'70s - STYX (2013)
'Blue Collar Man - The Ricky Phillips Story'
As we all are well aware, Styx - Tommy Shaw (vocals, guitars), James “JY” Young (vocals, guitars), Lawrence Gowan (vocals, keyboards), Todd Sucherman (drums) and Ricky Phillips (bass) - is an American rock band that became famous for its albums from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Chicago band is known for melding the style of prog-rock with the power of hard rock guitar, strong ballads, and elements of American musical theater.
Best known for the hit songs 'Lady,' 'Come Sail Away,' 'Babe,' 'The Best of Times,' 'Too Much Time on My Hands,' 'Mr. Roboto,' 'Show Me the Way,' 'Don't Let It End,' and even 'Renegade,' the band also has four consecutive albums certified multi-platinum by the RIAA.
With Eagle Rock having just released The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight 2CD set, which was recorded back on November 9th, 2010, and a new tour headlining alongside both REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent, I sat down with bassist Ricky Phillips for an in-depth chat.
So, another year another tour - what keeps you guys going? "Yeah. I think, and to be dead straight honest, it's just the chemistry between the five of us. And it's something you just don't take lightly. Styx has gone through a couple of changes in time, but where we are right now seems to allow us to raise the bar on a continuing basis. And that bar gets raised not only through its musicianship and the vocal prowess of the line-up, but I also think it's the chemistry that happens between people. I haven't seen that many times. And I've played and worked with a lot of people. It's an amazing thing that makes you look forward to the next show. We always say that we don't get paid for the time we're on stage, we get paid for the other 22 ours of the day getting to the next city. And still, even that's a laugh. We take it seriously, but it's taken seriously before you go on stage. You have that together so you can have that laugh when you're there."
"And it's a good time presenting the best that you can be. But as a team you're also presenting the best of the band on a nightly basis. But you can't do that if there's someone on the bus that's a drag to be around. And so the reason I think we keep going and we keep doing it with these smiles on our faces is because we really look forward to it. It's still fun for us."
"It's still something that when you're fifteen years-old playing your guitar in your room, dreaming of being in a rock band, and when you get there you never want it to end. And sure it's the music business and a lot of things can happen on your way there. But when you get a situation like this it's the one that I think you're hoping it's gonna be, but you have no idea what's involved. All the little minutia that it takes to make it successful and the interaction between people and music styles and all of that."
So why are you touring on multiple act bills these days? "We're trying to let people who may not know what Styx is about see us. Because every time we do that our fan base grows a notch. And I think we need to continue getting ourselves out there and doing these multiple band bills so that it leads more people to us. And I think that the decision from our manager a couple of years back now to do these joint gigs was a really good plan."
"I just think we really need to get in front of as many new faces as we can. We've got a whole lot of younger fans now we see every night and that's kinda come out of that. Politically, people don't know what was going on when a lot of these songs came out. So the young fans are weighing this material out on their own merit. On the merit of the music itself. Not what was hip, what was cool, what was going on in the world when they got first released."
Do you ever go to places/venues you've never been to these days? "Yeah, but I'm kinda the worst for remembering the names. Their names change a lot anyway. But I usually come into town and runners will come and pick me up if I want to go early to the venue and check out one of my guitars. And I'll walk in and I'll be like, 'Oh yeah, I remember this place now'," he laughs. "After all these years you'd think I'd know them all and have them logged in my memory banks. But they just kind of blend in together. We actually played a venue last night in Dallas, TX that I was sure I'd played before. I just didn't know at the time. But I did finally remember, and you know how I remembered it? I remembered it because they had a massage person there! And so when I went into the massage room I recognized that room," he laughs again.
So how did Tommy Shaw bring you into the band back in 2003? "Well, when they asked me to join the band they said they didn't want any more new members. They wanted to stop with me. Chuck can't do full shows. He said, 'We want to bring you on, but don't answer now. We'll call you back. Just think it over for 24 hours.' So I thought about that and it was exactly what I needed to hear for me to say 'Yes!'. Tommy said, 'We want to rock until we drop but not everybody is suited for this lifestyle'."
Having been in the business for over 30 years, what's the primary difference in yourself today, looking back all those years ago? "Well, that's a good question. Let's just say the passage of time has been good to me. I think that I followed in the footsteps of Keith Richards when I was younger, which was probably not the best thing. But my first band was with John Waite. And John and I were two animals that broke off their leash and were just having a good time. It was wine, women and song back then. It was a great time, but we were probably doing things we shouldn't have been ... during all hours of the day and night!"
"It was also at that time when we first started working together, that John told me whenever I had a song idea to call him. If it was 3 in the morning he'd put the coffee on. So, we worked as hard as we played, but it was definitely a lifestyle we totally submerged and immersed ourselves into fully. And so to come out of that, and reach the other side and realize that some of these things were probably not the most healthy ways to get here, well, ... it's the school of hard knocks, or whatever you want to call it that I believe toughens you up and makes you ready for a lot of those types of situations."
"And also I think somehow I was blessed with a good work ethic. I would show up knowing their material better than they did. And that's the one thing, if I could offer up one thing, I heard Lemmy say one time when he was asked what advice he would give a young kid coming up. He said 'I wouldn't give him any. He's got to learn to make his own mistakes.' And I just thought that was the best answer I'd ever heard. Because it's so true. You can't go pushing the ride for anybody. Because, first of all getting there is never the same for anybody. There's no rule book or play book to go by. You gotta stumble along the way and find out who you are. And within that those are the things that go beyond you learning your instrument or having a great voice. How you handle things is what either opens the doors or closes them."
Did you have a so-called musical Hometown Hero growing up, perhaps? "Yeah, everybody's got their hometown heroes. So, the guy in my hometown I used to go watch him whenever I could. He used to blow my mind. He was Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix thrown into one. But that's only part of it you gotta have that to begin with. And then you have to figure out where to take that. I'm with a band of guys that figured that out. That dared to figure out its a collaborative effort. That didn't just want to be control freaks and run the show. They realized there's a time to speak up and there's a time to shut up. And once you find that chemistry you cherish it."
So, what was the name of your Hometown Hero? "Well, I hesitate to mention his name because he's not someone you've heard of. Unless you have a copy of a killer record from the '70s called Masters of the Airwaves. I'm just saying that every town's got one of those guys. OK, His name was Jimmy Berick and he was from Northern California; still is. And he still plays like a bat out of hell. He is still an incredibly gifted guitarist."
"But I won't put the fact you haven't heard of him all on his shoulders. It takes finding the right other people and you carry each other to a place where your music can finally be heard. That challenge is one thing and maintaining a lifestyle that doesn't lead you down a dark path is another. And never bite the hand that feeds you ... even if they suck, for example, don't cuss out the record company president ... you have to be smart. You've got to remember where you're bread's being buttered and sometimes that ain't easy."
The last studio album was 2005's Big Bang Theory - what's up with that? "Well, it's pretty simple good business and we stay very, very focused and involved in the business around us. It's usually a managerial advisement. It's a tough pill for us to swallow that this is the touring business and not the recording business any more. And we could spend that time putting out a record, but it's just not the thing to do right now."
"However, we do all write every day. Everybody in this band writes and I'm totally blown away by some of the songs getting written. Someone will always say can you come up to my room and throw down a bass part for me on the computer. So yeah, it's astonishing the material we have because we've been writing continually. So when I see bands put out their new CD, especially classic rock bands who already have three to five songs on every rotation on whatever format can play them, the station's don't want that music. And, quite frankly, everybody wants to hear the old hits. So it's sort of a catch-22, but we've embraced what we have so our focus is on our live shows."
"So yeah, as hard as it is, we all still write constantly and we record constantly. We all have home studios that we farm off stuff to each other to play. And we always try to do new things, whenever we can find slots for them. They just don't pop up as much. So it's a tough pill to swallow, but we're pretty happy with where we are. And I guess we are hoping that something will present itself to enable us to get new material out there ... a reason or purpose, it could even be contributing new music for a film."
Talking of "new" releases, Eagle Rock have just released The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight 2CD set, which was recorded back on November 9th, 2010. The Blu ray and DVD came out back in January 2010, so do you guys have a say in such releases - or not? "That would be the latter. I just found out about it two weeks ago. To me, I don't know, personally, I would rather people buy the Blu ray and watch the way it was intended. I mean why wouldn't you just want to play the original? We don't do this stuff to say this is the way Styx is now. We take great pride in you coming to a Styx show and you hearing what you're used to hearing. Within that, as musicians who have gotten better. And personally, I've just evolved to the point where I'm a better musician. So, the point isn't for us to say this is the way Styx is now. This is an evolved Styx not the new Styx."
Still to this day is there an ultimate favorite song for you to perform as a band member of Styx? "Yeah, but it changes from night to night. One of my favorite songs to play is 'Snowblind,' and we haven't played it for, like, three years ... but as JY says, "We have the good fortune and privilege of an abundance of good material to draw from." When we recorded the Blu ray of The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight it brought us to songs that Styx had never performed live before."
"And sure, there's certain songs you've got to play every night because the people wanna hear them. But when you drop in a 'Queen Of Spades' or a 'Castle Walls,' those darker, deep side cuts that people don't expect to hear, you can visually see the surprised expressions across the faces in the audience. And so that's why we like to drop stuff in. Sometimes a song like 'Snowblind' tends to get pushed back. But it's there in the arsenal and again it's one of the great privileges we have in this band. Also, I love having to dig deep to remember something we haven't played in awhile ... it makes us all have to focus," he laughs.
Talking about social media for a moment, the Styx blog seems only to be updated by Tommy Shaw (although that came to an end in November of 2011) - was he the only one with the password, perhaps?! "Maybe," he laughs, "but I don't think that we are probably the best at social media. Without question. And I'm the worst. I just don't want to be that accessible. And I don't understand how this all happened. I don't even really approve of it. And I don't want people to know every little tiny thing about me or my family. I don't want every crazy-obsessed fans to follow me or them. We have incredible, wonderful fans that we know personally, by their faces and their names. But as there are thousands you just don't know what's out there. And so I think by being so accessible you're exposing yourself to the dark side of people out there. I hate to say that but it's a reality. I just think there's a side to privacy that's very important and there for a reason."
Which is probably why your personal website has remained stagnant, trapped in time since 2006! "Now, I've had plenty of time to change this. But my buddy Jack Crosby, and who was my designer and web guy passed away. And while he was going through all the horrible things he was going through, people were offering to dive in and fix and change it. I just haven’t been able to touch it yet. It's just a personal thing that I'm trying to change. But I do need to get that together. I liked my website when we had it cracking and it was pretty cutting edge. And now it's far from cutting edge," he again laughs.
What's all this about Styx Special Brand coffee that you guys sell on the website? Have you even tried it? "Oh yeah, we drink it every night. Really, our bad habits now consist around the multiple espresso machines we have. The Coffee Fool, who is the maker and the finder of these magical beans, is a friend of Tommy Shaw's; and is a good friend of mine now," he laughs. "And he's very particular in making sure the beans aren't burnt. And just recently I poured out the beans that are in this thing and because I love Starbucks, I compared the beans side by side. And I bet that our beans in our coffee are twice the size, and twice as healthy as anybody else's. So, yeah, it is good stuff."
Tell me something about one member of the band, without revealing his name, that is something that world should know about him! "OK, well, I don't know why my mind immediately goes to two guys, but if you've watched our shows you could probably guess one of those two. But maybe not, so I'll lean towards the one you might not. There's a guy in our band who could be a writer and an actor on SNL. There's a couple of guys that could probably be on SNL, but this guy is not the guy you're probably gonna be thinking of."
"He's got a character called The Angry Basement Guy that I will fall down laughing whenever he starts. And it's all off the cuff as he never writes anything out. It's all off the top of his head. If you let him loose and off his chain you have no idea! The guy is a comedian and he's a good one. So, I'll just leave it at that."
What do you think is still left for Styx to do as a band? "Wow, that's an awesome question. I really do think, going back to recording, that we almost owe it, not just to ourselves, but we do owe it to our fans. Especially the die hard fans who like to speak their minds and call us out on anything. They know what we're capable of and they want to see it. So I do think we need to get in and record and really do the amazing album that I know we have in us. If not a couple! Whether or not it makes sense or not at some point we have to do this. Just as artists. Just to satisfy our souls."
Finally, and throwing you a journalistic curve ball, we here at Exclusive Magazine love Penguins! Do you have any love for them, or a Penguin story of your own, perhaps? "Penguins are a great study in social behavior. There's always one penguin up for a good time. While the others are just standing around he's the one sliding down the snow and into the water for a swim. That was the Catholic school kids where I come from. They had to wear their uniforms to school which was intended to equalize them and strip personal identity but some would find a way to flip up there collar or tie their scarf a bit differently. They would make hip subtle changes within the confines of the dress code."
If you would like to win a copy of either REGENERATION I or REGENERATION II on CD, just answer this question about the band: Kilroy Was Here (1983) was another Styx concept album, embracing the rock opera form. Set in a future where performing and playing rock music has been outlawed due to the efforts of a charismatic evangelist, Dr. Evert Righteous, Kilroy featured Dennis DeYoung in the part of Kilroy, an unjustly imprisoned rock star. And Tommy Shaw played the part of a younger rocker who fights for Kilroy's freedom and the lifting of the ban on rock music. But what was his name?!
Send us your answers and if you're correct you'll be in the running to win one of these abovementioned Styx CDs! Just send us an e:mail here before July 1st with your answer and the subject title CONTEST: STYX CDs to: email@example.com