STYX: Making Music Like They Are in The Fight for Their Lives

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StyxFinally, after more than a year of lockdowns and people wondering if live music would ever come back, multi-platinum classic rock recording artists STYX have embarked on a long awaited tour to promote their latest release, “Crash Of the Crown”. Opening their shows with the anthemic first cut, “The Fight Of Our Lives”, the band seems to be making a clear statement that it’s been a tough go, but we’re back and we’re ready to rock! We talked about the new album and tour with keyboard player, vocalist and Canadian musical icon, Lawrence Gowan.

The new STYX album just dropped last month.
It’s been overwhelming. It went to number one on the Billboard Rock Album Charts I’m very pleased to say and I’m enjoying saying that at the top of every interview. That’s quite an astounding achievement for a band that’s been around for nearly half a century. Just to see that number one next to our names and number one on the bestseller list from Amazon as well, but the billboard distinction is really quite remarkable.

STYX has been around almost half a century and you’ve been in the band for 22 now. You’re still kind of the new guy. I remember Rush joked that Neil Peart was the new guy pretty much their entire career.
That’s right, he was. I don’t mind being referred to as new for anything at this point in my life. When they put the word new next to me, I’m quite happy to accept it.

I really love the new album. I think it’s amazing. I think you guys are writing your best stuff right now at this point in your career. Does that surprise you?
Thank you for saying that. Dan, you should definitely quote yourself on that. It surprises me from the perspective of being 15 years old and hoping that I could have a music career that could maybe get me to 23 or 24 years of age without having to get a job. So it does surprise me that the longevity of it has proven to be a great thing.

I think I felt that we were entering into this great kind of creative renaissance in the band around 2015 when we were putting together “The Mission” album. There was a sense that we had struck the right balance between the prog side of STYX, which is what I’ve always been most attracted to and what I try to champion the most in the band, and the accessible pop rock side of STYX that makes it so easy for the masses to absorb and to see themselves in the songs.

styx - Crash of the CrownThat’s the other side of the band that I’ve always thought was really unique, you know, “Blue Collar Man”, “Come Sail Away”, “Renegade”. People can see themselves in these songs, in the narrative and I think we’re just in a great spot right now and having found the right producer and now band mate in Will Evankovich helped facilitate this to where we’re in a very good creative mode.

The last album you talked about, “The Mission” is another great album. One of my favorite songs on there is “Khedive”, just a very short two minute song but really powerful. My feeling is from what I see is the band is really tight, really cohesive, and you support each other and lift each other up in your various roles in the band. Is that a pretty good assessment?
That is extremely astute. We enjoy each other’s company and we particularly celebrate the notion of what you just brought up. We really do kind of lift each other up on stage, and when you’re doing that in front of thousands of people, that creates a bond that is very unique and something that we’re very fortunate to share. Even now, because we’re touring right now, the dressing room rehearsals, you can feel everyone tightening the little nuts and bolts before we go on stage.

It’s quite a euphoric outcome that leads to the end of the night where we really share this triumphant moment together after you see what I call a sea of a thousand smiling faces looking back at you and telling you that something just happened through that musical medium that we don’t fully understand but we use to enrich our lives. It’s just a phenomenal moment that really happens, so that that is a very accurate assessment on your part.

What have the shows been like the last month after having the year off? You guys rely on heavy touring so it must have been really tough for you not to be able to get out and play.
You don’t want to make too much of that because a lot more people have had a much tougher time than we did. We were able to navigate our way through the year by focusing on finishing the record and getting it ready to release when and if the time came that we would get back on tour. Having the focus of that was really a great galvanizing thing where we were able to stay together, and doing Zoom calls, like you and I are doing right now, became the norm for millions around the planet. It did for us as well and this is how we stay connected and focused on what our trajectory was going to be as far as getting back out on tour.

You asked me about the tour. So we’ve been out now for just over a month and I don’t know if I’m projecting this onto the audience, but there’s definitely an extra layer of emotional release that’s very evident in the audience. Throughout the show, quite frankly right from the very beginning, it’s quite an emotional moment because we did learn over the course of the pandemic just how valuable music was to people’s lives.

The new album maintains that classic STYX sound, it’s still easily recognizable. “Our Wonderful Lives”, that’s got to be a Tommy song, Right?
It is. I think that’s very much in the tradition of “Boat On The River” for Tommy to write something that is so poignant and from such a unique perspective he brings to a song such as that. The other connection I see between that one and “Boat On The River” is on the original recording Dennis DeYoung played accordion. On our live versions of that I use a harmonium which is a little acoustic keyboard that you usually see in Indian Raga type bands. On “Our Wonderful Lives” he plays a banjo and I play that harmonium, so we got to use some kind of folk elements that brought those into the circle and it’s a very far reaching album with the instrumentation.

I think part of what you’re noticing with the overall sonic picture of the band connecting so well with the classic rock era is because we do go to great lengths to make sure that the instrumentation we’re using ties well to that era. There are a few exceptions like I just mentioned with the banjo and the harmonium on one song, but by and large it’s a band that consists of two guitars and some vintage keyboards.

I go to the Steinway piano and I go to the Hammond B3 first and foremost to sculpt whatever the keyboard approach is going to be with the song, and then when it gets enhanced with the synths, I have a vintage Oberheim and Moog and I even got a chance to use my Mellotron which is in working order just enough to make it onto several songs on this record. Sonically it’s going to pull you into that era while at the same time being very representative of a band that’s alive and very active in 2021.

Some of that was a result of the pandemic forcing you to record in Toronto at your own studio, right?
That’s exactly what happened to me. We had about two thirds of the parts that Tommy, I and Will had set up for the album prior to the pandemic arriving and those first couple of months of the pandemic everyone thought this would be over in six weeks. Then we got a little bit of a history lesson when we found out no, pandemics usually take about a couple of years to run the course and maybe with modern science we might be able to shorten that a little bit, but not much.

We began to really realize it’s ironic and beautifully synchronistic I guess that the lyrics to the songs and the themes related so well to what people were going through in a pandemic year. As a result we decided let’s record like this, let’s use the Zoom calls and use the Audiomovers apps.

So Tommy will be set up in his studio in Nashville, Todd did his drum parts from one of the most sophisticated drum rooms on earth in Austin, Texas, at his home, and I had my studio in Toronto, with Russ, the engineer that I work with all the time, and all my vintage gear made it onto the record.

It wouldn’t have otherwise.

I would have used the stuff that I keep in Nashville, which is newer and I guess, almost reverse engineered, the very reliable, you know, new Oberheim and new various pieces. But I got to use all the old stuff on this record and I think they really shine.

styx-2015You guys went through a period where you didn’t record any new music. That was a result of the record industry and the radio business, right? You guys seem to have adapted well to the “new” record business.
That’s it, you’re totally completely accurate.

When I joined the band, it’s 22 years ago now, we thought it would be a regular kind of touring and recording schedule that we’d follow. However, even then, it took us four years before we made our first studio record together, because the record industry was beginning to fragment and get into some serious trouble, quite honestly.

The focus went entirely on to let’s just keep playing live, keep making live DVDs of our shows, play with symphony orchestras and play a residency in Vegas, do a DVD of that, and we were kept really busy. We never played less than one hundred shows a year around the world so we kept extremely busy, but that fragmenting in the music business side of things, the recording part of it got worse and worse.

I’d say it was at its lowest from my vantage point probably 2008 to 2013, something like that. Then, as they began to come up with what the new paradigm is for the music industry, and how intricately connected with the internet it is, it was a force to be reckoned with and they finally reckoned with it I guess.

All the streaming services became part of the common way that records were being exposed. Universal Records came back and STYX was with them before and wanted to make a new album, so that was a great incentive to make a record that didn’t have to be on the radio because we know that’s moved in another direction.

Classic rock radio is going to continue to represent STYX to a great degree for as long as they exist, but they wanted us to make an album that felt like a real album that it wasn’t reliant on any one song or anything but it carried you all the way through. So we embraced that and made a concept record called “The Mission”  and they stayed with it, promoted it over the two or three years of us touring that record to the point where we wound up playing shows where we would do that album in its entirety. We did three of them in Las Vegas. We did one in Boston, and we were about to do two in New York the week that the pandemic was announced.

That was a really unfortunate thing that was actually the thing that took the wind out of our sails the most when everyone got that first initial punch of it, but Universal have been very, very supportive. They said this record did well, let’s do another one, and “Crash Of the Crown” is the result.

Once again like you said, it’s a concept, there’s a story to this album, right? And it sounds like it fits with the pandemic but a lot of it was written before the pandemic, wasn’t it?
It is very odd. I can connect every single one of those songs to the experience that I had over the course of the last year and I think that’s really what people are doing. They can see themselves in “Fight Of Our Lives” or even “Crash Of the Crown”, obviously in “Our Wonderful Lives”. “Our Wonderful Lives” was written after the pandemic, two of them actually, I think the other one was “Stream”.

You can easily hear this as a conceptual album because the songs do interconnect in a very seamless fashion, but really what it is, it’s an album, and an album is a sort of theater of the mind that carries you through a forty minute adventure where you absorb the whole thing as one piece. If you can somehow see yourself in the picture of what this music is conveying, then it works in a conceptual way and that’s what the beauty of an album always has been.

It evolved into being two or three really good hits and then some other tracks and with our last two albums they really are complete musical statements for one thing, and you’ll see that one song bleeds into the next like side two, “Lost At Sea” is kind of an integral little bridge that takes you into “Coming Out The Other Side”, so it all kind of flows that way.

We used side two of “Abbey Road” as a little bit of a roadmap of how to do that in an effective way.

Maybe the best concept album of all time, if not the best album of all time. Is this coming out on vinyl?
It’s out on vinyl, and it’s back-ordered. They brought it out on regular black vinyl but they also have clear vinyl, and I’m scouring eBay right now trying to get a copy of that one. The clear vinyl was the first one I got a chance to open but of course it went to prize winners and stuff.

It’s funny that you can’t even get a copy of your own album.
I have a digital copy and we’ve signed a ton of them but yeah, Tommy just showed me last night on eBay he found one for like fifty-six bucks. That might be a little over my price range but you know what? I’ll do it; I’ll throw down for it.

It’s worth it, I think you should. So one thing I was going to ask you, it’s been 22 years since you joined the band. Did you see yourself here today, when you first joined the band? Did you think it was going be this long?
No, quite honestly in music you might be best to look at your life in music in six month increments and don’t really plan too much beyond that because you don’t know how the gods of rock are going to play the cards quite frankly, I did get a sense when I joined the band that this was going to work. I have said in the past and I stand by it, I had this inner feeling that I was doing the right thing because I felt so simpatico with them both musically and even more so personally.

I felt like yeah, I think I’m the right guy for this tour they’re doing over the next six months and then we’ll see. So we’re still in that I guess we’ll see mode and I have been for most of my life quite honestly, I don’t really project that far ahead. Not when you’re in an idiom that is as volatile as music is. But things worked out well so far.

Absolutely. I guess it helps you adapt by being open that way doesn’t it?
Well, it does that and it also it keeps me connected to my solo years as well. I’ve been doing more and more solo tours over the past 11 years now and it’s keeping that part of my life engaged. J.Y., Chuck and Tommy actually said that every time I go into a solo run I bring something fresh back to the band. Something in a subtle way shifts and so one kind of is helping the other and I know that I have solo things booked for 2022 coming up so that’s as far as my mind is projecting ahead at this point and getting through this and absorbing every great aspect of this current tour that we’re doing.

Can we look forward to seeing you in the Windsor/Detroit area sometime in the new year?
I certainly hope so. I keep looking for Michigan on the schedule. I think there are a couple of shows there. I don’t know if they’re in the Detroit area but certainly within the next 12 months we’ll definitely be in that area.

And when Canada opens up, I’d love to come and play in Windsor again at Caesars because that’s been a great venue both for STYX and for myself. I did a solo Gowan show there as well and STYX has played there at least probably four times now.

You guys are almost an annual event there I think.
Great venue there and Detroit obviously, we love playing Pine Knob and we’ve played Joe Louis Arena, yeah, we will be in the area. Michigan is such an important vital piece of the whole fabric of the STYX faithful, you know and Windsor being across the border I get to wear my own flag for a day.

That would be awesome to see you guys soon. I hope it happens and it’s been awesome talking with you.
You too Dan, thank you for listening to the record. I mentioned this yesterday during the interviews as well and earlier this morning. It’s great how people I have been speaking to have actually listened to the whole album. You’re bringing up deep cuts that are on there, they’re not even deep cuts, they’re just part of the record and people seem to be absorbing it.

I think if there’s one positive aspect of this pandemic, I think we take our time a little more to drink in the things that we really enjoy or want to delve into so maybe the album as a format is making a great resurgence.

I certainly hope so because I love the format. EPs are fine but they’re for people with short attention spans which seem to be the norm out there. Some of us still appreciate a nice long epic album with a story to it.
Exactly, I go through this as well where everything’s in ten second bites and I get that, I like how fast paced it is. But this isn’t the pace that I want my life to move in. I want to be able to drink things in and absorb them in a meaningful way that will stay with me, and the albums that I grew up loving, that’s how it is. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” means as much to me today as it did when I first got it.

I like putting the needle on and all that, and we want “Crash Of the Crown” to be that experience for people and so far that seems to be the case.

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Dan is a photographer and writer who loves all forms of music and entertainment with a particular passion for the classic rock of his youth. Whether in the photo pit or chatting with local or international artists, Dan is in his element and enjoys bringing the story to you, the 519 community. https://www.facebook.com/27thfloorphotography | https://www.instagram.com/27thfloorphotography