Whenever Ronnie Montrose and I would talk about music, he was always looking to the future. He’d be thinking about his next tour, or his next project, or he’d say something like, “Wait until you hear this acoustic stuff I’m working on. It will blow your mind.”
So he was probably juggling a ton of ideas when he passed away on March 3, 2012. Many of those creative strategies ended that day, as well, but one of Montrose’s projects was saved from oblivion by his wife, Leighsa, and bassist/producer Ricky Phillips (Styx). If you want to hear a tale about a near miracle, you might want to check out the backstory of how Montrose’s final album—10x10 [Rhino]—almost never was.
In March 2003, Montrose called Phillips and drummer Eric Singer (Kiss) to tackle a power-trio project that would rock harder than anything he had done in years—a sort of “homecoming” to the sound of his original Montrose (1973-1974) and Gamma (1979-1983) periods. This was big news, as the artistically restless Montrose followed his muse without question, and his frequent stylistic shifts sometimes frustrated audiences who adored his early riff rock.
“Ronnie was calling up Eric and me for all kinds of festival and club gigs,” says Phillips. “It was obvious he was having fun playing rough-and-tumble rock and roll again.”
Montrose brought Phillips and Singer to Doug Messenger’s studio in North Hollywood, and the three musicians set up to record live—no pre-production rehearsals and no overdubs—and knocked out ten basic tracks in two days. Montrose wanted to have ten different vocalists sing on the ten rhythm tracks he had sketched out—hence the title, 10x10—and he managed to record some of his chosen vocalists during his lifetime, such as Sammy Hagar and Edgar Winter, but finances, schedules, and illness conspired to slow progress.
“He found out he had cancer, which halted him physically and mentally,” remembers Leighsa. “He was so exhausted, and he slept much of the time. I remember him saying that he ‘wanted to go down deep for a spell.’ The day he said he didn’t want to play guitar any longer, all I said was, ‘Okay.’ I know from being an artist myself that it’s best to ride that wave until you recharge. He stopped playing for two solid years. Living life is what happens between the music.”
Once Montrose was fit and healthy again, he jumped back into putting bands together, gigging, and planning future musical projects. He reportedly discussed 10x10 frequently, and wanted to finish it, but time ran out in 2012, and the guitar community lost a ferociously talented and influential player.
But Phillips, Singer, Leighsa, and Rhino Records made sure that Montrose’s final album wasn’t lost, as well.
“I was talking to Eric about 10x10 after Ronnie died, and I was pretty sure that I wanted to see if I could finish it, but I hadn’t been able to move forward on it,” says Phillips. “But Eric said, ‘It has to be you. You and I were there to record it. We were there when Ronnie was talking about it—what he wanted to do, who he wanted to sing on it, and how he wanted it to sound. If someone else gets into this thing, it’s going to suck, and you’re going to hate it.’ That did it. I called Leighsa.”
To get 10x10 completed, Phillips had to finish the vocal tracks with the guest artists—all based on conversations with Montrose before his death, or determined from those he knew Ronnie liked and respected. He also had to bring in guest soloists, as Montrose had passed away before he got a chance to cut the guitar solos on the ten tracks. (The guest soloists are Steve Lukather, Rick Derringer, Joe Bonamassa, Tommy Shaw, Mark Farner, and Dave Meniketti, and others, while the vocalists include Sammy Hagar, Edgar Winter, Davey Pattison, Gregg Rolie, and Glenn Hughes.)
“Ronnie was always guiding the proceedings, even though he’s no longer here,” says Phillips. “This record wasn’t about me, or my production sensibilities, and it wasn’t about the guest artists. I knew what Ronnie wanted. We had talked about it a lot. So making 10x10 became a process of honoring his wishes. For example, Ronnie wasn’t about overly flashy solos, and, as we definitely have some brilliant soloists on the record, we had to have the understanding that they could still play like themselves, just filtered through how Ronnie would approach it.”
Montrose’s approach was decidedly oldschool. While he was extremely meticulous about composition and feel, he disapproved of click tracks, overdubs, and anything too polished or perfect.
“He liked to go into the studio and create—just roll tape and jam it out,” says Phillips. “He felt music should be like a living creature. It didn’t feel natural to him to have music stay in the same tempo. He felt it was okay for the tempo to move up a notch during a chorus, and then pull back during the verse. He was always totally there for the music and where it would take him. He was never about trying to create the next flavor-of-the-month hit song.”
Following that direction required big ears in the studio, as Montrose obviously didn’t spend a lot of time refining things with Phillips and Singer before the engineer hit the Record button.
“We were flying by the seat of our pants,” says Singer. “We went for it, and we didn’t have time to overthink anything. But this wasn’t really difficult. I started playing in my dad’s band at 14, and he always told me, ‘Listen to the soloist.’ So I was groomed to play on the spot with what I was working with, be supportive, and provide some stability—hold down the fort, so to speak—in order to capture the leader’s vibe and feel. It was also easy for me because I loved Ronnie’s music, and I was a huge Denny Carmassi fan [drummer on the Montrose and Gamma albums], so I just thought, ‘If I was the drummer in Montrose in the ’70s, how would I play this song?’ Then, there was Ronnie, who knew what he wanted and had a great command of time.”
“Once we had the arrangements worked out, Ronnie insisted we play the tracks once and walk away,” adds Phillips. “We didn’t really know what we were doing. In fact, for two or three songs, we discussed the parts, and then recorded the take you hear on the record without any rehearsal. Ronnie said, ‘Just watch me, and I’ll tell you when to go to the next section.’ Now, if you’ve ever seen Ronnie play, you know that his whole body moves. His arms are swinging, his head is bopping, and he’s stomping his feet. It was pretty easy to follow him [laughs].”
Although it has been years since the “power trio” stepped into the studio, it’s a testament to Phillips’ sensitive production chops that 10x10 is probably much the same record as it would be if Montrose was still on the planet and driving the project himself. While Phillips definitely had to fix a few things here and there, and make personal decisions about the music where circumstances required it, he never succumbed to any temptation to completely hijack the tracks and mold them to his own production concept.
“Ricky and I knew exactly what Ronnie wanted for 10x10,” contends Singer. “We created this album with him. And I have to commend Ricky for being honorable and ethical enough to complete Ronnie’s final album the way that Ronnie would have wanted. This was not a ‘me, myself, and I’ situation for Ricky—or for me, or any of the musicians on the record. This is a labor of love for Ronnie.”