From rock to jazz to world music or a fusion of pretty much anything imaginable, Simon Phillips is one of the world’s most sought after drummers who’s not only spent several decades playing on some of the most gargantuan albums and tours, but continues to intrigue audiences with his latest experimental long player “Protocol 4.” Along with a virtuoso band comprised of bassist Ernest Tibbs, guitarist Greg Howe and keyboard player Otmaro Ruíz, the legendary beat keeper is returning to the road, albeit a bit belatedly following the devastation of his property at the hands of a raging wildfire. Even so, Phillips assures Chicago Concert Reviews he’ll reconstruct whatever is possible while remaining committed to his craft, which was of course bolstered by more than 20 years in Toto, being one of the elite few to ever sit behind The Who’s drum kit and so many more superstar experiences.
First off, how are you and your family doing after the devastating fires in California?
Simon Phillips: We are dealing with it. It’s still hard to really comprehend what has been lost in terms of irreplaceable personal possessions. However, dealing with insurance is taking up most of the time, which in itself is a distraction and is good!
Is there anything specific fans can do to help reconstruct your musical or personal mementos that were lost?
Phillips: Not really. All my gold and platinum records, tour itineraries, photos, letters, etc. have gone. There might be photos, but generally they would be stage performance shots. The really cool ones are the dressing room, travel and private moments. I do have some of them scanned but was going to do all that “one day”! However, I do want to say my fans have been amazing with regards to my GoFundMe campaign. Frankly I am stunned at the response and I want to thank everyone for their generosity.
How has returning to the road helped you heal from this tragedy?
Phillips: It is always good to get away from “reality,” isn’t it? Not only do I have an amazing band, but Ernest, Greg and Otmaro are simply wonderful, genuine people and an honor to travel with and take the stage with every night.
What type of repertoire are you performing on this tour? Is it career-spanning or focused exclusively around Protocol?
Phillips: We play the new CD, “Protocol 4,” in its entirety. If we do an encore, then we’ll play an older tune.
How would you describe the group’s new album to those who’ve yet to check it out?
Phillips: I hate trying to describe music, especially mine! But all I’d say is that it is “refreshing!”
Tell us a little bit about the chemistry between the players.
Phillips: Each player has a special way of approaching this music. There are many styles which are covered during the show. Greg brings a heavier edge to the music but is also very groove orientated. Otmaro plays with beautiful harmonic layers and also a wonderful groove. Stunning solos. Ernest is what I like to call “our secret weapon”. No matter how tricky the music gets, the groove is always there and that’s how I approach all music. It doesn’t matter whether we are playing in 7/4 or 17/16, the music has to feel as though we are playing straight 4/4!
Many listeners know you from an extensive time with Toto. What are your reflections on that period?
Phillips: Probably my best years! I learned so much from playing with amazing musicians in Luke, Paich and Mike. I also learned a lot about running a band and the business side of things. I was able to be totally involved in terms of playing, composing, producing and even engineering. That was what I sought in joining a band and why I didn’t join a band full time until Toto came along. It’s more about the big picture and not just playing the music! I am also so pleased that I have been able to convert so many Toto fans to a different type of music. I see so many of our fans at my concerts and it is a wonderful feeling.
Out of the several albums you made with Toto, what is your favorite and why?
Phillips: I think I’d have to choose “Tambu”. It was the first album I played with the band and it was a very organic recording. It was also very focused. I feel sometimes that the albums are too convoluted stylistically if I am to be critical, but they are still great. “Falling In Between” is another favorite!
Was drumming for The Who on its enormous reunion tour as extraordinary as it sounds or did it come with its own unique sets of challenges?
Phillips: It was, as you say, an extraordinary experience. The largest scale tour I have ever done. Every project has its challenges, but that’s what makes it all the more fun!
Do you ever go back and listen to the “Join Together” album or watch the “Tommy Live” DVD?
Phillips: The only time I did that was when I was asked to play with the band in 2000 for a charity event in NYC. I had to “re-learn” the songs and remind myself how they went. I watched the VHS that I had! What was really cool about that show was it was just The Who. Pete, Roger, John, Rabbit and myself!
You’ve worked with countless other artists in the studio and on the road. What are a few of the stories that stand out most in your mind?
Phillips: There are so many it’s hard to recall now but all I can say is that everyone I worked with I learned from. But I will mention a few: Jack Bruce, Jeff Beck, Mike Oldfield, Stanley Clarke, Gil Evans, Pete Townshend and Mick Jagger.
What are some of the most memorable shows you’ve previously played in town, regardless of the band you were in at the time?
Phillips: Chicago has some special memories for me as it is such a vibey city. I still remember playing there in 1977 with Jack Bruce. Always a great audience and I’m looking forward to bringing “Protocol 4” there!