LAWRENCE GOWAN INTERVIEW 2017
LAWRENCE GOWAN INTERVIEW 2017
Harmony. Chemistry. Balance. Grit. Dexterity. Determination. Solidarity. Terms that describe a Super Bowl champion? Well, almost. These are words that define the core essence of STYX, the multimegamillion-selling rock band that has forged an indelible legacy both on record and onstage.
Never known for resting on their laurels, STYX have now added a triumphant new chapter to their never-ending story of success: namely, The Mission, the band’s sonically sweet 16th studio album and most ambitious, most challenging, and most rewarding release to date.
“The planets truly aligned for The Mission, and I couldn’t be prouder,” says STYX vocalist/guitarist Tommy Shaw, who co-wrote the album’s storyline with longtime collaborator Will Evankovich (Shaw Blades, The Guess Who). Continues Shaw, “It’s our boldest, most emblematic album since Pieces of Eight.” Adds STYX co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young, “This album is an incredible artistic expression that resonates with the best parts of our past, but is intended for modern-day consumption. I’m very excited about it.”
Indeed, The Mission is an aurally adventurous 43-minute thrill ride that chronicles the trials, tribulations, and ultimate triumphs of the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2033. From the hopeful drive of the lead single “Gone Gone Gone” to the pivotal harmonic convergence of “Radio Silence” to the stargazing machinations of “Locomotive” to the rough-riding blaze of glory that permeates the hard-charging “Red Storm” to the elegiac optimism of the closing track “Mission to Mars,” The Mission succeeds in delivering the greater good from a band that continues to fire on all cylinders, 45 years after signing its first recording contract.
The band’s acclaimed pedigree most definitely infused the recording sessions for The Mission with an even deeper-rooted sense of purpose and duty, something that can be directly attributed to the six men comprising STYX having invested themselves in rocking the Paradise together with audiences far and wide by entering their second decade of averaging over 100 shows a year, and each one of them is committed to making the next show better than the last. “Every night, we go on that magic carpet ride together,” observes original bassist Chuck Panozzo, who joins the band on tour as often as he can. “The thing I always like the most is the immediate response we get when playing live,” notes JY Young, an integral force of nature in the band since its 1972 inception and the one who helped steer the band to landing its first recording contract with Wooden Nickel Records.
“And this is as good a live band as there is,” continues JY, who’s also known far and wide as The Godfather of STYX. “Someone once told me, ‘I’ve seen Paul McCartney, I’ve seen the Rolling Stones, I’ve seen U2, I’ve seen the Police. But my favorite show last year was STYX.’ I like to say we’re the best-kept secret — but perhaps we’re not anymore.” Adds the perennial wunderkind Tommy Shaw, “There are so many portals to reach your musical soul, and our live show is like a religious experience where people come to commune and testify. We have a pretty sophisticated audience, and we really respect that. We didn’t used to have people who would come see every show, but now they’re coming back again and again for more. And we owe it to our fans to continually rehearse, prepare, and improve.”
The space saga that is the crux of the music that makes up The Mission is just the kind of envelope-pushing creative endeavor Shaw refers to above. The storyline was forged to reflect the viewpoint of the six-person crew enlisted for the maiden voyage of Khedive, the first entry in a new fleet of nuclear-powered interplanetary spacecraft underwritten by the Global Space Exploration Program (or GSEP, for short). The Khedive team consists of The Pilot, a fully hands-on, seat-of-the-pants born leader; a First Officer who serves as the team’s big-brother figure; an Engineer who is skeptical of every phase of the mission but remains confident in his own abilities to make the best of any technical situation; and a Top-Shelf Trio of science, astrophysics, and survivalist experts.
An invigorating combination of freedom and trust is what ultimately led Shaw down The Mission’s highly focused songwriting path. “It’s been so long since we made a STYX album like the ones we did before, because so much has changed,” Shaw acknowledges. “We are rough-edged and badass when we’re out on the road, and we know it. But, to a man, while we were making this record, everyone got very real and dug down deep in unfamiliar territory, and gave the performances you hear. Anything we can do to make the songs better — that’s what we do. It was all hands on deck, and it’s such a cool thing after all these years to still have that together. And to have this album come out when the brotherhood of the band has never been stronger, well — it’s the sweet dream we never imagined. The truth is, it is a dream fulfilled.”
The collective strengths of The Mission are not lost on JY. “Tommy likes to say, ‘From a tiny acorn a giant oak doth grow,’” Young recites. “And my genetic material is there too, so I helped birth this child, and if it turns out to be the most successful thing we’ve done — well, that’s why we make STYX records. It shows how we work as a team. The skill level of the band has allowed us to go do things we just couldn’t have otherwise in the past. And that’s not a knock on Mr. John Panozzo or Mr. John Curulewski at all [the two original STYX bandmembers who have passed away]. As I’ve said before, I’ve surrounded myself with home-run hitters after the people we’ve lost. I really do love this album, and what we’ve done on it. It’s a great collaboration.”
Gowan loves how The Mission reflects the band’s core identity. “The album feels simultaneously comfortable and new,” observes the keyboardist/vocalist/onstage shaman. “It’s both entertaining and charming, and a natural progression of our sound. There’s a tip of the hat to all the great music of that era, which we made sure to highlight by my utilizing all those vintage Oberheim synthesizer sounds. That DNA, quite frankly, is what’s in all those great, classic STYX albums anyway, and I can see all kinds of cross-references that appear on this album. I feel great about it. It’s also been particularly intriguing to hear Tommy mutter a couple of times, ‘This feels like The Grand Illusion.’ I take that as being quite the positive response.”
Gowan also looks forward to how the band will develop The Mission in the live arena. “Something feels fresh with these guys every time I walk out onstage with them,” he admits. “It’s not lost on anyone that we’re pretty fortunate to be doing this. I look across the stage and I’m as entertained as much as the audience is as to how strong the band is. There’s not the slightest sliver of doubt that we’re all going to leave everything we can onstage every night.”
Agrees drummer and percussive dynamo Todd Sucherman, “This is a band that never has a bad show. I think our level of professionalism, musicianship, and spirit carries that across every night. The fact that we have so much fun when we’re playing — that’s very contagious. That’s a miraculous feat in and of itself. We never walk off the stage thinking, ‘What happened?’”
Sucherman also feels that, with The Mission, the band has struck the right balance for the here and now. “This record has so much great ear candy on it from start to finish,” the drummer notes. “And I think the ebb and flow of it was tailored just right, too. The spirit of how well we all work together is captured here — that overall sense of fun mixed in with the light and shade of the material itself. Plus, the fact that the storyline is rooted in some sort of scientific truth, based on our relationship with the New Horizons team [the NASA scientists who named Pluto’s smallest moon after STYX in 2015], adds a certain warmth and gravitas to it. That just lends even more depth to the space story at hand.”
Ricky Phillips, bassist, background vocalist, and backbone of the backline, is impressed with how harmoniously the album came together. “I’ve done a lot of sessions over the years and played on songs and albums that have had big productions and gone all the way to No. 1, but The Mission was by far the easiest, most seamless recording project I’ve ever been a part of,” the bassist admits. “Everyone was so prepared. That’s the beauty of us having worked together over all these years, and being out there every night onstage and seeing each other more than we see our families. That’s all paid off, because everybody in STYX knows what works in this unit. In fact, I don’t remember us having a single struggle over any of the material at all.”
Being in tune to the degree STYX is readily transfers to the live stage as well. “There’s a lot going on up there. It’s a multilayered, multilevel show with a number of elements going on beyond the music itself,” Phillips observes. “I find a symmetry with the give and take and all of the different emotions we touch upon. As many people as I’ve had the privilege to play with, I’ve never had the pleasure of being part of a situation like this one.” And that’s the crux of the unique rock and roll feeling STYX shares with its fans show in and show out.
SWEET, SWEET SOUNDS WILL FILL THE AIR
In order to achieve a collectively mutual goal of live excellence, a band must have a time-tested arsenal of aurally rigorous and rewarding material to get it there, and STYX draws from over four decades of barnburning chart hits, joyous singalongs, and hard-driving deep cuts to do so. Like a symphony that builds to a satisfying crescendo, a STYX set covers a wide range of stylistic cornerstones. From the progressively sweeping splendor that is “The Grand Illusion” to the hunker-down fortitude of all that is the “Blue Collar Man,” from the majestic spiritual love for a special “Lady” to the poignant rumination on the fleeting nature of fame in “Miss America,” from an individual yearning for true connection as a “Man in the Wilderness” to a soul-deep quest to achieve what’s at the heart of one’s personal vision in “Crystal Ball,” from the regal reach-for-the-stars bravado of “Come Sail Away” to the grainy all-in gallop of that rugged “Renegade” who had it made, the band draws on an unlimited cache of ways to immerse one’s mind and body in their signature sound.
In addition to the enduring power of that live experience, this indelibly interlocked incarnation of STYX is deftly represented on high-definition DVD and Blu-ray video. With a little help from their many friends in Cleveland’s Contemporary Youth Orchestra, One With Everything (2006) is a hybrid orchestral rock blend for the ages, while Live at the Orleans Arena Las Vegas (2016) documents their present-day prowess. And on The Grand Illusion / Pieces of Eight Live (2011), the band performs at its peak when tackling every track from a pair of their finest triple-platinum albums back to back. The inherent quality of these releases is paramount, reasons JY: “I insisted on the highest level of production, both visually and sonically. I believe that everything we do — whether it’s a visual element shown onscreen behind us onstage, how we appear on home video, or what we do in the recording studio — should be done 110 percent. This band is supremely talented, and we have to consistently create something that is going to be great over the test of time.”
Not only that, but the band re-recorded two discs’ worth of its classic material with much finesse and musculature, aptly known as Regeneration Volume I & II (2011 & 2012). Observes Tommy, “Now you have something you can take home with you and go, ‘Yeah, that’s the band I saw last night.’ We contributed openly to one another’s songs to help make them all bigger and more exciting. With this incarnation of the band, the pursuit of excellence is more intense than ever, except now our approach is much more nuanced.”
SO MANY THINGS I NEED TO KNOW
Producing top-drawer recorded A/V talismans is a vital element of the ongoing STYX story, but the band understands it shares a most sacred bond with the fans who have grown up with them and continue to come out regularly to live shows as well as with those audience members who are seeing them for the first time. And each bandmate feels that whether a STYX song has been played once or played a thousand times, there is always room for improvement. “Before every show, we think about the dynamics of what we do,” explains Tommy. “The more you play live and the more people come to see you, the more you have to do to make it different and better every time. That’s what makes us all want to step up and suit up, night after night.”
The band’s live proficency comes through commitment, preparation, and an unbending devotion to artistry. And, as Chuck reveals, the seeds of STYX’s stagecraft were planted by none other than the late, legendary Thin White Duke himself. “We learned the art of theater from David Bowie,” he says. “We opened for him on his first American tour at Performance Hall in Kansas City [on October 15, 1972]. When he entered the stage, it was such a mindblowing experience. That taught us so much about stage presence. Bowie put us in the mindset that you can be more than just a player. You can create an atmosphere that feels so real, one with true highs and lows that will draw people in like ancient theater. It’s the live embodiment of a good book that will make you smile, laugh, and listen.”
Honing that special level of stagecraft comes from the discipline to dig into the live trenches and practice your trade in front of as many people as you can. “You make your own luck not by sitting in your basement wondering why no one has discovered you, but by going out on the road and putting it out there,” explains JY. “If you have to travel 2,000 miles to be seen by someone who can potentially change your future, then you have to go out of your comfort zone to find your own pathway of opportunity.”
When Tommy joined the band in late 1975, he was instantly impressed by the band’s fervent attitude to succeed. “I was immediately taken by their dedication,” he admits. “We were a team who moved forward — committed to touring, writing, recording, and doing our best. We were all pulling in the same direction, and we would fearlessly open for any band who’d put us on the bill. It was also a product of recognizing the opportunity to figure out what a good marriage is and capitalizing on what makes that union work.”
That union hit its stride right with Tommy’s first LP with the band, 1976’s Crystal Ball, and then they become the first band to score four triple-platinum albums in a row: The Grand Illusion (1977), Pieces of Eight (1978), Cornerstone (1979), Paradise Theater (1981). Over the ensuing decade, STYX weathered the shifting winds of the public’s musical taste, reconvening for a highly successful 1996 Return to Paradise tour that was expertly documented on both CD and DVD in 1997. But carrying that legacy into the next century would require a certain fortitude and reassessment of values.
ILLUMINATE ME, WON’T YOU LET ME PLAY
JY and Tommy wanted to keep their renewed momentum intact, and they began to discuss how to do just that. But to move ahead, they had to part ways with founding member Dennis DeYoung — the man behind some of the band’s most indelible hits, including “Lady,” “The Grand Illusion,” and “Come Sail Away” — because the collective chemistry had changed. “Dennis led the charge to the top of the charts,” says JY. “He’s an incredible singer, a motivated writer who wrote some great lyrics, and one very strong keyboard player. He just didn’t want to be part of a democracy. We truly wish him well. We did some incredible work together, but there’s no basis for us to work together again.”
The drive to write new material helped fuel the direction of the next phase. Details JY, “When Tommy and I had a conversation on his back patio in California in 1998 while he and I were working on the next STYX record, he simply said to me, ‘I’m going to write new songs, and then record them. And I want to sing those songs and go on the road and play a lot of shows.’ I said, ‘That sounds fair to me.’” With the basic table set, one thing was readily clear to both men: The band, from top to bottom, had to be of a singular unified caliber. “You need specialists,” JY clarifies. “You need a team of people who are all a little bit specialized in different things as well as have complementary skill sets.” Adds Tommy, “When we reassembled the band, we needed a specific convergence of harmony and excellence.”
The core of that convergence had already been rooted when the band tapped Chicago session ace Todd Sucherman to take over for founding drummer John Panozzo in 1996, who was too ill to join the team on the road for Return to Paradise (and whom later tragically died that summer). Naturally, the first bandmate Todd had to sync with was Chuck, who had only played with one drummer his entire life, his twin brother John. “And John cast a very heavy shadow,” Chuck acknowledges. “He always had my back. So when Todd and I first played ‘The Grand Illusion’ together, that was hard. But I told him, ‘I’m not going to jump over your drumset, and I’m not going to strangle you. We’re here because John can’t play anymore, so we have a common cause. What I think my brother gave to me was the ability to realize that we became so skilled as a rhythm section that I could perform with or without him. And Todd and I work really, really well together.”
Continues JY, “I love Todd for a variety of reasons. For one thing, he has fusion-level chops, and that brings an element to this band that I love. I love a drummer who can turn that on when he needs to. My name for him is The Human Phalanx, because he is unstoppable.” Tommy concurs quite succinctly: “Todd, he really works hard. He busts his ass. He looks at what we do, analyzes how we can do it better, and always brings great pointers to soundcheck. And then we incorporate them into that night’s show.”
The next necessary component of the collective excellence came to light when a Canadian by the name of Lawrence Gowan opened for STYX in Quebec City in 1997 — just a man and his piano, buttressed by a large crowd whose rabidly enthusiastic response to a purely solo one-man set laid the groundwork for the next recruit. “Here was this conservatory-trained guy who opened for us in a sold-out arena — a single guy at a piano who got 10,000 people on their feet,” marvels JY. Concurs Tommy, “We knew right then and there he was one of us. I couldn’t wait to play with him.” Adds Todd, “We found another guy who shares all the same passions and work ethic. And Lawrence is an iron man. He’s such a marvelous, gifted, clearly classically trained player.”
After Glen Burtnik left the clan in 2003, there was only one name that made sense to join the STYX party: Ricky Phillips, a multi-instrumentalist who’s handled a number of musical tasks for the likes of the Babys, Ronnie Montrose, Bad English, and Coverdale Page. “I was able to join in this dance and add a few moves to make it a little bit bigger of a picture,” laughs Ricky about his STYXian indoctrination. Notes Tommy, “When Ricky came along and he and Todd first started playing together, something locked instantly. Those guys had their own language established pretty quickly.” Raves Todd, “As soon as I heard the name Ricky Phillips, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s gotta be him! Let me call him.’ He’s a great musician with a great pedigree, and having five-string bass in the band adds a little extra gravitas and vibe to it all. And he can sing, too. I remember after we did our first show together [in 2003] — when we were taking our bows, I gave him a big hug and said, ‘I knew it! I knew it, man!’ I knew it was going to be great.”
As locked in as the five-man STYX unit is, it’s always a blessing when original bassist Chuck, who continues to live with HIV, comes onstage to expand the group into a superior sextet. “Having Chuck there gives us an additional direct connection to source,” says JY about the man in whose Chicago basement the foundation for STYXwas poured back in 1961 when STYX precursor The Tradewinds (later known as TW4) was forged. Concurs Lawrence, “Here’s a guy who’s living with what he’s living with ever since I met him. He’s still included, and, as he says quite often, he’s loving it more now than he ever did. He’ll be the last man standing.”
Todd confirms that Chuck was A-OK with him laying down the backbeat. “Chuck was lovely from the first day,” he confirms. “He said, ‘If anything feels weird, just tell me.’ He was very open from the get-go. And he said I was only the second drummer he’d ever played with, which knocked me out. As a freelance guy most of my life, I had played with a thousand bass players, maybe even more. There wasn’t any intimidation at all, because he was charming and very open from the very first day, so it felt good.” Chuck is also quite in sync with his sometimes partner in bass Ricky, who had to learn everything the man had played and recorded. Says Ricky, “Chuck always offered to help. He’d say, ‘Hey, listen — you need anything, ask.’ He’s always quite open to sharing with me.” Harmony, it’s a beautiful thing indeed.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO TRANQUILITY BASE
Approaching a decade-and-a-half together on the road, this incarnation of STYX is looking forward to performing as many shows as it can as long as it can. “It all comes back to the chemistry,” says Ricky. “It comes back to all of those words having to do with teamwork and how this band is different from most other bands — which not only makes it interesting, but captivating, dangerous, exciting, and even humorous at times. These guys were able to come up with a group of songs that have definitely stood the test of time. And, from their inception, finding a way to do it with three lead singers, and then taking it to another level by having the respect and reverence to the original by putting in the time to understand and dissect what was there before you, and then adding something new so that the flower opens up and keeps blooming and going to other places. Everyone in the band is doing that.”
That commitment to growth translates to the way an audience feels after sharing in a rousing live experience. “The legacy of this band will be that it brought joy to millions of people,” notes Todd. “Anyone who has come out to see the band will hopefully have fond memories of that evening, and anything above and beyond that is icing on the cake. That’s all you really want to do, is to make people happy through music. That joy is contagious, and the fun and love and camaraderie we have onstage is contagious, and the fans will take that into their lives and their households. I’ve been fortunate to have been playing music with these great musicians for 18 years, and hopefully for many more to come.”
That wish seems genuinely likely, given how the base of the audience continues to expand. “It was more than 10 or so years ago that I began noticing the audience getting younger. I started seeing groupings of college guys and teenage girls who knew every single word,” observes Lawrence. “We’ve always tried to explain why this is this happening. It’s obviously a multitude of factors, but the main one is that our show is really good! And if it’s really good, they’re going to come to see it again. There are also the cultural references to STYX, and to the whole classic rock era where there’s a curiosity to find out more about a band whose legacy you can follow on the Internet. Basically, it’s become more like it was in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s: It’s back to being all about going to see it live. Recorded music has become a stopgap in between the next show.”
And when that next show reaches its conclusion, the thread of shared harmony is quite palpable. “When we come offstage at the end of a show, there’s always a sense of elation,” reports Chuck. “You can see it before we take the bow. You see it during ‘Come Sail Away’ and during ‘Renegade’ — that you’ve brought home victory. You brought the prize home. Not only did you bring the prize to yourself, you also brought it to all of the people who were watching you. They’re so aware of it, they want more of it. So they come back time after time.”
One reason that victory is so sweet is that it’s a shared one not taken for granted. “We’ve all come to a joyful place together, and we’ve surrounded ourselves with other joyful people,” reveals JY. “Music is this amazing force that comes from a higher place. I’m humbled for this band to have the great success that it has, and I recognize what we have could go away in an instant. This music is channeled through myself and my bandmates, and, along with our crew, we bring this great joy to our stage performance. The audience shows up and they’re in a joyful mood too, because they know they’re going to hear a joyful performance, and they’re reflecting that back. By the end of the night, we’re all surfing this giant wave of joy.”
STYX hopes it’s a wave that never crests. “We just want to keep on doing this,” asserts Tommy. “We want to let life take its course and let this music continue to be the soundtrack to it. It’s like a photo album where you keep adding some new photos of what’s in your house. You know, you’re adding some new furniture, and you’re also building onto the structure of the house, and you’re building the family. And this band’s photo album will continue to evolve as long as we live and play this music.”
Let the final assessment go to Chuck Panozzo, who has a knack of always being able to find a way to bring the best of STYX past, present, and future all together in one place, as he does while assessing the new album and the anticipated achievements to come: “The Mission is a sincere and honest representation of how STYXbuilt upon where we were in the 20th century in order to go somewhere new in the 21st century.”
And that’s really the gist of the overall mission surrounding The Mission, STYX’s bold sonic voyage into an exciting new frontier with the goal of discovering how the universe’s mysteries unfold — and then creating the perfect soundtrack to accompany it, both on record and onstage. Light it up, let’s get this show on the road!