CULTURE:A Conversation with STYX bass player Ricky Phillips
Last week I spoke with Ricky Phillips of the American rock band STYX. Ricky had the chance to talk with us about their current tour, their Rock to The Rescue Benefit to help out Tornado victims in Bloomington Illinois, the possiblilty of a new STYX album sometime soon and even their thoughts on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Check out the interview below and make sure to catch the band performing this Thursday at the San Jose Civic Center and touring thorugh Feburary before taking a brief break in March.
Grain: So tell us what's going on with this tour.
Ricky Phillips: Well, It's not really ‘this’ tour. It's we're always on tour. The band is always on the road. We're on the road probably 200 to 230 days a year every year. It's the way we choose to do things. We'll take a month off maybe here or there, but we choose to keep our crew employed and we love our crew and we love playing and so, we're always touring.
Grain: Are you going to be focusing on any specific albums this time around or just kind of the general greatest hits?
Ricky Phillips: Well, we try to. A couple of years ago, we did a tour where we went out. We played select theaters most down on the east coast or at least on the eastern side of the country. Where we did all the Grand Illusion album, took an intermission and came back and played all the Pieces of Eight album. A big sort of an LED screen was behind us which kind of took everybody back to sort of that vinyl era and what it was like to pick up the record and have to turn it over and drop the needle back down and through that, we played and performed songs that STYX never had played since they were recorded. That took us to some of the deep cuts that we've now been incorporating into the show. We change the set a lot. There's a few songs obviously that are big hits that people expect to hear, but depending on the length of the set, it hits 90 minutes to 2 hours or 2 hours plus, we're able to put in quite a few songs like ‘Castle Walls’, ‘Queen of Spades’, ‘Sweet Madame Blue’. Songs that maybe people don't expect they're going to hear because there are so many hits to cover. But we have a lot of people who hold up signs and say, "This is my 100th show. This is my 230th show," whatever. Since we have a strong fan base like that and people do catch multiple shows in a year, we want to make sure they're hearing something new and different, so we do change it up quite a bit.
Grain: Okay. Talk to us a little about the Rock to the Rescue benefit show that you guys had last year.
Ricky Phillips: Well, in every city we go to, we do something for Rock to the Rescue, but I think what you're referring to is the tornado victims that were in Chicago. We went to Bloomington ... Illinois, I mean. In Bloomington, we got sort of REO (speedwagon), we got Ted (Nugent), we got Larry the Cable Guy, we got Survivor, Anybody who was available as there was very short notice. We were able to raise quite a bit of money for the relief. These poor people are ... I mean, if you were standing there at ground zero ... I mean, the city that's completely leveled. Just rubble. That's all you see. You don't even see one story standing anywhere. It's just all leveled. These people lost everything and the spirit was high and the people and the communities surrounding them where very involved in trying to get them back. I know, I was there. A lot of the people, a lot of firefighters and people involved with the rescue operation were there and we brought them up on stage and we closed the night with my friends, we had them all up. It's just something that I think they started after 911. The foundation is something that we try to give a little something back.
You have to find the people and have to really, really be aware when you have good fortune as we do, why and how you got there. We came up with this idea of entering a city we will raffle off a guitar that we've all signed. We do it every night and we're able to leave some money with the community with a non-profit that we select beforehand and we give them a portion of this money and we take some of the money for our own profit and we do that actually move around the country. It's really something that I don't even know other people are aware of. When you asked me that, it caught me off guard. I don't really have a speech that I can rattle off and get it all completely accurate, but that's kind of what it's all about is we do want to come into a city. We appreciate people coming to see us and we want to leave a little something behind with a non-profit in their community for them as well.
Grain: Obviously, you have a huge fan base and a very loyal fan base. With the music industry where it is right now, it seems like you could easily just drop an album without any promotion whatsoever and it would hit the top of the charts. I know you guys are writing all the time, is there any chance that we're going to hear some new music from you guys soon?
Ricky: Well, we've been writing a lot lately. I think if we do it, we want to make sure… it's got to have the integrity of a STYX album and it's not a bedroom (pro tools) recording the way we do things. It's a big production and to find time to do that properly and respect it, we have to get off the road and we have to figure out a way to do it. We do have a lot of studios. We've done a few things, but we have to do it quickly we’re all able to do the work from home in our own studios, and kind of pass the baton back and forth that way. But I think, to do a real STYX album, it will happen. Yes is the answer, but I just don't have a time frame. We've been figuring a lot of song ideas and sound checks lately and very cool material. This band never ceases to amaze me. Somebody will have a sort of a kernel of an idea and in 20 minutes this insane progression or whatever will root. It maybe a big power battle, but maybe - We're having a lot of fun with what we're doing right now though.
Grain: Personally, what is your favorite place to listen to music?
Ricky: My favorite place to listen to music?
Grain: Yeah, like circumstance, like how do you like to unwind and listen to music?
Ricky: That's a good question. Usually ends up being punching dials in my car, but it's hard for me to listen to a full song, so ... I usually end up at home and I will go on ... Sometimes I'll do like just put on the Blues station and sometimes I'll be in the mood for ... I mean, I've been into this Classical thing lately. Been listening to classical music, but whatever it is, it's usually at home. That's really the place that I think I'm most relaxed and chill factor. The chill mode makes it easy for me to listen to things. Most of the stuff going on with these different sites that they have now where you can put in the type of music you like and all these songs will come up. Some I’ve never heard before but are supposedly in that genre and I love doing that. I think that's very cool.
Grain: If you could give advice to your younger self when you're first starting out in the music business, what would it be?
Ricky: Save every penny! And I think I did well. One of the things I somehow stumbled upon, was going with my gut ... I turned down some really big gigs that in retrospect are probably the best thing I could have done ... for various reasons. I think it's something doesn't ring true and it artistically doesn't meet with what you want for yourself. Rather than go for the big dollar value in a gig, go for the ones that will reach your soul or your heart or whatever, your crotch. Whatever it is, it's got to be true to you and that's why I say save every penny so that you can do those things. It's a crazy, wacky place to go once you’ve entered the music world and you decided to make that your living. You have to really be ready and prepared, but one of the things I do tell young musicians, "When you go to an audition, dude, know the band's material better than they do." They'll walk in a cocky guy, walking in to an audition thinking, "Oh, they know who I am and they'll hear me playing." Well, if you walk in and you don't have the material prepared, all you're doing is you're showing the people you're about to play for that you don't respect their music enough to learn it ... or to learn it and know it forwards and backwards. But ... there's no play book on this and the things that happen to people or the circumstances sometimes that get you the gig and sometimes the ones that make you fail, but also prepare you for the next one. It's our mistakes that we learn from, so you just got to keep going at it, man. If you love it, you got to keep doing it.
Grain: Obviously, STYX is a huge rock and roll band and has toured with Foreigner and Journey and REO Speedwagon and you name it. Virtually, all of those of bands have been snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Does any of that stuff matter to you guys or would that recognition be nice to have or what are your thoughts on that whole situation?
Ricky: I don't think it's something we really think about. We're always kind of cracking up at who is sometimes nominated and who's overlooked other than ourselves because there are certain bands that are out there that ... I mean, I just don't even understand how they could not be in the Hall of Fame and some of the people who are in the Hall of Fame (chuckles). But music is a subjective thing and at early on when the Hall of Fame first started, I think it was more important than maybe it is now to us. Our fans are so supportive and strong. Those are really the only people that matter ... everybody has their fans and they're really ... Those are the people you deal with. Those are the people who know and love you and support you whether you're in the Hall of Fame or not and that's the reality of the situation. To be glorified because you're in the Hall of Fame, sure, I mean, that is our business and that's what we do whether it's the Baseball Hall of Fame or any kind of accolades or notoriety that you can get for what it is that you dedicated your life to. Sure, there's going to be a degree of the ego gratification for whatever period of time for that ... Awards are awards and what real is what we do.