Ricky Phillips is one of the most talented musicians around. For the past 15 years, he’s been the bass player for STYX. He’s also been a member of Bad English and The Babys. All three of these bands have topped the charts numerous times and sold millions of albums. In between these three legendary gigs, Ricky has played with additional legends, including Sammy Hagar, Ronnie Montrose, and Eric Singer. 2017 saw the release of two new albums featuring Ricky’s masterful musicianship: STYX’s new studio album, The Mission, and Ronnie Montrose’s posthumous 10X10. STYX is on tour this summer with Joan Jett and Tesla, and Ricky was kind enough to speak with me about his impressive career and passion for music.
The last time you and I spoke, which was in 2014, I asked you when STYX was going to release a new studio album. Last year, you guys did and it was a concept album, The Mission, which received a lot of praise from fans and it charted well in several countries. What was the inspiration for this concept album and how did you guys bring it to life?
Tommy figured out a way to make the concept — a mission to Mars — work, which is impressive. Having done concept albums before, I think he had a handle on how to do it. Tommy hooked me with the concept because he told me that within our lifetime there would be an actual mission to Mars. Then he told me that the storyline of the album would be about the people that would make that mission happen. Tommy developed a relationship with the people at NASA while working on this album. We’ve taken tours of their sites where they’re doing amazing work, and I know more about space travel than I ever thought I would. And Tommy knows even more, which is what helped him come up with the killer storyline of the album.
Even though you’ve been in STYX for 15 years, this was your first time recording a full album of original material with the band. What was it like?
It happened so effortlessly. Tommy and Will, the producer, would send me files to work on in ProTools and I’d send them back my parts. This was during the pre-production. Then we went to Nashville to lay everything down. Normally, I’m very hard on myself. But when I listen to this album, it’s the first record where I wouldn’t change any of my parts. Tommy and Will didn’t want me to dumb down any of my parts. They said, “We want to hear Ricky Phillips warming up in the dressing room on this record.”
STYX recently decided to perform “Mr. Roboto” live again for the first time in 35 years. It’s been said that Tommy never liked the song and he wound up quitting STYX after the “Kilroy Was Here” tour. So, what convinced you guys to bring “Mr. Roboto” back into the set?
A couple of young bands had done the song and we heard one of them. It gave us a little bit of a chuckle and it sounded good. When I first heard the song years ago, I didn’t like the disco meets Deevo approach of it. We left that out of the version we’re currently playing live. Lawrence sings it straight-ahead as a vocalist. He’s not acting out a character that’s part of a concept album. Dennis crafted a cool piece of music and we’re having a blast playing it live.
There are other Dennis DeYoung hit songs that STYX hasn’t played for a very long time, such as “Babe”, “Show Me The Way”, “Don’t Let It End”, and “The Best of Times”. What are the chances of these songs being performed live by STYX now that “Mr. Roboto” has made a return?
Honestly, I don’t know. I never would have predicted that we’d be performing “Mr. Roboto” and that’s the biggest hurdle out of all of those songs. We always have trouble performing all the songs people want to hear. Whether or not we’ll introduce more of those lighter side of STYX songs that you mentioned, I’m not sure about that. I know people love those songs. If our band performed them, I’m sure they’d come off great. If somebody wants to bring up those songs, I’m happy to play them. We’ll see.
Some people feel the need to pick sides when it comes to STYX and Dennis DeYoung. I don’t. I think it’s great that you’re both touring and putting out new music. Have you ever seen Dennis perform live with his band? What are your thoughts on him as a musician and a live performer?
I have not. I don’t think anybody in the band has. Even though I’ve been on the road with STYX since 1979, Dennis never came in and said, “Hi.” I never even met the man. Tommy was really friendly and we’ve been friends ever since then. Dennis was never approachable. I don’t really know him. I have my opinions but so does everyone. I wish him well because I’ve become a fan of his work. I love “Castle Walls”, “Suite Madame Blue”, “Queen of Spades”. I like the heavy side of STYX. That’s the side of STYX that I always loved and Dennis is responsible for that. I’m a fan. Unfortunately, they outgrew the chemistry that made them so great. We’ve moved on and so has Dennis, and it seems like it has benefited everyone involved.
Your first studio album with The Babys was Union Jacks. What was that experience like?
When you’re young, you think you know everything. I remember getting in fights with the band’s producer, Keith Olsen. What did I know? Here I am this punk kid who’s never recorded before telling him how to do it. I learned a great deal from him during that experience. The song “Union Jack” that I wrote, John liked. He said, “How about we turn it into a rock opera?” The record company said, “There’s no way we’re making this a rock opera. We’re not approving that.” So, John said, “Can you make an arrangement of this to condense it down so we don’t lose it? It’s got to be on the record.” I did that. I broke the song down to the heart of what a rock opera is into one song. “In Your Eyes,” I wrote before I even met those guys but John was digging it and we ended up having a blast. I was a big Thin Lizzy fan and so were they. They were Brits and I was an American that wanted to be a Brit. [Laughs] Jonathan Cain, I have to say, was very different from the rest of us. But that difference was a great thing he had and it helped complete the picture. It was a great time in my life.
Later that same year The Babys released their final studio album, On The Edge. My favorite song on that record is “Turn And Walk Away”. Both the title of the album and this song connotate a band on the brink of breaking up. When did you know things were over for The Babys?
For both records, we realized that we were only selling records wherever we toured. When we went into record stores, there wouldn’t be any of our product in the bins and it was frustrating. Chrysalis gave The Babys a lot of money when they signed them. But that money was squandered. It was gone and they weren’t given any more. We didn’t have anybody guiding us. We created our own roar with the songs we were writing. There were even rumors that we got caught up in that whole thing of records being counterfeited. We got airplay and everybody seemed to have our records.
However, if you ran our numbers it didn’t match up. We were tired, we were working hard, there was in-fighting within the band. I was the middle-man between John and the other guys. The whole dynamic was going south. I wasn’t surprised when it fell apart. Jonathan Cain called me and said, “I got this offer from Journey. Do you think John will be upset about this? Where’s John at?” It had been a week or two and I hadn’t spoken with John, and him and I were pretty close back then, so I said, “Man, don’t pass up this opportunity. You’ve got the chance to do something.” John had torn his ACL and was convalescing and his silence spoke louder than words. And, of course, Tony got to work with Rod Stewart for 10 years. Wally played with Rod for a while too. I went back to songwriting for other people, including a few movies. Then, later on, Jonathan Cain and I got together and we were supposed to be doing something new and different and it wound up being three guys from The Babys and Neal Schon. You can’t make this stuff up. It happens.
I attended Journey’s recent concert in Philly. While at the show, Neal’s in-ear monitor was acting up and the band lost their place in a song they rarely perform, “Wildest Dream” from their 2008 album Revelation. When this happened, all of the guys huddled around Steve Smith on the drum kit to try and sync up again on the fly, which they did. It was pretty impressive to watch. Have you ever had a moment like this in STYX?
That’s the blessing and curse of in-ear monitors. You can hear better and you can sing in a way so you don’t blow out your voice. But as a musician, you can’t rely on your cabinet being behind you. A lot of times, your own instrument gets lost and you get lost. You can be off by a beat and not even know it. I’ve had everything that could possibly happen, happen to me multiple times. I’ll rip my ears out like Neal did and play to the house. If I’m singing a cappella with Tommy and JY, I’ll take my in-ear monitor out because I won’t be able to hear them otherwise. Generally, I’d say the reason we do flawless shows 99 percent of the time, especially over the past year, is because we have an incredible front house mixer.
Michael Cavacini is an award-winning communications professional, and his arts and culture site, MichaelCavacini.com, features additional interviews with iconic artists.