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A chat with Ricky Phillips: A game of pick-up Styx?

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It’s really very simple. You got rhythm? You got music. You got exceptional rhythm? You got exceptional music. Who could ask for anything more? And therein my musically inclined friends lies the “blame” for Styx’ enduring appeal – namely the legendary band’s legendary rhythm section, bassist Ricky Phillips and drummer Todd Sucherman.

The platinum-selling rockers must be doing something right as they continue to add to their musical legacy with sold out shows across the universe. In fact, Phillips, Sucherman, keyboardist Lawrence Gowan and brilliant axemen Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young, along with the occasional surprise appearance by original bassist Chuck Panozzo, have performed more live since ’99 than all of the previous years of Styx’ career combined.

That “something right” includes 1976’ platinum-selling “Crystal Ball” and their unheard of multi-platinum selling four bagger of “The Grand Illusion” (’77), “Pieces of Eight” (’78), “Cornerstone” (’79) and “Paradise Theater” (’81), along with a motherlode of Top 40 singles.

Even after Two Super-Bowl appearances, Pollstar Box Office chart-topping tours with Def Leppard, Journey, Boston, REO Speedwagon, Bad Company (to name only a few), two more studio albums and no end in sight, Styx continues to conquer the planet, one venue at a time.

But the most important work that the band does just may be as one of the driving forces behind the Rock to the Rescue charity organization – a 501(c)3 non-profit organization co-founded in 2001 by Shaw and REO Speedwagon singer/keyboardist/guitarist Kevin Cronin. The concern has raised thousands of dollars for local charities at each tour stop.

Most recently, the organization’s Dec. 4 Rock To The Rescue Extends A Hand To Those In Need benefit concert in Bloomington, Illinois raised over $400,000 for communities that were affected by the devastating tornadoes and winds in the Midwest State.

In between a couple of their shows on the most recent tour, Styx’ talented bassist Phillips took the time to chat with me about the band’s benevolent work and outstanding music. Phillips was quick to acknowledge the welcome perspective provided by the recent charity concert and earlier shows.

“Well yeah. I think it does. I mean beyond the things people see. Even these kind of big events that get a lot of publicity. You make your living and you kind forget about where that money comes from for us to be the center of attention at the party every night. Not everybody gets that to be their job. And we feel that we have the best job on the planet.”

“There’s people that we need to stand up for – not just thank, but be there for people. With Rock to the Rescue, we try to leave a little something in each city we go to. In fact, Hannah Shaw – Tommy Shaw’s daughter – has been coming on the road with us and her gig is basically to get in touch with a nonprofit in each city we play in.”

“What we do is we sign a guitar and she goes up and auctions it off at each show we do. And we leave a portion of that money with the local charity. Then we take a portion of it for our Rock to the Rescue charity.”

“She’s only been on the road with us for about a year, but the Rock to the Rescue goes back a number of years. Hannah does a great job. She dived right into this thing and made it her own. We don’t even have to really even worry about it, it’s just in such good hands.”

“That giving back sort of thing is something that’s kind of cool about our band. Everybody is great at what they do and gets up on stage and gives a 150 percent every night and can’t wait to do it again. We’ve had this motto: ‘Let’s make tonight’s show better than last night’s show.’ And it just continues on and on.”

“Nobody wants to phone in their parts. Nobody wants to live on the past catalogue. Nobody wants to just have a name. We do it for ourselves. We do it for us and that translates into a great show every night. But to be able to do that, you’ve gotta have fans. And there’s people out there who, over the years, have followed us and supported us in ways that allows us to do what we do.”

Given the mutual respect that the talented bandmates have for each other, it comes as no surprise that their music is exceptionally tight. It helps of course to have a rhythm section that completes each other’s musical sentences. Phillips readily spoke about his reverence for his battery mate.

“I first heard about Todd when he joined when Johnny (Panozzo) could no longer do shows with Styx. He came in as this new kid from Chicago that was playing with Styx. There was kind of a buzz about him and now he’s got fans all around the world.”

“He travels all around the world. He does clinics. When we come off the road, usually Todd gets back off the road and continues to do clinics all around the country. He just lives and breathes drumming.”

“I remember the first day walking in and setting up in the control room. The producer was in there and I heard Todd tuning up his drums and playing a little bit. I knew immediately that he was one of those special drummers.”

“And I said, ‘Who is this guy? Who’s in the session?’ And he’s, ‘Oh, it’s Todd Sucherman, drummer for Styx.’ I said, ‘Okay, finally I get to hear this guy.’ We ended up cutting this guys’ record in a day. We came back the following day and we re-cut one track the following morning. We just fit like hand in glove. It was one of those magical bass player-drummer marriages.”

Like any marriage, it’s a challenge to “keep it fresh”. Although live shows present ample opportunities to improvise, freelancing seemingly presents special challenges for rhythm players. But the bassist had the perfect answer to the perplexing question.

“I guess the best way to describe it is, when you go to see a band and you’re waiting for that one note in the guitar solo and the guy changed it. Or the singer doesn’t sing that one payoff line that you’ve been waiting all night to hear in a certain song and decides to jam a whole other melody. I mean, I hate that. We hated that. There’s just certain things it’s just sacrilege.”

“So we pay great homage to all the original Styx recordings. We’ve all learned every single note that was recorded. We know what it is? Before you can change something, you have to know what it is. And you have to know why it’s good and why it’s always been good and find other places to mess with it to make it yours.”

“With that sort of respect and reverence for the original recordings, we’ve been able to be ourselves and not just do a karaoke thing. Because that would get old and you probably would get tired of your gig.”

“I remember realizing, ‘Wow, Todd is changing this up and that’s so seamless the way he’s doing it. Man, I’ve gotta figure this out.’ And it takes a while. You have to really, really know a set and really know a body of music before you can do that and mess with it in any way without tearing the fabric – tearing away from it rather than adding to it.”

“I’d probably been in the band for maybe six weeks, two months. There was a place – I think it was in Grand Illusion – where I just riffed off and did this thing. And I saw JY kind of look over at me for a minute.”

“At the end of the night, I was back toweling off and putting on dry clothes. JY came over to me and he said, ‘Ricky, you know that bass part, that thing you were playing?’ And I thought, ‘Oh boy, here it comes.’ And I go, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Keep doing that.’ So I knew I got the green light at that point.”

This music fan has a special place in his heart for the unsung bassist. Phillips is one of those rare musicians that can be just as comfortable as a “general” or as a “soldier.”

“You know, I produce a lot so I know what it’s like to be the bandleader and it’s a pain in the ass (laughing). I know exactly what you’re saying. Today I’ve been on the phone with a couple of known, famous guys out there because of a project I’m doing. I’ve got to tell them what I want them to do and it’s not always a fun gig.”

“And to be in a band that almost runs itself? Both JY and Tommy, because they’ve been there for so long, know the ins and outs and how the band runs the best. It doesn’t happen without effort, that’s for sure.”

“We all kind of know when to speak up and when to shut up and that’s something I’ve never experienced in a band. Usually, everybody just wants to speak up. So this band, it’s in good hands. We have great management that understands the big picture of where we need to go.”

“We’re on the road over 200 days. We probably do 110 to 135 shows, something like that every year. I don’t want to be the guy running that. I just want to get up on stage and enjoy what I’m able to enjoy without something in the back of my mind, of all the things I need to do the minute I get up the next morning, which is what I do as a producer. I mean, I wake up and the very first thoughts I have before I'm really awake are all the things I've got to do to make something happen.”

“I don’t produce nearly as much as I did. I don’t have the time for it. I usually end up turning most projects down because I said, ‘Yeah I could do it. But it would take so long, you’d be so frustrated with me that you’d end up hating me before the project was finished.’ And that kind of keeps me from accepting a lot of work.”

And uh, about those 200 days on the road. The grind can be tough enough for an emerging band. But for an “experienced” group, the trek can prove to be almost overwhelming. Not to worry, Phillips and his musical accomplices have it handled.

“Well I have a lot less bad habits than I used to back in the old days (laughing). I take better care of myself and I get more sleep, that’s for sure. We have a pretty good handle on how to travel. I don’t really feel like it beats me up too much.”

“There are certain times when our manager will book us where we’ll have to run off the stage in Boston, head for a red-eye flight to get to the West Coast, people throwing us dry clothing as we’re heading for cabs, catching the red-eye and landing and taking us straight to the hotel where we sleep for four hours, get up, do a show and then have to get back to New York the next day. That doesn’t happen that often but it beats you up for two weeks.”

“But generally, even if they’re long bus rides, we’ve got our favorite foods on the bus. These days, you’ve got Internet, you’ve got the tech cable, we have satellite TV, and it’s a lot, lot easier going. I remember the day there was no television because as soon as you pulled out of town, there was no signal and there were no cell phones.”

“No wonder we got into so much trouble and did so many things that were probably not the healthiest things. We were just going out of our minds going on these long bus rides every night,. But even the bunks are comfortable these days. Back in the day, I remember it was like sleeping on a gunny sack full of rocks or something.”

The matchless musician has learned much more than how to handle the rigors of the road. Phillips has picked up something at every musical stop along the way, including a stint with Bad English and “Uncle” Ted Nugent.

“Always thinking I was never good enough was helpful,” confessed Phillips. “As I talked to a lot of great musicians, we all have the worst opinion of ourselves. When you are never satisfied, it’s actually helpful. If you have a good work ethic that goes along with that, you may become unstoppable.”

“And it isn’t because of this great confidence, it’s actually the opposite. It’s working so hard to do something you want so badly. There’s the old adage that if you want to love your life, find something that you would do if you got paid for it or not and figure out a way to get paid for it.”

“When you finally start making a living at this, you’ll do anything to protect it. And that comes along with having a good work ethic, doing the work and really just never looking back. Some people say if you don’t have fall back plan, you force yourself to fall forward. That’s maybe what I've done and a lot of people have done.”

“There’s been some lean times in my career. There have been times where I thought, ‘Oh boy, now what?’ When music really changed from the ‘80s into the early ‘90s, if you had anything to do with what was going on in the ‘80s you were uncool.”

“I had to figure out what I was going to do there. That’s when I retreated. I would say, ‘Back to the studio.’ As much as I love studio work, my favorite thing has always been to be in a band. It’s a unique talent to be able to be in a band, knowing what it takes to be able to live in that environment and have others who want you to live in that environment with them. Band experience has really, really helped.”

“Tommy Shaw and I talk about this. We come off the stage and you know when you did a good show. Most of the time, rather than think of all the great things you did that night, you’ll remember the two places you felt like, ‘I think I messed that up’ or ‘I wish I would have done that instead.’ You don’t ever remember all the great riffs and licks you played. Everybody’s chasing that perfect night. I don’t know if it’s even possible.”

Impossible perhaps, but that doesn’t mean Phillips and his Styx bandmates will abandon the quest for the Holy Grail. In fact, it may just provide them with more motivation.

“I’ve been hearing for the last several years all these incredible gifted pieces of music that all the guys in my band have been writing. They’re writers. That’s a big part of them as human beings on the planet. They are all so good. I love songwriting myself. It fills some sort of a void I need to express and get out.”

“My wish is that Styx would go in and make that record I know that we already have and that it would be well received. These days you make a record, you sell 50 thousand units and that’s great, that’s fantastic. That’s such a huge failure back in our day. You wouldn’t have even been able to do the next record. You’d probably get dropped off the label.”

“But that’s where we are and that’s why we don’t run in and make a record – because we don’t want it to have no meaning and be pointless and to almost by appearances be a failure. In our minds, to put all that work into something and have it sell a few thousand. I mean what is the point?”

“So we satisfy ourselves by still writing the songs. But there’s a selfish part of me that wants everyone to see how incredible this band is by putting out a record and just somehow hoping in the back of my mind that I'm right – that this could be the biggest Styx record ever.”

Something tells me that there millions of Styx fans out there that would love nothing more than to prove Mr. Phillips right…

You can catch the Midwest rockers at the following 2014 dates:

Jan. 18 Scottsdale, Ariz Talking Stick Resort
Jan. 19 Las Vegas, Nev. Pearl Concert Theater
Jan. 22 Anaheim, Calif. City National Grove
Jan. 23 Visalia, Calif. Visalia Fox Theatre
Jan. 25 Temecula, Calif. Pechanga Resort
Jan. 29 Boise, Idaho Velma V. Morrison Center
Jan. 30 Aberdeen, Wash. D & R Theatre
Feb. 1 Airway Heights, Wash. Northern Quest Casino
Feb. 6 San Jose, Calif. City National Civic
Feb. 7 Reno, Nev. Silver Legacy Resort Casino
Feb. 8 West Wendover, Nev. Peppermill Concert Hall
Feb. 10 Richfield, Utah Sevier Valley Center
Feb. 20-22 Milwaukee, Wisc. Northern Lights Theater
Feb. 27 Plant City, Fla. Florida Strawberry Festival
March 1 Miami, Fla. Magic City Casino
April 11 Biloxi, Miss. Hard Rock Hotel
July 18 Walker, Minn. Moondance Events

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