Styx is one of the classic bands in rock history. Over 50 years and 17 studio albums they have recorded legendary songs that are still heard on rock radio daily. For nearly 25 of those years, Lawrence Gowan has manned the keyboard and vocals. Lawrence recently took some time during the band’s current tour to talk about releasing new music, playing live, and much more! We had some technical difficulties around the 13:10 mark of the video so you will notice a little skip.
Please press the PLAY icon below for the MisplacedStraws Conversation with Lawrence Gowan –
On becoming such an important part of Styx over the last 25 years – It’s odd because, yeah, I’m in my 25th year with a band that’s been in existence now for over half a century, this is the 51st year of the band’s existence now. It’s remarkable to think that a band can survive that many years. First of all, I look at any band that can go longer than the Beatles, for example, as being an unusual occurrence. It’s hard to keep a band intact and artistically viable, that’s probably the more important issue over any extended period. Styx are one of the bands that I think have found a way to do that, and I think the real underscoring of that, as you mentioned the last two albums, The Mission and then Crash Of The Crown in particular, the fact that Crash Of The Crown got to number one on the Billboard Rock Album Chart was real kind of validation that the band has really thrived throughout the decades. I do look at it as if we are truly the result of the efforts of everyone that’s ever been in the band. That’s undeniable, that’s an obvious situation, but I think the right person has come along in each tenure of the group, during each era that’s helped to extend the life of the band. I see my own, particularly my first, let’s say my first 15 years of the band, were really to see if, was it possible for the band to survive into this new millennium. What effect would the internet ultimately have on the band, that’s why the mandate was there right off the bat to play as many live shows as possible, become a live entity that wasn’t relying entirely on internet communication, but was certainly willing to utilize it and take advantage of it in any possible way. For example, like this little chat we’re having right now, but really to draw people to see what a great show the band puts on. 1:04
On if he felt like he needed to prove himself to the fans when he joined – You know, that is a great question because that really was pivotal to whether or not I decided to embark on this journey. You’re obviously right, my career was so well established as a solo artist, several multi-platinum records, and we go back and forth across Canada. In the years when I met Styx, 1997, I started to play a lot in England and started to make some good inroads there, I did that for the next couple of years between the time of me first playing with Styx in ’97 and then finally joining them in ’99. I never foresaw joining a band though, there was one person in my life, my publicist in England said, “I think that’s going to happen with you”. She was right. But when I joined, the first time we got together, first of all, they’d see me play live, so they’d seen in front of, I guess 16,000 and 17000 people on a couple of occasions when I did two shows with them, so they’d seen that that, oh, obviously this guy, they know him, he’s played the same venues that we’ve played, it’s not like it would be a horrible “wake-up” moment to some go from playing for a small audience to a big stadium. So I had that in my background, but what really struck me when I first met them was that I learned “Crystal Ball”, “Grand Illusion”, and I think “for “Fooling Yourself”, maybe four songs and maybe “Lady”, and I was going to play them and Tommy (Shaw) stopped me, I would say, “Let’s do “Lady” ” and I’m about to do whatever it was, and he stopped me, he says, “Don’t play a Styx song. There’s a song you play, “Criminal Mind”, played that.” So I said, “Okay”, so I played “Criminal Mind”. At the end of it, he says, “We should make that a Styx song”, and immediately he and JY started talking, “Well, we can have a guitar come in here, I change this around”. They never once brought up any notion of me trying to sound alike, look alike, or act like anything that they had done in the past, but merely to approach their songs the way that I would approach any music, which is trying to give the best interpretation is possible, but ultimately your own personality is going to come through, whether you try o suppress it or not. So there was never any inference of that, and that immediately made me feel like, “Oh, this is gonna be fun, this is like. I get to kind of bring whatever I can to the table and have that be part of what they wanna do”, and when they said at the initial meeting, “You know, we wanna play no less than 100 shows a year, a 100 shows is what it’s gonna take in order to push into this new period and all the cultural references that are coming up about Styx”, and they say, “Could you commit to that?” And I said, “Well, I did 140 shows last year, so yeah, it’ll be a nice break, some vacation time”. I just liked them as people, and I still do. We all had dinner together last night, and there was a day off, we’re in Savannah, Georgia here, and that really speaks highly of the fact that we really kind of celebrate each other’s strengths, we know each other’s foibles, and yet we’re able to live with them and it’s been a fun thing. 3:49
On the burst of creativity that produced the last two records – Jeff, the creativity was always there. The difference was this, after we made the first record, Cyclorama, there was a member change again, Glen Burtnik left and we had Ricky Phillips come in. We did Big Bang Theory based upon just basically, it was a flukey thing, playing at the Crossroads Festival and JY said, “Let’s do something different”, so we did “I Am The Walrus” live, a Styx version of “I Am The Walrus”. It was so well received that we decided, “Oh, we should do a whole album of that”. So, as you know, the music industry really was going through a tailspin, from, let’s say roughly from 2005 until probably 2015, about 10 years, retooling, re-figuring out how this is done. I remember my publishing company actually deciding to sell because they didn’t have the tools that it would take to withstand or to have the wherewithal to understand how the whole new system come into effect, and they’re still figuring it out. But it meant that us taking time off, taking six months off, touring to go and make a record that would have a limited kind of way of promoting it seemed like not a waste of time because there’s no such thing as that really it would be an endeavor that really didn’t pay off for the band, have the same return, let’s call that, to put it in business terms. Whereas going out and playing another 50-60 shows in that period would definitely cast the net wider and more people would know about Styx and wanna come and see the band again, and perhaps if we made a record again, they’d be interested. Well, by the time it got to about 2014, a lot of the issues that the music industry part had to figure out, the recording part, began to get more and more resolved and they knew how to monetize the internet, so that’s important if you wanna keep making records. Universal Records got interested in bringing the band back onto that label since they had the catalog, so those factors. Then the third thing was the fact that Tommy had done a solo record with his friend Will Evankovich who he has been work with on a Shaw/Blades effort. We did realize that the other thing that happens when you go into the studio is that artistic differences that wind up being part of the fabric of what makes a record strong in the end, they can be fraying at relationships, so you’re careful about that. Especially since we had a good thing going and going in and trying to make a record and resolve all of our own ideas of how that record should go, it can be tricky to navigate. But we have a producer who stands outside, who is able to make decisions not based upon being a band member and having to share a bus ride with you tomorrow night, but instead has some artistic perspective and distance from it. Then having Will become a co-writer, that kind of made him in this unique position, and that’s kind of what I think we needed. So I welcome that notion when Tommy brought it up. W started working with Will and let him produce the record and then we can keep touring and we’ll come back to it periodically, and you’ve got a little bit of a referee there. That, plus what I just mentioned about the music industry, it all kind of began to culminate in some really good ideas coming up here, “It would be great to play this live. Oh, what about this? What if it was a whole concept record?” Then The Mission began to take off and Tommy had came in with that song “Mission to Mars”. These little dots were connecting and we suddenly got very excited about making an album. That’s the other part of the equation is that the vinyl resurgence meant that people were rediscovering the joys of listening to an entire album rather than picking tracks off the internet or doing your own playlist, etc. In the art form of an album, the 40 minutes of music, because it’s 20 minutes per side on a record, it gave you a framework that had come back into people’s minds, so we thought, “Let’s make an album that’s an album”. It’s not gonna have 24 extra tracks because you can put those on a CD or you put 100 on the internet, instead, it’s gonna be a complete statement. So all of these things began to kind of converge at a great time, and then we made The Mission and we realized this is a record that we’re really proud of. If the audience doesn’t immediately embrace it, it doesn’t matter…(Technical issues) 8:05
On playing new material in the live set – You’re never gonna go to a Styx show and not hear “Come Sail Away”, or “Grand Illusion”, or “Fooling Yourself”, they’re in every show, so people know that that’s gonna happen. A classic rock band should play their classic rock hits, but again, a lot is dictated by how we look at the audience. About roughly 13, maybe 14 years ago now, we started to notice the audience was skewing younger, not older, so we began to notice, “Oh, there’s more of a faction of people that aren’t here with their parents, they’re unsupervised, and they’re in their 20s or 30s”, or some teenagers, for sure, a good number actually, and they know all these songs and now their beginning to come back to the shows. In 2009 or something, they might have been 10 years old, they might have been 20 years old, now, they’re in their 30s, and they’re basically not kids anymore. You could tell that there was a kind of hunger there for them to have something that was concurrent with their own lives. So they seem to be the most vocal when it comes to really championing the new material, so thank you for doing that yourself. Which is the toughest pill to swallow, actually, for an audience member of a band that’s been around so long as new material is not necessarily required for the audience because there’s plenty to choose from, but for the lifeblood of the band, it’s pretty vital. When you feel a surge of desire from the audience that they would be open to hearing something new, that gives you an extra incentive to give them something new for yourself and for them. So it’s important now when you see enough people in the audience in their Mission t-shirts, etc., that I play something for that record. So I always play “Khedive”, they give me that moment before “Come Sail Away” to do the piano piece from The Mission. For us, yeah, it’s great to come out and I love the moment, the moments now when we can dovetail or segue from something that’s new from Crash of the Crown to something classic. So for example, a great moment in the show that really kind of exemplifies is Tommy Shaw plays a song called “Sound the Alarm”, which is from Crash of the Crown, that segues straight into “Crystal Ball”. Now, there are two songs that are separated by about 45 years from the same writer with an amazing take on life, because one, in “Sound the Alarm”, it’s really him, an older person, not necessarily looking back, but assessing the situation as it sits in front of them and wanting to do something very positive about it, and there he is as a young man, suddenly seeing in “Crystal Ball” wondering what does the future portend, what does it hold and how am I going to navigate my way through it, how is it going to affect me? Or how am I going to affect it? So that’s a great moment. Then we have, right before “Come Sail Away”, which is a big moment in the show, obviously, I have a tiny piece that Chuck Panozzo and I play as a duo called “Lost At Sea” and that just lyrically, it’s the right lyric in order to set up “Come Sail Away”. Because when I hear the original with Dennis DeYoung singing the song, it sounds like a young man who’s ready for an adventure, when I hear my voice sing it, I hear someone who’s looking back on a lot of adventures and hoping that it is going to be extended and to continue sailing on. So the song “Lost At Sea” points to the fact that there are times in your life when you don’t know which way you’re going and suddenly why not just keep heading in some direction, it feels good. And so that’s a nice way for us to bring the current with the classic, and that’s been working. 13:45
On if their new music gives a nod to some of their older songs – There was a concerted effort and really focused quite honestly, to record these last two albums as if we were recording in 1979, as if this was the follow-up record to Cornerstone, the follow-up record to Paradise Theater. We recorded analog, we used tape again. We used clunky, old machines, we were all in the room together. We put these things down, we pretended for a block of hours every day that digital technology did not exist because it didn’t exist when the best classic rock records were made. So we tried to recreate that. And it’s amazing how, since we all lived through that era, how quickly we adapted to feel it that way, and how the ideas began to percolate in a much more, I guess I’ll have to use the word organic, but you know what I mean, it was basically human-to-human was a lot more of the content, we weren’t texting each other in the studio, and we were all together. So by doing all of that, particularly on The Mission, I’m speaking of, obviously, on Crash of the Crown we had to be in separate cities for a good chunk of that record, but again, we found ways of bridging the gap between the current state of technology and the past. The clunky, old, analog world that the great records were made utilizing. So that is how we did it. It became a mindset that This song, this lyric has to kind of work to a certain degree with where the band’s trajectory was heading from the past. 18:55
On Styx not being in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – It’s a conversation that comes up annually, but maybe 10 minutes at most. Because you keep thinking it’s imminent. So it doesn’t occupy much of the thought. Something I like to point out is whenever we’re touring with an act that is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, they’re opening the show for Styx. I like to point it out to the other fellows, say, “You see, you’re in good company, and you sold most of the tickets”. But I don’t know, I don’t know that whoever the brain trust is there, I don’t know that they’ll respond. I would like to see it for all the members of the band, I would love to see it, and that’d be a nice thing to happen for everyone, or maybe they’ll segment it to where it’s this line up gets to be in it, and then these guys do not. Maybe that’s part of the tough decision, it’s like, “Who gets in or who doesn’t, and why this band and why not another?” I spent more time talking about it than the band does because we’re too busy playing to too many around the world, thousands and thousands every night, their arms in the air and other acts that have long met their demise are getting into the Hall of Fame, that’s good for them. Maybe that’s part of what keeps driving us on, I don’t know, being the outsider. We’re the outsiders now. 21:00