Phil Varone’s lengthy career as a drummer began over 30 years ago, when he made the switch from New York to South Florida in the early-’80s and eventually became a founding member of Saigon Kick in 1988. The band would go on to achieve some moderate success (best known for their 1992 hit power balled “Love is on the Way”) and release a few albums in the mid-’90s before Varone would move on to other bands such as Prunella Scales, Skid Row, and briefly, Vince Neil’s solo band. He’s also done his share of acting, produced and starred in a documentary revolving around his touring lifestyle, and released a memoir in 2013.
Last year, Phil hooked up with legendary guitarist Jake E. Lee’s current project, Red Dragon Cartel, who released their most recent album, Patina, shortly after. This past March, he officially announced he was hanging up his drumsticks for (most likely) the last time. Last week, I spoke to Phil from his Vegas home regarding how it feels to be retired now, after playing what may be his final show ever with Red Dragon Cartel in Japan last month. Even after saying goodbye to music, Phil’s outlook was undeniably upbeat.
“It’s bittersweet,” he instantly tells me before saying; “I’ve just been going back through my career and remembering the good times, trying to keep everything as positive as possible. When you’re in this business there’s a lot of negative stuff, and I didn’t want to dwell on any of that. But things didn’t really hit me until the last note of our last show in Japan, which was a little sad, but overall I’m happy the way things have turned out.”
From there I asked Phil what he’ll occupy most of his newfound free time doing, to which he tells me; “There’s a couple reasons why I wanted to stop drumming, one of them is health. I turn 52 this year, and in all honesty, it hurts. I don’t remember drums being this painful, but they just put a lot of wear and tear on my body after all the years. And the second reason is I’m about halfway through a book I’m writing about my father as well, and have a couple of screenplays and other things I’m working on, too. So it’s going to be a lot of writing for me, which I really enjoy doing. I expressed a lot of my anger and happiness on the drums; what you hear through drumming, is an expression, a therapy. I’m able now to use words in its place instead. And plus it doesn’t hurt to type (laughs). I’ll still be busy doing things, I just won’t be playing drums on tour and stuff like that anymore.”
Throughout our conversation we also took a trip down memory lane, going over many of his most memorable milestones. I asked Phil what it was like being in a rock band during the ’80s in the unlikely place of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, to which he replied; “It was kind of weird. We had never been to L.A. or anything, we were just a bunch of punk kids who had this dream of getting a record deal…when I think about it now, the fact we ever got one is still astounding! There was no scene there, especially when we started. The only band that was doing well around there at all was Miami Sound Machine over in Miami. But we came on to the circuit and just destroyed it, because we were different, so we just took over the music scene within our first year. Brian Warner (who would later go on to be known as Marilyn Manson) was also a huge early supporter of us at the time, too.”
He goes on to elaborate more on the early days of Saigon Kick, which would include crossing paths for the first time with future band Skid Row; “Our first show was for maybe 30 people -which was mostly just our friends and family – and within a year we were selling out the biggest club there at the time called The Button South. By doing that, we had every slot opening for all the national bands coming through town, like Bonham and Faith No More. There was another club called Summers on the Beach, and ironically, Skid Row was playing there back in ’89, and we tried everything to get ourselves on the opening spot! As it turned out, (Skid Row bassist) Rachel Bolan’s tech Ronzo would tell Jason Flom at Atlantic Records about us. Around that same time, we won the South Florida Music Awards, and because of that there was a blurb of us in Billboard Magazine, which ended up on Jason’s desk. And the rest is history. ”
I also wondering how performing power ballads such as “Love is on the Way” was from a drummer’s perspective. Phil informs me; “As a drummer, I learned a long time ago that it’s not what you play, but what you don’t play within a song. “Love is on the Way” is a prime example. I tried different grooves and nothing seemed to sound good until I just went simple. A song like this live might be boring for a drummer, but for me, it gave me a few minutes to rest. Any song that is a hit like that or “I Remember You” will always connect you with the audience. I would get goosebumps during those songs seeing fans with lighters in the air, or the arena singing back to you. It’s an amazing feeling.”
When asked how his relationship with his former bandmates was these days, he informs me; “Some of the guys I do still talk to, like (Saigon Kick bassist) Chris McLernon, who is by far one of my best friends in the world. And I’ll speak to (former Saigon Kick bassist) Tom Defile sometimes as well, but the other guys…I’ll just say we’re cordial. There’s no hatred there or anything, but I try to keep everything as positive as possible, and think about the good times, because there was so much good stuff throughout my whole career, from Saigon Kick to Skid Row, which was the best part of my life.”
Seeing this as the perfect segue to talk about his years with Skid Row, I asked Phil how the gig with them was originally offered to him; “I first met them (Skid Row) when they came down to South, FL to record in 1990. Michael Wagner, who produced their first record, also produced our (Saigon Kick’s) first album. Then years later, (Skid Row bassist) Rachel Bolan and I had a band together called Prunella Scales in 1997. Not long after they had gotten back together in ’99, their drummer at the time, Charlie Mills – who’s just a tremendous guy – was having problems with passports and getting out of the country, and they had a lot of shows booked outside of the U.S. So it just wasn’t working out for them, and they ended up calling me. I basically did a crash course, learning 20 of their songs in just a few days, and flying out to hop on their tour with KISS in Canada. I went from sitting around my house wondering what I was gonna do next with my life, to Rachel calling me, which kind of saved my life. My mother had just passed away shortly before that, too, so joining that band was kind of like my therapy in a sense.”
During a break with Skid Row, he even toured briefly as a member of Vince Neil’s solo band, which he reflected on to me; “Vince was a good bud, and he called me to do just like a three week tour for him. I just saw it as like a paid vacation, because it was just fun to play Motley Crue songs and hang out with my friends!”
Fast forward to 2018, when, after being out of music for several years, Phil was invited to play in his most recent position with legendary guitarist Jake E. Lee’s band Red Dragon Cartel. He explains how that came about; “That was through a buddy of mine, Scott (Wilson, bassist of Saving Abel). He gave me a call one day, asking me if I could play like this drummer or that drummer. It was actually kind of funny, but eventually I just said, ‘Look, who’s it for?!’ (Laughs). He finally tells me it’s RDC, and before I know it, their bassist Anthony (Eposito) sent me two of their songs to learn to play. I immediately bought a plane ticket, because I was hungry to play, and Jake would later tell me that was what impressed them most, how eager I was to learn their songs. And Jake is one of the best guitar players I’ve ever played with in my life, he’s just so damn good, that it’s intimidating going in. But he’s still one of the nicest, most down-to-Earth guys I’ve ever met, and I’m proud to call him a friend.”
Although he’s put down his drumsicks, at least in the sense of a live setting, Phil’s not completely ruling out the occasional ‘one off’ show or album guest appearance. He tells me, “I think 30 years of playing drums is long enough. I’m really proud of what I’ve put out there, and I’m forever grateful for that.” Be sure to follow Phil on social media, and at https://www.philvarone.com/ to keep up to date on future endeavors.