Ricky Phillips is an American musician, songwriter, producer, and a member of the rock band Styx since 2003. He’s been a member of The Babys and Bad English, and his session/live work credits include such names as Coverdale/Page, Roger Daltrey, Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, and Ted Nugent. In the early 2000s, Ricky toured briefly with Ronnie Montrose and Eric Singer. In 2003, the power trio went to the studio and recorded ten tracks of rhythm guitar, bass, and drums intending to get a singer to for the vocals. Eventually, Ronnie had decided on the 10×10 concept, 10 tracks, and 10 different singers. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. Ronnie got seriously sick, and the album got delayed. In 2012, Ronnie Montrose sadly passed out. With the blessing of Ronnie’s wife Leigha and assistance of Singer, Philips decided to continue the project and completed the album. “10×10” was released in 2017, using the original concept of Ronnie. I met Ricky last June in Swedenrock, where he was performing with Styx. We discussed making of “10×10”, Ricky’s time with Coverdale/Page, Elements of Friction -project, and of course, Styx.
MONTROSE AND “10×10”
The last Montrose album “10×10” was released in September 2017. You and Eric Singer had a significant role in creating the record, and it is very special release on many levels. The basis of the album was recorded back in 2003, but what is the whole story? What’s the tale behind this very last Ronnie Montrose album?
Well, Eric and I were trying to work as much as we could because we both felt Ronnie was one of those guitar heroes who sort had a moment and it looked like his career was going to take off, and then it just didn’t. We believed in him. There are so many people and rockers around the world who believed in Ronnie, and we wanted to work with him and see where we could go. Eric was then still working with Alice Cooper at the time, and then KISS got back up. I was getting more and more involved with Styx, and we just couldn’t do the shows with Ronnie that we were planning. So Ronnie was trying to put a band together all along and find the right people to play with him. Right before I went on tour with Styx, I received a call from Ronnie, and he said “Let’s go in and make a record. We have a sound. We have something I’ve been looking for, and I really like it. It suits me. It suits my style of playing. I have an idea. I’m calling the record 10X10. We’ll get ten different singers, one for each song and we’ll get this thing done.” There was a studio I was working out of in North Hollywood, and I turned Ronnie onto this place, and we went in there and cut ten tracks. Ronnie had ideas, he had a lot of ideas, and I had one idea that he wanted to use and we just went in and started recording, put down ten basic tracks with no click tracks. or overdubs. Ronnie believed in– if anybody has seen Ronnie perform and you can go on YouTube, and you can see him perform and…
I actually did see him performing here at Sweden rock fifteen years ago.
Oh, okay! Right on! And so that’s what he would do. He would signal us in the studio by slamming a guitar neck down or stomping with his foot. That’s how we’d do the breaks because we were not really rehearsed to do it. We were rehearsed to do the Montrose set, but we weren’t rehearsed to make this new music that we were kind of creating on the spot, and it just came out so good and so special. When Ronnie had some serious health issues and couldn’t play guitar for about two years, and after that I stayed in very close contact and so did Eric, and it got to the point where three weeks before Ronnie died, he said, “I’m back. I’ve got a great band. I’m playing better than I ever have and I’ve got a new agent. I’m booked until November of this year and blah blah blah, and the one thing I want to do now is I want to finish 10X10.
Three weeks later I go to the airport to fly home, and it’s six o’clock in the morning, and I hear Ronnie Montrose was dead at 64 and it was just like, “What did I just hear?”…I couldn’t believe it. At six o’clock in the morning, I was trying to make phone calls to people and waking people. No one really knew. At that point, I realized what happened, and Eric asked me; “Do you have the time to finish this record?”, and we talked about it. He said, “You’re the only one who can do this. Some of the people are maybe going to take and try and finish it with no the idea what the concept was”. I called Ronnie’s wife and told her I’m doing this, and it’s going to take me some time with my schedule with Styx, but I’ll get it done, and it’ll be great.
You recorded the basic tracks already in 2003, but it took several years to finish the album. Of course, you were all the time busy with other things, but how long of a time did the actual recording /mixing/engineering process took?
So, when I say that we recorded the album; drums, bass, and rhythm guitars were already done. I started in San Francisco with a studio that was kind of given to me but flying back and forth from San Francisco wasn’t working. A very dear friend of mine, who I’ve done a lot of recording with, a guy named Bruce Gowdy, was an engineer for me on other projects as well. I call him up and say, “What’s it going to cost me to tie you up so I can finish this record?” We made a deal, and we work really well together. He’s a great producer in his own right, a good writer, a good guitar player so if I’d sent him tracks I knew that he would place them and then we would decide…I’d make final decisions, but I know he’d get them in close right off, and he did. He was great.
So I started recording. I got my studio in Austin, Texas up and running and we would do Skype sessions where we would work for five hours and I would say, “Okay. I’m going to play a Hammond in B for this section,” and he said, “Okay, just shoot me a text when you’re done”. I would record something, make a file, and send it to him. He’d put it in, and we would both listen back. I’ve never done that before, and I’d heard about people working that way, but I didn’t realize how doable and how great it is and so that– it would take him six years if we didn’t do that, so we started working, but it did start speeding up. Once we started doing that and we finished it up in probably a matter of months but it was definitely a labor of love, we did this for Ronnie. The people I contacted, I wanted everybody to know people who are a part of it. People seem to be still finding this record.
What Ronnie didn’t get to are the misconceptions; some people think it’s a tribute record to Ronnie. No. This is Ronnie Montrose’s last recordings. Over 90% of the guitars on this record are Ronnie Montrose’s. Probably 93 or 94 percent of the guitars on the album are his playing. What didn’t get finished by Ronnie were the guitar solos. The rest of it is all Ronnie. He writes in a “riffy” style and things, so there’s a lot of sort of “solo type” playing, but for the actual guitar solos we brought in guest friends of Ronnie, people I knew that Ronnie admired. I didn’t get everybody that I went after, but I think all the right guys are on the record. There’s a great mix of singers and guitarists on there. I had Ronnie on my shoulder with every decision. I was asked one time in an interview, “Did that cripple you, trying to do what you thought Ronnie would have done?” Actually, it clarified a lot of things. It made things a lot clearer because if I was in a place where I couldn’t quite figure out should I just leave this open or should I do it another way. I would go “boom”, “What would Ronnie do?” We knew Ronnie, and we didn’t always agree with him, but he was very forceful in his beliefs, and I knew what they were.
Having ten great singers on the album was Ronnie’s idea and a part of the album concept, but how did you manage to find the right people and then get them to join the project?
I remember I said ‘That’s a great idea Ronnie, but we can’t even think of one singer we like! How are we going to find 10?’ He replied, “Listen, I’ll call Sammy Hagar and ask if he can do one. I’ll call people I know.” I didn’t have the time to chase down people to sing on the album, but he did and he got them. I knew almost everyone. Well, Edgar Winter and I weren’t really friends. I had met him, and I actually did a gig with his band, probably in 1979 at Westpoint when I was in the Babys. The Edgar Winter Group opened up for us. I called him up, and I said, “Hey man, I’ve got an idea. My natural inclination is to call Rick Derringer, and have you and Ronnie and Rick on the same track,” and Edgar said, “Rick Derringer? I think that’s a fabulous idea. I think he’d be perfect on this record”. So I called up Rick and he agreed to play on the record.
I remember when I was talking to Sammy Hagar, and I said, “Sammy, I was thinking of Steve Lukather.” He said, “Really? You think you can get him as a guest?” I said, “Well, Luke’s a dear friend of mine. Let me get a hold of him and see if he’s available.” So I tracked him down and he was actually in Singapore and said, “Thanks for thinking of me. I’d love to do it.” That was the first time those two guys got to work together, so that was fun. I knew Ronnie liked– there was a solo, and I wish I could tell you the title of the song. It is…”Color Blind.” Ronnie loved that it’s “Illmatic”, like a movie theme, and he loved the way Steve’s melody looked through this little passage. On the Mark Farner track, Mark had already played a little bit of guitar. I was hoping he was going to play B3 because he plays great Hammond organ as well, but I ended up playing the Hammond organ, and I kind of answered sort of solo jabs and stabs with Mark on that one and it came out great. I love that track.
Let’s see…what else? Oh, Eric Singer, I love Eric’s voice. Ronnie and Eric were very good friends, and they both lived in Northern California. Dave Meniketti from Y&T was actually Eric’s idea, and I thought, “Wow, it’s so obvious. Why didn’t I think about it? You guys are all Northern Californians.” I actually did gigs with Y&T, with Dave Meniketti and Ronnie so it was perfect. Dave did a really, I thought, cool and most appropriate solo.
That’s the thing about Ronnie. He didn’t want you to overplay the song. He didn’t want you to overplay and draw attention to yourself, he wanted to embellish the song. That’s what Dave does, and I think every guitar player, no matter who it was, I said to them, “Remember Ronnie liked you for a reason. It wasn’t for the flash and the speed. You did something that touched him. When you’re doing this, remember this is a Ronnie Montrose record and play appropriately.” And I had a couple of comments from guys that said, “Yeah. I know. I had to remind myself a few times and slow down or do this and that.” I didn’t want to be the bad school teacher, shaking my finger, but I didn’t want to have to tell somebody, “You’ve got to do it again,” either. That’s the worst because I had to do that one time, and it was not fun. Well, it was actually with Mark Farner because Mark has that killer voice and he sings all that. He didn’t give me Mark Farner. So, I said, “Mark, I want to hear– I want to hear Mark Farner voice. Don’t hold back.”, and he goes, “What do you mean?” I said, “Okay. I’m going to sing. I’m going to do my– it will be a horrible Mark because you’re so good in my eyes, but I’m going to show you.” I sent it to him and he loved it because it was something that he just hadn’t thought of. He sent me another track of him going a little bit off the rails and hitting a few high notes, coming back to the melody. It was perfect. We had Mark Farner on the record! “Laughs”
I think it’s important that the producer tells the musicians right away if there’s something he doesn’t like or wants change something.
Yeah. When I produce, I like to tell people wherever I want to lead them before they do it, and then just be free; do it naturally. That was the only instance where Mark had done his before Ronnie passed so when it got down to really, really looking inside of that song, “Am I getting all these elements?” That was the one thing I felt, and I’m glad I did. And I think he is as well.
I can see that “10×10” is your baby, “Laughs.”
ELEMENTS OF FRICTION
One interesting projects of yours was Elements of Friction. I loved the album when it was released in 2001. Do you want to tell the story behind the band?
Thank you, I like that one too. It’s funny how that album seems to be resurfacing now. I don’t know why or what happened but all of a sudden, I saw some Styx fans who had discovered it and they were posting it on Facebook, so I started kind of finding it. I would go, “Oh, that’s interesting”, but then I started listening to it after many years and I realized, “Wow, this is really cool, there’s some cool stuff on here.” I thought that Robin McAuley’s voice with my writing, I think it’s mostly my writing but I’m sure there’s co-writes in there somewhere, and then there’s Tommy Aldridge, who’s been a friend of mine for many years. We’ve always wanted to work together, and so I brought Tommy in on that, and a friend of mine, who grew up in Spain, in Mallorca, southern Spain, Marcus Nand. He’s a great guitar player, and he was always coming in my studio, and I would use him on this and that, and we wrote a bunch of stuff together. He taught me a lot of things about flamenco; he’s just an amazing player. So, I thought, “Well, this would be a really, really great band.” I don’t know. And it was also recorded at a time where rock n’ roll was taking a big u-turn.
It was a terrible time for all rock and metal bands because the grunge ruled the world…
Yeah. So, it was– I was so glad that we did it even in spite of the fact that it wasn’t the flavor of the month anymore and I knew it wasn’t going to get signed by a big label. Still, I was approached by a label out of Germany to do this record. Magnus Söderqvist, who is Swedish, he was my connection there. He was working for them in A&R, and he asked me if I would be interested in doing a record, and if I would write it and produce it and kind of put it together. So that’s what we did, and that’s how that came about, and everybody’s gone in such different directions since that. It was more of a project than a band. Had the times been different, I think it would’ve been a cool band. I believe that the second record would have been…it would’ve stepped up and gotten better and better. Listening to it now, all this time later, I think that, but I don’t think I thought that at the time. At the time, we were all going, “What are we going to do next?”, because nothing was going on.
The timing was the worst possible for bands like Elements of Friction.
Yeah, exactly. I’m just happy that all this time later it’s resurfacing and people are re-recognizing it. Thank you. Thank you for even bringing it up, I appreciate it.
You also got involved with the Coverdale/Page -project. How did that come about?
Coverdale/Page, I was never really supposed to play bass on that. David called me and said, “Look, I’m doing a record with Jimmy Page, and maybe we’re putting together a supergroup.” And I remember there were phone calls from all my heroes like John Entwistle and Chris Squire coming in, but he said, “Will you help us?” What they wanted to do is they come up with a lot of song ideas, but they needed to finish these ideas and record them. First, we were up in Lake Tahoe because they wanted us to be away from Los Angeles or any of the people that could get their nose in their business. For five months we worked and coordinated the material and then we went up to Little Mountain in Canada and started recording. They said, “Here are your flights” and I’m like, “Wait a minute.” They said, “Yeah, we like the way it’s going; let’s just do this.”
Then Denny and I recorded the basic tracks; Denny Carmassi, who here we go back to Montrose, so he was the drummer in the band, Montrose. And Denny and I had always wanted to work together. This was just great for us and we were having a blast. We would get together at very and rock and roll hours. We’d be up at 7:00 am in the morning, at 8:00 o’clock Denny and I would go over whatever we’d worked on with Jimmy the day before, then we’d meet up with Jimmy about 10 am and we would be going until 1:00 or 2:00 pm in the afternoon working on stuff. Then David would come in and see what we’ve been doing and sing to it. We did this for months. I would be flying home to back to Los Angeles and then back up to Tahoe until we went up to do the record. It was an interesting time for me to see how these guys work. Jimmy was pretty amazing, he knows what he’s looking for, he knows what he wants, and he doesn’t do a lot of experimental.
Jimmy was fun to work with, very encouraging and he– if he liked something I was doing, he would go, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Keep doing that. I love that.”, or “Na.” He would go, “Can you–” he didn’t use references to songs or anything, but we would jam a lot. We had a big room that they got for us eventually and we moved into this place, it was huge. We felt like we were Led Zeppelin, and I was with Jimmy there at the helm, and we would keep jamming on stuff until it felt right. That was the way he liked to work. Let’s find the thing that we all love.
The album came out in 1992 and sold pretty well. I always wonder what would have happened if the album had come out a couple of years earlier.
I know, but I was lucky to be here. We’ve just mentioned two records I did at a time when, I think, we probably were lucky they were even recorded. John Kalodner invited me into his office just before I did the record and he told me, “Jimmy and David, they were telling me that you were the guy that they wanted me to talk with about doing this.” He said, “I think it’s a perfect, perfect choice.” Everybody was on my side, everybody was having had my back before we started the record, and ended up just being a great time. We just had a crazy friendship. I got to take Jimmy back to the Rainbow in Hollywood once; he hadn’t been there in years. He called me and said, “I’m going be in Los Angeles, come pick me up; let’s grab dinner.” We ended up going in and having this great, great, great night. So beyond just being in the studio, I haven’t seen him in ages, but we had a great friendship.
Our time is soon over, but let’s discuss a bit about Styx with whom you’ve have been playing and performing since 2003. How is this band different from other groups with whom you have worked previously?
Styx is very different because Styx is something that…I first met the guys in 1979 and, the Babys again, we toured with Styx, and they were well established with huge records. They were the first band to have four in a row consecutive, I think, it’s three million-selling albums in a row? It’s been done since, but no one had done it until they did it. So when I came into Styx, I couldn’t do it if I thought it was going to be a karaoke situation because I’ve turned down a lot of things that I probably should have done for the money, or I would have had a bigger house or whatever.
But you have no regrets?
I don’t regret it. I don’t really regret anything but there are some big ones, and I won’t mention them because I don’t want it to look like I’m turning my nose on them. It’s just that I don’t– I can’t do certain things like that, and I’ve had so many people tell me, “Why don’t you do that?” or “Why didn’t you do this?”
However, you got a good gig with Styx, and you’ve been a part of the band over fifteen years. What’s the best thing of being a member of such a legendary group with a long history?
Well, with Styx, it’s that I know what my job is. I know where I can help maybe a little bit, and I try to do it respectfully, but I’m still able to play and be me. I did learn everything Chuck Panuzzi had recorded because if you don’t know what the original is and then you deviate or just create your own, then it’s it won’t work because now all of a sudden, it’s not the same song anymore. That was the thing with Ronnie too. It’s one of the reasons he didn’t want to do overdubs and the reason he didn’t want to– he felt music should breathe. So, whatever those original recordings are, you’ve got to pay homage to them. You have to know them before you can do something new and different; you know where those spots are. Here’s what it came down to. I saw Todd Sucherman, an amazing drummer. He was playing like himself, but he’s an amazing drummer, and he plays so much more than John Panozzo did on the original recordings, and I was thinking, “How’s he doing that?” I had to figure that out, but I realized that he was also playing all the iconic drum parts that everyone knew. So that’s what I had to do; I’d find all those parts, learn them, understand what the things that you don’t touch you leave alone, and then there’s always space and room for you to even after a little bit more and put a little sugar coating on top of that.
Do you have any creative role in Styx?
Well, that comes down to songwriting and that’s something that is Tommy Shaw and James Young, and now also Lawrence Gowan. That’s a place where I have done some things that have made it, probably the next thing that people will hear from Styx that I, is a part of me, but I’m not even entering that camp. I think it needs to stay true to the sound of Styx, and it’s appropriate for me to kind of take, not really a backseat, but I don’t know how else to say it. I just stay out of the creating and writing process.
STYX, LIVE AT SWEDENROCK 2019