! I actually toured in New Zealand with them. They asked me to play keyboard, sing a little, and play guitar. That was actually the same year I joined Styx. Their keyboard player, Steve Gunner, and I actually made our first band together--his last name is Gunner, my last name is Phillips, so we were "Gun Lips" when we were 10 years old. [laughs] He called me up and said "look, my wife is having our second kid and I don't want to miss it. You're the only guy I know who can play all these instruments so will you cover for me in New Zealand?" So I played with those guys for a while.

Reader: It's funny that you stuck with piano enough to be playing keyboard professionally, since I know you've said you didn't like it at all as a kid.

Phillips: Yeah, it is kind of funny! You know what I didn't like? I didn't like practicing. [laughs] I loved playing guitar, I loved playing bass, because even though you have to practice those you can practice them with a band. I never thought of piano as a keyboard in a band, I just always thought of it as a piano sitting in the music room. While everybody was out playing baseball, I had to sit inside while my dad said [puts on a fake gruff voice] "You're gonna practice for an hour a day, blah blah blah." So, when I was told I had to do it, it didn't become fun anymore. But I will say this: I have a piano in my bedroom, I have a piano in my music room downstairs, I have a piano in my dining room which was built in the 1850s and it's an old square grand like the kind that Lincoln had in the White House, and then I have two other pianos! I can pull up a line on a piano and just get lost for two hours. I get in the space where I think "wow, this would make a good song" so I have something there to record it because it's like a dream: if you don't record it, you never remember it. As much as I may have put down piano, it is just as much a part of my musical life as guitar or bass or songwriting or anything else. It's something near to my heart definitely.

Reader: Looking back over your musical career so far, is there anything you would change?

Phillips: Wow...[pause] Um, no, because then that would mess something else up, you know? Things happen and it's kind of like watching that pinball. Once it hits that bumper, you think "oh no" and it knocks it over to the other side and that was a mistake but then you knock it over again and all of a sudden you get the 100,000 bonus points. You've got to take the journey. There's no rulebook on rock and roll or having a musical career or show business or the entertainment business. And that's another side of it too, the entertainment side. Yes there's art but people do say that it is the music business. You have to learn how to survive that without it choking out your creativity. You've got to learn how to sidestep, deal with people. Every band that we tour with, their backstage side is completely different than ours and you've got to be a psychologist, a musician, a good businessman. You've gotta be able to develop your voice, there are so many things you have to do. You just do all that and then live your life too. Make the best choice you can. I remember somebody asked Lemmy [Kilmister, Motorhead] "do you have any advice for up and coming musicians today?" and he said, [British accent] "No, I don't want to tell them a fucking thing! I've made my mistakes, now they've got to make theirs!" It's the truth. It leaves so much out, trying to tell someone the perfect route. Nobody knows what that is, it's impossible.

Styx comes to the Pinewood Bowl Amphitheater August 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $45 to $140 and you can get them through Ticketmaster.

posted at 08:00 pm
on Monday, August 03rd, 2015

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