Interview: Styx's Ricky Phillips Talks Bass, Tone and Giving the Classics a Fresh Spin
There’s something about a Styx tune that just gets better with time. The band transformed arena rock in the ’70s and early ’80s, and the guys have only grown more popular as the years roll on.
Styx – featuring Ricky Phillips, Tommy Shaw, James “JY” Young, Chuck Panozzo, Lawrence Gowan and Todd Sucherman – are taking all the hits on the road for the Midwest Rock N’ Roll Express Tour with REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent this spring. Chatting before the band’s recent Minneapolis stop, Phillips checked in to talk about what it was like joining Styx in 2003, how he brings his own flavor to the classics and his take on great tone.
You guys are on the road with Ted Nugent and REO Speedwagon. It seems Styx and Nugent tour together often. Tell me about that dynamic.
Yeah, I think Ted gets almost too much lip service in so many camps, and he jokes about it! [Laughs] I did Rockline with him last week, and we were saying, “Make sure you do something outlandish to bring a lot of attention to tour!” He replied, “I probably already have, the way people misquote me and get me into trouble!” We’re so different, in that we speak only with music and with our songs, and it’s just a different approach. But, it really works for Ted.
How did the debut show go last night?
It’s pretty great! Ted went on last night and got a great response; REO went on and got a great response; and then we went on, and people stayed on feet from the first to last song. How can you not love that? How can you not look forward to going to work when people are cheering you on? It’s fun being the center attention at the party every night!
Going back to when you first joined Styx in 2003, how did you bring your own voice and style to the music that was already created? I feel like you brought your own flavor to the bass lines.
Thank you for saying that! It’s tough to do that. To start, I studied and learned every part so I could give it the proper respect. Then, with that, as a player, you delve into places where the arrangements for live shows have songs and sections that stretch out a bit, and you find where you can put your own flavor and style in that. Now that it’s grown over 10 years, I don’t think about it. It’s second nature.
When did you first pick up the bass?
When I was a kid, I was in a band, and I was about 13 by the time we played our first gigs. I was the guitar player in the band, and my bass player about a year or so later left his bass in the basement of my house where we practiced, and I couldn’t put it down. I started playing the Who and Paul McCartney, and I realized, “Wow. This is cool!” Playing bass, to really make it speak, was quite a challenge, and learning what Paul McCartney was doing within those songs, I realized the complexity of those notes and rhythms. I still play guitar, but bass has really been the thing I’m known for and what I’ve put all my hours into.
Which bass players have had the biggest influence on your career?
John Entwistle really kind of blew my mind. Paul McCartney still brows my mind to this day, because the dude is so deep when it comes to bass playing. There are certain songs, like if you hear the bass part of “Nowhere Man,” you would not know it comes from that song. It’s so well thought out and harmonically creates a mood in the lines. That’s one of the many examples of his genius. Great influences, on the bass, are note choices. Note choice is huge with me. Just playing the third and the fifth against a chord is pretty boring, and I’ve always liked to bring in something that creates a mood, and to do that takes a lot of exploring and experimentation. I wasn’t just influenced by bass players, guitar players, as well, like Hendrix. Of course, on bass, John Paul Jones in Led Zeppelin; wow, that guy is amazing. Chris Squire in Yes.
How do you get a good tone on the bass guitar?
I think the first mistake that people probably make is that people turn up the bass on the tone and turn everything else down. I don’t really like that sound. That works for certain kinds of music, but I like a little cut and edge and distortion. Not distortion where sounds fuzzy, but the kind that a nice crunchy guitar might have. I like the bass to speak as boldly as any guitar ever would and also have that low-end fundamental to carry the band and give it depth. You have to be aware of what kind of music you’re playing and how the song needs to be supported. It’s all experimentation. Also, it’s really all in your hands.
What advice would you give to a bassist who wants to be in your position?
If they know that they want to do this, it’s going to take being willing to put up with sleeping on floors in motels in sleeping bags. It really takes commitment. It’s a lifestyle, and it’s about not thinking about the fallback plan. There are a lot of musicians out there who can’t cut it. If you love it, you’ll do what it takes to get there. If you really know that, just follow it. If you can’t take it anymore, you’ll know! [Laughs] Just make sure you have what it takes when that moment arrives, because when it does work, you better be ready.