To fans of classic rock and arena rock, it just wouldn’t be summer without the music of Styx.
For more than 40 years the band, whose hits include “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” “Renegade,” "Too Much Time on My Hands” and “Come Sail Away,” has been delivering the goods the only way it knows how: through infectious live performances.
This summer, Styx—Tommy Shaw (vocals, guitars), James “JY” Young (vocals, guitars), Lawrence Gowan (vocals, keyboards), Todd Sucherman (drums) and Ricky Phillips (bass)—are teaming up with Def Leppard and Tesla on what promises to be one of the season’s hottest tour packages.
I recently caught up with Phillips to ask him about the new tour as well as his time with Styx, the Babys and Bad English. He also gave me an inside look into his new album project, the final recordings of Ronnie Montrose.
GUITAR WORLD: What can fans expect from the new tour with Def Leppard and Tesla?
We’ve been wanting to work with Def Leppard again for quite some time. We did some dates with them around 2007 and it was a really good fit. If you’re familiar with Tesla’s catalog you already know that they're a very aggressive, cool, no-frills band. They just come balls out and do it! Then we go everywhere from a little bit of prog to the guitar duo of Tommy Shaw and James Young to having three lead singers. Then Def Leppard come out with their big arena rock show. It’s a special package where fans will really have a great time.
You’ve been with Styx for more than a dozen years. What’s it like being part of such an iconic band?
The cool thing about this band is that everybody recognizes that what we have is really special. It’s rare to get a group of guys that gel as good as this band does. We all have a lot of strengths to lean on personally and musically. There’s a lot of fun and joking around to keep things entertaining, but once we get on stage it’s all business, which is a good time as well.
Has there been any talk of new Styx music in the future?
I can’t talk about it too much, but there’s certainly some stuff in the works. It’s going to happen. We’re just not sure when.
Let’s discuss a few of the other bands you were involved with. What was the story behind you joining the Babys?
I had always been a big fan of Tony Brock and John Waite and thought “Isn’t It Time” was just a masterpiece of cool rock. Shortly after I got to LA, a sound man for the band saw me play and tracked me down. It was around the same time that John had decided he wanted to front the band and not be weighed down by playing an instrument [Waite had also played bass in the Babys].
I was working in the music store across the street from where they were auditioning when the sound man came in and told me that I needed to go across the street and play. I remember pulling a bass off of the wall and (with the price tag still swinging from the headstock), went over and jammed with the guys for about 15 minutes. We played “Run to Mexico” and “Head First” and then Jonathan Cain and I harmonized with John on “Isn’t It Time." After that, they all left the room and came back in with their manager and asked me to join the band. That’s how it all started.
A few years later, you were involved in the super group, Bad English. What do you remember most about that experience?
It was a fantastic, rapid speed project. We got one really incredible record but I actually think the second record is my favorite. You can really feel the tension that was going on in the band at the time. Not in a dark way but there was just something very deep about that second record and a level of maturity in the musicianship and writing.
Many people may not know this but you also played a big part in the David Coverdale/Jimmy Page album project. How did that relationship begin?
David called me up one day and told me that he and Jimmy were doing a project together and they wanted me to be involved. I started working with them and we had a good working system going and in a few months had a strong sounding record. It was a great hang and I learned a lot from both Jimmy and David. It was a good combination.
What’s your bass of choice these days?
I designed an Italia bass that they made for me and I play a lot. It’s got EMG pickups and a neck-thru body with an ebony fretboard. I’ve also added a few little things I’ve noticed over the years that I wish I had. They did a great job and it sounds fantastic.
Are there any other projects you’re working on?
I’m producing the last recordings of Ronnie Montrose, which I’m very excited about. We have all of the performances done and are in the mixing stage right now. Ronnie, myself and Eric Singer from Kiss went in and cut 10 songs, and Ronnie was calling it “Ten By Ten." The idea was to have the three of us as the core of the band along with 10 different singers.
So, Sammy Hagar is on one, Tommy Shaw sings one, Edgar Winter, Eric Martin, Greg Rollie, Mark Farner, Davey Pattison (Ronnie’s singer in Gamma) and Glenn Hughes also sing. When Ronnie passed, he hadn’t been able to do the solos. So we brought in guys like Rick Derringer, Steve Lukather, Phil Collen and Brad Whitford. But this isn’t a tribute album. It’s Ronnie’s last recording. Everyone who’s guesting on this record makes perfect sense. I could go on for hours talking about it but that’s the heart and soul of it! It’s very exciting!
Of all the highlights of your career, which ones are the most memorable?
When the Babys played Madison Square Garden that was pretty magical, because I had heard about the Garden my entire life. It was a benchmark for success for me as a kid. Then there was meeting, working and playing on stage with Jeff Beck in Japan with Neal Schon, Steve Lukather and Terry Bozzio on drums. That was a pretty amazing experience. I find myself doing all of these things, and sometimes can’t believe that a kid from a small town in Northern California is able to do them. I’m not sure what tomorrow’s going to bring but I feel very blessed.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.