Toting big, bad rock ballads, Styx revolutionized arena rock in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the band’s tracks are just as animated and invigorating today. Nowadays, the gents of Styx – Tommy Shaw, James “JY” Young, Chuck Panozzo, Lawrence Gowan, Ricky Phillips and Todd Sucherman – tour upwards of 200 shows a year, taking their legendary catalog of hits to city after city, from “Come Sail Away” to “Renegade” to “The Grand Illusion.”
Styx recently unleashed a new DVD, Styx: The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight Live, which has the band performing The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight live front-to-back, featuring footage from their show at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis in November of 2010. Speaking a few minutes before a gig, bass player by Ricky Phillips – who officially joined Styx in 2003 – checked in with Gibson.com to talk about the new DVD, what it was like stepping into such an iconic band and why a great bass player must “be perfectly in time.”
When you signed on to be Styx’s bass player, did you have any idea what adventures were headed your way?
I don’t know if I did or not! I certainly didn’t expect that this is where I’d be at this point in career. I’ve known the guys for a long time. Tommy Shaw and I have been friends for years, and Todd Sucherman – who is the amazing drummer of Styx – and I met while doing session work in Los Angeles. He was my favorite drummer to work with in the studio, and I was always frustrated that he was in this band named Styx, and I couldn’t work with him as much as I did. [Laughs]
When I got the call to join Styx, I was working on this project where I had to write 21 pieces of music and record it all, and I was feeling the burnout factor. I had kind of taken myself out of the band situation and was doing more writing and producing at the time, and it’s kind of a struggle doing that. I like it. I enjoy it. But, let’s face it: We started playing music because we wanted to make the girls scream. We didn’t want to be in a studio behind closed doors. So, when the guys said, “Hey, you want to put on your dancing shoes and get out here?” I was flattered and honored, and it hit me at just the right time.
What have been the biggest surprises to come with joining Styx?
You know, I didn’t realize until I was in the band what a perfect place it is for me, because this is a group of guys who are not just gifted musicians and singers and players, but they’re dedicated to making each night better than the night before. That means discussing the music even after we’re still soaking wet, walking off the stage. After the show, it’s about somebody saying, “You know what? Tomorrow night, let’s try this,” or, “I think the tempo of this song should be brought up a bit.” I didn’t expect that, and I was pleasantly surprised. The reason the band has been around so long is obvious: The focus has always been on making the band better.
What have you brought to Styx as a bass player, with your unique style of playing?
That’s a great question! Well, from what I’ve been told and what I’ve read from the other guys’ interviews, I’m a little bit muscled up as far as a bass player. I’m pretty aggressive. I grew up listening to John Entwistle from The Who, John Paul Jones, Tim Bogert – some very strong backbones. I’ve always been influenced by things that are very melodic also but have a toughness or an edge to them, and coming into a band like Styx that’s very vocal and very melodic was interesting. That range of emotions through Styx music can be progressive and tough, but it’s melodic. My approach is to learn what was there before and then play it with the aggression in the way that I have developed over the years, and that’s really the only way I can do it. Otherwise, I’m watering something down, and I’m not being me.
What do you think it is about Styx that gives the band such longevity?
I think it’s a combination of things. One is the songs. Songs are probably the reason that anything is successful. There are a lot of great musicians out there, but if they don’t have a voice to present their works, which would be a good song or good material, their career may be short lived. So, I would say the songs would be first. Second, we’re having too much fun up there. The fans who come to see us say it’s like we’re throwing a party up there. We’re serious about what we’re doing, but it’s fun. We enjoy playing music and performing and feeding off one and other onstage and then feeding off the audience. I think that’s infectious. I think that’s No. 2. You know, at some point this year, I will have played my 1,000th show with Styx, and that seems impossible to me. It seems like I just joined two weeks ago. But, in that time, I realize that having the duality of the guitar pyrotechnics of Tommy Shaw and James Young is really amazing. The two of them have completely differently guitar styles, but they mesh together perfectly and create a sound that I’ve never heard before. Even when they approach harmonies, it’s in a different sense than I’ve ever heard, and I think that’s a huge underlying factor in the sound of Styx.
You recently released a new DVD, Styx: The Grand Illusion / Pieces of Eight Live, which was recorded in 2010. Tell us about the idea of paying tribute to those two albums with a DVD.
The idea came from our manager. He wanted to try an experiment. He wanted to book eight or 10 theaters and see what it would be like to play these two albums, because they go so well together. So, we said, “Why don’t we just do them in a few theaters and see how it goes?” All of a sudden, 22 venues wanted to be a part of it! So, we did 22 shows on the East Coast mainly, and it was so much fun. We did an 11-camera shoot in Memphis and realized we should be documenting this. We were doing songs that have never been performed by Styx before doing this… It was a bit risky and we were a bit afraid of it, but everybody seemed to jump onboard and really enjoy the ride.
Do you have any bass playing tips?
Don’t play any faster than you can keep time. I see guys playing all these riffs and flying around with the worst time in the world, so I think, start slow and build your way up, but play with a metronome. I think any musician should learn to play with a metronome. A guy who doesn’t know how to keep time or play a beat on the back side or front side of song is going to be confused, especially when he or she gets to the recording studio. That opens up a whole other level of confidence and lack of confidence, and the more confident you are before you get there, the better. Any musician, but bass players in particular, really have to be tight with the drummer. So have a metronome, and when you’re completely in with the metronome, you won’t even hear the clicking, and that’s how you’ll know that you’re in time. You’ve got to be perfectly in time.
Photo credit: Ash Newell