For Phil X, it started like any typical day would at Henson Studios in Los Angeles. Inside the teak-burnished Live Room of Studio D, he was blocking out a piece of music for a top recording artist.
But this day was a little different. Grammy award-winning producer John Shanks stopped by. Phil had seen Shanks inside Henson’s storied walls plenty of times. Shanks himself has a studio there. But to Shanks, Phil was just another guitar player rockin’ a curiously amusing black T-shirt. And to Phil, Shanks was just another talented producer with a knack for guitar-driven pop.
“You’re a funny motherfucker,” said Shanks, getting Phil’s attention.
“I just couldn’t stop watching your YouTube videos last night. Not only are you funny but it sounds like you can play and sing anything.”
“Cool. Thanks man, it’s nice to meet you.”
That was their total exchange until the phone rang two weeks later. It was Shanks.
“I think I have a gig for you Phil, I can’t tell you what it is over the phone but come to my studio tomorrow.”
* * *
When Bon Jovi released their 14th studio album, This House Is Not For Sale, last fall, it marked their first release without Richie Sambora. The band took the new music out on the road, first with a series of four intimate listening parties that showcased the entire album, then a two-month run of North American arenas.
The album features Phil X on several cuts. Phil X already had touring experience with the band, subbing for Sambora in 2011 and 2013, with playing that’s technically advanced but doesn’t always seem that way, because he makes it look so easy. So when it came time to assign a new lead guitarist to the vacated spot, the choice was clear.
The upcoming documentary “Hired Gun: Out of the Shadows, Into the Spotlight” pulls back the curtain on more than 35 world-class session musicians whom you’ve undoubtedly seen on tour but never noticed. Combined, they probably have had a hand in virtually every album you’ve purchased post-1970. They are the go-to players standing in the shadows of your favorite stars, an indispensable part of the music you love.
The movie, being screened nationally in select theaters on June 29 and available on DVD, BluRay and Video on Demand on Aug. 1, is a behind-the-scenes look into the highs and lows of touring life, the demands of session work, the reason why some “kill” and others are left for dead, and a glimpse into the kind of dedication required to blend into the backdrop of some of rock’s most iconic musicians.
Phil X, who has recorded with such notables as Rob Zombie, Alice Cooper, the late Chris Cornell, Tommy Lee, Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry and Triumph, was invited by a longtime friend and colleague, producer-guitarist Jason Hook (Five Finger Death Punch), to participate in the film.
“Being a hired gun is like an old western,” says Phil. “It’s kicking the saloon doors open, taking on the bad guys. I love the term. Your instrument is your gun, it’s a great analogy.”
One of the reasons why Phil’s interpretation is so apt is because the fastest gun doesn’t always win the battle. More than speed, a cool head is the single most valuable asset for any gunman.
And a cool head is what makes Phil X one of the hottest session and touring musicians on the scene.
I caught up with Phil earlier this month in Red Bank, while he was in town rehearsing with Bon Jovi. Over a couple of black Grande Americanos, we talked about life with the band, what it means to be a hot session player, and writing, recording, playing and singing in his own band, Phil X & The Drills.
Q: You’ve been a highly sought-after session player for quite some time. When would you say your session work really took off?
A: Around 1999 I was asked to come in and play on Tommy Lee’s solo record, Methods of Mayhem, and it started snowballing after that. But it was when I did the Daughtry record in 2005 that things really took off. Everybody wanted the guy that did the Daughtry record.
The work I did on that album … making a heavy-sounding record with rock ‘n’ roll guitars truly musical … it was special. This became my calling card.
Q: What kind of calling card do you think a musician needs to be a successful “hired gun”?
A: Obviously, you want to end up on the short list… and everybody wants to be on that list. You have to stand out.
I know a bass player who gets a lot of sessions in Hollywood just because he knows where to order lunch. People are like, “Let’s get that guy, he knows the best places.” It’s not even about bass anymore at that point, right?
… I make people laugh, make everybody feel good and I do the job. Which is, I’m handed a piece of music, I listen and now it’s, what can I do to make it better? How do I make the verse more dynamic? How do I make the chorus the payoff? And how do I do all this while complementing the vocal, because it’s the vocal that’s king?
Q: Have you ever been fired?
A: … I don’t think so. Liberty DeVitto (Billy Joel’s former drummer) says something really amazing in “Hired Gun”: “In rock ‘n’ roll you don’t get fired, you just don’t get called back.” And that happens but I don’t think that’s ever happened to me.
Q: It’s interesting you’ve mentioned Lib. His story in “Hired Gun” is particularly heartbreaking and really drives home what a thankless job this can be. For you as a musician, I imagine this work is incredibly fulfilling. But is there another side of it where you may wish, “It’d be nice if people knew who I was.”
A: Well, it’s like [being] a superhero, right? It’s nice to hear a thank you, but you don’t expect it. You just want to save the world.
So, in this case, it’s about knowing the job. You compartmentalize what you’re doing and it’s your job to take this artist’s record to the next level. And get paid. And provide for your family. And that’s the bonus.
But you get to make music … And I leave feeling creatively productive and I feel good. And that’s the bottom line. I think if you go in with a different mentality, like, “Why don’t people recognize me at the airport?,” then you’re going to be frustrated.
Q: You’ve been a hired gun since the late ‘80s but I’d say you have your highest profile job now. I saw fans even posting pictures with you at Disney last week. How is it that the Bon Jovi gig came to be?
A: Jon Bon Jovi called John Shanks because they’d worked on so many records together. Jon said, “You know everybody. Who’s the guy who can step in and do this?” Shanks was like, “You gotta get this guy Phil X.”
I didn’t audition. It was just on Shanks’ word that I was the guy.
Q: And it’s working. The dynamic between the two of you — a frontman and his lead guitarist – there’s an undeniable chemistry there. As founder of Phil X & The Drills, what would you say is the biggest difference between being onstage as a frontman and being onstage in a supporting role?
A: There’s a huge difference. I’ve noticed that it doesn’t matter what the hell is happening onstage, people are watching Jon. I could be whipping out the solo of all solos and if he’s in the stands, nobody’s watching this [Phil makes an air-guitar gesture], which is amazing. He commands that and deserves [that acknowledgment].
I read this really cool Harold Ramis thing when he did standup. He said, “It’s all about killing. But not only killing the audience, it’s killing the next comedian and the comedian before you, [making] everybody forget everybody else.”
So when I go onstage with The Drills, that’s my job. [But] when I go onstage with Bon Jovi, that’s Jon’s job.
Q: As an artist and a bandleader who writes, records, produces, sings and plays, can playing somebody else’s catalog night after night become creatively frustrating? Is there something you do to make sure your hired gun work stays interesting and fun, doesn’t make you lose sight of your individuality?
A: I think when it comes to the creative part of being onstage playing somebody else’s music, it has a lot to do with providing support. Creatively, it can be a little bit frustrating. Guitar players … have the biggest egos on the planet. But I learned early on that stepping onto that stage thinking I’m going to bring as much of me into this, well, that’s not going to happen.
I love outside, wacky guitar playing. I love ‘80s guitar flipping, Pete Townshend throwing the guitar up in the air type stuff. That does not belong on the Bon Jovi stage. So I shelve it. What’s left is the supportive color that needs to be there.
And this works out fine for me. On my down time, if I have a day off, I stay away from the guys for the most part. I’ll hit the gym and an idea strikes, and it’s a lyric. Or I hear something and it triggers a melody. I record it on my phone. When I get back to my room I start playing guitar and I’ve got all these ideas … The most frustrating thing is writing something, you’re on a roll, then it’s a lobby call to go to soundcheck: Fuck! That’s the most frustrating thing but that’s your gig: Lobby call, five minutes, go.
Q: What’s the last thing you recorded to your dic-taphone?
A: My dic-taphone … I have a song called “Broken Arrow.” “If the World Was Upside Down,” “Find a Way to Feel Whole” …
Q: “Find a Way to Feel Whole” … that almost sounds like, well, most of your songs are kind of happy.
A: I have angry songs [and laughs].
Q: You do but you don’t really have sad songs. Generally they’re upbeat. But what if you have an idea that starts to become difficult to write: “Swatted Fly.” for example. It sounds like there’s a lot of pain there. Is it difficult for you to be vulnerable?
A: That was real stuff … Vulnerability is important. To make that connection … when people say … ‘”I really connected to that, I felt that way before, too.” That’s how you develop that depth. That’s how you cultivate a connection with your fans.
Q: It’s interesting you say that. Because I know you like to talk with your fans before shows. It’s one thing at The Viper Room but you can’t exactly roam the concourse at Madison Square Garden. So how do you satisfy that desire then?
A: Again, it goes back to being the front guy and being the side guy. I don’t [always] need to go out and work the crowd.
My ex-wife [Ninette] and I had a band called Powder. When you move to Los Angeles from Toronto to be in a band, you quickly realize that people from all over the world move there to be in a band. Open up LA Weekly and there’s 20,000 bands playing every week, 200 clubs with five bands a night, Monday to Sunday. You have to stand out. I learned the whole “stand out” trick then.
In the beginning, you get on the phone and call all your friends: “Can you come to our gig? Can you come to our gig?” Just so there’s bodies in there. And they come — even though they don’t want to — but in the end they’re glad they did.
The shift becomes, when you know everybody in line because you invited them versus walking out front and you don’t know anyone in line. And they all came to see you. And you can still walk around and be “just some guy.” Then it turns into, you don’t know anybody in line, but they all know you. And this is just going tier by tier by tier.
Q: You had this great momentum with Powder, you’re building an audience in an impossible market. So where were the record labels?
A: It was after [I said] fuck the labels, fuck the management companies … it’s about the fans, we touch them, we change their lives … that stuff started to happen. A British label wanted us to sign. So we signed. Then we got a distribution deal in Germany and then we did the Download Festival in England. It was all because we gave the finger to everybody … When you’re chasing it, you’re chasing your tail. When you tell it to fuck itself, then they want you. It’s a really weird industry.
Q: In 2003 you started Phil X & The Drills while Powder was still hot on the scene. What was it that made you look for another project?
A: During the early days of The Drills I was doing the Powder thing and needed another canvas. I wanted to sing things that [Ninette] wouldn’t sing. So I thought I’ll write these really cool, short, poppy songs and find a band or a young kid to deliver the message. The more I started doing demos, the more I realized that there’s no kid who can deliver this message like I can. I felt it just had to be me, I wanted it to be me.
Before the first record, I wrote 11 songs in 11 days that actually branch out across all three of our records. I wrote “Air Hockey Champion of the World,” “Beautiful Apartment,” “Evil Robot,” which will be on the next record, “Live on the Moon,” which was on the second record, “Sunny Days” … It was like Peter Frampton writing his two biggest songs in one afternoon. It [was] just an explosion.
[At the time] I had a cassette deck in my truck. I was working in the mail room at Zappa Records in Studio City. I would bring lyrics in to share with my friends Isky and Scott. Then I’d go home from work, program the drums, wake up the next morning, record the guitars, the bass, the vocal, background vocals, mix and master it really quick and drive into work with the song in my cassette deck. We called it “the truck tape.”
So, I’d go in and they’d be like, “What do ya got today?” And I’d play them “Evil Robot” and they’d be like, “What the fuck?” The next day I’d play them “Middle Finger” and they’re like, “what the!?!” And the next day, “Air Hockey Champion” … “I don’t get it,” they said. “You’ll get it tomorrow” [laughing.]
Q: On your first EP, Kick Your Ass in 17 Minutes (2009), and your second EP, We Bring the Rock ‘n’ Roll (2011), you hear your sound evolve. But I think it’s on your third album, We Play Instruments N Sh!t (2012), where you hear the most significant progression. Talk about how The Drills have grown over the years.
A: It seems like a growth, doesn’t it? … The funny thing is, I don’t think it is growth as much as it’s letting other influences in. [But] obviously, as an artist, you want to show growth from record to record.
On the first record I wanted to do two-minute songs, no solos. I was keeping that stuff to a minimum. And lyrically on the same page; that’s your “Middle Finger” and “I Wish My Beer Was as Cold as Your Heart.”
And “From the Future,” which I still laugh at because it was a different song with those lyrics. I was like, the song isn’t killing me but the lyric is cool. Especially at the end when I go, “This is a nice place to visit but I gotta get the fuck outta here before it blows up” [laughs] … I just thought that was a really cool concept.
The next record … I wanted to be even more live. It was a little more frantic, less controlled than the first CD. Technically, we did the first record all to a click, so it’s on a grid. On the second there was no click, that’s why you can hear the unbridled power of “We Bring the Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a really fast song that speeds up, slows down a little, then speeds up again. On “You’re Not Happy ’til I’m Not Happy,” I wanted the end to sound like my favorite Van Halen One — stuff that sounds like a band just jamming at the end.
We Play Instruments N Sh!t is almost a combination of the two. There’s the power of jamming but there’s also songs to a click. As far as songwriting goes, I went out there a bit. I wasn’t overproducing, but if I wanted a cello? I got a cello. There’s also a song in a different time signature. We’re usually a 4/4 band, pure rock ‘n’ roll, but “Freakshow Acrobat” was a left turn for us.
Q: You’ve been flying somewhat under the radar with this band. Is there a place or time you can point to and say, “This is when I started to be taken seriously”?
A: I think it was the Internet. The Fretted Americana videos took my demographic and just blew it up all over the world. I found that out when we did We Play Instruments N Sh!t. I put out a pre-order on the website and when it came down to shipping, it was me and [bass player] Dan [Spriewald] with stacks and stacks of manila padded envelopes filled with CDs.
I realized then that only 20 percent of the packages were going to the United States; the rest were going all over the world. From Thailand to Madrid, to the U.K. and Scotland, to Spain – everywhere in Europe, Japan and China, just everywhere. It was amazing!
And then, what really hit me was … last July, we went to Slovenia and played a Beerfest in front of 5,000 people. There were people singing the words to “Air Hockey Champion of the World.” I was blown away.
It’s a little late in the game to feel like you’ve made a point. Because we started The Drills in 2003 and we only have three records out and the last one came out five years ago and I want to shoot myself when I think about that, because I’ve been working on the fourth installment since 2014.
Q: Well, you’ve been a little busy.
A: [Laughs.] Yeah. And we have 12 drummers on the next record. Because there’s a different drummer on each song and everybody tours and works so it took two years to record. But now we’re in mix mode and stuff like that.
Q: Can you ballpark a possible drop date? Drills fans are clamoring for this …
A: I’d like to say Christmas. It would be nice to do it this year.
Q: Are there any upcoming Drills dates you can share with us now?
A: That’s been hard to juggle. We’ll be performing in Germany in October. And sometime this fall, October or November, we go to Calgary for a fundraiser.
After that it’s hard to say … I gotta put my mind into it, like, “Okay, I can go do The Drills now.’ We did that Lucky Strike thing a few weeks ago, the “Hired Gun” film pre-premiere party… But I’ve just done two months straight with Bon Jovi. I’d become a different guitar player, a different singer, and when we rehearsed … I’m thinking my hands aren’t working, my voice isn’t working, what the fuck is going on? But then I get out of my head, I’m ready to do the gig, and everything works.
I’m hard on myself. Everybody is. Jon’s hard on himself. Jon’s harder on himself than anybody else. I’ve learned a lot from him. Even when I started doing the first couple of shows with Bon Jovi … I’d watch him front the band and I’m like, “That’s how you fucking front a band.” And he’s in the ring for 2-½ hours, 3-½ hours in Europe. He works his ass off; that’s how you do it.
Q: Here’s a crazy hypothetical: You’re in jail, serving a life sentence for … “awesomeness.” You get a one-night-only get out of jail free card. You get to play one show. Is it Bon Jovi for 50,000 people or The Drills for 500?
A: The Drills for 500.
I’ve said this many times. It was 2011 and I had just done 13 shows with Bon Jovi. The last show was in St. Louis. Jon let me sing the second verse of “Wanted Dead or Alive” for the first time. He said, “Hey, it’s your last show because Richie’s coming back, why don’t you do that?” That was really awesome… Five days later, The Roxy, 300 people, The Drills. It was as invigorating. Maybe even more so.
The only thing that sucked was maybe carrying my own gear [laughing]. Like, “Where’s [guitar tech] Takumi? I need Takumi!”
Q: The Hired Gun film also features Jason Newsted, who played bass for Metallica following the death of Cliff Burton, as well as Brad Gillis, who replaced Randy Rhoads of Ozzy Osbourne’s band after his untimely death. They both discuss how difficult it was to step into the shoes of a beloved musician. Jason Newsted gave Brad Gillis lots of credit, saying, “Not everybody is made for that.” The situation is not the same but I imagine you have faced some of the same challenges … the challenges that come along with, ‘Who is this fucking guy?’
A: Here’s the thing: Richie is a great songwriter, a great guitar player, has a great voice. And I can’t do all that. Because I’m a different singer, a different player. I haven’t written any of those songs. So my job is about doing my part to make the whole band great — not exactly what Richie would do because I can’t be Richie, and I can’t be me. I’m really this guy in the middle that just did his job.
What took it to the next level was being on a billboard, or on the marquee as you pull up to the venue, or on a T-shirt. I was at the NAMM show before the tour even started this year, and this kid came up with a vinyl of the record, opened up the jacket and asked, “Can you sign by your picture?” That was amazing. That took it to the next, next, next, next level for me.
As for the acceptance thing, there was that transitional period when signs changed from “Where’s Richie?” to people putting X’s on their hands and holding their arms up to form an “X.”
That transition was an amazing feeling but even in 2011, when they were saying that I was filling in for Richie, the media was writing; “Phil X Replaces Richie Sambora.” And it started to piss me off — it was getting twisted. So I tweeted, “I wish the media would stop saying that I’ve replaced Richie Sambora. Richie’s coming back. I’m just helping the band out through a tough time.”
And that wasn’t some chess move like, “What can I say to get the fans on my side?’” But that’s what happened. Fans legitimately felt, “This guy’s cool; he doesn’t want Richie’s job, he’s just helping the band out.’”And that helped me. The next thing was, “Well, let’s see how this guy is doin’?” They’d go on YouTube and see that I’m also doing a good job.
Not once if anybody’s asked — or have I said — “I’ve replaced Richie Sambora.”
… Because I don’t feel that I have. I feel like it’s a band and it’s a bit of a different band now. It’s still called Bon Jovi because, well, fuck, that’s the singer’s last name.
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