When thinking about the name “Styx,” it’s easy to think of the legendary band, sure. But very much like the ancient River Styx weaving through Greek Mythology, the musicians have maintained their presence in the spotlight. Although they haven’t released new material in nearly five years, they continue to make great splashes in the touring scene. And from the continuation of their beloved hits, to meeting NASA’s newest find, “Styx” the moon, these guys still have that captivating glow—on stage and off.
Currently on tour, Lawrence Gowan (keyboard/vocals), Tommy Shaw (guitar/vocals), James “J.Y” Young (lead guitar), Todd Sucherman (drums), Ricky Phillips (bass/vocals), and Chuck Panozzo (bass/vocals) have been rocking venues across the country, playing with bands such as Tesla and Def Leppard, offering an eclectic, electrifying show each night. Just days into their newest tour, Ricky Phillips gave us the low-down on what it’s like on the road—and the inside scoop on the always-changing “music biz.”
So, Ricky, how’s the summer tour going? I saw you guys just started this round.
Yeah, we’re 10 days into it or something like that. It’s going great. We kind of expected that. Last time we toured with Def Leppard, I don’t know what it is, but between the two bands, we get on very well and it’s just a lot of fun. I’ve missed those guys. It’s been fun. Sav [Rick Savage, bassist] and Joe [Elliot, vocalist] and I are already trying to put together some golf outings for the rest of the year—and, you know, things away from hotels, backstage, truck days, but it’s great and… Probably you were asking about the music, but I think that kinda goes really without explaining it. With Tesla, it really is kind of a wide rock ‘n’ roll pallet and it’s a pretty great night of music.
It has to be fun—for you guys to be back with some old and new friends, and for the audience. What’ve you been playing?
You mean, song-wise? List-wise? We don’t really have time to do much more than the hits, so we’ve been just sticking with the business at hand and it was one night where, I don’t know… Out here, we’re pretty lucky that we don’t generally get sick. We watch ourselves, but for a couple of rough throats, we’ve got that little bug that I guess hit both coasts with upper respiratory things, so we changed the set around the set for that one night and no one would notice because of that, except for probably the first night of that. And what we did was, we drew in “I Am The Walrus” which is something off of The Big Bang Theory, we did when I came about.
So, you’ve been sick on this tour? How do you handle that?
Not anymore! It happens quickly. We take care of it. We get people in and they figure out what’s wrong with us and we doctor it up ‘cause the one thing that Styx does is, we sing all the songs in their original keys. We don’t retune and there’s no vocals flowing in and if you hear a mistake, that’s because we’re singing it live. If there’s a bit of a sore throat or roughness, you’re gonna hear that, too. But, we take care of making sure that we can keep doing our stuff—and the rough patches? I think our fans are pretty diehard and we’ll get through the evening when that happens, as rare as it is, you do have to deal with it.
But the cool thing is having three lead singers and myself and Todd as well singing. We can kind of pass it around where, generally, people don’t even know, or they wouldn’t know. And it’s usually not even for a full set. It might be for two songs. The fortunate thing is that it’s never been all of us at the same time. But, hey, we’re on the road for over 200 days a year, every year, so it’s bound to happen, but we’ve been so, so fortunate.
Back in the day, when we all started and we were all a little crazy and foolish and stuff and with women and all of the other kinds of stuff we could get our hands on, that was rock ‘n’ roll. That was the lifestyle. There were no cells phones or stuff like that. It’s kinda like, I’m finally at that age where I’m that old guy that tells stories of, “When I was a kid…” You know? But that’s what it was. We didn’t really watch ourselves, take care of ourselves… But today the trend is really different. You gotta keep your health and do the smart thing so you can party hardy but you can’t do it for consecutive days and waste yourself out. So we do really, really take care of ourselves. We eat right, and pretty much try to stay healthy so we can keep our families good and keep our crew employed and have fun up there and really deliver a top-notch show and that’s really the bottom line.
I saw a few of your bandmates took a trip to NASA to see new research of this moon called “Styx.” Did they bring any cool stories, or facts to share while on the road?
Oh yeah! That was actually the day that I had to stay in and be a good boy because I didn’t want to get what everybody else was getting. So I was not there. But yeah, they did come back with some great stories. And it’s such a huge honor to have been invited to NASA to see something that’s an event they’ve been working on for years and years and here we are, finally at the end of the research that they’ve done. And to have one of those four moons be named “Styx” is pretty cool.
All of us are pretty curious about stuff outside of music. That’s also something that I think has fascinated all of us. Just like, what’s out there and I think it does a lot of people so, there’s that humanistic side and to walk the band through, I’m sorry I missed it. It sounds like it was an amazing time.
Now, I know that Styx hasn’t released any new material since 2011; do you still toy around with melodies or song ideas?
Oh yah! It’s sort of a shame where the music industry is today and what it’s kind of done to songwriting and recording and directly connected to being able to sustain a living because it used to be the recording industry and then we’d record and would tour the album we’ve written and released. Nowadays, it’s really the touring industry and those who do have a fanbase can still tour and have people show up every year.
But this is probably the best group of writers I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. So we continue to write, and have been. It isn’t always Styx-type material, but each guy has his own style and his own thing and I write for other people, as do Lawrence and Tommy, and it’s that artistically, there’s a certain part of you that comes out in a song and in anybody’s art, there’s a part of their soul and their personality that’s gonna come out in it. So, to kind of keep that light sort of shining and to keep that flame alive, you have to continue to write, so we’ve never stopped writing; there’s just never been an avenue for the past however many decades now to make it a good business decision. So, we’re careful about when the next Styx album is gonna come out, and it will. But it’s gonna be very carefully done and it’s gotta be worthy of a lot of great music that’s already been out there. It can’t be a step backwards; it’s gotta be at best on even playing field.
But hopefully, we can push it a step further. But that remains to be seen and music is subjective to the audience anyway. Everybody’s got their own taste and likes and no matter what happens somebody’s gonna be like, “Oh, I wish they went in this direction,” “I wish they would’ve gone in the Prague direction,” “I wish they would’ve gone in the pop direction.” Well, we’re trying to do all of that, which is kind of what Styx is known for, not staying in one small arena of the rock ‘n’ roll umbrella. You’ve gotta venture out in a lot of different areas with its own sound. So that will be the attempt, but when? I’m not really sure. It is subjective and we’re all disappointed in the artists that we love. And why is that? They’re being true to themselves, not us. And that’s what they should be doing, so if somebody has hit points that you love 80% of the time, stick with them. But if you’re a true artist and you’re really doing it for yourself, you’re gonna venture off into areas.
I just saw the Brian Wilson story last night and he got really good at writing all those surf hits that everybody loved, but then, all of the sudden, he had sort of a deeper voice and he started writing some of the things that… Well the record was called Smile and it took years and years and years to actually be released because it was so deep and so intense, but it wasn’t anymore fluff. He wasn’t writing songs to please people, he had become a true artist and was writing things he knew were important and beautiful within himself and it’s a great story.
So, you’ve played with a few other bands before joining Styx. How have those experiences prepared you for your current band?
Well… I think anything you do is another little log on the fire. And I’ve been fortunate enough to do quite a lot of things and starting in the late ‘70s with the first band I was in called The Babies, we toured a lot and opened a lot. That’s how I met Styx, actually. It was The Babies and Styx on stage on tour together, but we toured with Journey and AC/DC and Alice Cooper and it was, for me, a great way to kinda kick off my career.
I had been playing every block dive in the country for years up until then and then finally I was hitting my mid-20s and realized, “Man, I’d better get someplace where somebody can notice me,” and I went to L.A. and was fortunate enough to be seen by the soundman in The Babies and ended up in that band. But when luck comes your way, you better have already done the homework. You can’t start then. So that’s the only thing I’d offer up: just keep doing it, man.
If your soul is speaking to you, you gotta express it, and keep on expressing it until you either find success or it’s taken you to a place where it’s no longer as important. And sometimes the journey is long. But for me, when I got the call from the guys in Styx, I was pleasantly surprised but I wasn’t shocked because Tommy Shaw and I, when he was in Damn Yankees, I was in Bad English, and he had known me since the ‘70s, they knew what I do.
I saw you began your musical career as a kid when you started piano lessons. You now play bass in Styx—how many other instruments can you play?
Uhm, well, not many. I stuck with the bass, basically; I’m a horrible drummer. But as a bass player and having worked with some of the best drummers in the world, I know what I wanna hear, especially if it’s a composition of my own and so I can either program it, or explain it to the drummer. But to sit down behind a kit, I guess it is probably because I have worked with such great drummers that it’s just embarrassing.
But I can play piano just enough to write interesting things and kind of come from a different place on the pallet. Which, for songwriting, is great because I don’t write the same on guitar as I do with piano and sometimes I’ll come up with a riff or even a chordal thing on the bass, which is different from either one of those, so… Whatever I can pick up and—I do play a lot of different instruments in the studio where you can punch it in because I may have an idea.
But it isn’t necessarily that I’m a virtuoso on a bunch of different instruments. I would say I’m pretty good at bass, guitar, and keyboards, but beyond that, when it comes to saxophone, you should just cover your ears ‘cause… Or any woodwind, cause I’ll just be making more squeaks than anything else.
While on tour, what can’t you live without—aside from the instruments, obviously.
Coffee and golf clubs.
Yeah, I heard you mention golf in an earlier answer; you play?
Well, I played yesterday… I just went out by myself, we got into New Hampshire yesterday, I checked into my room early in the morning, got a couple hours of sleep and got up and found a golf club and played a round of golf and… Sometimes you’re just tired and you go, “Ah, can’t even get the energy to get a cab and get out my gloves and go down.” I get rejuvenated and it’s like a shot of adrenaline. Just getting out on some bright green grass and smelling some fresh air, it’s kind of corny, but just being in nature, it’s a big part of it. I think, sometimes, when you’re in hotels for weekends and months on end, and backstage arenas, you need that; you’ve gotta get back in touch with just a little bit of just, being… I dunno. Normal. Because we certainly don’t live a normal life.
I get it; nature can be really inspiring—at least, more so than a tour bus or a starch-white hotel room.
You know what’s funny about you even saying that, I’ve actually written lyrics that have made it to records on the golf course, so you never know where inspiration is gonna come. But if you put yourself in a good spiritual place, stuff does happen. No matter what it is. The funny thing about the lyric, too, was it was heavy, and deep. I remember one of the last lines is, “The toes in my boots are scuffing, being dragged around.” That’s not something you’d think would come from the golf course.
That’s a pretty cool line, and a little odd to come from a golf course, you’re right. But as much as you love touring and performing, November, the end of your current tour, is still a long way away. What are your after-tour plans?
Man, well I’d really like to think of Thanksgiving, and probably checking in with people, family, hopefully and a big platter of turkey. But at the end of the year, we will still probably be doing isolated dates, even in December. That’s just the way the band is, but we’ll probably have a few different blocks of a couple weeks off here and there and be able to see family and friends and just kinda catch up with life and the animals around my house—see if they remember me and all that good stuff. And there’s always a “honey do” list waiting when I get home, so there’s that to look forward to, but it’s those normal things that for everyone else seem like mundane routines, or boring.
To us, we kind of look forward to it after months of being out here and, Tommy Shaw, I’ve gotta quote him because it was the best thing. We all got back together—we had the longest break we’ve had in 12 years. I think we had seven weeks off. We’ve never had that before. And the first day back on the road, we’re all kinda high-fiving each other and saying, “Hey, it’s good to be back on the road,” and Tommy said, “Yeah, I love being back on the road…” He said, “My charm was wearing thin at home.” And I think that’s so—because we do, uh, because of the people we are, and I think the way that we have to be to perform and do the things we do, we’re probably a bit of that type-A personality, which can really get on the nerves of our loved ones but God bless them for putting up with us.
Don’t miss these seasoned musicians this summer as they roll into Wantagh at Nikon at Jones Beach Theater on July 23 and in Holmdel at the PNC Arts Center on July 25. For more on Styx, visit their site at styxworld.com.