Ricky Phillips got his first break in 1978, joining a UK band that had jetted over to LA called The Babys. This is where he first became acquainted with John Waite and Jonathan Cain, both of whom he would form the band Bad English with, some years down the line. Foreigner’s guitarist, Neal Schon, was also in that band, and Phillips, now the bassist in US rock band Styx, is about to be reunited with his old pal, as the two prepare for yet another extensive tour...
How’s life treating you, Ricky?
Life is great. We’re starting this big tour with Foreigner soon, and it’s gonna be a good one. I’ve been working on a Ronnie Montrose record, too. We did a record together with Eric Singer [drummer in Kiss] about 10 years ago that’s been in the can, waiting for Ronnie to finish it; and when he passed away, I inherited the task of completing it, so his last work can get out. It’s challenging, flying back and forth from Texas to San Francisco to do the work, but it’s all good.
You worked with Ronnie for some time...
Yeah, Ronnie and I were pretty tight. When the three of us hit the studio for this project, years ago, we took an old school approach, using two-inch tape with no overdubs and no click tracks. We had the basic tracks, then Ronnie got ill, and didn’t even pick up a guitar for two years, but we’ve brought him to life with this. We’ve also got the likes of Joe Bonamassa and [Aerosmith guitarist] Brad Whitford on it; people are stepping forward to lay down the solos he never got to play.
What was it like being an ‘80s rock star?
[laughs] Back then, it was all about good songwriting and then being able to give a little bit extra when playing live. It was about good musicianship, and good vocals. There were so many people whose eyes were on the same target, the bullseye; and in the ‘80s, the whole outlook on radio changed, which then changed music. Instead of writing whatever came to you naturally as an artist, all of a sudden, some people started writing what they knew they had to write to get on the radio; and I think that changed the whole purpose and vibe, and all bands sounded the same. Bands started looking the same, with the same haircuts, the same spandex [smiles]; it had got a bit ridiculous, and was becoming pretty homogenised at that point.
When did you first dare to use a wireless system on your guitar, and how have systems improved over the years?
It took such a long time to get wireless right! I remember using an old system way back when I was in The Babys – it looked like a ship-to-shore radio, but it was the best we could get; you’d be in the middle of a set, and all of a sudden, you’d hear a police car picking up a runaway, out of your amplifier! The concept of being free, and able to move about into the audience was something I took to immediately, but it was short-lived, as I didn’t like the sound I was getting. I was missing that edge, so I got away from wireless altogether for the next few years; it’d be the last thing I would think of. It was when I got the call to join Styx that things changed; the band is very much about the stage show, different looks, singing on different mics, wandering all over the stage, and so on, so I knew I had to be wireless.
So the band gave you a wireless system?
[smiles] Yes... But I couldn’t stand it! So of course, I suddenly hated my sound. That’s when I started looking around. I’d heard about Lectrosonics, and I was told that although it’s expensive kit, it’s well worth checking out. I found out a lot of film companies were using Lectrosonics, and on film sets, of course, you have to have great sound, so I had them send me a system. My tech would do the blindfold test, plug in a cable, and then put in the Lectrosonics system, and we’d go back and forth to the point where I thought I knew what was my cable... And then I started getting confused, and I realised that if it was that close, that was a serious first! One of the things that always bothered me was there was a certain kind of compression that would happen with every other system I used that I could not stand. If you’re a good bass player, and you have good dynamics in your hands, you can use that sound to move through different tonalities throughout a song; and when you over compress it, it takes away all of what you’ve learned through the years: to have good dexterity, and be able to manipulate the sound with your hands. That’s gone. With the Lectrosonics system, I was able to do what I wanted, and get all the tones and sounds that I wanted.
What do you cite as the biggest problem within the music industry today?
We just don’t see that much greatness now. It’s still there, of course, but when you’re left to your own devices doing home recordings, you do the best you can with what you’ve got. Some people are good at it right away, but I think a lot of bands are great songwriters and musicians and maybe not so technical, so it’s reflective in the playlists that we hear.