This year’s Spokane County Interstate Fair kicks off today. Aside from the carnival rides, farm displays, deep-fried goodies and demonstrations, there’s music. Plenty of music. The fair’s Grandstand Stage in the next week will host a number of favorite entertainers, including Huey Lewis and the News, Jake Owens, Blues Traveler and Wylie and the Wild West.
On Thursday, the platinum-selling rock band Styx will take the stage.
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Styx bassist Ricky Phillips has had the unique perspective of watching Styx from both sides of the stage. As the “new guy” in the 1970s prog-rock icon, Phillips has played nearly 1,000 shows with Styx. In this Q&A-style interview, he talks about the longevity of a band that has cycled through generational praise, criticism, parody and pride.
IJ: Where are you today?
RP: I have to check my phone … Wisconsin.
IJ: Thanks for making time in your busy schedule to chat. Tell us how you became a part of Styx.
RP: I met them in ’79 when I was in a band called The Babys. I’ve been friends with (Styx co-frontman) Tommy Shaw ever since. We had a friendship when I was in Bad English and he was in Damn Yankees. When they put Styx back together, (founding Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo) was having health issues. He was not doing full sets and they said they wanted me to be their guy. This was around when grunge music was getting the airplay that ’80s music was getting before. In what followed in the ’90s, everything was changing with downloads and record companies falling. It was strange time. I went into writing for studio, film and television, and working in artist development. I’ve done a lot of jobs in this business. The best bit of it is playing live music. That’s why I started bands when I was 10 years old, not to sit in a studio.
IJ: What is it like for you to be playing with this prototypical arena rocker?
RP: Basically when the music we play got coined classic rock it was very appropriate. As a kid, certain music I liked might have been on the radio, or what my parents were listening to, it was also classical music, whether it was baroque or whatever genre of classical, there were certain things I was drawn to melodically. That’s what’s going on when music does succeed and passes the test of time and people still gather to rejoice in the music and come celebrate and party – it becomes classic.
IJ: Styx recently released a DVD of the concert performance of albums “The Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight.” What was it like to play those two albums front to back, back to back?
RP: Those were fun shows. We haven’t done that show in two years. It’s kind of frustrating. They are great problems to have, as Tommy Shaw said. We want to do something but the reason we can’t is because we’re working. We get booked so far in advance. We have plans to do it again. We want to do it. It seemed to be one of the most favorite things we’ve done.
Doing albums in their entirety is always different. We always stacked the front side with hits in the live show. With this show the flow and energy is very different. It’s like the whole vinyl experience resurgence. We used to agonize over what should be that last song on side A that makes the person want to get up and flip over the record and keep listening.
IJ: What do you think about the public’s love for this band over the years versus the critics’ disdain?
RP: There’s two sides to that. I was there for the first side of it. I think you had two rockers, James Young and Tommy Shaw, and the writing of Dennis DeYoung, which was brilliant. I don’t think there was resistance until it got poppy. Everyone loves their bands raw and tough and when they get successful and make hits, people who turn on them have a perception that the band sold out. But they don’t understand the hundreds of songs that are written and this may be one of many songs that gets chosen by a producer and, yes, maybe you did write them, and you have to take your lumps.
Tommy wanted to carry the band forward with progression being on the rock side … otherwise it might have been more the musical-theater approach.
I’ve discovered since being in the band that younger fans found it without press. They don’t understand what was going on politically, or socially. They are just going back and listening to the music on face value not judging it against other bands doing it at the time and discovered this band purely. It’s a simple test of music. To see a lot of young people enjoying this – that’s me seeing it and I’m an outsider. I wasn’t a writer on the early records. I’m singing it and looking out into the audience and seeing a 16-year-old with a mohawk singing “Lady.”
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