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Oregon Music News Q&A: The secrect to Styx’s ‘Big Bang Theory’ with bassist Ricky Phillips

Jun 02, 2014

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In 2011 Oregon Music News caught up with Styx bassist Ricky Phillips for a very revealing conversation on his time with playing with David Coverdale and Jimmy Page, The Babys, Bad English and of course his current gig in Styx. The band was at the time touring with progressive rockers Yes at Maryhill Winery. In a déjà vu moment we fast forward to May of 2014 where I found myself on the phone once again with Ricky Phillips and once again Styx are set to play Maryhill Winery this time with the AOR rockers Foreigner.

You’ve got another great summer tour package together this time with Foreigner. It’s a co-headlining tour; how do you determine who closes what night?

Yeah, we’re doing this summer co-headlining tour with Foreigner; our managers get together and they figure out which cities each band is bigger and that’s how we determine who closes the show. This isn’t the first time we’ve toured with them; if you recall we toured with Def Leppard a few years ago and Foreigner did a few shows with us. In this day and age we’re competing for the ‘American Dollar’ and we want to be out there playing live. Pairing ourselves with another band that has stood the test of time is a ‘win, win’ as far as I’m concerned.

Ricky, back in the 80s when I was getting into music, I can’t say that I was a huge Styx fan. I was familiar with the band, I knew the music and knew the records–because there were people around me that were huge Styx fans. It wasn’t until I saw Styx with Def Leppard then again with Yes that I realized how ‘heavy’ you guys are live. Since Styx was relaunched with Lawrence Gowan you’ve dialed things up and you’re a heavy rock band..

I think it does take people seeing the band live to realize how heavy we are. There are some bands that get better with time and other that get worse. We get better with age I think. I’ve worked with a lot of bands and I have to say that this band is very active; each and every one of us helps move this forward. It’s like the old adage ‘Let’s make tonight’s show better than last night’s show.’ We don’t get complacent; sure we could mail in our parts and not put much effort and make the same amount of money—we’re in this for other reasons. The band is in it for the love of the music and we’re constantly in the process of improving the product. It’s impossible to perfect but we’re always on top of it trying to do just that. It’s a killer group of talented guys; we have so much chemistry and we don’t take that for granted. When the five of us go up on stage we crush. We know we have each other’s back and we enjoy it. I think you can see that when you come to a Styx show.

The stage production that you put on is one of the best with the lighting rigs and the gigantic LED screens and all the bells and whistles but if the chemistry wasn’t there it would mean nothing. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you have up your sleeves this time around.

We’re having a blast already and we’re only three shows into the tour. We’re in Houston tonight, Dallas last night and Oklahoma City the night before that. We were in Wichita for three days doing pre-production for the tour it’s a challenge trying to keep the set changes to 15 minutes maximum. We’ve got a killer crew though, we currently have over 100 people on this crew to help us make this tour happen.
I think it’s really cool that Mick Jones has Foreigner back and better than ever. Kelly Hansen (singer), Thom Gimbel (guitar, saxophone) and I have been friends for years; they’re great guys.

There’s a number of parallels between Styx and Foreigner in the sense that the bands are stronger than ever. I’ve been a huge fan of Kelly Hansen’s since his days in Hurricane, Jeff Pilson (bassist) from his days in Dokken and Dio they also had Brian Tichy on drums.

And they also had Jason Bonham in the band at one time. Foreigner quite frankly always been Mick Jones. I’ve always been a huge fan of Lou Gramm as well but as the band evolved and made changes I told Mick about Kelly. About two years past and Mick asked if I knew a singer that would fit. I asked him what about Kelly Hansen? I called Kelly and asked what he had going on and if he’d even be interested in the gig and boom! So here is in years later. We were just talking about this a couple of days ago; it’s a small community of guys that are out there of this caliber that allow bands like us to keep doing what we’re doing. I’m glad to see my friends out there great and playing in some great bands. I’m happy to have been able help a number of my friends get some pretty killer gigs over the years.

I had no idea that you had a hand in putting a bug in Mick’s ear about Kelly Hansen.

I also have to add that I put it together but it was Kelly that had to do all the work. I had thought of him twice over a period of two years and I just knew once people heard Kelly that the search would be over. Kelly and I have worked together; he’s got that voice that doesn’t show up every couple days it there 24/7.

Styx issued a couple of EPs Regeneration Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 where you recut some classic stuff a new track and a Damn Yankees cover. Has there been talk of recording a new album of all new original material? I know that a lot of bands such as Styx make their money playing live and through merchandising.

I think what you just said as distressing as it may seem is the reality. We all have to live with it; let’s say that we record some new music and it sells 30,000 to 50,000 units that would be huge today. Those numbers in the old days would be an absolute failure and you’d lose your record deal you may never get another chance again. It’d be over. Styx has been writing for a number of years and we’ve stockpiled material for years. The planets just have to align just right though because at this point we’re booked well into 2015. We just have to have enough time to make a new record properly but we’re ready. Styx albums have to tell a story and we have about five albums worth of material in the can we just need the time to do it right.

You also issued a great Blu Ray of the performance of The Grand Illusion and Pictures of Eight which turned out fantastic and as close as you can get to seeing the band live and in the flesh.

That was pretty cool. A lot of those songs had never been performed live because the band hadn’t been able to in the past. It was challenging but we accept all challenges. We all sing our drummer Todd Sucherman is an excellent singer and I’m like the 5th Beatles and a laydown additional melodies over what’s already there which Styx wasn’t able to do before. Going back to your statement this is the band that all of our younger fans know. They don’t really know origin of the previous version of the band; as is with a lot of bands like us. I think in the case of Styx they’ve been very selective in process of getting new people on board; that includes Todd Sucherman, myself and Lawrence Gowan. I remember seeing Styx in L.A. about 16-17 years ago before I was in the band and they had just got Lawrence in the band and I was like ‘where did this guy come from?!’

I’ll throw this out and you tell me what you think? I have been thinking this over for the past few years maybe the reason I wasn’t too into the Dennis Deyoung era of Styx was because Deyoung was ‘too theatrical?’ To me the guy that had that down was Freddie Mercury and he set the bar so high that no one can match him. I think Lawrence brings this edgy attitude to Styx because in the end you’re performing a lot of the same material.

I think you just nailed it right on the head. That’s a great observation and exactly the same way that I see it. It’s all in the presentation right? Everyone has a different interpretation of the material. Lawrence has this rock ‘n’ roll attitude and you mentioned Freddie Mercury who’s an influence and there’s some theatrics there too. I think Lawrence wins on all counts.

I think the thing that Lawrence does by tilting his keyboard around, standing on it, spinning on the pedestal and jumping around—that’s rock ‘n’ roll to me. Reminds me of a modern-day Jerry Lee Lewis. I want to see that over a guy that sings but stand behind the keyboard stand in place for most of the night.

That’s well put. I like that. That’s a great observation.

Styx rolls in to Maryhill Winery on Saturday, August 2nd where you last played with Yes in 2011. This time it will be with Foreigner and (opener) Don Felder won’t be on the bill that night. Will you be playing an extended set?

Yeah, we’ll be playing a little longer that night. We’ll be doing the hits that people expect obviously. On this tour we have been digging into the back catalog for some of those deeper cuts; we’ve been surprising fans with some of those songs. I won’t give that away but we’ll reach into our bag full of tricks and people will be very pleased. There’s an existing 75 minute set list we work with then we have a 90 minute set list that we use and one that is up to 2 hours. This is something that is thought out we don’t just throw a bunch of song into a hat and that’s what we perform.