Interviews & Features
Phil X: Livin’ On A Prayer
How it feels to be “the new guy” in Bon Jovi
By Gary Graff
February 24, 2017
When Phil X played his first show with Bon Jovi on April 30, 2011 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, it was accompanied with a social media outcry of “Who dat?” It didn’t take long to find out; the Toronto-born guitarist (nee Xenidis) soon got rave reviews as he stepped in for Richie Sambora for 13 dates on that tour and then subsequently in 2013 when Sambora left the band abruptly for personal reasons.
Flash forward to 2016, and the now Los Angeles-based X — who also boasts a lengthy session resume and has his own band the Drills — is an official member of Bon Jovi, playing on the group’s latest album, This House Is Not For Sale, as well as the recently launched tour supporting it. It’s a potentially challenging role that X has filled with aplomb and grace, proving his mettle and earning his place with his playing and a sensibility for blending his own style with what Bon Jovi fans want, dead or alive.
FGPO: You’re an official member of Bon Jovi now. How’s that feel?
X: It’s been an amazing ride. It’s different, I guess, but the feeling inside is still I’m a guy that just kind of stepped in to help the band. Then you walk in and you see your face on a T-shirt and on the poster and the album cover. I’ve already signed vinyl jackets with my picture inside, so that kind of takes it to another level. But I still feel like I’m doing the job of another guy. I’m just gonna do my best and kick ass, and I’ve been accepted by most of the fans.
FGPO: So how did all this happen?
X: Y’know, the right guy sees a bunch of your videos on YouTube, and Jon Bon Jovi calls that guy, and…that guy was John Shanks, who was producing Bon Jovi at the time. So Jon calls John Shanks and says: “I might need a guy. Who’s the guy?” and Shanks just says: “You’ve got to get this guy Phil X. I’ve been watching his videos. He can play and sing anything,” and that was it. Shanks contacted me first, and it was on hold at first. He was like: “Hey, they need you to learn the show. You might get the call, you might not get the call. That leaves a: ‘Wow, really?’ taste in your mouth. It’s not like an everyday kind of thing. So they sent me the material and I went over it. A lot of the songs I knew since I was a fan. I mean, I saw the New Jersey show in Toronto when I was a kid at the CNE Grandstand, and now it was like this band I saw in a stadium with 40,000 people, I might go play with that band. And then I get a message from Jon Bon Jovi — “Hey, I think we need ya. Can you call me?” — and you’re on the phone with him and talking about flying to New York and doing a couple days of rehearsal and then playing in front of 50,000 people at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. It skipped forward really fast.
FGPO: So how do you prepare for something like that?
X: I just watched the videos. I mean, I love Richie, him and the band, since the beginning. So I just watched him live a lot. I listened to his parts he plays and sings live as opposed to the record, ’cause I didn’t know how the band worked. I watched for Jon’s cues ’cause he does cues a lot through the show; I didn’t want him to stop the band and me be the guy going: “Hey, that’s not on the record!” And then for the solos, when Richie would play a solo from the record I would play a solo from the record. If he would go off and jam a little bit I would go off and jam a little bit. It took a couple shows to see what in my style worked. You go for a feel, right? So just approaching it that way worked. I don’t go full-blown Phil X, ’cause that’s kind of crazy.
FGPO: Which Bon Jovi songs give you more room to do your own thing?
X: Well, we do “Keep The Faith,” which is a blast ’cause not only is there a solo in the middle of the song, there’s a solo at the end when we all take a solo, which is a really cool finale. I did a solo on the [new] record for “Born Again Tomorrow” that I was really happy with, so we might do that on tour some time. You’ve got to feel the crowd, y’know? If I’m looking at faces and they’re wanting me to blow on guitar, then I blow on guitar. But sometimes they just want to see some cool moves! [laughs]
FGPO: Were you apprehensive about all this in the beginning?
X: Well, playing-wise I did my homework. I felt like: “I got this.” But it was interesting, because I’m a fan, too. If I went to see my favorite band and the guitar player wasn’t there, I’d freak out. So there was that, but at the end of the day, if your guitar player doesn’t show up, how do you tell an entourage of 150: “Hey, we’re going home, canceling all the shows?” How do you do that? You can’t. So I think everyone understood the band had to continue, and that was in my corner. And the fans that did like me out of the gate got on social media, and it went from: “Who the fuck is THIS guy?” to: “Oh, he’s helping our band. Cool!”
FGPO: Have you met Richie yet?
X: I haven’t. It’s kind of weird because most people are like: “What’s Richie like?” I have no idea. I hear he’s a great guy. I mean, when I stepped into his position on stage I was using his tech and his monitor man and his amps, and I just brought my guitars. It was the first time I ever played 12-string on stage. I’d used a Talk Box but, like in 1991, with Aldo Nova.
FGPO: It was a pretty charged situation, with him dropping out at the last minute, as you noted. Were you privy to a lot of smack talk about him?
X: No. I mean, the second time [in 2013] I was at Trader Joe’s with the family throwing bananas in the cart and the phone rings and it’s Jon, like: “Hey, we need you tonight? We can’t get ahold of Richie and we have a gig…” They were hurt, as in the brotherhood and the band and comrades in rock. But even then, I never heard any smack about him. They just wanted to get on with the job, y’know?
FGPO: How did guitar become it for you?
X: My father played bouzouki; he was an entertainer but not a professional entertainer. He’d take a bouzouki to a house party, and it was like Elvis was in the building; he’d pull it out and everyone would freak out. When I was five I was like: “Dad, I want a guitar.” He said: “You have a guitar” and I was like: “I don’t want a plastic guitar. I want a real electric guitar,” and he got me one as a Christmas present, a copy of a Vox Teardrop Hollow Body. I could barely hold it, but I was totally into it. I maybe took a couple lessons here and there, but I heard the music that I wanted to make and nobody wanted to teach that at the time, so I learned to play and sing on my own. I played “Hotel California” in the sixth grade talent show and something else and was like: “This is it! This is what I wanted to do!”
FGPO: Who were the main influences?
X: It jumped around a lot. When I was 14 it was all about Eddie Van Halen; I still think when he was in his prime he was the best guitar player in the world. I looked at him and wanted to have that energy and humor in my playing. Then Uli Jon Roth in the Scorpions, the stuff he was doing in ’73, “Catch A Train,” that solo.
FGPO: Ever try your hand at the bouzouki?
X: Oh yeah. When I was 17 I started taking bouzouki lessons ’cause I thought it would improve my picking, and it totally took my picking to another level. The strings are doubled like a 12-string but there’s no distortion, so if your playing isn’t clean you sound terrible. So you practice and practice and practice and try to get everything clean, and then when you jump on guitar people are like: “What the hell happened to your picking? I’ve never heard anything so precise!”
FGPO: Ever talk to Gus G. about doing a Greek guitar duo?
X: [laughs] Gus and I have bumped into each other a few times, usually at NAMM in Anaheim. We’ve both played the Randy Rhoads [tribute] concert together, which is a great night. I really like his vibe. He’s a cool guy, so we should do something together, right?
FGPO: Do you have a favorite Bon Jovi song at this point?
X: They go from what’s really fun and what gives me goosebumps. I’ve played “Livin’ On a Prayer” in front of an audience over 200 times and I still get goosebumps when the Talk Box kicks in. I’ve never seen an audience get as electric as when that happens, like the whole stadium or arena pogos to that song. It’s amazing. Playing-wise I love that I get to rip on “Keep The Faith,” and there’s a song from this [new] record called “Scars On This Guitar” that’s a really emotional kind of thing; you can totally go off and put that neck pickup on and get a Hendrixy kind of sound and noodle, but I get more of an old Stonesy kind of vibe — “What would Keith Richards or Ron Wood do here?” Sometimes you find out what works and what doesn’t work in front of 20,000 people; I don’t want to play the same thing every night, but as it goes by and you see people react you go: “Wow, I should keep that in there. That was a really nice one…”