Interview with Styx: A Wanted Band

Finding another band that has withstood the test of time as well as Styx has would be a challenging task. Whether at the top of its game in the ‘70s and ‘80s or touring tirelessly this summer, Styx is a band of talent and success with the release of hit after hit as proof. Currently touring the country extensively (often with tour mates Foreigner and Kansas), I spoke with bassist Ricky Phillips.

I’d like to start by mentioning the Regeneration: Volume 1 album. Your website says the album is in its final stages. How did this album come to be?

It started out of doing Rock Band and Guitar Hero type stuff and having to go back and find old masters, which were either unplayable at this point in time, or needed to be recreated some of those things for some of these games. So we realized that the band has evolved as all of our fans know over the years; kids that are our fans today don’t really know that much about the initial Styx that started in the ‘70s. Although there’s Chuck Panozzo, Tommy Shaw, and James Young, for over ten years now they’ve known Lawrence Gowan and Todd Sucherman, who was the #1 drummer in the world last year by a reader’s poll and has developed quite a following. We thought, ‘Let’s do these songs!’ But we didn’t want to redefine them. We want to play them the way people hear them on the radio. We’re not trying to say, like, ‘This is the way we play them now.’ It’s a concerted effort to keep Styx as pure as possible and as true to the original recordings so that’s what we did. It seemed a shame, though, to go in and not include something new. Even though radio is in the state that it is now and you’re kind of labeled as classic rock, people really want to hear your hits. It’s just a fact. New material is something that, you know, maybe some of the diehard fans care about something new, but there’s a preconceived notion that stations think ‘Oh, no, we’ve already got your songs on our playlist. We don’t need anything new.’ But we still write and are still always trying to improve as musicians and songwriters. We write for other projects, for film and television. All of us are writers in the band. I’m giving you sort of a long, drawn out answer to your question. But for us, it was fulfilling. We need to have some new material out there, for us, if nothing else.

Tommy had written this song called ‘Difference In the World’ and I said, ‘We should record this.’ It’s such a great song and there could be some spot or some place for it. We decided to put it on this album of remakes, of selected songs from our catalog. We’ve got about 16 songs in the can right now and we’re going to just keep going. We’re on the road nearly 200 days a year, sometimes more than that. So whenever we have time we each have studios in our homes across the country—we’re all scattered across the country—we thought, this is a great way for us to take advantage of our time off, chiseling away at the stone, and keep recording songs. This is the first newer song. Every year we do put something out, and we usually include at least one or two new pieces. We have a DVD that’s done very well for us on VH1 and PBS that we did with the Cleveland Youth Symphony. We have a song on there called ‘Just Be.’ And rather than fight the radio game and fight playlists and what they even mean and correspond to what we do, we kind of just do things at our own pace for our own needs and enjoyment really. That’s it. It’s kind of that simple. We discuss this in our camp. We really need to get some of this stuff recorded. We probably have a hundred songs in us that aren’t recorded. Sometimes we’re on the bus with computers and guitars out, standing in the aisle, bouncing down the road and getting knocked over, trying to get ideas down until we get to the hotel and can do a little bit more. We’re always active and still carrying on. I guess people don’t know that, they don’t see it. We just try to push it in the right direction.

Well, like you said though, there’s nothing wrong with your diehard fans expecting ‘Lady’ and ‘Babe’ at your shows.

Yeah. Some people shrug their shoulders at that and say they want to do something new. Well, everybody wants to do something new so do it for yourself. We’re truly honored. I mean, I’m not saying we don’t completely bow down to some sort of a compliment or being realized in other directions, but, hey, to be in the position of having a fan base that goes back, of people who do care enough, and still want to hear the old songs…you can’t shrug your shoulders at that.

You mentioned three things that I want to follow up on. First, the Youth Contemporary Orchestra of Cleveland. It’s an interesting collaboration. How did it come about?

We get requests to do all kinds of stuff and most of them are kind of just half-baked ideas. This one came up and we jumped at it. Liza Grossman, the conductor for the youth orchestra, proposed it to us and our manager said we should maybe check it out. She had five different arrangers and arranged some of the songs with them. We flew out on various occasions. Tommy Shaw would fly out and work with the kids, then James Young, Todd Sucherman would go work with the rhythm section on tempos and certain arrangement ideas. At the very end, I flew out and Lawrence flew out and worked with the band as a whole. It took a while. At first, it was really rough. Styx’s material appears to be on face value just nice little melodies, beautiful vocals, but you don’t realize it’s not just 4/4. There’s stuff in 7/4. The time signatures change. It’s probably not just as straight ahead and easy as it appears. One of the things about Styx’s music that I’ve always liked is that it doesn’t repeat. Choruses change. Verses change. There’s something about it that will change to make it just a little bit different. So it was kind of a daunting task, but I’ll tell you what, when it came to show time, when it came to that night, everybody dug deep. We had 168 kids on the stage with us.

What was the age range?

I believe there were kids as young as eight or nine years old, up to, I’d say, nineteen. We had 42 kids in the choir. The body of those, from say twelve to nineteen, were in the orchestra itself. I think the choir was from eight to fourteen. We realized when we got up there that it wasn’t about us; it wasn’t about Styx. Everybody was getting a little teary-eyed at certain spots because there was energy and emotion up there that we’ve never felt before. You know, we’ve got the rock-star-feeding-off-the- audience reciprocal relationship, but with them up there it was all of a sudden this mentoring thing that got very, very emotional for the audience and for us. We were recently in Las Vegas and they had it up on a big screen and I hadn’t seen it in a long time. It was just a super, super [thing] that I’m really glad we did.

As an artist, I think you have to be receptive to those kinds of opportunities, even If they’re out of your comfort zone.

Sometimes you’re thinking, ‘Well, this is gonna cost us a bunch of money, flying back and forth. What are we going to get out of this?’ We had no idea how much we would get out of it. It was worth any price and was really good for us. It makes us appreciate our music a little bit more because it was presented with the orchestra. Now, since then we’ve performed with some adult orchestras, which is cool but not nearly. Not nearly the rush it was with these kids who were just special and young and youthful. I’m glad it lives on on acetate as it were, if you will, because it’s something that when my nieces or godkids see it they say ‘Hey, Uncle Rick you’re kind of cool.’

Those compliments from kids are hard to come by!

I know, I know. I’ll take it whenever I can!

You also mentioned TV and film. Whether it’s as part of a soundtrack or mentioned throughout a movie like in Big Daddy, why do you think Styx’s music gets referenced so often?

I think that’s also something I find fascinating. Like, when I see ads in music columns that say ‘Trying to put a band together with that Styx sound.’ When you see it referred to like that, you realize, ‘Wow, this is original.’ It’s something that identifies and signifies a specific sound and specific band. And I don’t think that’s easy to do. I remember in the ‘90s I was in Bad English at the same time Tommy Shaw was in Damn Yankees, and I noticed all of the bands were homogenizing. Everybody sounded the same. Everybody had the same haircut and the same Spandex. And then of course, as it always will, it corrected itself and the flannel shirts and Nirvana came in and changed everything overnight. But it was a good thing. It cleansed itself and washed out. There was a dry spell through the ‘90s when music really kind of sucked and now we’re back to good music.

When Styx came out it would have been easy because there was a glut of good music—and I mean glut in a good way in that so much good music came out in the ‘70s. ‘60s influenced stuff that went off and got rockier and heavier and went off in progressive and even pop directions that were kind of cool, like where Genesis ended up. Just really, really great stuff. For Styx to stand out through all of that and to find a way to be original, specifically through its vocal approach, with songs that I suppose have a sense of hope in them, maybe a sense of promise. Even if it’s something like ‘Renegade’ which is about a guy on the lam, there’s something about that that gets you pumped up. Just to have a positive approach and feel to it, even when it rocked. And the song ‘Fooling Yourself (the Angry Young Man)’ is about come on, get it together, is life really that tough? Walk it off! Let’s get on with the game! You’ve only got one life. Let’s get in there and make it the best we can. That sound corny, the way I just described it but when you hear the song it’s like, wow, what a piece of music. And that’s the trick I think. Styx has always had a really high bar that they answer to and every day we go onstage and still correct ourselves. We finish the show and say, ‘You know what guys, I think we’re pushing the chorus on “Too Much Time On My Hands”’ and the next night we’ll correct ourselves. By doing that constantly, you’re always pushing the band upward and forward rather than living off of a past catalog.

That reminds me. Styx has received a lot of press about the ‘I Am the Walrus’ cover. Out of The Beatles’s extensive catalog, why was that song chosen?

Well I wish I had a better answer for you but we were asked to do the first Crossroads event with Eric Clapton in Dallas. We were going to kick off the event with an afternoon performance. It wasn’t at night when all of the great blues artists come out and, quite honestly, we’re not a blues band. So we thought about what we were going to play. We had been playing ‘I Am the Walrus’ in soundchecks and just for our own fun. Then we started playing it as an encore. All of a sudden this live recording of us playing it got on over 300 stations and it grew to over 1,000 if you count all of the little stations. We’ve been approached by Universal. They said that a lot of bands try to do albums of cover songs and very few of them are successful. So we went into the studio and did this album called The Big Bang Theory and made it relevant for us by recording a CD of songs that were only songs by the bands that had influenced us individually or songs that denoted a period that formed us.

From there it became some kind of a composite, sounding of Styx. ‘The Walrus’ was kind of the catalyst for that. I think some of the songs, like Hendrix’s ‘Manic Depression’—one of my favorite songs ever—faired better than others. I realize how hard it is, now, to record someone else’s material which is so good and why you love it. ‘Walrus’ is really the one that we were able to pay homage to and tip our hat appropriately. We never really sat down and listened to the record. We just played it as we remembered it and didn’t try to learn from the record. Now when I hear it I always have to chuckle because I go, ‘Ah, I thought we were a lot closer than that!’ (Laughs)

As for the tour, Styx has dates with Foreigner and Kansas and also some solo dates. Why are some nights triple-billed and others solo?

The tour is going really, really, really well. We started off by going through the whole tornado country and the weather has scared some fans away, but we’ve still got really good numbers. People braved the weather and we got lucky with a pocket of nice blue sky in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Then we went on to the west coast and attendance was just fantastic, especially this last week. I think we did 18,000 people in Salt Lake City a couple nights ago, for a motorcycle event. We had around 12,000 of our fans and 6,000 motorcycle fans so that was unbelievable. We played Red Rocks to over capacity crowd. People were buying seats with obstructed views just because they wanted to be there. The rock crowds are just more excited. You walk out to screams and waving arms. It’s just a good night of music. Kansas is firing on all cylinders. Foreigner is, too. I mean, just the catalog of these three bands is amazing. I’d forgotten how much I love Kansas. They sound so good right now. I just think they’re another band that gets better and better. And Foreigner’s catalog… come on. I mean, that’s just one hit after another. It’s been a blast. Plus we like the guys, which helps. You’re hitting a lot of cities together and hanging out a lot together and it’s nice to be able to get dressed in the dressing room and hear songs that you like to hear.

Yeah, as you said earlier, you’re out for 200 nights a week so….oh! 200 nights a week! Geez. Now that is a long week of intense touring!

(Laughs) Sometimes it feels that way! It’s over a hundred shows. Let’s say 100 to 138 shows and with travel days and all that, we’re out for about 200 days. So, yeah, you definitely have to make it fun. To answer the other part of your question: When it’s an evening with Styx, the one thing the fans come out of the woodwork for is that they prefer it. Not because they don’t want to hear the other bands; they love the other bands. But we get to play for over two hours. With a three-band bill it’s already four hours with us playing. I think we do an 80 minute set right now. That covers a lot of hits and album cuts that people want to hear.

Styx performs at Nikon At Jones Beach Theatre on June 19.